People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 40

October 03, 2004

A K Gopalan: From Satygrahi To Revolutionary

 Manini Chatterjee


A K GOPALAN, a foremost mass leader of the communist movement in the country, was also a dedicated soldier in India’s freedom struggle against British rule. His transformation from a satyagrahi to a revolutionary is a fascinating story and in a microcosm reveals, as few individual experiences can, the strengths and weaknesses of the Mahatma Gandhi-led national movement. It shows how the movement galvanised and politicised a whole section of idealistic youth in the fight against imperialism but stopped short of taking up the demands of the mass of exploited workers and peasants – leading men of action and compassion like AKG to embrace revolutionary Marxism. Thus it was that A K Gopalan who spent many a year in British jails fighting for the country’s freedom, was still behind bars on August 15, 1947, this time at the behest of free India’s Congress rulers.


A K Gopalan, or AKG as he is universally known, was born on October 1, 1904 in a reasonably well-to-do Nair family in North Malabar. His father and brother, both of whom were active in the community and took an interest in social reform and education, influenced AKG’s nascent interest in public life from an early age. Though he did not complete his formal education, he started out life as a primary school teacher, a job he enjoyed and was good at. He taught for seven years even as he was increasingly drawn to the national movement whose main activity at that time was propagation of khadi and boycott of foreign goods.




And then came a period of national ferment. The year was 1930. The Congress had adopted a resolution demanding full independence a year ago. There was a deep crisis in the world capitalist economy. The Indian middle class was being drawn into the mass struggle. Gandhi embarked on his famous Dandi march, electrifying Congress workers all over the country. In Kerala, a jatha was taken out from Calicut to Payyannoor under the leadership of K Kelappan. Receptions were organised all along the route. AKG organised such a mass ovation at a place called Chovva. The jatha was a thrilling experience, the speeches truly inspiring. It proved a turning point in his life. In his autobiography In The Cause Of The People, AKG wrote:  “I could not sleep that night, for a conflict between two streams of thought fought itself through my mind. My conscience asked me to forsake everything and join the struggle. This meant bidding farewell to my people and incurring the strong displeasure of my dear father and members of my family. My mother and family would suffer and be deprived of luxuries and comforts. Possibly they would have to live in dependence on others and bear their ill- treatment. I might lose my job and suffer a variety of hardships. On the other hand, I would have the satisfaction that I had fought for the freedom of the people who shuddered under the weight of oppression and who indulged in self-annihilation, loot, robbery and murder out of any inability to sustain themselves. I would be a proud son of mother India who had taken up cudgels to fight for her freedom. Such was the gist of my thought.”


The freedom fighter in him won. He resigned his job, left his family and went secretly from Calicut to Cannanore to offer Satyagraha. He was arrested and jailed the same day – the first of innumerable jail terms. He was shifted from Cannanore jail to Vellore jail, from B class prisoner to A class, and saw firsthand how “ it was a comfortable life for one section and misery for the other.” He instinctively reacted against this class division but a full understanding was to crystallise later. Following the Gandhi-Irwin pact in 1932 the satyagrahis were released from jail to a hero’s welcome.


Out of jail, AKG devoted himself to the Congress movement – travelling miles upon miles to distant villages, picketing taverns and shops selling imported cloth, and addressing hundreds of small and large meetings to draw the common people into the movement. It was a hard life. The Congress had no organisation and little funds. There was not even money to pay for bus fare. AKG recalls walking 25-30 miles every day and going without food for days on end while spreading the message of freedom and hoisting the national flag in far flung hamlets. As he notes in his autobiography: “For want of a change of clothes to wear, I wore the same clothes for 10 or 15 days at a time. Ignorant of our hardship, the fashionable rich used to say, ‘These fellows are dirty. You can smell the stench when they come close.’ This was indeed true. But it was not our fault. It was the stench of the sorry state of our country. ‘Until the Congress became a people’s organisation and until we were accepted by the general public as friends, such hardships were unavoidable.”




Though relentlessly active in the picketing activities that marked the Gandhian satyagraha of that time, AKG was beginning to question the efficacy of the method which inspired middle class youth in their thousands but left the poor unmoved. It was at this time that the Congress decided to start a struggle against untouchability and other social evils. At the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) meeting, Kelappan moved a resolution on starting a temple entry satyagraha. Some Congressmen argued that it would divert attention away from the political struggle. But AKG fully backed the resolution and “was happy that a struggle against die-hard conservatism was in the offing.” He was elected captain of the satyagraha volunteers. He led a march of harijans on a public road at a place called Kandoth near Payyannoor. Till then, harijans were not allowed to walk on that road because it was near a temple. As he led the procession, a mob of men and women rushed forward and brutally beat up AKG till he was unconscious. He recalls: “This was the first physical attack I had faced in my political life. But there was the satisfaction that the “ Kandoth assault” found a prominent place in news coverage. It was the best propaganda for the Guruvayoor temple entry satyagraha. The incident opened the eyes of the public. District Board authorities came to inspect the place. They put up a board that all had the right to use the road.”


AKG then plunged into the Guruvayoor temple entry satyagraha, leading a group of volunteers on foot all the way from Cannanore to Guruvayoor. They addressed hundreds of public meetings en route, and for the first time the poorest of the poor, the harijan youth, were drawn into a Congress-led agitation. Volunteers from all over Kerala set up camps at the temple gates and the satyagraha had a huge impact throughout India. But the temple owners remained unmoved. In the meantime, the British authorities were unnerved by the rapid spread of the national movement and in January 1932 decided to crack down. Congress leaders throughout the country were arrested and among them was AKG. He was sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment.




This second term in jail was very different. The authorities were far more brutal, and the prisoners were routinely beaten and kicked. But it was also a time when AKG met many revolutionaries and debated many political issues including the implications of the Russian revolution. AKG was considered “the cause of all the trouble” in Cannanore jail and was soon transferred to Cuddalore jail where he was first put among the insane prisoners. He recalls: “I was in tears the moment I saw the place and thoroughly shaken up. Yes, I was a mad man to officialdom. It may be madness in the eyes of imperialists to work for the independence of the country of one’s birth. There are many types of madness. I am proud to say that I am a ‘political lunatic.’ It is my wish that this madness does not disappear as long as oppression remains in the world.” After going on hunger strike which lasted six days, he was finally shifted to another room.


The six months in jail with its unspeakable brutalities left him physically broken. But not in spirit. He impatiently brushed aside the advice that he must rest. As he wrote later, “Rest! I could not even think of it. As a dedicated campaigner for freedom how could I think of rest when the entire land was echoing with the sound of lathicharges, when thousands of people were entering the battle arena and when a determined struggle was in progress?”


And he returned full fledged to agitation – defying the police, organising village conferences, addressing meetings, and resuming his duties as satyagraha captain at Guruvayoor. When the satyagraha started flagging, Kelappan began a fast to force the opening of the temple. It was to have a nationwide impact, and AKG was among those who crisscrossed Kerala, covering 1000 miles on foot, to propagate temple entry. Kelappan, however, at Gandhiji’s request called off the fast on the tenth day.


It was not long before AKG was arrested for the third time and sent yet again to Cannanore jail. The jail records had him down as a “dangerous prisoner” and he was soon moved to Bellary jail as a C class political prisoner. The conditions were barbaric. He was physically chained, made to pound flour and kept in solitary confinement. To protest against this unbearable treatment, AKG went on fast and was force-fed through the nose. Finally, he was transferred to Vellore as a B class prisoner. He was released at the end of 1933.




It was in Vellore jail that AKG began to lose heart in Gandhian satyagraha and ahimsa as a means towards a genuine liberation. These thoughts became a conviction when he came out jail and saw the civil disobedience movement slowly fizzle out. In AKG’ s own words: “Why is that struggles waged for two and a quarter years with remarkable courage, intelligence and magnificent self-dedication were a failure? …According to leaders like Babu Rajendra Prasad, the people were ready for sacrifice –  to go to jail, to under go brutality and hardship –  but were not ready to suffer financial loss. That was why the struggle did not succeed. According to them, the struggle failed as the government realised this and confiscated property and imposed heavy fines — this frightened away some. However, most of the people of India do not have wealth to hoard or lose. It is they who should be in the forefront of the freedom struggle. Their only assets are their bodies; they have nothing to lose so they are ready for sacrifice. They do not suffer in the freedom struggle even a percentage of their suffering in daily life. Why then did they not participate in the struggle fully?”


There were many others thinking along these lines and they were to form the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in Kerala after 1934. The question that bothered them was the absence of workers and peasants in the national movement. Instead of poring into books for answers, AKG decided to study the living conditions of two peasant families. He realised that over the years, the landlords had deceitfully expropriated the land belonging to the poor peasant. ‘Land to the tiller’ was not an abstract slogan but the essence of justice. His close study of the peasant families convinced him that workers and peasants, who had nothing to lose, were the only class which “had the stamina and motivation necessary for the leadership of the freedom struggle and to undergo the attendant suffering. As it was, they suffered atrocities from capitalists and feudal landlords. There was no doubt in my mind that freedom would be impossible without these people in the forefront of the struggle.”


The CSP too concentrated on this class, particularly the industrial workers. AKG, naturally, took to this task with the fervour and passion that marked all his activities. He learned to form unions, organise strikes, and educate workers. These early socialists made mistakes (“we did not know how to conduct a strike,” he candidly admits) but quickly learnt from them. AKG immersed himself wholly in the lives of the workers — eating their diet, speaking their dialect, sharing their miseries, and playing with their children, telling stories to their grannies. Over the next few years, AKG participated and led practically every strike that was to take place in Kerala. Cotton, coir, beedi, tile, soap, municipal service – there was not an industry where the socialists were not involved in organising the workers, and AKG was there everywhere. As he describes it: “The moment a strike was known to have begun, I would rush there. When the strike ended, I moved to another place. To raise strike funds, to enroll volunteers, to detail work to them, to check up on it, to address public meetings, to intercept blacklegs going to work, to reason with them, to contact local people, to gain their help for the strike — this is what I was doing.”




AKG, as others in the CSP, saw his work among peasants and workers as part of the struggle against British rule. The only way to secure real freedom was to involve this vast section of the Indian people, and the only way to involve them was to raise their demands, fight for their rights against the capitalists and feudal landlords as well as the foreign rulers. They took up other causes too. One of the most remarkable was the mass movement organised against hunger and unemployment, especially the unemployment facing educated youth. A massive jatha travelled all through Kerala and crossed over to Madras. AKG played a leading role. He was once again sentenced and his fourth term in prison was spent in Trichinapalli. For a while, he had left the CSP but on being released from jail, he rejoined the party and was active on all fronts including the successful struggle against the rulers of Travancore. In Kerala, the socialists dominated the Congress and their sustained propaganda and agitation work among the ordinary people made a big difference. According to AKG, “The Congress Socialist Party can deservedly take pride that it was able to strengthen the Congress and turn it into a mass organisation.”


As a member of the AICC, AKG attended the Haripura and Tripuri sessions of the Indian National Congress. Following the Tripuri session, he worked for three months in Bombay where he spent a lot of time with leaders of the Communist Party of India, then headquartered in Bombay, and participated in workers rallies. “This,” he recalls, “evoked in me a revulsion for the polices and programmes of the then leaders of the CSP. It also brought me closer to the Communist Party and strengthened my ties with its leaders”. When the Second World War broke out, AKG was abroad. He had gone to meet Malayali workers in Ceylon, Singapore, Malaya and Burma. He came back just in time attend the AICC session in Wardha. The session itself was disappointing; the role of the central CSP leaders even more so. Differences within the CSP with the advent of the war had intensified. The Marxists within their ranks felt stifled. Communists were thrown out of the party. And as a result, writes AKG, “People like me who had risen from the ranks of the nationalist struggle and joined the CSP got closer to communism and the leaders remained with Gandhism. The socialist parties of Malabar, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and other places started functioning as units of the Communist Party.”




AKG returned to Malabar but since summons were pending against him, he was sent to work in Tamil Nadu. He worked in Trichinapalli among Southern Railway workers. He also organised secret meetings and study classes. It was a new life for him. In his autobiography, he notes, “From being a satyagrahi, a socialist and a dedicated public worker always willing to court imprisonment I had to switch over to underground work. I was not at all used to secret work. I had till then always worked in the public eye.” But in the Communist Party, he learnt the uses of underground work. “To put us in jail away from the public eye was imperialism’s need; to avoid arrest and to work was ours…. I found the very act of working underground to be a struggle against imperialism.”


For over a year he remained underground till he was arrested on March 24, 1941 and sent to the detenue camp in Vellore jail. It was from here that AKG made his celebrated escape. It is ironic that AKG who had suffered the worst kind of brutalities in his numerous jail terms finally resorted to jailbreak to get out of the benumbing luxuries that were bestowed on first class prisoners. The luxuries included: “Bread and coffee in the morning; at noon, full meals with ghee, curd and all; tea and tiffin at three o’clock; at seven in the evening, a full meal with meat; and finally a cup of milk at bed time. Each prisoner had a chair, an easy chair, a table, a shelf, a mattress, a pillow and four sheets. Every four or five prisoners had a servant (an ordinary prisoner) and linen. Weekly laundering, reading room, radio, tennis, volley ball, a bath twice daily, a feast on festive occasions, occasional dramatic performances, music concerts, made up our everyday living.”


AKG, however, did not care for any of these things. Hitler’s attack on USSR was changing the course of the war, and had led to fervent discussions among the Communists in India, both inside and outside jail. The freedom struggle was going through a decisive phase. AKG felt he must get out. On the night of September 25, 1941, AKG and a couple of others chiselled a hole through the wall of their cell and managed to escape. Life outside was very difficult but he finally managed to reach Kerala. Though many leaders including EMS were released from jail soon after, the police refused to withdraw charges against AKG. It was unsafe to remain in Kerala and so he went to North India, and did a variety of jobs in Kanpur while continuing with underground Communist Party work. He returned to Malabar when the 1946 elections were announced and was the Party’s candidate in Calicut. In face of the vicious anti-communist propaganda by the Congress at the time, he lost but within five years trounced the Congress and entered parliament in the first general elections held after independence.


While the Congress was busy negotiating the transfer of power, there was an outbreak of mass struggles all across India in the post-war period. AKG was active in all the struggles in his region – the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle, the beedi workers strike, the peasant revolt in Chirakkal. The Prakasam ministry in Madras did its best to suppress the struggle in Malabar and arrested the leaders.


AUGUST 15, 1947


On the occasion of Independence Day, the Madras government released all the political prisoners but AKG was not one of them. He was alone, inside jail, unable to celebrate the freedom he had so bravely fought for. His memoirs recall: “On August 14, 1947 I was in solitary confinement in the big Cannanore jail. There were no other detenue prisoners. I could not sleep at night. Cries of ‘ jai’ issued from all four corners of the jail. The echoes of slogans ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ reverberated through the jail. The whole country was waiting for the celebration due after sunrise. How many among them had waited for years for this and fought for it and sacrificed their all in the struggle. I nurtured feeling of joy and sorrow. I was glad that the goal for which I had sacrificed all my youth and for which I was still undergoing imprisonment had been realised. But I was even now a prisoner, I had been imprisoned by Indians — by the Congress government, not by the British. Memories of the Congress from 1927 passed through my mind. I felt proud of the role I had played in the Congress movement in Kerala. A man who was secretary of the Kerala Congress and its president for some time and member of the AICC for a long time was celebrating August15 in jail!”


And yet celebrate he did. The next morning, he walked the length of the jail compound carrying a national flag that he had kept with him. The flag was hoisted from the roof where all the prisoners had gathered. AKG spoke to them of the meaning of freedom. And for the rest of his life, A K Gopalan remained true to the vision of his youth, fighting always and everywhere in the cause of the people. (INN)

(Reprinted from the People’s Democracy

issue dated September 14, 1997)