Leftist legend

Print edition : October 21, 2011

C.S. Subramaniam holding the Bharathi Jyothi after receiving the Bharathi Award conferred on him by the Makkal Sindhanai Peravai in Erode in December 2009. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

C.S. Subramaniam (1910-2011), a pioneer of the communist movement in south India, made major contributions to political history.

His name will endure through the ages and so also will his work ."

- Friederichk Engels on the death of Karl Marx, March 17, 1883.

RESIDENT of Nungambakkam [in Chennai], son of retired district education officer C. Sundaram Iyer, 30-40 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches tall, slim, round-faced, wheatish complexion, neatly combed hair this is how the British police described C.S. Subramaniam, the legendary communist and freedom fighter, in an advertisement in 1939.

The police also announced a reward of Rs.100 for providing reliable information to facilitate the arrest of Subramaniam and three others P. Ramamurthy, S. Mohan Kumaramangalam and M.R. Venkataraman on charges of sedition.

The death on September 18 in Chennai of the centenarian, who was a terror to the establishment and a nightmare to the British Raj, marked the end of an era. The noted communist intellectual's pioneering work in the field of political history, with particular reference to the Left's contribution to the country during the days of the freedom struggle and also in the post-Independence era, will be remembered for generations to come. His eventful political career spanning over seven decades also marked him out as a distinguished Marxist scholar who always stressed the need to link theory to practice, as he firmly believed that practice without theory was blind and theory without practice was sterile.

During his long innings in the struggle for independence, he developed close contacts with great personalities, including Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.

CS, as he was affectionately called by thousands of activists, commenced his political journey as a student. Born on July 16, 1910, he went abroad for higher studies after his graduation from Presidency College, Madras. He took his Master of Arts degree in history at Oxford. His father had sent him to the United Kingdom in the hope that he would return to India with the qualifications necessary to join British India's Civil Service. But Subramaniam gravitated to Marxism and the freedom movement led by Gandhiji. Making up his mind that he would not serve the British Raj, he took the plunge and entered politics. Emulating Sri Aurobindo, he got himself disqualified for the service by staying away from the horse riding test though he had passed all the other relevant examinations.

While at Oxford in the 1930s, he had joined the famous October Club. Having developed a rapport with British communists, he contributed to Daily Worker, the organ of the British Communist Party. His flair for writing and his association with this journal helped him in the 1940s to edit Janasakthi, which was founded by P. Jeevanandam in November 1937 as the Congress Socialist Party journal. It later became the official organ of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Undeterred by the witch hunt launched by the British government, young Subramaniam daringly took Gandhiji, who was in London then to participate in the second Round Table Conference, to the university campus to address Indian students.

He had a high regard for Gandhiji and termed the Civil Disobedience Movement led by him an important milestone in the annals of the freedom struggle. The assassination of the Father of the Nation left an indelible scar on his mind.

First unit of the CPI

On his return to India in 1933, he became part of the communist nucleus under the guidance of M. Singaravelu and Amir Hyder Khan, doyens of the movement. Soon he joined early communist activists, including K. Bashyam alias Arya, P. Sundarayya, Kammampati Satyanarayana (senior), V. Subbiah and Russia Manickam, who were legends even during their lifetime, to form the first unit of the CPI in the then Madras Presidency. Of them, Bhashyam, a renowned artist and sculptor whose portrait of the nationalist revolutionary poet Subramanya Bharati is well known, stunned the British rulers in the thick of the freedom struggle by climbing the ramparts of Fort St George, the seat of power in Madras, lowering the Union Jack and unfurling the tricolour.

Although the CPI was banned in 1934, Subramaniam, along with other communist activists, developed close ties with the Congress Socialist Party to form a strong Left group within the Tamil Nadu Congress. He also became the secretary of the first unit of the CPI in the region. From 1936 to 1939, the Madras Presidency witnessed significant struggles of workers, peasants and students led by this group against the rule of the colonialists.

Close on the heels of the outbreak of the Second World War, the British rulers launched several conspiracy cases against freedom fighters, particularly the communists. Subramaniam was included as one of the accused in the Madras Communist Conspiracy case. Recalling the repressions unleashed by the Raj against communist freedom fighters, N. Sankariah, a veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), said, Unnerved by the arrests, Subramaniam and his colleagues Mohan Kumaramangalam, Ramamurthy, S. Subramanya Sarma, K.A. Keraleeyan, Hanumantha Rao and R. Umanath converted the challenge into an opportunity to proclaim the main objects of the communists and their role in the freedom movement.

On his release in 1942, Subramaniam had to face a serious embarrassment in view of the stand taken by his party vis-a-vis the Quit India Movement. But he did not hesitate to join B. Srinivasa Rao and Ramamurthy, his colleagues in the CPI, in raising doubts about the party's opposition to the August 1942 struggle. Like many other leaders, he had to walk the extra mile to overcome the damage caused by the party's stand.

He was among those activists who spearheaded the campaign in support of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) strike of 1946. In the post-Independence period also, the Marxist theoretician played an active role in spreading the Marxist ideology through various publications. The no-nonsense man's remarkable memory power and systematic compilation of reports won the appreciation of one and all. Until the last few days when he fell ill, his colleagues and friends continued to seek his advice and suggestions in building mass movements.

His unbounded interest in history made him produce some excellent works on the history of revolutionary trends, mass movements and freedom struggles in Madras Presidency and south India. He played a major role in founding the Chennai-based Institute of South Indian Studies.

Among Subramaniam's outstanding works is Singaravelu: First Communist in South India. It was co-authored by K. Murugesan, a freedom fighter and his long-time associate. It highlighted the multidimensional personality of Singaravelu, who donned the roles of freedom fighter, revolutionary, Marxist scholar, trade union leader, rationalist, writer and journalist. One remarkable thing that struck us was the intense activity of Singaravelu. We found that he had made his communist views felt in every sphere of his activity in working class struggles, in the [Indian National] Congress, in the Self-Respect Movement and in civic affairs as well, the authors say.

Another major work by Subramaniam in English is M.P.T. Acharya: His Life and Times. The book throws light on revolutionary trends in the early anti-imperialist movements in south India and abroad. Besides editing the Tamil version of Amir Hyder Khan's Discovery of South India, he had compiled the articles of Subramanya Bharati in the Tamil journal India.

Throughout his political career, he remained unassuming and kept away from parliamentary posts. His close associates point out that though he had leadership qualities he preferred to keep a low profile and work in the background. The media-shy Marxist, in one of his last interviews, insisted that the movement could be strengthened only by focussing on its ideology and programmes instead of projecting the life and work of its leaders. Every communist should read the Communist Manifesto, he said, adding that he never failed to consult it whenever he saw perceptible changes in the international arena

In his personal life, he was self-reliant whether; he washed his clothes and prepared his own meals. When his wife, Sugunabai, fell ill with Parkinson's disease, he took care of her without seeking help from others. The veteran CPI leader Nallakannu said that Tiru. Vi. Kalyanasundaram, the radical Congressman and a doyen of the trade union movement, used to describe the communists of his period as laukika sanyasins (materialist ascetics). The description aptly fits Subramaniam, Nallakannu said.

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