The distinguished Marxist veteran and freedom fighter from Tamil Nadu, Narasimhalu Sankaraiah, affectionately known as NS, passed away on November 15 at a private hospital in Chennai. Although initially admitted for flu, he succumbed to complications, leaving behind a legacy at the age of 101. He is survived by two sons and a daughter.
Sankaraiah, who turned 100 on July 15, 2022, played a significant role in shaping the Communist movement, particularly among students and the working class in Tamil Nadu during the 1940s. He served as a three-time MLA from Madurai East and West constituencies, winning in 1967, 1977, and 1980. Additionally, he held various positions within the CPI(M), serving as its State secretary in 1995.
Born in 1922 in a village near Kovilpatti in Thoothukudi district, Sankaraiah’s influence extended beyond electoral victories. From the age of 19, he actively participated in various movements, including the freedom struggle. A fiery orator, Sankaraiah mobilised students against the British while studying history (BA) at Madurai American College. Drawn to the Self Respect Movement of Periyar, he led students in the freedom struggle, resulting in his imprisonment in 1941, just 15 days before his final examinations. This unfortunate incident shattered his dreams of completing higher education.
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As a freedom fighter, he spent four years in prison. Later, as a Communist, he faced another four-year term in independent India. His encounters with leaders like K Kamaraj during imprisonment influenced his public career, while subsequent interactions with fellow inmates sharpened his Marxist ideology. Post-independence, he vehemently opposed the Congress for pursuing economic policies he believed were detrimental to the welfare of the poor and working classes. His extensive field-based experiences proved valuable in training CPI (M) cadres at organisational levels.
Sankaraiah held crucial positions in the unified Communist party before it split in 1964, after which he co-founded the CPI (M). He remained a member of the CPI(M)‘s State secretariat and served as Tamil Nadu State secretary from 1995 to 2002, also being a member of the party’s Central Committee for two decades.
In 1948, when the Communist Party was banned in independent India, Sankaraiah and his colleagues went underground, evading the State police for three years. Despite his arrest in 1951 and subsequent imprisonment in Vellore prison, he continued to be a prominent face of the party’s ideology in Tamil Nadu.
One of Sankaraiah’s significant contributions was advocating for exclusive attention to the caste issue within the party’s class perspective. Recognising the increasing awareness among Dalits about their rights and identity, he pushed for dedicated efforts against oppression, discrimination, and untouchability. His proposal led to the formation of Untouchability Eradication Wings within the party’s organisational structure, preventing cadre erosion at the grassroots level.
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In his later days, controversy surrounded the decision by Madurai Kamaraj University to confer an honorary doctorate upon Sankaraiah. The University Syndicate, a decision-making body, unanimously passed a resolution on August 18, 2023, to confer an honorary doctorate on Sankaraiah. Subsequently, the Senate also approved the resolution. Both resolutions were sent to the Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi for his approval. However, as he did not grant his consent, the convocation ceremony proceeded without awarding the honorary degree to the veteran leader. Despite appeals from various quarters, the Governor remained silent on the matter, causing resentment in academic and political circles. The State government, however, recognised Sankaraiah with the ‘Thagaisal Tamizhar’ (Outstanding Tamilian) award in 2023, accompanied by a cash prize of Rs 10 lakh, which he promptly donated to the State government’s Covid Relief Fund.
Sankaraiah, a leader dedicated to realising an exploitation-free socialist society through Marxist ideology, continued his work till his last days. The CPI (M) politburo expressed grief over his passing, and leaders, including Chief Minister Stalin, paid their respects.