Sankaraiah’s life as a Marxist, leader, speaker, and campaigner

Published : Nov 28, 2023 18:27 IST - 5 MINS READ

Veteran CPI(M) leader N. Sankaraiah in 2014.

Veteran CPI(M) leader N. Sankaraiah in 2014. | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

Sa. Lenin’s Tamil language book on Sankaraiah is the first collection of writings by the renowned communist.

Despite his towering presence in State and national politics, there was no book in Tamil with the writings of communist leader N. Sankaraiah until recently. Sa. Lenin, who brought out the book Sankaraiah: Therndhetukkapatta Urai, Petti, Katturai, Aavanam (Sankaraiah: Selected speeches, interviews, essays, and documents) in August 2022, has filled this gap. Lenin’s book sheds light on Sankaraiah’s multifaceted persona as a Marxist, leader, speaker, organiser, and campaigner.

Sankaraiah: Therndhetukkapatta Urai, Petti, Katturai, Aavanam (Sankaraiah: Selected Speeches, Interviews, Essays, and Documents)
Edited by Sa. Lenin
Bharathi Puthakalayam
Pages: 144
Price: Rs.130

Sankaraiah’s political life, spanning his roles as a student leader, freedom fighter, legislator, and people’s leader, serves as an exemplary case study for leaders of people’s movements. He held various party positions, including that of CPI(M) Tamil Nadu State secretary, and was elected to the Tamil Nadu legislative Assembly three times from Madurai. 

Sa. Lenin’s book is compiled from retrieved documents from libraries and digital records. It includes essays by CPI senior leader R. Nallakannu, CPI(M) polit bureau and Central Committee member Arunan, senior journalist P.Sainath, and many others.

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While Sankaraiah’s contributions to the struggles of the Indian working class and his time in prison as a freedom fighter and a communist are well known, this book provides deeper insights into his closeness to the student community and his political positions on issues of language, caste, and literature.

Communist who loved Tamil 

At the Tamil development seminar held in Madurai in 1997, Sankaraiah spoke about the communist movement’s insistence on linguistic division of States during the freedom struggle. He opposed Rajaji’s attempt to create a Dakshin province, arguing that it would hinder the development of other languages like Malayalam. Drawing parallels from Russia and China, he explained the importance of education in one’s mother tongue for a society like India.

In an interview with P. Sainath, Sankaraiah asserted that communists were responsible for bringing the Tamil language into the Tamil Nadu Assembly. Until 1952, English was the only language of communication in the Assembly Hall. Sankaraiah proudly told Sainath that even before the change, MLAs P. Jeevanandham and Ramamurthy spoke in Tamil inside the House.

Sankaraiah: Therndhetukkapatta Urai, Petti, Katturai, Aavanam.

Sankaraiah: Therndhetukkapatta Urai, Petti, Katturai, Aavanam.

A passion for literature

In a 1995 interview with Madurai MP Su. Venkatesan for Semmalar magazine, Sankaraiah discussed the need for progressive writers in Tamil literature. He credited Malayalam playwright Thoppil Bhasi’s play Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist) with playing a significant role in spreading communist ideology in Kerala, countering opposition from the RSS and Congress. Sankaraiah lamented the absence of such a full-length play in Tamil Nadu and urged progressive individuals to actively engage in cinema and drama.

While expressing such expectations for Tamil society, Sankaraiah also acknowledged existing efforts, particularly the drama on female infanticide performed by the Karumathur Thisaigal drama group. He cited the examples of Charlie Chaplin and Sarojini Devi, who fought against fascism and colonialism, respectively, and emphasised the need for Tamil writers to join the ranks of these literary giants. He asserted that it was not enough for writers to remain confined to their “ivory towers” but that they should also have the courage to step out and address real-time issues.

Sankaraiah held poets Bharathiyar, Bharathidasan, and Kannadasan in high esteem. When asked about Bharathiyar being labelled a “Brahmin poet” by some, he countered by explaining the poet’s anti-caste, anti-imperialist stance. He asserted that the most accurate assessment of Bharathiyar came from Bharathidasan, a poet celebrated by the Dravidian movement. Sankaraiah also emphasised the importance of reading Sangam Literature in Tamil.

In the Puthagam Pesuthu interview, Sankaraiah responded to the question, “Why didn’t the same literary explosion occur in Tamil Nadu after the Chinese Revolution as it did after the Russian Revolution?” He explained, “One cannot say that no literary works emerged from China. It’s just that their number was relatively small, and many people were unaware of them.” Extending the analogy to Tamil Nadu, he said, “What prevents us from creating literature inspired by our communist struggles? Look at Tebhaga, Kayyur, Telangana, and Keezhvenmani. However, I’m not valuing our creators any less because of this aspect. Our primary duty now is to organise farmers and workers.”

Freedom fighter and CPIM veteran leader N. Sankaraiah during centenary celebrations at the CPI(M) office in Chennai.

Freedom fighter and CPIM veteran leader N. Sankaraiah during centenary celebrations at the CPI(M) office in Chennai. | Photo Credit: RAVINDRAN R

Sankaraiah served as the first editor of the newspaper Theekkathir, the mouthpiece of the CPI(M) in Tamil Nadu, after its inception in 1963. The book is enriched with archival images of articles published in Theekkathir newspaper.

On the question of caste 

Sankaraiah was a staunch advocate for social justice and equality. He consistently spoke out against untouchability and caste atrocities, advocating for land reforms and economic upliftment as means to eradicate these evils.

In a press meet held in Tuticorin in July 1997, Sankaraiah responded to a question about the prevalence of untouchability and caste atrocities in southern Tamil Nadu: “We have a principled position on this issue. We need to improve the economic status of the people who are subjected to untouchability. We need to bring land reforms in Tamil Nadu like West Bengal. As far as land reforms are concerned, DMK and AIADMK both follow the same policy footsteps as  the Congress.”

Also Read | ‘We must inform children about the difference between fiction and history’: Udaya Shankar

Commenting on the brutal murder of a Dalit panchayat president and other community members by caste Hindus in Melavalavu in 1997, Sankaraiah asserted: “Be it the Congress, the DMK, or the AIADMK, no party should backtrack in the collective struggle against untouchability and annihilation of caste. CPI(M) will work towards bringing a Dalit panchayat president again in the same village. The party will not go back on its statement.”

Sankaraiah also expressed his dissatisfaction with the tendency to portray leaders like Jeevanandham and Ambedkar solely as caste leaders, emphasising their broader contributions to society. In an interview with Vikatan in 2021, Sankaraiah urged men in Tamil Nadu to respect the love relationships and choices of their sisters, calling for a separate law to address the issue of “honour killings.”

Engagement with students

Sankaraiah strongly believed in the power of education and political activism among students. In a 1970 address to the Tamil Nadu Students Association, he challenged the notion that students were apolitical: “When workers fight for their rights, they say the workers are not related to politics. Similarly, they say farmers do not need politics. And this extends to students. If workers, farmers, and students are denied politics, who else needs politics? Is it only reserved for mill owners, bus owners, and landlords?” 

During the “Yuva Shakti 97” event at Madras University in 1997, Sankaraiah urged the student community to actively engage in preventing caste conflicts and riots across Tamil Nadu. He also campaigned against dowry among students.

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