BORN on July 15, 1922, Comrade N Sankaraiah, widely known as NS, enters the hundredth year of his life on July 15, 2021. He has made his mark as a versatile leader in the fields of politics, society, economy, ideology, culture and so on. His life is a model of what it means to be a communist both in the political arena and in family life that continues to guide and inspire us.
While in his teens, NS was attracted to the self respect movement with its policies of social reform and atheism. It was a time when there was an upsurge in the national movement for freedom. At that time, only the Communist Party had put forward the slogan of complete independence. Sankaraiah took note of these developments and came to the conclusion that social change leading to a casteless society with economic equality can alone be the solution and that Marxism alone can guide humanity towards this goal. NS became a member of the CPI while at college.
This was the first party branch to come into being in Madurai district.
Sankaraiah was elected president of the student body of American College in Madurai. He soon emerged as a student movement leader throughout the state. He wrote a powerful, widely distributed leaflet in English condemning the murderous assaults on students of Annamalai University who were arrested by the police, and described the scene vividly in these terms: “Heads are being smashed, bones are being broken into pieces, a river of blood flows in the Annamalai University campus.” NS was arrested by the police and sent to prison just 15 days ahead of the final university examinations. He was released only after 18 months.
Decades later, I asked him the following question: “Your father was keen that you should become a lawyer. You were arrested a fortnight before the final examinations. This meant that you would not be able to continue your education, obtain a degree and become a lawyer. It was unclear when the government would release you. Under such circumstances, what was the state of your mind when the police arrested you?” His reply was: “That I was arrested and being sent to prison for participating in the national struggle for freedom inspired me. I did not worry about anything else.”
On his release from prison, Sankaraiah was elected as the secretary of the Madurai district committee of the Party. The four years from 1943 to 1947 were important in the history of the Party in Madurai district. The Party led militant struggles of the people throughout the district.
Com NS was arrested in 1946 along with stalwarts like Comrades P Ramamurthy, A Balasubramanian, M R Venkataraman, K T K Thangamani and Janaki Amma, following several working class struggles and movements against hoarding of foodgrains. All the leaders were falsely implicated in what came to be known as the Madurai Conspiracy case. The leaders were released only on August 14, 1947, along with other leaders. News of their impending release had spread, and a big crowd was there to greet them. The leaders were taken to a massive public meeting organised by the Party where they were welcomed with great warmth.
LIFE IN PRISONS
Com Sankaraiah spent a total of eight years in prison, divided equally between the years of colonial rule and post-independence Congress rule. He also spent three years underground. Such is the record of the life of dedication to the movement that NS has lived. When the government of the day announced pension for freedom fighters, Com NS refused to accept the same, in line with the decision of the Party. When asked about it, he said quite simply that going to jail for the country’s freedom itself was the prize that he valued.
Underground life and prison life can be very hard and destructive. One cannot withstand such a life without a strong and determined mind. Nevertheless, communists faced these challenges bravely. When NS was in Vellore jail as a political prisoner, the communist prisoners including NS went on a fast protesting the political discrimination (as between Congress and communist prisoners) in assigning detenus to ‘A’ and ‘B’ categories in jail. When the jail superintendent visited the prison on the tenth day of the indefinite fast, he found to his surprise that NS was reading Gorky’s novel Mother. He wondered at the strength of mind of communists ten days into the fast.
SECRETARY OF PARTY
Sankaraiah was elected to the state secretariat of the undivided Party in 1953. NS was one of the 32 members of the undivided party to walk out of the National Council meeting prior to the formation of the CPI(M). NS was elected as the secretary of the Tamil Nadu state committee of the CPI(M) in 1995 and served in that capacity till 2002. As secretary, he would intervene swiftly on issues in the state as they emerged.
In 1998, bomb blasts in Coimbatore led to communal clashes and 24 persons lost their lives. Sankaraiah deputed Com Umanath to Coimbatore to deal with the crisis. NS got in touch with the chief minister and urged that, in addition to arresting all those responsible for the communal clashes, steps should be taken to ensure security throughout the state. Com NS stated that the CPI(M) was very concerned about the communal clashes in Coimbatore, a centre of the working class and urged the state government to take strong action against communal forces seeking to disrupt the unity of the working class.
In the second half of the 1990s, inter-caste clashes occurred in southern districts of Tamil Nadu, resulting in tragic loss of lives and considerable material damage. At the request of Com Sankaraiah, the then chief minister of the state ‘Kalaignar’ Karunanidhi convened an all Party meeting. I took part in the two-day meeting along with Com NS. In a powerful intervention during the proceedings of the meeting, Com NS declared: ‘Our Party is not for the peace of the grave yard. The state government should take action on the basis of the key slogans we are placing here. Political parties and social organisations have key roles to play in this process. These are our slogans: “Eliminate the scourge of untouchability, put an end to inter-caste clashes, safeguard people’s unity.” The chief minister welcomed the suggestions made by NS. On this basis, anti-untouchability conferences took place in several districts with the state government itself taking the initiative. Sankaraiah took part in these conferences and took the message to the people. It will not be an exaggeration to state that the slogans put forward by Com NS and the initiatives he took played an important role in restoring normalcy in the state.
NS AS LEGISLATOR
Sankaraiah was elected to the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly thrice. He served as deputy leader of the legislature party during his first term, and as leader during his second and third terms. He was widely respected for his role as a legislator, and his emphasis on Tamil being made the language of education, governance and judiciary.
Com Sankaraiah played an important role in building the kisan movement in Tamil Nadu. He has served as the president of the AIKS in Tamil Nadu. He has also served as the secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha as well as its president at the national level. He had served as the editor of Janasakthi, the magazine published by the undivided CPI. After the formation of the CPI(M), Sankaraiah served as the editor of Theekkathir, the Party daily. NS is known for his deep insights on the trend in the development of art and literature. He played an important role in the formation of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Union. His nuanced speech at a TNPWA conference showed his keen understanding of the debate on the relative roles of form and content in literature, and found widespread acceptance.
Com NS has been applying democratic norms consistently in his personal life as well. Not only did he declare his strong opposition to caste discrimination, he himself married a person outside the caste and religion he was born into. Most of the marriages in the extended family of Com NS have been inter-caste marriages. NS has had an important role in these outcomes.
The life of Com NS serves as a guide and inspiration to generations of activists.