Red Post in a Hairdo: K Meenakshi and the Travancore Police

[This is a translation of the short piece ‘Mudikettinullile Chuvanna Kathukal’ in Alosyius D Fernades and D M Scaria, Orumbettavar: Porattangalile Sthreejeevitam (Alappuzha: Janajagrthi, 2011, pp. 23-27), on the communist labour leader of the 1940s from the Alappuzha district, a nerve centre of left mobilization of industrial workers in coir and cashew and agricultural workers, K Meenakshi. While hailed as a heroine of her times, she was more or less forgotten later, and came back to memory through the work of the feminist historian Meera Velayudhan. This piece simply uses her own first-person narration of her political life.]

K Meenakshi is no more. Her personality reflected much greater militant ardour, mature thought, and intelligence in history than any male leader. But this extraordinary woman’s life tends to be viewed as simply that of the wife of the hero of the Punnapra-Valayalar struggle hero, Comrade V K Bhaskaran. It is necessary to record at least here Meenakshi’s memories of revolutionary activism — she once fought shoulder to shoulder with such tall leaders as Susheela Gopalan:

“I entered politics at the age of fifteen. It was when the Alleppey Coir Factory Workers’ Union was formed that I also slowly entered the fray. It is impossible today to imagine the squalor and extreme want in which the coir workers and fish workers lived those days. The union was formed and workers were organized under such conditions. When the union started working, the police and the factory-owners unleashed terrible violence. Dragging men away, tying them to coconut trees and stakes to be beaten brutally; attacking women at home, dishonouring them sexually (maanabhangappetuthuka), setting fire to the fishing sheds and then foisting false cases on fish workers — the torture continued thus. Comrades who remained in the scene of struggle were all arrested one by one and jailed. The workers of Punnapra and Valayalar rose up in response strongly under such circumstances. It was my husband, V K Bhaskaran, who was the second accused in the murder of the Sub Inspector Nadar in the Punnapra firing case.

I stepped into politics in the best years of my youth. I worked along with Susheela [later, Susheela Gopalan, wife and partner to the legendary A K Gopalan] in the election of 1123[1946-47]. I would sing, and she would speak. Gradually, the Mahila Sangham was built up at the taluk level. Then it became Tiru-Kochi Mahila Sangham, and later, Kerala Mahila Sangham. Our dream of those days finally came true today. The All-India Democratic Women’s Association was formed, it was created.

We initiated a struggle around the demands for the official recognition of bonus in principle and for the disbursement of bonuses. The authorities played the dirty move of inviting the leaders to a conference and then arresting them once they were inside the hall. The police attacked the leaders as they were being led away after their arrest. The two police officers who found most pleasure in the assault were the Sub Inspector Satyaneshan and the Inspector Ponnayyan Nadar. The authorities believed that the arrests and the physical assaults could stun the leaders. But their calculations were wrong.

I was appointed the General Secretary of the Travancore Coir Factory Workers’ Union at the age of fifteen. Some minor discussions on bonus happened after I took charge. But these were ineffective. Then, in 1945 there was a high-level conference led by the State Labour Commissioner, V K Velayudhan. I represented the Union in it. The representatives of the factory-owners also participated. Before the discussions began the Labour Officer spoke about many things; then he called my name and explained a great deal about labour relations in the countries of Britain, America, and Germany. I listened to this for a bit and then said: “Sir, we the workers of Alappuzha do not work for the factory-owners of Britain, America, or Germany. We are workers who turn our blood into water so that the factory-owners of Alappuzha can extract exploitative levels of profit. We have our yearly needs. We need to thatch the roofs of our huts, we need to get our children clothes so that they can go to school, we need to get them books. We work so that we can secure these. The factory-owners must fulfil these needs. I do not want to hear about other things. So our need and our goal is to make you accept the payment of bonuses in principle.” Hearing this, the Labour Commissioner looked straight at me and said, I have heard your speech. The government has sent me here to let you know that if you do not agree to go without bonuses, all your strikes will be put down with bloody repression.

My blood boiled when I heard this. I gave him an apt retort. Hey, Sir, if you will put down every struggle that we wage to secure our reasonable and fair demand, then we will let loose protests that will rise above it, and use every strategy and tactic against your force. For sure, we will seize from you our rights. I thumped my fist on the table as I said this. As the Secretary of the Union, I entrust you with the task of informing the government about this. There was sigh, for a couple of moments. “Meenakshi, let us part.” “Alright,” [in English]I said.

Well-before the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising, they sealed the Union office. The men were in hiding or in jail. There were only women in the office. As we carried on in this way, I received a letter from leaders, along with ten letters meant for comrades who were underground. When I was reading the letter I received, I heard the sound of footsteps. Almost a hundred policemen, led by Inspector Unni Pillai, and Sub -Inspector Vattakkaari Kuttappan had reached the premises of our office. I stuffed the letter into my mouth, chewed it up, and spat it out through the window. Those days, I had long and abundant tresses. When the Inspector stepped into the room, I stood up and pretending to tie up my hair, crumpled the other ten letters and hid them in the my coiled hair. They questioned me for a long time. It became certain that I would be arrested. They began to examine the photos and other things in the office. And when some time elapsed this way, I told the Inspector Unni Pillai that I needed to go to the toilet. They allowed me to go. I went in, tore the letters to bits and deposited them in the shit-bucket. I took up a stick lying there and pushed them deep inside the bucket. I was going to be caught, I knew, but I wanted to save my comrades — I was determined to do that.

I was jailed three times. I was arrested for taking part in the Micchabhoomisamaram [against landlords who refused to surrender excess land after the land reforms of 1972, led by the CPM] and convicted. I was in jail for one and half years.

The leaders of the Praja Socialist Party — Pattom Thanu Pillai, Kumbalathu Sanku Pillai — and T M Varghese and C Kesavan came to the office of the Alappuzha Coir Factory Workers’ Union asking for workers’ support during the election. We promised support if the twenty-two accused who were jailed in connection with the Punnapra-Vayalar incident would be released. In 1954, Pattom Thanu Pillai assumed power. They released the accused. Comrade Bhaskaran who was released and I were married in 1955. I had wished to stay unmarried in order to continue as a full-time worker of the trade union movement. My life was for workers. I told the Party that. When the Party people insisted, I asked, what will happen to my political life if I get married? I agreed to marry when comrades said that I will be able to continue my political work and that V K Bhaskaran was someone who understood that need, and that for everything else, there was the Party, after all. My wedding was in the Party office. I have two daughters. My husband passed away when my older daughter turned eleven. “

K Meenakshi

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