[This is a translation of the autobiographical essay on the life of Howlath Beevi, a communist activist whose political life spans the decades from the 1950s to the present titled ‘Membershippillaatha Communistukaari’ in Alosyius D Fernandes and D M Scaria, Urumbettavar: Poraattangalile Sthreejeevitam, Alappuzha: Janajagrthi Publications, 2011, pp. 7-16. Howlath Beevi was a close aide of the legendary K R Gouri and followed her when she exited the CPM to form her own party.
The essay is especially interesting for the affinities and ties between women in the hierarchy of the Communist Party, very rarely spoken of anywhere, and the style in which it is told, which moves between second- and first-person narrations. Of course, also for her question about the invisibility of women activists of the early Communist Party.]
Half- a century back, in the SN College, Kollam, only one of the eighteen students in the History BA course passed all the exams. It was this student who was prevented from appearing in the Finals by the Principal who pointed to her lack of attendance. In protest, this student flung her books at the Principal and stepped out of the college. The student’s name was Howlath Beevi.
She was born in 1937 as the fourth of Pareeth Kunhu’s and Aasiya’s six children at Parayamkulam near Charummood. Her early education was completed at the Charummood St Mary’s LPS, Kattaanam Koyikkal Preparatory Class, the Chirayinkeezh-Kadaikkaavoor LPS, and the Kattaanam Pius X High School.
Her young mind observed how her home was a refuge for communist leaders who were underground [in the 1940s]; how they came at night; how her mother fed them; and how they conversed with her Baapa. She was learning the basics of communism. The Muslim community was opposed to educating children and giving refuge to communists. But her father was a prominent man in those parts, a commanding personality, and endowed with some wealth too.
When Howlath reached the ninth standard, her father took her to public meetings where she spoke. That was unquestionable protection, of her own guardian. In 1948, the SF (Students’ Federation), the youth organization of the Communist Party, was also banned. In its place, the Committee to Secure the Right of Education’ [Vidyabhyasa Avakasha Sambaadaka Samiti] was set up.
The Second World War was over. Since the ban on the Communists continued, instead of communist public meetings, ‘peace conferences’ were organized. And so a ‘peace conference’ was organized one evening at Vallikunnam. The poet Vallathol was to inaugurate it. The speakers were ONV Kurup [famous poet, later], Puthussery Ramachandran, Thengamam Balakrishnan, Vaikom Chandrasekharan Nair, and Howlath Beevi. The next day when she reached school, the Principal of the Kattaanam school, Father Anthony, told Howlath Beevi that she could not study there anymore. The reason was that she has been a speaker at a Communist public meeting. He summoned her father. Baapa met him. Father Anthony explained things to him, and Baapa’s response was: “Was my daughter in school during school hours starting from 9 30 AM? Did she behave in accordance with school rules?” Yes, Father Anthony agreed. “I will decide what she does and where she goes after 4 PM.”
That night, Party members and the Samiti folk met in our house and had a long conversation. The newspaper that was published from Kollam carried a news item titled ‘Girl Student Dismissed for Speaking in a Peace Conference’. The leaders called Howlath and instructed her that she was to go to school on time the next day.
She did that. Beevi was the youngest student in her class and a smart one. The first period was Father Anthony’s. She stepped into the classroom and sat on the front bench. The school compound had no full boundary walls, just a half-wall. Members of the Vidyabhyasa Samithi and Communists had surrounded the school. Father Anthony smelt danger. He taught his class as usual. Beevi continued to the Tenth Standard in the same school. Because she had not reached the minimum age (the age of 14) to appear in the Matriculation exam, she had to obtain a special medical certificate that permitted her to write it.
Another incident. Someone betrayed Shantamma Teacher to the School Management, revealing that she was a communist worker (she later married the Communist leader Puthuppally Raghavan) and she was dismissed from the St Mary’s School at Kayamkulam. The local Party unit decided to make the Management revoke their decision. The Area Secretary of the Party there those days was Com. K Narayanan. The strike lasted twenty-one days. Howlath was a front-line fighter. In the end, the School Management itself damaged the class furniture on their own and filed a case against the agitators in the First Class Magistrate’s Court at Alappuzha. Of the eighteen accused, Howlath Beevi was the only woman. When the Charge Sheet was read out, the Judge asked, ‘This minor child, too?” The case was postponed four or five times and then all the accused were acquitted. Shantamma Teacher was reappointed; she resigned after a few days.
Beevi says about those days: the peace conferences organized those days have me opportunities for public speaking. In these places, my speeches were ‘big news’, a novelty, like saying ‘there will be a loudspeaker’. They would specially mention me, who would be clad in a skirt and blouse.
Such a meeting was on at Aalisshery. M Usman, Aaraattupuzha Usman, Thengamam Balakrishnan, and then Howlath Beevi were to speak. The meeting was to be presided over by Advocate Viswalakshmi. Listening to Howlath’s speech, she commented in public: ‘I bow my head before this skirt-clad youngster.’
She passed the Matriculation exam. No college would admit her. In the end, Abdul Rahmankutty, who was a Party member and a Muncipal Councilor and journalist at Kollam, met R Sankar in person and recommended her, saying that Howlath Beevi was a sharp young person. R Sankar summoned Baapa and me. ‘I am aware of who you are,’ he said, ‘I am granting you admission because you are brilliant. Be sure to study well.’ Thus I continued my education staying in the SN Women’s Hostel. When I was in Kollam I spoke in public meetings all over Kerala. Mostly, the practice was to throw one’s books into the hostel room after class and rush to the public meetings. The hostel authorities were taken into confidence. I had Baapa’s complete support in these activities. Though she was a diligent and capable student, her public activities ended up in attendance shortage at college.
The knowledge necessary for public speaking was obtained through reading. She was passionate about reading from a young age. She had memorised the whole of Ramanan [Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s famous pastoral elegy, a long poem] at the age of eleven. “The constant interaction with Baapa and communist leaders and the exchange of knowledge that this enabled allowed leftist thought to grow in me. My political guru is Com. N Sreedharan (we used to call him the ‘firebrand comrade’). He could be described as an excellent organizer, committed person, and someone who would implement Party decisions at any cost. His memory is preserved by the Communist Party office at Kayamkulam; also the SN Hospital at Kollam. Those days I was able to connect, interact, and work with Comrades T V Thomas, K R Gouri, R Sugathan, P T Punnoose, Varghese Vaidyar, M N Govindan Nair, Koothattukulam Mary, Vayalar Ramavarma, N C Sekhar, K P R Gopalan, Panathaazhan Raghavan, Kambiserry Karunakaran, Subhadramma Thankachi, Radhamma Thankachi, E Gopalakrishna Menon, P Ramamangalam, Pandalam Madhavan Pillai, J Saradamma, Sankaranarayanan Thampi, Punaloor Rajagopalan Nair, Susheela Gopalan, and others, and this gave my vision of life clarity and depth.
In 1954, when many of the leaders of the Communist Party were in hiding or in jail, nominations were filed for the elections. Thus Com. Gouriamma too became a candidate. Beevi tells the rest of the story: “I stayed for 22 days at Gouriamma’s residence at Ponnaamveli near Aroor and worked for her under the Party’s instructions. I moved all over the constituency with her younger sister Gomathy and made passionate speeches. Com. Gouriamma and many other comrades won. She was feted all over the constituency. In each place, she held my hand, making me stand close to her as she accepted the welcome and made response-speeches. In the election of 1957, she won again. She became the Revenue Minister. Through the Land Reforms Bill, she would be remembered forever.
In 1956, my marriage happened. In 1958, Baapa, my greatest source of strength, passed away. My life became harder. Though I had made speeches proclaiming that ‘government employment is slavish’ I wrote two tests for public employment. My name appeared in the rank lists — for clerks to be hired in Courts and in the Education Department (in the office of the Assistant Education Officer). The Court carries a bit more ‘weight’, so I chose it. So I took up employment in 1959. I had a daughter in 1961. My husband had no political interests. But he was not averse to my political work. He passed away in 1963.
[She then recounts some early experiences as a clerk in the Court, especially about her early unfamiliarity with the rituals of hierarchy there. She also mentions her work in the Non-Gazetted Officers’ Union, throughout her working life, claiming that she was a consistent adherent of Union decisions, soon becoming the first woman to become a branch secretary of the Union, moving up to District and State Committees gradually. She remembers that she was always fastidious about finishing work on time and never succumbing to bribes even in times of long strikes when the officers were denied pay. Receiving a promotion, she became a Gazetted officer too. Her salary was her family’s sole source of income, but still she did not accept a single bribe. “The very mention of a bribe riles me,” she says. ]
There was also the heavy pressure to remarry because she had been widowed young. ‘How will you live without a helping hand?’ Umma [Mother] too asked. My reply was : “Do you want my daughter to lose both mother and father?’ Umma did not put any more pressure. So I settled down at Kayamkulam with my daughter. In 1965, I bought a little land there and built a house. In 1966, we moved in there.
Government officials, however, pursued her about the ownership of this land, filing a false case. A long sixteen-year-old legal battle in which she held firm followed and in the end the case was settled with the intervention of Com. T K Ramakrishnan.
Howlath Beevi continues: “Till my old age, I have not paused to turn and look at my life to examine what it was. My life was the Communist Party (Marxist). I still have the determination and sheer bolshie that came with following its ways. I do not change opinions. I practice what I preach. I preach only that which I practice. Thus from an early age, all these long years, I worked for the Party. Only a single slogan ensued from my throat: ‘EMS, AKG, K R Gouri Zindaabaad!’ It was a part of my very life. In my eyes, there is no other leader like Gouriamma who has served the Party without hope for reward, caring nothing for loss or gain, making sacrifices. So when I heard that the Party had expelled her, I did not care for the rightness or wrongness of that decision and stood with her. The CPM people nurse great anger against me for this. I was adamant that Gouriamma should survive. A political movement was inevitable for that. Thus I ran all over Kerala with Gouriamma to build the Party called JSS. Gouriamma received recognition and status.
She sent me to all districts to build the JSS. The experience at Kannur and Wayanad [at CPM strongholds] may be specially mentioned. In Kannur, the male leaders of the JSS were not allowed to even step in or say a word; they were forced to return. Gouriamma asked me if I would go to these places. I went to Kannur all alone. I organized public meetings. Spoke. Made a Union. Committees. Likewise, I went to Wayanad which was completely unfamiliar. I alighted unintentionally right in front of the police station at Sultan Bathery. I went in, spoke with the Sub-Inspector. I am here from Alappuzha, I told him, to build Gouriamma’s party. I know no one here; I have only two addresses, of K K Kumaran (a former State-committee member of the old CPI), and Vasudevan who used to work with the NGO Union. I needed his help to find them. The SI’s reply was : ‘Which Gouriamma? I know no such Gouriamma.’
I was incensed. I continued, asking him: ‘You are the SI of what clueless corner? Don’t know someone who was a Minister four times, the undisputed leader of the Communist Party …’
Seeing us spar this way, a police constable got in between quickly and offered to help me find the two people I had mentioned. He took me outside, called an autorikshaw driver. He took down the registration number of the vehicle, and gave him instructions to take me to Vasudevan’s house. I got in. The vehicle moved through a very wild area, completely deserted. I told the driver, ‘Edo, you must be a CITU man. I am here to build Gouriamma’s Party. Don’t murder me out of that grudge. The Court won’t spare you. That police man will surely be a witness.’
The autorikshaw driver responded with humility: ‘Ayyo, why are you saying such a thing? I am human too. Please be assured. I will take you to where you need to go.’
And so I met Vasudevan and Kumaran. The JSS became active in Wayanad.
I generally got very irritated when someone insulted or abused Gouriamma. I would make a scene there, and with anyone. Gouriamma knew this very well, and so she would send her gunman to wherever I went to check on me. I had a very intimate, close tie with her; I still have.
When the leadership of the JSS stayed thus, I began to see that it was not a disciplined Party but just a crowd. I was convinced that it was moving along a path that did not suit Gouriamma’s ideals or name. I revealed this to her and left the Party silently, going back home.
There is one thing that I must make clear: now and then, I am a Communist. Now I am a Communit without membership. I will die a Communist.
I am pained by one thing. I am someone who gifted my life to the Party early in life. Neither the early CPI nor the later CPM have even mentioned the name of such a person in any of their historical documents. Is it not necessary to at least mention that such a person existed? I don’t know if this is rendering women unseeable, or forgetting history. Whatever it is, this does not befit the Communist Party. The essence of Communism is love — towards the weak and the poor.
What I say about the male-female relationship with the preface ‘I am an old-fashioned woman’ is a serious thing. There is no male and female in the public. Women should be present in any field. Women’s presence in the public is inevitable. She must be politically responsive. [But] women have no place anywhere. Even in the Communist Party, women’s representation is just twelve percent. This should be rectified urgently.
Man and Woman should understand each other; remain faithful to each other. It is difficult to bear if faith is scarred even a little bit. Two people should unite as shade and support to each other. It is difficult to accept professions of false morality and dilution and pollution there. It is impossible to bear double-faces and acting there. We are not beings who should live alone. There should be alternatives — small groups that make truthful interventions which do not demand the sacrifice of each person’s freedom; humans capable of responding politically must emerge. This is what I have to say to the new generation: respond politically for the right thing, fight for it. Win for yourself what is right.
I am satisfied to have sacrificed my life in this manner. I have no regrets in life. I still feel boundless anger and protest that things have not improved as they should have. As long as I am alive, I will run around for others. That is the attainment of life’s fullness.