People's Democracy

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


No. 37

September 21 , 2008



A Life Of Outstanding Service Reminiscences Of A Daughter

R Vaigai

Comrade P Ramamurthy was a remarkable and multifaceted personality. A key player in Indian freedom struggle and one of the architects of the Indian Communist movement, he was a relentless fighter against imperialism, capitalism and injustice.

“Comrade PR was a mass leader, a builder of the trade union movement, powerful orator and brilliant parliamentarian, effective journalist, writer of agitational pamphlets and ideological documents… It is given to only a few to render such a life of outstanding service to Communism, the Party, the people and the working class” - People’s Democracy, December 20, 1987.

My sister Ponni and I are truly privileged to have had such a great person as our father. It is not easy for a daughter to write about a father, who was so dear. It is even more difficult to write if the father is also a person whose life and work is a huge chapter in our nation’s recent history. I have merely attempted to share a few reminiscences - some from my personal experience and some from what I have heard from my father himself or gathered from his political associates, which give a glimpse of his life.


I found him always on the move for organising struggles, addressing meetings, building the communist movement and other democratic movements of students, workers, youth, women, teachers, scientists, journalists, etc., as well as engaging in legislative activities and ever so many activities. He was eager to see the fruits of the struggles for people’s causes and their ultimate emancipation. In the process, he never felt content with even his own actions, howsoever a revolutionary impact they might have caused.

In his interview on August 6, 1978 to the Nehru Museum library, Comrade PR recalls how he helped organise the ‘chakiliars’ living around the Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane, Madras to get voting rights to the Temple Trust, when he found that they wore ‘namam’ a sign of vaishnavites. He educated them to recite ‘Divya Prabhandam’ in the ‘Thenkalai Padhathi’ and helped get donations for the dalits to apply for membership to the Temple Trust. The outraged Brahmin Trustees filed a suit in the civil court in Madras and obtained an injunction against the dalits becoming members and claiming voting rights. However, he helped them file an appeal in the High Court, which allowed the appeal. It was a great victory for the dalits and the court decision simply shook the oppressive caste structure. Yet Comrade PR said, “Gandhiji commented upon that in ‘Young India’ as a big achievement for the Harijan cause. I laughed at it. What was the achievement, as if it was a big revolutionary thing.”

P R himself came from an orthodox Brahmin family, but he completely abjured caste and class. My sister Ponni recalls that when she was about ten years old, her teacher saw P R and Thiru Kamaraj come together to our school to pick us up to go home. The next day Ponni was asked by her teacher, “Neenga enna Jathi?” Ponni was foxed and could not answer. When she asked our father, he laughed and said “Manitha Jathi”.

Today we talk of organised and unorganised sector and are able to draw upon the strength of the organised sector to support the demands of the unorganised sector. Between 1930 and 1950, neither the working class nor the other sections of our people were organised. Democracy and freedom were yet to be won. The task of building mass organisations is not easy and even more difficult when there was utter poverty, illiteracy and extreme exploitation. Telephones and other means of communications were not freely available. P R therefore set out on an intense phase of building trade unions, farmers and peasants associations, student movements, women’s organisations etc., He had to educate people, help them organise, raise demands, wrote their pamphlets, negotiated for them and stood along with them in their protests and movements. Many a times he conducted legal battles for them. Starting from toddy tappers, tramway workers, textile workers, steel workers, cement workers, sanitary workers, plantation workers to ever so many industrial workers, big and small, P R organised all of them. In order to embolden the unorganised masses, he practically lived with them while building the movements and gave them courage. It was because of his relentless work and support that the “Pannai” tenant farmers were able fight against the oppression and exploitation of the landlords and gain revolutionary land reforms, better social and economic rights.

I feel his greatness lay in the fact that he did not merely propagate, but truly shared the life’s struggles of the people for whose upliftment he worked. That he won people’s hearts by his commitment, selflessness and the simplicity with which he mingled with the poor and the oppressed is evident from the immense affection that I receive from them even now.


Having faced five and a half years of prison term and nearly three years of underground period under the British regime, P R was released from Madurai Central Jail on the night of August 14, 1947, on the eve of the Indian independence. I feel thrilled to think that my father’s jail term ended on such a historic occasion. However, the Communist Party was banned in independent India and P R was again forced to carry on his political activities surreptitiously. So deeply committed was P R to the Party and its ideology that even when his mother was ailing and about to die in 1951-52, he continued to be underground and could meet her only briefly during nights. She died soon thereafter.

In his personal life too, P R was a true communist in every sense of the term. Probity, integrity, selflessness, compassion, concern, large-heartedness, strong belief in the equality of women and men, respect for others regardless of age or class and meticulous avoidance of material wealth are qualities I have observed in P R. I recall aspects of our family life to show that P R’s political ideals also governed his personal life. I feel it is important for the future generation to know this, since often times political workers face conflicts between their political and personal lives.

The leaders of the early years of Communist movement faced a lot of repression. Many heroic struggles were led by them facing deprivations and at the cost of their family lives. Their political and family lives were inseparable. My sister and I are among the children of the first generation activists of the Communist movement and were born and brought up in a different milieu. While in Delhi also, we spent a lot of time in the Party Commune, where families of Party comrades lived in one room per family and shared common meals.

To me the Party was a large family and we were part of that. The Party discipline percolated through the family. While in school, Ponni and I used to have only two sets of clothes at any given time. One set we wore and the other was washed by us. My mother would have had 4-5 sarees. Life used to be very spartan, but we were happy. I have never seen my parents want any consumer goods and anything that was not of utmost necessity. Yet they were ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­generous and we always had people sharing a meal with us. I remember when our Party comrades went abroad on a delegation, woolen clothes would be borrowed from Comrades like Surjeet and others from the north! In fact there is a reference to it in one of my father’s letters from the jail. We were brought up to believe that material wealth led to corruption of minds and society and that exhibition of wealth was a matter of shame.

P R used to tell us about the many heroic struggles waged by him and other Party comrades, both against the British regime and against the capitalist State. My mother, a Communist Party member in her early days, had worked along with her sister Gnanambal in its Central Committee office in Bombay prior to 1950 and had gone to jail too. She used to give us anecdotes and narrate how Party leaders used to have their meetings in her house in Trichy when she was still in high school in 1940s and her mother, who was a widow then courageously supported the Communists, despite the repressive political atmosphere. Later she and her sisters Yamunambal, Rajambal who were also Party members and mother Jagadambal helped in the underground activities of the Party in Tamilnadu. They even took up residence near a cremation ground in order to hoodwink the police and worked as messengers for communicating important circulars and pamphlets of the Party during nights.

So, facing the police without fear came naturally to us as children. The police raided our home in the dead of night when the communists were arrested in 1962 – 63. About 7 - 8 policemen barged into our house and searched for P R, rampaging through the house in the process. Our mother remained calm and told the police that she did not know P R's whereabouts. Ponni and I did not feel scared when the police pulled off our "Porvai", but only felt a sense of excitement and adventure! The next day, we went to school as usual. Such experiences and the lessons I learnt from my father and mother have given me the determination to challenge injustice and defy authority without any sense of fear now.


During my childhood, P R was seldom at home. While my schoolmates would talk of going to cinema or outings with their father, we could see our father once in 3 – 4 months. Even when he came, it would be only for a maximum of a week. When he was imprisoned twice in the 1960s, we did not see him nearly for three years. I remember how surprised he was after a release to note I had grown tall.

Yet, he compensated in full measure whenever he was there with us. He was an extremely affectionate father and his coming home was a matter of joy for us. We traveled a lot with him and wherever we went he would tell us the history of the place and its people. Ponni and I learnt more from him than from our History and Geography classes in school !

I have always admired his patience and ability to focus on his intellectual work even when there had been extreme stress due to my mother’s illness. He was gentle and caring with my mother and I have never seen him lose his temper with her. They were good friends and I think being communists gave them a mutual understanding. He was permitted to write two letters per month while in Jail during the 1960s, one he used for communicating with State authorities and the other to us. He used to write a common letter to my mother and us and his letters used to be full of optimism for the Party, his enquiries about others, and how he and other comrades spent time cooking, reading, etc.

P R was extremely humane and cultured, which is the hallmark of a communist. He truly believed in the equality of men and women. He was an excellent cook and I learnt to cook from him. He had learnt to cook different dishes from different states during his travels and jail terms. He was interested in music and arranged for us to learn carnatic music. Much later, my sister Ponni who has a beautiful voice, sang at a function in Srinagar Medical College and P R had tears of joy as a father, when Shri Sheikh Abdullah who attended the function appreciated her. In his last years, he enjoyed playing cricket with Ponni’s young sons Kunal Shankar and Mrinal Shankar. He would narrate and regale them with stories and personally taught them to swim. As we became adults, P R became our best friend and guide.

P R was a voracious reader. His early political life and prison days were used by him to read and to teach both inside and outside prison. He had read a wide variety of books - political, economic, social, legal, cultural and literary. I always used to see him with a new book, whenever he came back from tours. From Marxist and other political writings on politics, economics and history to Bharathiar, Thirukkural, Sangam literature, Kamba Ramayanam to Shakespeare, he had read widely. I had often seen him in conversation on such topics with my mother who used to immerse herself in books in his absence. A Sanskrit scholar, P R and Comrade B T Ranadive used to share Sanskrit poetry. In 1981, when P R was convalescing in the AIIMS, Delhi, Comrade B T R gave him Kalidasa’s collection of poetry – ‘Raghu Vamsam’, saying “it will help you relax!”

He lived a simple life and always wore Khadi or handloom. Even his winter clothes were Khadi woolen clothes only. His simple and affable manners and genuine concern for the poor made him the darling of the masses that he became. Wherever he went, he preferred to have food in the house of ordinary workers and peasants. At home also, he had his meals sitting together with our driver and would feed our cook’s children holding them in his lap along with his grandsons.

In keeping with his belief in socialism, P R gave away his share in the agricultural lands owned by his paternal family in Vepathur village to the cultivating tenant, long before 1947 and the land reform laws were introduced. After he died, we and his elder brother’s family donated his ancestral house property also to the Party, in keeping with his ideals. P R did not own any property.

If there was one character of his that almost stood out, it was his enormous love and affection for people. He treated families of comrades and of friends as his own and their problems were his. He would go to any length to help in the education and employment of many young people belonging to the Party families and others in need. In the midst of heavy legislative and other work, he would remember to take time out to meet the concerned official or person to help the families of comrades and friends.

P R was absolutely fearless! The seeds of his political determination and the resultant courage were sown at the early age of 12 - 13 years. As a young boy, he left home to go and study in the 'National School' run by Pandit Nehru and other Congress leaders in Allahabad. He was fearless even in prison undergoing rigorous imprisonment for nearly five years before 1947 out of a total of eight and a half years of jail life.

The disability of a shortened leg resulting from a fall from a tree while watching cricket as a young boy never hampered his activities. I have seen him lead many democratic struggles and protests from the front and he appeared majestic and invincible. His forceful speeches and ability to arouse people’s opinion put fear in those in governance and a large number of police would be deployed at his meetings. During the course of his speech, P R would mock the police and ask them to join the movement! Since he grew up on the banks of Kaveri in Thanjavur district, he was an ace swimmer. His astuteness of mind and swift movements helped him deceive the police and spend five years underground both before and after 1947. He had walked miles together through fields and lived in the huts of ordinary workers and peasants, escaping arrest. This was fondly narrated to me much later by many of those families.

In 1952 Comrade P R became an MLA and later a member of parliament. Yet, P R's instincts as a communist ever ready to face State oppression were always sharp and focused. Late at night on June 25, 1975, we received a phone call at home. Comrade P R was informed about the proclamation of emergency by Mrs Gandhi's government and the large scale arrests of opposition party leaders. Leaving behind our car, he immediately got a taxi to go to our Central Committee office in New Delhi, taking me along with him as a cover. We both went in the dead of night to the office. He asked the driver to take a circuitous route and to stop the vehicle on the street near the back-gate of the office and then walked to the office in the dark wearing a ‘Mundasu’ to discuss a counter strategy. He relentlessly fought against the repressive anti-people and anti-working class measures that were adopted by the central government of that time.

I saw him speak at innumerable union meetings persuasively in 1969-70 to mobilise support for the formation of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. Sometimes the audience had loud dissenters but by his passionate and convincing arguments, he won over a large membership of unions that has laid the foundation for the strength and growth of CITU now. I learnt then that the best way to win over people’s opinion is not by muzzling dissent but by patiently hearing and leading them to solutions.

A powerful speaker, P R had the art of explaining economic policies, budgetary issues and other political issues in very simple terms to the masses. Invariably, his speeches would be evocative, and he would make the audience participate by putting questions to them. His method was highly successful, as I observed during the emergency days, when he addressed innumerable hall meetings of students, teachers, scientists and the intelligentsia, apart from workers and other sections. He took active interest in discussions with scientists, lawyers, economists and students and engaged them in serious intellectual and political debates, because of his deep insight and vast knowledge.

P R’s campaigns were marked by his incisive analysis, his mastery over facts and details. His campaign against the BHEL – SIEMENS agreement in 1978 showed this. P R was unsurpassed in using law to serve people’s justice. Besides being the first person to help dalits and defending them score a victory in courts, he also pioneered the first ever public interest litigation in our country. When the bank nationalisation laws were passed and privy purses were abolished, P R lobbied keenly to support such moves. Newspapers were agog with the reports of the tussle between the parliament and the Supreme Court and how the conservative court had struck down the parliamentary law. I was in high school then and felt an urge to understand law. During my discussions, P R explained to me that parliament’s moves towards socialism aimed to prevent concentration of wealth were defeated by courts. My discussions with him then made me think that law should be used to serve people and impelled me to become a people's lawyer later.

P R had a large number of friends from varied sections like scientists, professors, artistes, and sportspersons and moved with everyone with ease. The divergence of his political views never came in the way of P R’s personal concerns and relationships with people he knew across political lines, which made Comrade Surjeet write while paying his tributes, “P R had no enemies” (Theekathir 30.3.1991) When P R passed away, Shri R Venkataraman, then president of India said, “With his demise, public life has lost a forceful personality and many of us a warm friend”.

P R’s political life of nearly 60 years centered around people’s causes and in building the Communist movement. When he died Comrade A Nallasivam, secretary, Tamilnadu state committee of the Marxist Party then, asked me as to who should light his funeral pyre. My mother, despite her grief, said in a clear voice, “P R belonged to the Party”. So, Comrade A Nallasivam lit his funeral pyre.

The rich legacy left behind by P R is being carried on by the Party and thousands of others who believe in his ideals. My mother Ambal, my sister Ponni, her sons and I join the Party and the nation in paying tributes to the great leader.