A former Maoist speaks to Shobha Warrier
It is interesting to note that all the famous Naxalites and Maoists of the sixties and the seventies from Kerala lead totally different lives now. If Philip M Prasad is a follower of Sai Baba today, K Venu, the Maoist ideologue of yesteryears manages a construction company in Thrissur.
Venu, author of many books, is still an ideologue, a theoretician, very actively writing on political issues in all the leading dailies and weeklies in Kerala. From a hardcore ultra-leftist Communist, he has become an advocate of free market economy.
In this free wheeling interview with rediff.com’s Shobha Warrier, he talks about Maoism, Communism and the free market economy.
When you were young, what attracted you to the ideology of Maoism?
When I was a student, I was not politically active though I was inclined to the Left ideology all the time. That was because my family had always been with the Left. After I completed my post graduation in zoology in 1968, I started writing regularly in periodicals on social, political and philosophical issues. I also started talking at the youth federation meetings of the Communist Party of India-Marxist.
I was then asked by the late P Govinda Pillai to join Desabhimani's book publishing house. By then the Naxalite movement had already started but I did not join it though I came into contact with their literature. Slowly, I started getting attracted to their revolutionary ideas. I then started studying the ideologies of CPI, CPI-M and CPI-Marxist-Leninist from a scientific point of view.
Afterwards I started a publication called Maoist identifying with the Naxalite upsurge in India and many pro-Naxalite groups started contacting me.
Was it during that period that you met Charu Majumdar (a prominent Communist revolutionary. The militant peasant uprising in 1967 in Naxalbari was led by his group)?
When I was vacillating between science and revolution, an incident took place in February, 1970; that was the killing of Arikkad Verghese (known in Kerala as Naxal Varghese who fought for the Adivasis in Wayanad) by the police. That made many like me turn towards Maoism and revolution.
I started this publication called Inquilab and also working as a part-time sub-editor with a Malayalam encyclopedia. I was also doing my PhD in science then. That was when somebody asked me whether my address could be used by the local party to contact the official CPI-ML in Kolkata. Till then I had no direct contact with any of the Maoists.
After the contact man, Ambadi Sankaran Kutty, surrendered to the police, I became their contact man for a few months. Later, the members in Kannur asked me to go to Kolkata and meet Charu Majumdar. At that time also, I was not sure whether I would plunge into politics.
What do you remember about your meeting with Majumdar?
When I reached the Howrah railway station, I met the contact person. He took me to one point and from there, another man took over. I think I met four such people before I met the real man.
Charu Majumdar was sitting in a room but was very ill and there was a doctor with him all the time. He was given oxygen and injections periodically. Even though he was very ill and weak, he was a strong personality. I still remember his magnetic eyes.
I was with him for an hour, I explained to him that there were 2-3 groups in Kerala. He then gave me directions what was to be done.
Did you then agree with Majumdar's idea of attacking landlords?
Yes, I did. Communist ideologues had come to this decision after analysing the principal contradictions in the society at that time. The CPI-ML position was feudalism versus the masses. We believed that feudal lords were the very basis of imperialist penetration and wanted to smash the basis. Except in Kerala where land reforms had already started, landlordism was the problem that the entire country faced.
Majumdar's slogan was, 1970s is the decade of Indian revolution, and we were all charged up about that.
Did all the youngsters including you believe then that a revolution was possible?
Yes, of course. We expected a big revolution like the Chinese Revolution taking place in India.
After you came back from Kolkata, some landlords were attacked and killed. You were also arrested...
The truth was, I was not aware of what had happened, and I came to know of it only in the morning newspapers. Three landlords were killed and one of them was not even a landlord; only his grandfather was. This killing created a bad impression among the people.
After the brutal killing, I was taken into custody for questioning. That was only because I was publishing the magazine. After 2-3 days, the police came to know that I had gone to Kolkata to meet Majumdar and that I had arranged a few local meetings of CPI-ML. The police wanted to know where Charu Majumdar was. I refused to answer.
Did the police torture you?
Initially they didn't but later they did but I took the position that I didn't know where Majumdar was.
How many years were you in custody?
I was in jail for four years as an under-trial. They could not find any evidence against me. When I was in jail, I read a lot and studied classical Marxism properly. That made me convinced that Marxism, Leninism, and also Maoism were correct development in the then situation, and Maoism gave a correct picture of the world. I was totally convinced about the Maoist ideology.
Initially we were not given the books on Maoism to read. I had to be on hunger strike for 21 days to get a pen to write. The paradox was, I was reading a book written by C Achutha Menon when he was in the British jail, and the same person was the chief minister of Kerala when I was denied a pen to write.
When you came out of jail, were you more charged up about the Maoist ideology?
Yes. I came out of jail after four years in January 1975. I had taken a decision to go on record and work for the party. When in jail, we had prepared a proper document on how to build a Leninist party, and it was sent out from the jail. The document was used to rebuild the movement in Kerala.
When I came out, the party committees and proper networks were all there based on the plan. I was made the secretary of CPI-ML.
When the Emergency was declared, we decided that we must attack police stations also along with the landlords.
Till then, you were not for attacking police stations. Why did you change your line?
Yes, I was against attacking police stations but during the Emergency, it was the state that clamped on the freedom of people. Police is a state organ. So, we decided to attack police stations also.
You wanted justice for the poor, and the ordinary policemen work for their livelihood. How can you justify attacking the police station and killing policemen?
As you said, the policemen are ordinary people and when I took the leadership in attacking the Kayanna police station, I had told my gang not to attack or kill the policemen. We asked them to surrender and give us the weapons.
Why did you target such workers and not the powers that be?
We were not attacking the people, we were attacking the police station which is the centre of power. That was why we didn't want to kill them or attack them. We asked them to obey us and give us the weapons.
We didn't attack any policemen but I was attacked with an iron rod by the police, and we were fired at also. We got only two rifles from there.
The attack became famous after they arrested Rajan following the attack and later he was killed. Rajan had actually no role in the attack.
When were you arrested again?
I went underground, and I was arrested after six months. By then, most of the others had been arrested. I was arrested in June 1976 and I was in jail till July 1979.
How much did the second jail term change you?
This time I read and studied Hegel. It gave me the confidence to write the book, The Philosophical Problems of a Revolution. This book was first published in Malayalam and then in English. It is a good text book on Marxism and Maoism. My book gave a Maoist perspective to the whole ideology.
Slowly by 1980-81, I started thinking on my own and analysing the whole Marxist-Leninist movement. I started realising that feudalism was not the biggest issue in India.
When did you realise that armed revolution is futile?
I was never convinced by the arms revolution actually. When I wrote my first book, I thought Communism was the highest form of democracy which it was not! I was very much convinced by the Communist rationalisation that an adivasi did not have the same right as a Tata or an Ambani or a Birla, and to change that, an economic redistribution of the wealth was a must.
Many questions started coming to my mind. I had serious doubts about Marxist, Leninist, Maoist ideologies working in a democratic society. I was the all-India secretary of the CPI-ML and I outlined my thoughts to the others at a meeting. I took leave for six months and started re-thinking on the whole thing.
When I could not make others understand my point of view on the democratisation of the organisation, I resigned from the secretary-ship and then came out of the party.
When I published a thesis on this, I was criticised for taking the bourgeois line!
Did you feel what you had followed from 1969-1989 was wrong?
I look at the development of the extremist wing within the Communist movement as a historical process in the whole Communist movement. When the cultural revolution was taking place, Mao was trying to find a way out. Whether I had to join it or not was a personal choice.
Personally, do you feel it was a mistake?
Looking at it from an overall perspective, it was a wrong period. I was honestly approaching a social problem. There was no other way, I felt then. It was a rich experience ideologically and otherwise. But theoretically, I am much more advanced today.
Today, you are a businessman. Are you for a capitalist market economy now?
In 1991, I published a book on the democratic perspective of a Communist. I was trying to make the Communist movement democratic. It was a thorough criticism of Marxism and I said that the political and economic theories were wrong. I felt the Communist dictatorship was a retrogressive historical process but it was a part of history and necessary.
In 1991, I felt that open market with parliamentary democracy was comparatively better than Communism. Not the best, of course.
My critics and my old comrades say that I have totally joined the capitalists. In the last 20 years, I have been thinking a lot. Now I have come to the conclusion that social Darwinism, that is the survival of the fittest -- is not applicable to human society. That is because human beings are socially organised through languages. Language is a very advanced capacity of the human brain.
Market fundamentalists talk only about individuals and I am saying, there is a contradiction.
What is happening in the European Union is a democratic process where people can also move freely. It is an emerging new phenomenon and it is going to spread elsewhere too.
How do you explain many parts of Europe where market economy works, turning left?
Capitalist societies are facing this crisis between market fundamentalism and some kind of a social control system. Market fundamentalists say that market fundamentalism will solve all the problems. No, market fundamentalism has to be defeated. Some kind of a social control is necessary.
The leftism in Europe is not Communist leftism; it is democratic leftism. I support the ideology.
It must be an open market, I agree but the open market has to be socially controlled. Democratic process must control the market economy.
Do you hold the market economy and the rise of a few super rich and subsequent disparity between the rich and the poor, the reason for the rise of Maoism once again in India?
Certainly. Yet it is not just because of the emergence of corporate power alone. Maoism has influence only in the most backward areas. Wherever land reforms have taken place, there are no Maoists. Wherever democratic and modern transformations are taking place, Maoists cannot exist there.
It is not just because of the corporate lobbies alone. The question is, why is the development process not spreading to all the areas? That is mainly because of the weakness of the state machinery.
So, do you hold the weakness of the state machinery as one reason for the rise in Maoism?
Yes, one main reason is that. For example, Naxalite movement was almost wiped out from Andhra Pradesh through modern transformation and the work of the state machinery.
New states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, etc have no such state machinery in the most backward and under developed areas, and they (Maoists) have spread to these areas.
As an ideologue who was part of this movement once, do you call the young Maoists, misguided?
There is a strong ideological structure in Maoism and it gives you hope that you can bring in a new society where everybody is equal and democratic. Maoist ideology gives that kind of a vision.
That ideology has to be theoretically and ideologically opposed and these cadres have to be reorganised ideologically.
Do you feel development is the only answer to fight Maoism?
Not the only answer. The intervention has to be in three forms. One is ideological. I feel it is very important. The leading cadres of the Maoist movement have to be convinced ideologically.
Second is economic development. Third is a strong state machinery. Some people say power (of the state) should not be used against the Maoists. I don't agree with that. Power must be used but properly and lawfully.
Photograph: Shobha Warrier