Vayalar (Kerala): A thin man in white mundu (a garment worn around the waist) and shirt, with a pencil moustache and dyed black hair, hurriedly walks towards a noisy hall in Vayalar, in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, with his hands raised.
He is V.C. Das, 95.
Seventy years ago, he was part of an agitation which culminated in the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt, probably the only time an organized working class in India had led an armed revolt against a government.
The agitation saw an army of the poorest of the poor, armed with tools such as areca nut staves, come face to face with armed police.
“Indian working classes, to be sure, have conducted long, bitter strikes, and peasants have staged sustained revolts in the countryside. But only once, it appears, have workers in an industry fashioned weapons, set up armed enclaves and fought the military in pitched, if one-sided, battles," Robin Jeffrey, media scholar, has written in Indian Economic and Social History Review.
Why did the workers take up arms when none of their contemporaries in India had done so?
The agitation was a tipping point for the labourers, who were being harassed by the then ruler of the region, C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyer. Aiyer, the diwan of Travancore, had the full backing of the British government and had just implemented governance reforms which gave him absolute powers like that of an American president, former Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan said in an earlier interview. “For instance, just take the case of fishermen. Half of whatever they get would go into the hands of the landlord. Half of the rest would go to the Church (in memory of the soul of the dead landord). It was called Valla-karam and Palli-karam. There was nothing left for them after paying these two," said Achuthanandan.
At 24, Das was not a member of the action group which actually stormed the police camp. He was a worker at a coir factory.
At night, he assisted S. Kumaran, one of the leaders of the movement, who was living underground.
According to some accounts, some 50,000 men and women participated in the attack. A majority of them were trade union workers.
Inevitably, hundreds died. Das says there were no real means to calculate how many. “Newspapers were banned, we were not allowed to step outside the house post the police camp attack. Anything suspicious (for the police) dropped dead." he said.
So, where did they bury all of those hundreds?
Das points to the ground beneath a statue of a black man with an areca nut stave aside the hall which was erected in memory of the agitation. “This place was a huge pond then, now it looks like a hill to you?" he asked.
“We buried the dead in that pond, threw soil over it," he said.
The revolt is named after two of the places involved. It started under the leadership of undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in a place called Punnapra on 23 October, and lasted for 10 days until it culminated in Vayalar.
The uprising resulted in the displacement of Iyer and the establishment of an independent Travancore the year next.
“To the communists, it was the finest flowering of the working class against the exploitative forces of the establishment... the anti-communists think ignorant and innocent workers involved in the revolt were misled by CPI in directing workers to use areca nut staves against machine guns, culminating in a massacre," historian N. Sasidharan wrote in academic journal Samyukta in 2001.