On 24 January 1970, a group of goons of the Indian National Congress and other groups who were part of the then right-wing government of Kerala attacked KS Ammukkutty — a 36-year-old leader of the Kerala State Agricultural Workers Union. She was on her way, along with a few other women comrades, to the place in Alakkode, Kannur district, where communist leaders had come for a discussion with the local landlord during a militant land struggle. The goons lurking in the forest grabbed her by the hair and trampled her. Beaten all over the body, she was left unconscious. Many thought she would not survive. It took almost one year of intense care and treatment for Ammukkutty to return to normal life. “I was lying unconscious for many days. I could not move from bed for months. It pained throughout the body and it took six months for me to eat even a bun,” the 86-year-old Ammukkutty recalls. The injuries it caused lasted long, perhaps for a lifetime.
It was on the 24th day of the Surplus Land Struggle called by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] along with the Karshaka Sangham (Kisan Sabha, or Peasant Union) and the Karshaka Thozhilaali Union (Agricultural Workers Union) that Ammukkutty was attacked. One month before, on 13th and 14th of December 1969, she had participated in a convention called by the agrarian movements at Alappuzha to announce a massive struggle to take over surplus land and distribute among the landless peasants and agricultural workers. Prior to this conference, a procession of peasants and agricultural workers from three parts of Kerala had reached Alappuzha. Kerala’s second EMS Namboodiripad ministry (1967-69) had passed a bill which guaranteed land to all the landless peasants in the state. But the government had stepped down from power after having lost the majority in the legislative assembly, and the bill was pending on the table of the President of India for approval. In the Alappuzha convention, the leaders of the Agricultural Workers Union and the Peasant Union declared, ‘approved or not, the bill will be in force from January 1st of 1970’. This became known as ‘The Alappuzha Declaration’.
Ammukkutty, who returned from Alappuzha to her region Alakkode — a hilly forested area in Kannur district — began preparations for the struggle with her comrades. Across Kerala, activists of the Agricultural Workers Union entered large areas of land held by landlords. Planting the red flags they kept with them on the surplus land they entered, the activists declared that the land belonged to the poor peasants and agricultural labourers. Ammukkutty and her comrades took over 56 acres of land which was under the authority of Alakkode Raja (king), the landlord. The leaders of the surplus land movement were brutally attacked across Kerala. At some places they could resist with stronger organisational capacity. But there were places like Alakkode where the Communist Party was in its nascent stage. KS Ammukkutty was one of the early workers of the Communist Party from that area. She was a threat to the right-wing. But Ammukkkutty was not someone who bowed down in the face of physical attacks. She emerged stronger and rose up to organise the agricultural workers across the state.
KS Ammukkutty is now 86 years old. She is called Ammukkuttiyechi, with ‘chechi’ (elder sister) added to her name, by everyone. Saddened by the way the world has been turned into due to the pandemic, Ammukkuttiyechi is at her departed sister’s house. Amidst a life among medicines and routine health check-ups, Ammukkuttiyechi loves to talk for long, to whoever visits her, about the old days when the oppressed were awakened. ‘Awakening of the Man’ was the title of the book by Godavari Parulekar — a stalwart communist leader who led the heroic Warli Struggle in the Warli Adivasi (tribal) region of Maharashtra.
Ammukutty was just 13 when her family migrated to Karthikapuram of Alakkode (in the then Malabar district) from Kottayam (in south-central Kerala) around late 1947. The Dalit family reached the hilly forested area after the Alakkode Raja offered them some land to settle down. Theirs was one of the early families that migrated to the region. There were around five migrant families settled there at that time. It was a predominantly Adivasi (tribal) settlement. Ammukkutty’s family lived in a bamboo shed, after clearing a small area of the Karthikapuram forest. Though they were offered land to cultivate, they were not given complete ownership of the land. The offer was under the condition that a share of whatever they produce will go to the landlord; and this share would be decided by the landlord, not the peasant. In short, poor migrant families like Ammukkutty’s remained almost as agricultural workers, not peasants who own land and produce enough to survive on their own.
Ammukkutty studied only till Standard 5, when her family was staying at Kottayam. She did not go school after coming to Malabar. Also, there was no school in that hilly region. Amidst extreme poverty and hunger, Ammukkutty also went along with her parents to work for the landlord. The work of one person would have added a little more to their earnings.
“I went to work due to starvation. We all had to earn in order to live. If there is no salt, we had to go to Chapparappadavu, which is kilometres away. Isn’t this a forest where elephants and other animals wander during the day time? We lived here, after clearing some forest area. Hunger is important, right? And we used to earn a meagre amount of money from work. So, we thought, if one another person also goes to work, it would add to our earnings.”
Going for work was also a very difficult and risky task that time. The labourers were forced to work continuously for 12 hours a day. When Amuukkutty recalls those days, we wonder how a 13 year old girl survived all those hardships!
“I had to go to work at seven in the morning. There is no work in case you reach one minute late. It lasted till evening seven o’ clock. It will be night by then. In order to reach home, we had to walk through the forest. There was no electric torch. We used to walk holding the dress of the people walking in front of us holding the flambeau. Once we got trapped in front of an elephant. Luckily we escaped.”
Communist leaders used to come to those hilly areas from other parts of the district to organise the Adivasis. Once the migration had begun slowly, they also reached out to the migrant peasants and attempted to mobilise them against landlordism. Not all migrant families joined them. Many of them were given land by the landlords by evicting the Adivasis. Adivasis had no right over the land or on what they cultivate; they were subjected to extreme oppression. Pacheni Kunhiraman and AV Kunhambu were among the leaders who would come and call the peasants and agricultural workers to in front of some Adivasi hut for meetings. Since there was no transport facility, the leaders walked many kilometres to reach the area by foot. The leaders would stay at an Adivasi hut after the meetings as there was no option to return at night. In the meetings, the leaders would explain, in the Adivasis’ own languages and usages, the truth behind their hardships and reasons for why they are being exploited.
Some migrant families bought the land by paying the landlord and settled down. But the purpose behind giving land to poor immigrants was to exploit their labour. Ammukkutty’s family belonged to this section. Being at the bottom of the caste ladder, their condition was similar to that of Adivasis in terms of social status. And the extremely rigid landlordism ensured that there was no obvious difference between the poor peasants and agricultural labourers. Ammukkutty started working for the landlord at the age of 13, and began to understand the exploitation faced by poor peasants and workers, by virtue of being one among them. During that time, when the leaders of the Karshaka Sangham came to that area, she eagerly went to listen to them. She began to contemplate what they were saying, along with what she saw and experienced every day, and realised that whatever they were saying was true.
“I didn’t study political philosophies. It is my experience. Do you know how the conviction about the truth of that life came? The peasants who worked under the landlords and the exploitation they had to face; we also experienced a part of it. Our Pacheni [Kunhiraman], AV [Kunhambu] and [KKN] Pariyaram [leaders] came to the hill and explained, to the majority of Adivasis and handful of migrants while they leaned against the pillars of their huts, the need to form and organise a group of farmers. Then I thought, this is also my own direct experience. Since then, I have kept in my heart the belief that only my party can raise voice against those injustices. That belief will be there till my death.” Though none of her family members had any political background, Ammukkutty gradually became a communist, a warrior whose life was devoted to the liberation of the oppressed.
The peasants were met with enormous exploitation by the landlord. There were oppressive taxes imposed on them. The landlord could grab anything from what a tenant cultivated. There was no need of any permission, and the peasant was not even informed. Many a time, the tenants were left with absolutely nothing after they pay the rent that is the landlord’s share. Faulty measurement by the agents of the landlord made the situation awful. The famers were subjected to huge debt, which made them even more subjugated to the landlord. The plight of the agricultural workers was not any better; it could only be worse. They were forced to work from sunrise to sunset. The wage was very minimal, with which they could ensure only their physical existence. Most of them were Adivasis who were denied even the status of human beings. Poor peasants who could not survive with what they get after paying the lease amount to the landlord had to send their family members as well to work. The workers were paid paddy once a week and chaama (millet) during the rest of the days. Male workers were given ¾ seer (about 0.92 kg), while female workers received half a seer (about 0.62 kg). However, if Friday or Tuesday turned out to be the days when the paddy had to be given as coolie, the workers received nothing. There was a reason. It was believed that paddy should not be taken from the Patthaayam (the large bin in which paddy was stored) in those particular days. It was believed that doing so would diminish the fortune of the Patthaayam. Therefore, during those days the workers returned without receiving any payment.
“Weren’t we the ones who filled the Patthaayam and brought fortunes? We did not know it then. Such a consciousness had not developed during those days,” Ammukkutty says. The first attempt was to bring them to a different consciousness that would not have to serve the interests of the oppressor. It was not easy to organise the peasants. There was already a consciousness among them that they were inferior to the land‘lord’. Therefore, the attempt was to break this notion and seed class consciousness in them through small meetings in which leaders spoke for long, explaining the oppression they were subjected to. The theory of class struggle was being inculcated to its warriors in their own language, and connecting it to their own lives. That was the universal applicability of the theory of class struggle.
“Gradually Karshaka Sangham activists were winning their demands one by one. The times had changed from a period when they had to drink porridge served in the pit beneath the courtyard of the landlord to that of getting the porridge at the yard itself. The next demand was to receive better food in the verandah of the house itself. And we achieved that too.” Ammukutty recalls how the organised agricultural workers, who hitherto used to live like slaves, started winning all their demands.
A major demand was to increase wages. For the first time, the agricultural workers began demanding better wages according to the work they were doing. Financial liability was a major factor which forced them to remain silent and be obedient to the landlords. It struck down all movements and any chance of upward mobility.
“What all struggles we had carried out demanding wage increase! There was a period of struggles when we didn’t even have time to sit or stand anywhere. What sorts of struggles! People’s marches, vehicle processions, dharnas (sit-in protests) in front of offices, etc. Each right is acquired step by step.”
The tenants also protested against oppressive taxes and kallappara — a fraudulent measurement system using which the landlords or their agents collected more paddy than the actual amount from the tenants. The tenants also began questioning various restrictions and threats targeting them. Ammukkutty, an agricultural worker since the age of 13, emerged as the leader of her class; a beloved comrade of the Adivasis and agricultural workers.
Both the Kerala Mahila Federation (Kerala Woman’s Federation) and the Kerala Karshaka Thozhilali Union (Kerala Agricultural Workers Union) were formed in 1967. Ammukkutty was part of both. She participated in the formation conference of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) which was held in Chennai in 1980. She was a district-level leader of the women’s movement.
One of the major campaigns of the Mahila Federation was for public distribution of the most essential goods. Food was the central concern. It took up other issues as well. For a woman, entry into public life was a difficult task. A lot of impediments awaited her in every step. Being a Dalit woman and an agricultural worker, she faced multiple challenges.
“The pressure and abuses of all social inequalities await women. What is the most difficult thing for women is that people always like to talk about and make fun of her chastity. This is seen as the easiest way to subdue her, both in family relationships and in politics. She would survive anything else. But this way of talking makes her exhausted. Our women comrades felt extremely bad seeing and hearing such things. But they survive such difficult times through reading, public meetings, classes, camaraderie, and the like. Isn’t experience our teacher!”
“I had to travel day and night. On some days I had to sleep in party offices, and sometimes at the houses of different comrades all across Malabar. My movement stood with me, always,” says Ammukkuttiyechi. It was under the leadership of Ammukkutty that a women’s march was organised, for the first time in Kerala, to a police station. The march was in protest of police raping women at the Nehru Trophy ward in Alappuzha. Ammukutty was then the secretary of the Alakkode panchayat (village council) committee of the Mahila Federation.
Ammukkutty learned more than what years of formal education could teach one. “Experiences from the struggles for our rights, mobilising the downtrodden, and the senior party leaders — I gained my knowledge and consciousness from all these,” she says. Ammukkutty speaks of class struggle and class consciousness with extreme clarity and vigour. She gained rich knowledge through night study classes, party committee meetings, and reading Marxist literature available in Malayalam. “I am physically weak now, and troubled by illnesses. Still I cannot start my day without reading ‘Deshabhimani’ (the daily newspaper of the CPI(M)) in the early morning.”
The most significant struggle in the life of Ammukkutty is the one mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Surplus Land Struggle. The second communist ministry of Kerala passed an amended land reforms legislation which ensured land to all agricultural labourers and tillers in the state. The bill abolished both tenancy and landlordism. It gave the right to the agricultural worker to purchase his/her homestead land from the landowner on easy terms. It also conferred to the tenants the ownership of the land that they were cultivating. The bill gave the right to the government to take possession of the surplus land and to distribute it among tenants and landless agricultural labourers. But the Left government was toppled by a united front stitched together by the Congress party with an organised plan to prevent the implementation of the bill. The bill was before the president of the country to get approval. It was in this context that the Communist Party called for a two-day convention in Alappuzha following which a massive rally and public gathering of peasants and agricultural workers took place. Ammukkutty was a delegate to the convention. Important leaders of the communist movement in the country, including P Sundarayya, EMS Namboodiripad (EMS), AK Gopalan (AKG), and Hare Krishna Konar participated in the convention. In the public meeting, which saw the participation of around half a million people, AKG declared, “Whether the president gives his approval or not, we will claim our right for the land.” Thus the movement began on 1 January 1970.
“The party suggested that if any of those people who threw stones at this struggle, who became false witnesses against us, or who filed false cases against us do not own a piece of land, they should be given at least half an acre land from the surplus land we take over,” Ammukkutty remembers the call from the party leadership. The struggle went on for a few years, and most of the time Ammukkutty was bedridden following the brutal attack she was subjected to in the first month of the struggle itself. But, with unyielding spirit, she remained an inspiration to the movement throughout. “It was this struggle, the struggle for the right to land, that provided courage to the lakhs of agricultural labourers, who faced both social and economic oppression, to stand up,” she says.
No one from her family, including parents and siblings, visited Ammukkutty when she was bedridden. Her father said in pain and anger, “She was beaten up because she went there heeding the words of the scoundrels (the communists). I have never beaten her. Now she is getting beaten up by others.”
“It was my comrades who treated me. Boys would stay at night to give me medicine and the women comrades would stay with me during daytime. I could not even digest a bun during the first six months. They did it consciously, targeting me.” Five decades have passed. But Ammukkutty remembers those days as if those incidents happened just yesterday.
As soon as she regained her health, Ammukkutty started moving around with her comrades to build the movement further. She had also been in underground for two months, following the political witch hunt by the right-wing and the ruling classes. Nothing could stop her. She emerged stronger and stronger after every challenge she was met with. Ammukkutty became a district-level leader of the Kerala Agricultural Workers’ Union, and began going to different corners of Kannur district. Agricultural workers were mostly former ‘untouchables’, and in some areas many of them belonged to former slave castes. This explains the lethal pairing of social and economic oppression.
Ammukkutty was elected as the vice president of the Kerala Agricultural Workers Union. The organisation had grown to 1.2 million members by then (the early 1990s). In 1996, she was elected to the working committee of the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union (AIAWU) in the fourth all-India conference held at Khammam (then in Andhra Pradesh). Thus she rose to be a leader of two million agricultural workers enrolled in the union. She remained in the supreme committee of the largest organisation of agricultural workers in the country for more than a decade before stepping down due to severe health issues which paralysed her movements. Currently Ammukkutty’s organisation has a membership of more than 7 million agricultural workers in the country.
Ammukkutty tells an interesting story about a member of the royal-landlord family she went to work for when she was young.
“There was a lord. On the third day of work, the lord said that the child is not in a position to work and therefore there is no need for her to come to work. Still I did not stop going to work. Gradually I became as efficient a worker as my elders were.”
Captain Kerala Varma was the person who suspected that the child Ammukkutty could not work. He was a member of the Cochin royal family. He was married to the sister of the Alakkode Raja. He was not interested in living in royal comforts. He was the first one to join the military service from the Cochin royal family. He was dismissed in 1949 after seven years of service for alleged links to the Indian National Army (led by freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose) and the communists. He must have come to Alakkode in between.
“Let me proudly say one more thing. After many years, I think in the 1990s, a special convention of the agricultural workers union was being held at the Ernakulam town hall. EMS had come for it. The next day, when his photo appeared in the newspaper, I was seen sitting next to him. After seeing this, the lord came to the convention venue. He and his family were living in that district. He came to take me to their home. I couldn’t go due to organisational engagements. It never happened. He died about ten years ago”.
A few days after she was elected to the working committee of the AIAWU, Ammukkutty received a letter. It was from Captain Kerala Varma. “Comrade, I am proud more than anyone else that you were elected to the all-India leadership of thirteen and a half crore downtrodden people. I have the right for that [to be proud]”.
Ammukkutty travelled across Kerala while she was the state leader of the movement. She was in charge of building the organisation in Wayanad district, a region in Kerala with a large Adivasi population, for nine years. “I was asked by the state committee to supervise the union’s works in four districts — Kasaragod, Kannur, Wayanad and Kozhikode,” she recollects. At a time when there was no transport facility in most of the areas, she travelled from one place to another and from one district to another to invigorate the movement.
People used to ask, partly as a joke and partly in due seriousness, whether there is any house left in Kannur district where Ammukuttiyechi had not stayed. There were continuous journeys during the initial decades of the organisation from one place to another to mobilise and organise agricultural workers. There was no chance of getting back home on the same day during those times. Ammukkutty would stay at the house of some comrade of hers after the meeting, and then moved to the next meeting place the next day. “It was a period when our movement was in the initial stage. We had no time to either rest or to even go home. We also lacked money to conduct the activities, for travel, stay and so on. There was a time when two people shared one curry and ate rice,” she says.
“She fought different battles together. I remember working with her in the district committee of the agricultural workers union. A comrade who loved everyone, lived in simplicity and with extreme commitment to the cause. She was there in organisational meetings to guide the movement, and also in public meetings, with her simple way of speech to convince the people to rally together,” remembers MK Kunhappan, an 88 year-old communist who was a comrade of Ammukkutty in the movement of agricultural workers.
Ammukkutty was the candidate of the CPI(M) in the Panchayat elections of 1980. She contested to the Udayagiri panchayat in the first elections held after the formation of that panchayat. The beloved comrade Ammukkutty won with a stunning margin. This was repeated in the next election as well. The party also put her at the top of administrative bodies of cooperative institutions. She was a director of the Alakkode Cooperative Bank, and was in a leading role at the Karthikapuram Women’s Cooperative Society.
Ammukkuttiyechi always reminds the new generation about the sacrifices of the communist martyrs who laid down their lives fighting the odds in society and for the betterment of the future generations. “We should also keep in our mind how did we become what we are now. People who sacrificed their lives in the streets, forests, fields and factories thought that the next generation should not go through such inhumane treatments.” She sounds even stronger as she says this.
“We used to talk politics, about our struggles and slogans, and about injustices in society in workplaces, bus waiting shelters, tea shops… wherever at least four people gathered. We must bring that habit back,” Ammukkuttiyechi tells the youngsters.
And she underlines for the communists of today: “The former generation was fighting the odds of that time. They made this place liveable for all. Keeping those in mind, we have to identify the challenges of our time, prepare slogans and launch struggles to overcome those.”
Comrade KS Ammukkutty is as contemporary as her vibrant past.