P. Jeevanandham inspired thousands of people through powerful speeches.
P. JEEVANANDHAM, whose birth centenary is being celebrated this year in Tamil Nadu, was a political leader, social reformer, cultural theoretician, journalist, creative writer, critic and orator all rolled into one. One of the pioneers of the Communist movement in Tamil Nadu, Jeevanandham (Jeeva to his admirers) strode like a giant not only in the political arena but also in the literary field for over 30 years of his short life.
An acknowledged scholar, a relentless fighter for the deprived and, above all, a simple person with a clean record in public life, Jeevanandham was held in high esteem by ordinary people. Every day was hectic for him: taking classes on Marxism for party workers, advising students to equip themselves to meet the nascent republic’s development needs, addressing literary fora on topics such as the greatness of poet Subramania Bharati, explaining the flaws in the government’s language policy at meetings of intellectuals, and addressing factory gate meetings in support of workers on strike. In between, he would be writing editorials for the party daily or discussing strategies for resolving industrial disputes.
The last 25 years of colonial rule were an eventful period in Tamil Nadu. It was then that Tamil Nadu saw the growth of the national movement led by the Indian National Congress under Mahatma Gandhi’s guidance and the emergence of two important political streams, the E.V. Ramasamy Periyar-led Self-Respect Movement (a precursor to the Dravidian movement) and the Communist movement. Before enrolling himself as the first member of the united Communist Party of India (CPI) in Tamil Nadu, Jeevanandham was an active participant in these two earlier movements. He did not see any contradiction in this. His patriotism took him to the national movement; his revulsion for untouchability and caste-based discrimination led him to support the Self-Respect Movement.
In his opinion, the Congress-led movement and the Self-Respect Movement had no ideological commitment to the social, economic and political liberation of the underprivileged. The Congress, according to him, was interested only in the political freedom of the country and was not serious about social justice or ending economic exploitation. The Self-Respect Movement, in his experience, confined its interest to demanding social justice and did not fight for political freedom. He was convinced that only socialism could bring about the total liberation of the people. This conviction inspired him to join the socialists, who were then functioning within the Congress fold. His interaction in jail with some of the associates of the revolutionary freedom fighter Bhagat Singh drew him closer to Marxism. He also had access to Marxist literature, which was banned by the colonial government. His discussions with Madras-based Marxist thinker Singaravelu later strengthened his desire to join the Communist movement.
Referring to this phase of Jeevanandham’s political life in an article for the April 1963 commemorative volume of Thamarai, the literary organ of the CPI in Tamil Nadu, N.K. Krishnan, a top leader of the party, wrote: “ If we keenly observe the history of the evolution of Comrade Jeeva into a communist, we can find that it is but the history of the growth of the nationalism of Tamils in a progressive direction.”Jeevanandham was born on August 21, 1907, into an orthodox middle-class family at Bhoothapandi in Kanyakumari district, which was then part of the princely State of Travancore. Sorimuthu (this was his original name) grew up in an atmosphere of caste-based rigidity and deep religiosity. The religious background of his family exposed him to devotional songs and literature. He had no problem with that, but he could not accept the practice of untouchability.
He could not tolerate his Dalit friends being humiliated and denied entry into temples and other public places. Even as a schoolboy he became averse to Varnasrama Dharma, a Hindu religious code that stratifies society on caste lines and facilitates the practice of untouchability. He took his Dalit friends to the streets where entry was denied to them, earning the displeasure of his family. The national movement and Gandhi’s call to wear khadi and his stand against untouchability influenced him to join the movement. He began wearing only khadi from then on.
Jeevanandham could not continue his studies after school. When he took Dalits to public places in token protest, people in his village complained to his father. Hurt by his son’s actions that damaged the “family honour”, his father scolded him and asked him not to continue with the protest. Jeevanandham said he would rather leave the house, and did so
This was the beginning of the political phase of his life. In 1924, he participated in the Vaikom struggle against the caste-Hindu ban on Dalits walking on the road leading to a temple in the Kerala town. He then vigorously participated in a series of struggles against untouchability, including the struggle for Dalit entry into the famous Suchindram temple. This was followed by many more struggles called by the Congress leadership in all of which Jeevanandham made his presence felt.
Later, when he joined an ashram run by Congress leader V.V.S. Iyer at Cheranmadevi village in the neighbouring Tirunelveli district, he found that Dalits and “upper caste” students were fed in separate halls. Jeevanandham supported Periyar’s protest against this practice. Not satisfied with a compromise offered by V.V.S. Iyer, he quit the ashram. He took charge of an ashram funded by a philanthropist in Siruvayal near Karaikkudi in the then Ramnad district. The purpose was to implement Gandhi’s constructive programme. Ashram life gave Jeevanandham an opportunity to read a lot of books.
It was here that he had a meeting with Gandhi. When Gandhi sought to defend Varnasrama Dharma, Jeevanandham felt that it would be futile to expect Gandhi’s struggle to put an end to the practice once and for all.
Jeevanandham then supported the Self-Respect Movement. When Periyar, on returning from a visit to the Soviet Union, spoke highly of its achievements and expressed his desire to propagate socialism, Jeevanandham, who was by then familiar with the egalitarian principle, felt elated. His hopes of getting the movement merged with the Congress Socialist Party were dashed when Periyar began dragging his feet. He, however, remained in the Congress. He was elected as a member of the All India Congress Committee, a prestigious post in those days, and was also a member of the working committee of the State Congress unit. Later, when the Madras Provincial Congress Socialist Party was formed in 1937, Jeevanandham became its first secretary. He joined the CPI two years later along with P. Ramamurti, another veteran of the movement.
Organising workers on Marxist lines became the principal activity of Jeevanandham and Ramamurti. In this they were assisted by leaders such as M.R. Venkatraman (MRV) and B. Srinivasa Rao (BSR). They had already organised workers and formed unions in industrial towns such as Madurai and Coimbatore when they were functioning as socialists. Jeevanandham was in the forefront of efforts to build a strong labour movement based on Marxism. His oratory and writings helped him fulfil the task. But these leaders had to suffer police repression and undergo imprisonment several times. Jeevanandham visited sensitive areas and kept the workers’ fighting spirit alive. Alongside industrial workers, agricultural labourers and small farmers were also organised in Thanjavur and other districts.
N. Sankaraiah, chairman of the Control Commission of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who joined the Communist movement a few years after Jeevanandham, recalled the days when Jeevanandham and Ramamurti inspired thousands of people through powerful speeches. “They succeeded in taking the party line to the trade unions and kisan movements with the help of other veterans of the movement such as MRV and BSR,” said Sankaraiah. He also referred to the 19-day fast by th e communists, including Jeevanandham, in the Vellore jail, a few years before Independence in protest against the authorities’ refusal to treat them as political prisoners. “The government ultimately conceded to our demands,” he said. Jeevanandham even had an externment order against him and had to stay away from Madras province for a brief period.
Post-Independence, Jeevanandham and Ramamurti took up the cause of workers and peasants with renewed vigour after the ban on the Communist Party was lifted and its leaders were released. In the first general elections, in 1952, Jeevanandham won a seat, with a huge margin, in the then Legislative Assembly from the Washermenpet constituency in Madras (now Chennai). Ramamurti, who was in jail then, was also elected with a comfortable majority, from a Madurai constituency. Jeevanandham’s tireless campaign for Ramamurti is recalled by many even today.
The elections saw a significant number of communists entering the Assembly. Jeevanandham put pressure on the government to initiate action on crucial issues. His speeches in the Assembly on issues relating to development schemes, reform measures and the language policy won due attention from the ruling Congress party and great admiration from people. His speech on the Official Language Bill echoed the feelings of the ordinary people in the State and revealed his vision on the cultural front.
During this period, he also led many struggles, one of which was against the proposal to form Dakshina Pradesh comprising the four southern States. He thought this would be against the linguistic aspirations of the people in the four States. Although Jeevanandham lost in the subsequent elections, he continued his party work with the same zeal. In 1962, his health suffered a setback. Later in the year he visited the Soviet Union. He took treatment there and returned by the end of the year. However, his health worsened weeks later. On January 18, 1963, he died at his modest home in Tambaram, 25 kilometres from Madras. Two lakh people attended his funeral and paid their last respects to one who had toiled all his life for the common man, who symbolised the simplicity of Gandhism and who had a Periyar-like zest for social equality and the Marxist spirit to fight exploitation.
Recalling Jeevanandham’s contribution to Tamil life, Sankariah said he played a key role in achieving the demands for naming the State Tamil Nadu and making Tamil its official language. He interpreted Tamil literature from the Marxist angle and inspired many writers to produce works in a humanitarian spirit by studying problems from a Marxist perspective. In short, he evolved the party line on literature, particularly Tamil literature. “Both Jeevanandham and Ramamurti were the most dependable propaganda machines of the party to take the issues to the common people in a politically correct way,” he said.
R. Nallakannu, member, National Executive Committee, CPI, and a long-time associate of Jeevanandham, explained how seriously Jeevanandham studied the objectives of all the three movements he was a part of and how faithful he was to their basic ideals all his life. Explaining this, Nallakannu recalled that when celebrated patriot V.O. Chidambaram, during a visit to Jeevanandham’s ashram, spoke disapprovingly of Gandhi’s promotion of the charka (spinning device), Jeevana ndham convinced him of the efficacy of the scheme to uplift the rural poor. Both Nallakannu and Sankaraiah said that if the communist movement is strong in the State today, it was because of the pioneering work done by both Jeevanandham and Ramamurti.
S. Tamizhselvan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association, said that Jeevanandham was the first to take to cultural politics and cited his long struggle for nationalising Bharati’s songs and for fulfilling Tamils’ aspirations in respect of making Tamil a medium of instruction and an official language, and so on. According to him, Jeevanandham’s greatest contribution lies in the realm of Tamil language and literature (see box). His writings and speeches and his life as an uncompromising fighter, would inspire generations to come, Tamizhselvan said.
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