1: The Martyrs of Punnappra Vayalar Struggle, by Saji, K.V.
The Punnappra Vayalar struggle is a chapter which was written by blood in the history of. the independence struggle of Kerala and India. If the blood of the early Christian martyrs was the seed of the Christian Church, then the blood of the martyrs of Punnappra and Vayalar was shed to control the autocratic reign of a ruler and to begin the process of humanizing people, the people who were once no people!
Let me say this at the outset. It may seem difficult to call the ‘people’ who were killed in the struggle as martyrs. But my faith demands me to do so as my eyes were a witness to the scattered bones of those heroes who died on the sands of Punnappra and Vayalar. "They were the people who sacrificed their lives against the cruel rule, inhuman laws, oppression and exploitation". (Prof. K. Vijayan Nair "The Bones Will Blossom and the Sun Will Rise", an article from ORA, p.61.) So let me say that they were the people who shed their blood not in order to be praised as freedom fighters or to become historic heroes but for a movement, a manifesto that is the ‘human manifesto’.
Punnappra and Vayalar were included in the Ambalappuzha and Shertallai taluks of the famous Travancore state. Travancore in those days was a subsidiary ally of the paramount British power. Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer administered the state on behalf of the Raja. He was a despot and his overbearing traits were disliked very much by the people. Dewan Ramaswamy Iyer insisted on a free Travancore state as he wanted to stay in power. In order to consolidate his position, he suggested a new system of administration according to which the position of Dewanship was un-changeable. It was called the ‘American model’. (N. K. Jose, "Punnappra Vayalar Struggle and the Dalits", an article in "Dalit Desiyata", p. 37.) Punnappra village is very near to Alleppey town. It was and still is a center of the fisherfolk. Alleppey, which is the first industrial town of Travancore, is also a harbor town. There were many coir factories and ‘copras’ owned by the Europeans as well as Indians. A number of industrial laborers at Alleppey belonged to the ‘Ezhava’ community. At the same time, the fishermen who lived in the coastal areas were very poor. They used ordinary hired nets for fishing, because they were not able to own them. They had to borrow money and boats from the money lenders. The money lenders and boat owners charged heavy interest and they determined the price of the fish. So, the fishermen had to return home with sad faces and empty pockets. "The exploitation of the poor by the rich was severe. If anybody objected either he will be finished or denied the privilege of borrowing". (Dalit Desiyata, p. 40.) Interestingly, the entire coastal area was owned by the land lords. The wives of the poor tenants and fishermen were supposed to do manual or bonded labor in the landlords houses. These people were given a small piece of land to make a hut and a coconut tree and the right to pluck coconuts from that tree only. If anybody plucked a coconut from any other coconut tree, he or she was chased out of the land.
Vayalar, which comes under the Shertallai taluk is blessed with sandy soil, which is good for coconut cultivation. Most of the land there was owned by the feudal chieftains. The agricultural laborers were forced to lead a life of slavery and most of these laborers were dalits.
In 1904, the coir workers formed themselves into an association. They started to protest against the illegal alliance of police with the landlords and the factory owners. This organization extended its attempt to organize the workers in Punnappra and other parts. In 1938, some of the leaders like R. Suganthan and P.K. Kunju were arrested. The workers protested against this. And this encouraged the laborers to unite further.
The awakening of the coir workers and fisher people made a lot of impact in that region. The Union, along with the A.T.T.U.C (All Travancore Trade Union Congress) submitted a memorandum to the Government, raising 27 demands. Some of the demands were:
1. End the Dewan rule
2. Right to franchise
3. Job security
5. End illegal action against workers
6. Minimum wages, etc.
In this issue both fishermen and agricultural workers joined together. (Variam Parambil Krishnan, "Punnappra Samaram", an article from ORA, p. 47.)
Immediate Reasons for the Struggle
In Vayalar, the mobilized laborers gradually began to disrespect the landowners and sometimes ventured to question them about their evil deeds. This indeed was a fundamental change. This upsurge on the part of the laborers made the landlords furious. They lowered the wage of the poor laborers and evicted their poor tenants.
This was the time of Second World War. The after effect of that terrible war affected Travancore. The people of Shertallai could not survive and many people fled to other places in search of food. (N.K. Jose, Dalit Desiyata, p. 43.) The landlords and factory owners made use of this opportunity. They formed an Union of their own and took a decision which was detrimental to the cause of the laborers. They also appointed their own people to various jobs. As a result, there was tension between those who had and those who did not have.
The police and goondas began to attack the laborers wherever they were found. They were tortured cruelly in their huts and work spots. Their women folk were brutally raped. (Pallipparambil Joseph, A Hero of Punnappra struggle".)
In this situation, the involvement of the Communist Party is worth mentioning. They made a plan for the collective living of the laborers so that they may avoid the troubles caused by the hooligans and the police.
One day, a notorious rowdy of a landlord named Nalukettil Raman picked up a Pulaya laborer and tied him to a coconut tree, and tortured the poor man till he died. This roused the working class people in Vayalar.
In Punnappra, one day after the fishing, four fishermen went to the employer to ask for their wage. They demanded just wages for their fish. That irritated the employer and so he tortured them with the illegal help of the police, the fishermen were arrested. When the people came to know this, they reacted. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, the laborers demanded the release of these four men. Meanwhile, the landlords and the influential people started hooliganism and tortured the laborers with the help of the police. The laborers’ women were raped. Because of this, the workers started to attack the landlord’s houses. But their houses were used as police camping centers.
At one particular time when the laborers realized that their entire life was being threatened and there was no other way, they decided to attack the police camp. They gave information to all camps including Vayalar. In October 1946, they gathered in a camp called ‘Vattayar". From there they moved to Punnappra, with wooden spears. The police tried to block them and later, without any warning started to fire. The people used their spears. But before 303 guns, their wooden spears were nothing. A lot of blood was shed on that day.
Toll of the Martyrs
It is believed that there had been at least 15 camps connected with the struggle. The volunteers in the Vayalar camp were about 1300. And, other camps consisted approximately 450 people each. So, the total number of participants could have been about 6300. According to N.K. Jose the total number of people killed or injured was about 6000. And 90% of them were Dalits. (H.K. Chakrapani, "The Background of Punnappra Vayalar struggle", N.K. Jose, Punnappra Vayalar Struggle, p. 50.) During my visit to Punnappra, an eye witness of the incident told me that twenty nine natives of Punnappra were killed.
Some of the surviving martyrs recollected the misfortune. Chakrapani was arrested after the struggle was over. In the Jail, he was tortured brutally. His back bone was broken. Even the flesh came away due to beating. His back got infected. Now he is living as a dead body.
Another living martyr is Dominic, a Christian. Even now he is unable to turn his neck. It was a presentation made to him by the police. He was asked to take bath in a pond which was filled with filth. He objected and in the process, warranted the breaking of the back bone.
Yet another is Sukumaren. He was put into the prison for twenty years. Because of the heavy battering on his head, he lost his eye sight.
Some Results of the Struggle
Many had to sacrifice their lives in the struggle. However, struggle itself helped. Some of the achievements are:
It helped reduce the power of the landowners and exploiters. The struggle paved the way for India’s Independence struggle. A situation in which an employee could demand his wage came into existence. The landless people were able to get the land and adult franchise was won. (Dominic Vellappinadu, "Punnappra Samaram", ORA, pp. 39-44.)
Evaluation and Reflection
The uprising at Punnappra-Vayalar is the most important of all. the struggles which took place in Travancore in the 20th century. The Dalit force was in the forefront of the struggle. Thus, the majority of the martyrs who were shot down by the garrison of Dewan Sir. C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer belonged to the Dalit communities. It is a great pity that there is no record to substantiate this statement because those who praise the heroic deeds of the martyrs are hesitant to admit that those who were gunned down that day were mostly dalits. (N.K. Jose, Dalit Desiyata, p. 34.)
I strongly feel that the motivating factors which pushed those people to participate in that struggle was a quest for freedom to travel, to live and work and obtain just wages for their labors, and protection for their women from the landowners and their henchmen. That was why they preferred death rather than to live without meaning.
As a student of history, I am able to say that the tragedy of Punnappra-Vayalar struggle is a outcome of the inhuman power of the power-mongers and dehumanizing little powers. The struggle speaks a lot about the suffering that the downtrodden underwent there. What was achieved by this struggle in which thousands of people had to lose their lives? This is a challenging question. The right to work for eight hours and, not more, is an important outcome of the struggle. The way in which people involved reacted is debated now. Their struggle is labeled as violent. The use of violence as a last resort is justified. Even Jesus adopted that means in the course of his life at least once. Non-violence is possible only when the enemy is ‘human’. People in this struggle sacrificed their lives because they had no option and their struggle was aimed at overcoming their age-long slavery and suffering. Punnappra-Vayalar struggle was a struggle for liberation and humanization.
In the Punnappra-Vayalar struggle, thousands sacrificed their lives for the sake of others. Even after Independence, Government after Government had praised the martyrs. But it is appropriate to ask: how much the Dalits are accepted in the society? As one of the living martyrs told me: "Even now I am estranged. My pain and sickness because of the torture are my only friends"!
It is a fact that thousands were killed in the Punnappra-Vayalar struggle, including Christians. Can we call all of them "Christian" martyrs ? For me, the criterion to define ‘Christian’ is ‘human’. There is no ‘Christian concern’ without ‘human concern’. A Christian, after Jesus Christ, is a ‘man (person) for others’. A martyr is a victim-witness who gives life for the just cause of others. Jesus of Nazareth is the paradigm here. He was a man for others -- a martyr for the poor, oppressed and exploited. I deem the Punnappra-Vayalar people as martyrs because they died for a just cause, to enhance the lives of others, and to give meaning in the lives of others. Such of these deserve to be called ‘Christian’ martyrs.
Ayrookuzhiyal. Abraham A.M. The Dalit Desiyata, Delhi: ISPCK, 1990.
Pandey, B.N. ed. Leadership in Kerala, Kampur: Vikas Publishing, 1977.
"Organizations For Radical Action". Punnappra Vayalar Special Monthly, in Malayalam Vol.9, October-November, 1991.
Personal interview with some of the participants of the struggle.