Inspiring Branch Conferences in Tamil Nadu
FOR the Communist Party, a conference at any level is not an event where people assemble only to hear leaders deliver speeches and then disperse. A conference is an event that involves, for the period since the previous conference, free and frank discussion of the political-social situation as it has evolved, the tasks carried out, the experience gained, the advances made, the setbacks encountered and the contributions of the concerned comrades in all this. Starting with the basic unit of the Party, the local party branch, and moving to area, taluk, district and state conferences in succession, this process continues and leads up to the all India Party Congress. The Party Congress, on the basis of in-depth discussions, arrives at decisions on the future political course, and provides organisational guidelines as well. It also elects the committees and comrades to carry out these tasks until the next Party Congress.
The 23rd Congress of the CPI(M) will take place in Kannur in Kerala in April 2022. Under the rules of the Party constitution, branch, area, district and state conferences have to be held before that. Branch and intermediate level conferences are going on in Tamil Nadu. These conferences stand as testimony to the robust norms and practice of inner party democracy in the CPI(M).
TWO PARTY BRANCHES
OF HISTORIC IMPORTANCE
I recently had the opportunity to participate in three branch conferences, along with the concerned district level leaders of the Party. Two of them were in the western district of Coimbatore. The other was in the eastern district of Tiruvarur. Both the villages – Kaikolapaalayam in the relatively industrialised district of Coimbatore and Thenbarai in the overwhelmingly agrarian district of Tiruvarur in the Kaveri delta – have played an important role in the history of the communist movement in Tamil Nadu.
The first Party branch in Coimbatore district was formed in the year 1938 in the village of Kaikolapaalayam. The village of Thenbarai has the distinction that it was the first village where the Red Flag of the Kisan Sabha was hoisted in 1943 by the legendary communist leader Com Srinivasa Rao. The two villages have been strongholds of the Party ever since. The CPI(M) has an active presence in these two villages even now.
Hoisting the Red flag in 1943, Srinivasa Rao inaugurated the branch of the Kisan Sabha in Thenbarai. The organisation took up the demands of the peasantry and fought for the abolition of the pannaiyaal system, a very cruel form of bonded labour. The pannaiyaals were permanent farm servants, most of them dalits, working under the brutal rule of the landlords, suffering the worst forms of caste oppression as well as economic exploitation. The non-dalit population belonged mostly to the most backward castes. When the kisan sabha started functioning, the village lands were mostly in the hands of big landlords. A landlord family known as “rettai royar” owned nearly 2400 acres. These lands were later acquired by a religious trust from Hyderabad called Uththaraapathi Mutt.
Practically all households in the village became tenants or worked as pannaiyaals on the lands of the trust. The tenant had to give to the trust 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the crop output. The Kisan Sabha put forward the demand that the share of the tenant in output should be made two-thirds. As peasants mobilised under the Kisan Sabha leadership, the Mutt was furious. The secretary of the Kisan Sabha, Veerasamy, was evicted from the land he was cultivating as a tenant. Com Srinivasa Rao and other leaders of the Kisan Sabha went to the village, and initiated the struggle. The Mutt and other landlords took the view that, rather than giving in to the demands of the Kisan Sabha, it would be better to leave the standing crop unharvested and let it decay. Defying the Mutt for the first time, the peasants harvested and threshed the crop and left the share of the Mutt in the field, asking the Mutt to take it. The conspiracy hatched by the landlords to burn the entire unharvested crop in the fields was foiled. Veerasamy was attacked by the landlords’ goondas. His house was burnt down. Clashes took place, followed by tripartite talks. In the agreement arrived at, there was an increase in the wages of the panniyaals. The tenants obtained the right to use the threshing floors of the landlord or their own. The tenant’s share of the crop was made two-thirds as demanded.
The victory of the Kisan Sabha in Thenbarai led to a rapid expansion of the Kisan Sabha. Soon, the Red Flag of the Party and of the Kisan Sabha fluttered in a majority of the villages in the region. In a comparative sense, the horrendous practice of untouchability was also eliminated to a considerable extent. Com Srinivasa Rao led and guided this heroic movement. In the 1980s, the struggles led by the CPI(M) and the Kisan Sabha led to the lands of the Uththarapathi Mutt being sold to the tenants.
The Party branch in Thenbarai consisted at the time of the conference that I attended of 19 members drawn from both the scheduled castes and the backward castes. It worked out the division of work among the comrades. It also decided to bifurcate the branch soon. The conference decided to strengthen the Kisan Sabha, the Agricultural Workers’ Union and other class and mass organisations under the leadership of the Party.
The pursuit of neoliberal policies over the last three decades has, as elsewhere, brought about many changes in the agrarian economy in East Thanjavur region. Almost all operations in paddy cultivation, the main crop, have become mechanised in a majority of villages. Ploughing, sowing and transplanting, weeding, harvesting and threshing – all these are done by machines. Days of employment in agriculture have declined. Poor peasants and agricultural labourers face severe unemployment. Seeking informal employment outside of agriculture, has become a compulsion for the poor. Employment, education and health care have become major challenges. It was in this context that more than 15 years ago, the CPI(M) pressed the UPA government for bringing in legislation guaranteeing wage employment in rural areas. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was the outcome of this struggle. This guaranteed 100 days of employment for all rural households on demand. The UPA itself weakened the scheme and implemented it indifferently once they were no longer dependent on our support for parliamentary survival. The Modi regime has set out systematically to weaken and destroy the scheme.
We need to take into account the changed new situation, formulate appropriate demands, mobilise people’s support and plan for new movements. The branch conference decided that, in addition to demands such as fair prices for farmers’ produce and controlling input prices, new slogans will be evolved taking into account the socio-economic changes that have occurred, in order to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of the people of Thenbarai. The conference resolved to carry on struggles to achieve the demands embodied in our slogans.
Kaikolapaalayam party branch, the first to be formed in the district of Coimbatore, came into being during the freedom movement at a time when the textile mill workers of Coimbatore were engaged in militant struggles. The people of Kaikolapaalayam have, to their great credit, sheltered many Party leaders including Comrades K Ramani, R Umanath, Boopathy, Kannaakutty and others when they were being hunted down by the police during a period when the Party was banned. The branch built its own office building in 2005 and has been functioning from there.
It is noteworthy that it was the Kaikkolapaalayam branch comrades who carried the Martyrs’ Torch to the state conference of the youth organisation (then called Socialist Youth Front, before becoming DYFI later) in Tiruppur in 1978. The Party branch also helped host the state committee meeting of CITU held in the village in August 1991. The branch is thus one with a long, militant tradition.
There are two Party branches in the village now, each having 11 members. Of the 22 members, 11 are aged below 40 years. It is significant that the children and grandchildren of the original members of the branch from 1938 are at present Party members. The two branches account for subscriptions to six copies of the Party daily in Tamil, Theekkathir.
Once dominated by agriculture, the village has now become mostly non-agrarian. Most people are in informal employment. The limits of Coimbatore corporation have reached within two kilometers of the village. Workers and middle class employees constitute the bulk of the population. Crop lands have dwindled and shops and residences have taken their place.
The branch conferences decided that the task of the Party comrades in the village is to understand the changed socio-economic realities and evolve appropriate slogans and demands to mobilise people. Work division among the comrades was also decided in each of the branch conferences, covering work in class and mass organisations, education, sports and so on. The conferences decided to launch struggles on issues of house site pattas and other peoples’ issues.
A FINAL WORD
The branch conferences of Thenbarai and Kaikolapaalayam, with their historic record of continuous and active functioning for over eight decades, inspire confidence that they will continue their sustained involvement and contribution. These conferences provide models of how the basic unit of the Party must function, so as to mobilise people in the struggle for people’s democracy.