May 03, 2020

The Saga of Punnapra-Vayalar

PUNNAPRA and Vayalar are two villages in the district of Alleppey (Alappuzha). The struggle of Punnapra and Vayalar was the resistance movement of peasants and agricultural labourers against the medieval oppression by landlords; coir industry workers against their employers, and for a responsible government, as against autocratic rule of the dewan of Travancore. The movement started in October 1946.

The district and the two villages, which were storm centres of the first political general strike in Travancore in 1938, came to prominence once again in 1946 as the centres of a major struggle against the autocratic rule of the maharaja and his dewan. These two villages came to special notice because they were the scenes of pitched battles between the armed forces and militant workers who had no arms other than crudely made wooden spears.

The end of the Second World War was followed by unemployment and starvation. There was acute scarcity of food, rice, cloth, sugar, kerosene, etc, which were available only in the black market. Tenants and agricultural workers in this region were often beaten and tortured, women raped and their houses demolished by landlords. They were treated as bonded slaves. A young agricultural worker girl who refused to satisfy the lust of a landlord, was caught, tied with rope and dragged to his house where she was raped, tortured and then buried up to her neck and kicked on her head by him.

People of the area, particularly workers, agricultural labourers and tenants began to organise themselves in the resistance movement under the leadership of the Coir Workers’ Union and the Communist Party of India. Other workers were also organised. Ward committees were already formed by agricultural workers all over Cherthala taluq in 1944-45.

The Travancore ruler and his dewan not only refused to concede peoples’ demands, but they also tried to detach the State of Travancore from India. The dewan declared that Travancore would not join free India that comes into existence and that it would continue to be independent. The struggle for responsible government merged with the struggle against an independent Travancore.

Another dispute between the Travancore regime and the forces of democratic opposition was the so-called ‘American model’. The dewan said that he supported the American model, with an executive president.  This proposal of the dewan met with stiff resistance from the militant working class at Punnapra and Vayalar. The militant working class of Alleppey and the Communist Party raised the slogan ‘into the Arabian sea with the American model’.

In July-August 1945, workers of Alleppey, Cherthala and Muhamma called a general strike on the demand for supply of necessities at fair prices. The Travancore state government initially agreed to set up a machinery for their distribution. But it was determined to suppress this movement when the workers started their agitation against unemployment and starvation. Martial law was declared. Police were let loose to do anything they liked. The state army and the reserve police were kept ready at Quilon, Alleppey Kottayam, Punalur and other places. All demonstrations and strikes were banned. Press was ordered not to publish any story about police brutalities and the terror regime. Police and goonda action was rampant. Union offices were raided, burnt and destroyed. Leaders of the movement were arrested and jailed. Landlords played an active role in enforcing this regime of terror.

The All Travancore Trade Union Congress gave a call for general strike, which began on October 22, 1946. Large numbers of workers began their demonstration and marched to the reserve police camps at Punnapra with the demand for freedom. The officer-in-charge of the camp ordered to open fire on the demonstration. Many demonstrators died from police bullets, while the officer and five of his men lost their lives in the ensuring clashes.
Within 24-hours of the Punnapra clash, Ambalapuzha and Cherthala taluk were handed over to the army. There was a regular manhunt in the villages. People were just caught and shot, or beaten to death. In order to resist the police excesses, a camp was set up at Vayalar. On October 27, 1946, when the inmates of the camp were having their mid-day meals, they were suddenly surrounded by the army, which at once began firing and killed many (the exact numbers are still not known). Firing continued till ammunition was exhausted. Then, bayonets were used to kill those who were still alive.

People were subjected to unspeakable military and police atrocities. Many had to leave their homes and hearths taking shelter outside Travancore. Several hundreds of militant workers were killed in action throughout the district and many more were injured; hundreds of houses were burnt down, making the entire area a virtual desert. The all-powerful dewan made the boastful claim that communists in Alleppey were completely crushed. In spite of such tragic events, never had Travancore witnessed such acts of heroism displayed by the working class militants in Alappuzha and its surrounding areas.

In this unequal battle, working-class volunteers armed with primitive weapons fought the military and police backed anti-social elements of the government of Travancore, in the whole area of Alappuzha town and the surrounding villages. It goes to the credit of the leaders of the Communist Party in Travancore that they were prepared to meet the offensive of the government, virtually unarmed.

Though the working class was defeated, the entire political atmosphere in the state changed. Out of this struggle rose the slogan: ‘the blood of Vayalar is our blood' and their sacrifices were not in vain.

Although the working class alone showed the resourcefulness and heroism to offer stiff resistance, far wider sections of the people took a position against the autocratic regime. The organised working class of Alleppey and the Communist Party that led it had the sympathy and good wishes of the entire democratic movement in Travancore and throughout India. In Travancore, all the people (barring a small minority of the upper-castes), were totally opposed to the dewan’s regime. This included the large mass of non-caste Hindus, the sizable minority Christians and the smaller minority of Muslims. This struggle was thus part of the struggle waged by the Indian people to keep India united, after freedom was attained.

Less than a year after the struggle, the dewan who presided over what he thought was the liquidation of ‘communist insurgency’ had to leave the state in disgrace. His departure was followed by a proclamation by the maharaja that the political demands of the people were to be conceded. Preparations were initiated for holding elections on the basis of adult suffrage and for establishing a democratic government responsible to elected legislators.

The militant resistance offered at Punnapra and Vayalar in Travancore was not an isolated development. It was part of a militant wave of mass actions of various types and intensities that swept Kerala during that period. Prominent among them were peasant actions in Karivellur, Kavumbai and Thillankeri in Malabar.

Conditions of starvation and famine were common in many regions and possession of rice was considered to be dearer than gold. In Karivellur, while the landlords’ granaries were filled with paddy, poor peasants and agricultural labourers used to starve. The grain hoarded by the landlords would reach black market with the full collusion of the police and the State machinery. The colonial administration, governing the Malabar region, unleashed the Malabar Special Police to suppress those who raised their voice against black marketing. Peoples’ requests to not take away paddy from Karivellur fell on deaf ears of the landlords. When people resisted the collection of paddy by the landlords’ caretakers on December 20, 1946, police fired on them. Party leaders, who led the resistance fell to police bullets. Hundreds were arrested on various charges.

In Kavumbai, another village in Malabar with a long tradition of resistance, the Communist Party decided to raid the godowns of the landlords, where the hoarded grain was stored. Landlords sought to repel these actions with the help of the police. Many comrades became martyrs in these actions, while hundreds were arrested and tortured.
Many leaders who participated in these peasant struggles in Malabar were jailed in Salem where they participated in a strike inside the jail demanding better amenities (February, 1950). The police under the Congress government fired on the communist prisoners, in which 22 comrades were martyred.

The sacrifices of the hundreds of martyrs who died in Punnapra and Vayalar and of the thousands who had to undergo many sufferings were not in vain. This struggle led to the beginning of a process through which the two princely states of Travancore and Cochin were first made into what was known as the Travancore-Cochin state. Seven years later, they were merged with the Malabar district of the British ruled Madras presidency to form the new, united linguistic state of Kerala.