India’s Communist Freedom Fighter | AS Narayana Pillai


AS Narayana Pillai

AS Narayana Pillai (AS) was born in 1925 in the picturesque village of Kudayathoor, in the state of Kerala, in southern India. He was the youngest son of the Aayikunnel family of Sankara Pillai. The family’s priestly ancestors migrated to Kerala from Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu at the end of the 18th century. The Poonjar royal family of Kerala employed them as Sanskrit Veda pundits.

AS’s family owned a thriving grocery store, large coconut plantations, and rice fields. His extended family owned several slaves who worked in the rice fields. After AS’s father passed away, his older brothers ran the family business and farm farms.

By the time he was in college in 1939, AS was a staunch follower of Gandhi and was soon embroiled in the struggle for Indian independence led by the former Indian National Congress. When he was barely fifteen, police arrested him for “gathering in a crowd of more than four people wearing Indian-made khadi clothing, rebelling against British rule.”

In the 1940s, AS passed Gandhi’s message on to his own family. He organized protests and picketed the feudal family home demanding fair wages for the workers in the grocery store. He demanded that slaves be released from their bondage and demanded fair wages for workers employed in the family business. He led a demonstration in place of the family business with placards saying: “My brother is a bourgeois who exploits the workers”. He made social changes in his house before preaching to the rest of the village.

AS was an impatient rebel and a social reformist. The fate of being born into a conservative Hindu family in a poor and nondescript Indian village did not prevent him from pursuing the power of his beliefs. He rejected the religious and societal norms of the feudal landlords of British India. He named his children after his political heroes Jawaharlal Nehru and Fidel Castro. This was particularly different from the societal norm of naming children after gods.

After his release from prison, AS was drawn to communist ideologies and the alternative armed struggle for Indian independence by “depriving the Emperor-King of his sovereignty over British India, by completely separating India. of imperialist Britain with a violent revolution ”.

In Kerala, the Indian Communist Party was formed on December 31, 1939 during the Pinarayi conference. AS was a full-time Communist Party worker who moved around the villages organizing unions in the agricultural sector. He was an enigma for his comrades because he remained vegetarian and abstinent. After India’s independence, AS did not seek any acclaim or position in the party.

AS was elated when Kerala made history in 1957 by electing the world’s first democratic communist government. Soon the government introduced the Land Reform Bill; Draft law on agrarian relations. The bill became the basis for Kerala’s social reforms, which saw tens of thousands of farm workers and landless slaves owning farmland as traditional feudal owners ceded excess land.

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Illustration by Mutharasu BFA

AS was naturally drawn to the underprivileged and the exploited. He befriended the marginalized and oppressed in the community. When AS was seven, her favorite sister died young giving birth to her only son. The grieving AS made it their mission to protect their motherless nephew and lovingly called him Kochu (baby). AS’s maternal uncle’s love for his Kochu was so intense that during his underground days when the police pursued him, AS made sure that he regularly checked the welfare of his favorite Kochu.

As the son of his favorite nephew, I had the privilege of knowing AS. I witnessed the intensity of his love and loyalty to his Kochu, my father. As he sipped black coffee mixed with a generous helping of cow’s ghee and munched on roasted Kerala pappad on his morning visits to our house, I eagerly listened to his life experiences as a freedom fighter and communist.

In 2018, I met AS at my brother’s house in Thiruvananthapuram. We have decided to continue our fascinating discussion on Marxist-Leninist teachings. So, he accompanied me to the Padmanabha Swami temple, with the understanding that he would wait outside the temple. He had just returned from Delhi after attending India’s Independence Day celebrations as a guest of the President of India.

Being one of the few remaining freedom fighters in the country, he participated in the celebrations as a state guest and stayed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi. On the way to the temple, AS told me that a revolutionary never retires from his work for social reforms. He said that social change is the only sign of growth and that true revolutionaries could never stop working for the social welfare of the community. That evening, as I made my way to darshan through the temple gates guarded by heavily armed military commandos, AS sat outside the temple in a tea room. When I returned, my atheist Communist uncle was actively engaged in a discussion with several people in the tea room. Oddly, two of the commandos were also listening.

On the early morning of June 29, 2021, AS passed away at the age of ninety-six. His life message was his social and moral obligation to uplift the underprivileged in the community. For those he loved, his unconditional love was non-negotiable. AS was not afraid of losing her religious identity. He was not afraid of losing gods and temples. One of the reporters who interviewed AS recently told me that he is an Avadhuta, a person who has reached a stage of self-realization in his spiritual development. AS’s legacy of fearless life will continue to inspire millennials in India.

(The author is a visiting professor at the Institute of Management, Christ University and the National Institute of Technology, Kozhikode. He lives in Melbourne.)


Thelma J. Longworth