Communist icon and freedom fighter celebrates 100th birthday
As N Sankaraiah celebrates his centenary, a glimpse of the freedom fighter’s extraordinary journey so far
Four years in prison before independence. Four years after independence. Three years on the run. This was once the life of N Sankaraiah, one of India’s last remaining freedom fighters.
Born July 15, 1922 in Kovilpatti in the district of Thoothukudi, Sankaraiah turns 100 this Thursday.
In 1931, nine-year-old Sankaraiah attended a rally condemning the execution of Bhagat Singh – his first political activity.
Sankaraiah studied history at American College in Madurai. He was the secretary of the Madurai Student Organization and, in this capacity, had invited Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to his university to give a lecture. For this he was arrested in 1941, just 15 days before the final exams of his undergraduate course.
Birth of a Communist
While in prison, Sankaraiah met Communist leaders like P Jeevanandam, V Subbiah, B Srinivasa Rao, MR Venkatraman, and VP Chintan, and became drawn to communism. He also met with Congress leaders like K Kamaraj – who would later become Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu – and Pattabhi Sitaramayya.
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After spending 18 months in prison, Sankaraiah was released in June 1942. After his release, he became a full-time Communist Party member.
In 1946, during the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy, Sankaraiah organized several demonstrations in Madurai. It was in this context that he, along with other communist leaders such as P Ramamurthy and KTK Thangamani, were arrested in the âMadurai plot caseâ.
âWe were released a day before independence. A special judge came to the prison at 6 pm and declared our case to be a bogus, and we were released, âSankaraiah once told an interviewer.
Founder turned fugitive
After her release, Sankaraiah married Navamani in September at the party office in Madurai. It was not only an intercast marriage but also an interfaith marriage.
âTheir children and grandchildren have also opted for intercast marriages. A mini samathuvapuram [a place where all castes live together in harmony] exists in his house, âG Ramakrishnan, former head of the state PMO, later wrote.
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In 1948, the second Communist Party conference was held in Calcutta. The Nehru government at the time banned the party after the conference ended. Many leaders were arrested in Calcutta but Sankaraiah escaped. He spent the next three years on the run.
In 1964, the seventh conference of the Communist Party was held in the capital of West Bengal. During the conference, 32 leaders left the national party council – the first step in the founding of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
âOf the 32, only VS Achuthanandan and I are alive today,â Sankaraiah said.
In 1967, the PMO contested the Tamil Nadu Assembly election and Sankaraiah won Madurai West. He was elected to the Assembly in 1977 and 1980. He was the first editor of Janasakti, the Tamil daily of the CPI, and the first editor-in-chief of Theekkathir, the body of the CPM. He was party secretary of state between 1996 and 2001.
Traveling with Dravidian chieftains
During the 1977-1980 MGR regime, Sankaraiah urged the government to open ration shops in every village in Tamil Nadu. MGR accepted the proposal. However, Finance Minister Nanjil Manoharan said that since the governor’s budget speech had already been released, the request could not be included.
âNo problem. Just paste this request separately at the end of the budget speech,â Sankaraiah reportedly said, and the idea was accepted.
Sankaraiah also maintained good relations with Patriarch DMK Karunanidhi. In prison, Sankaraiah read the novel by Maxim Gorky The mother. When Karunanidhi translated the novel into poetry, he asked Sankaraiah to write the preface.
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Sankaraiah still believes that protecting and strengthening public sector enterprises is the only way to protect the poor. He encourages young people to read the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
âCommunists should always be in contact with the people. Each communist should reach at least 300 families and help them solve their problems. They should convert their political struggle into an ideological struggle to fight against the communal forces, âSankaraiah once said.