Punnapra Vayalar Revolt (1946)

Punnapra Vayalar Samaram
Punnapra Vayalar Rebellion of October 1946 was a communist uprising against Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, the diwan of the British government in the princely state of Travancore.  It is also known as "Thulam 10 Samaram."

It is also the largest strike organized by the Communist Party in Kerala.

Punnapra Vayalar uprising was the result of the uproar created by the labor class - the tenant farmers, fishermen community, and the laborers from the coir industry that was thriving in the Alappuzha district at that time  - against the brutality of the landlords. The trade unions under the aegis of the Communist Party organized a series of riots. 

On January 20, 1998, the central government recognized the Punnapra Vayalar uprising was indeed a part of India's freedom struggle after much criticism citing that the struggle was aimed against an independent Travancore.

Background:

The tenants, peasants farmers, fishermen, and the coir laborers formed the majority of the community in the taluks of Ambalappuzha and Cherthala of then Travancore state.

A handful of landlords and capitalists of Travancore with the help of corrupt government officials staked claims over both the public and private land. They shamelessly exploited and economically harassed the predicament of the tenants and their helplessness. They enjoyed unlimited protection and support from the police under Diwan C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer of the British Raj.  Due to famines and landlords' oppression, the life of the common people became a living hell.

The first trade union in Kerala, Travancore Labour Association (TLA) was formed on 1922 March 31 by the workers of Empire Coir Works and began to demand their right to wages.

By the 1940s, the Communist Party organized these people on a broader scale and formed 12 trade unions for bargaining collectively against the exploitation of workers. But the landlords and industrialists refused to give in and they retaliated by making disciplinary measures such as reducing wages and evicting tenants who had joined the union from their land. 

At the same time, when it became clear that India was going to get the much-awaited independence Diwan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer announced the infamous American Model constitution for Travancore. He wanted Travancore to become an independent country separate from the Indian federation.

Both the Travancore State Congress and the Communist Party rejected the new reforms announced by the Diwan. They demanded responsible governance in Travancore. They also decided to intensify the struggle for responsible governance. 

The slogan "American Model Arabi Kadalil" rent the air everywhere in the state.

Punnapra Upheaval

Punnapra-Vayalar Samaram was a series of agitations organized by the workers under the Communist party in the months of August to September in the year 1946. 

The Communist Party was banned and several labor leaders were arrested. The government sent more police force to the affected areas in anticipation of potential threats. Union offices were demolished and more arrest warrants were issued. 

T.V. Thomas - Punnapra-Vayalar

By then the Communist party started organizing camps and began to give paramilitary training to the workers and WWII veterans. The government gave police forces extensive powers to deal with the law and order issues. The armed resistance of the peasantry began protests against the autocracy of Diwan Sir. CP.  

R. Sankaranarayanan Thampi, T.V. Thomas, T.K. Varghese Vaidyan, R. Sugathan, K.V. Pathrose, P.T. Punnoose, M.N. Govindan Nair, C.K. Kumara Panicker were some of the leaders who spearheaded these trade union activities. 

A strike was held on September 15, 1946, to remove Diwan from his post. The government initiated a reconciliation effort and summoned the leaders,  T.V. Thomas and N Sreekandan Nair to the Diwan's residence, Bhakti address asking them to withdraw from politics. Diwan's proposal was declined.   As a result, all the Communist Party organizations in Alappuzha were banned. 

In August and September of 1946, the coastal workers went on a continuous strike against the government's oppressive policies and price rise. 

Sir CP,  then declared a state of emergency on October 1, 1946, pointing out the country's insecurity. As a result, civil rights were abolished and the leaders of the strike were imprisoned.

The Communist Party organized the people at certain strongholds for a revolt, especially at Punnapra in Ambalapuzha and at Vayalar in Cherthala. In October of 1946, a police route march was organized through the village of Punnapra to intimidate the people of the area. But when they saw the villagers were armed they had to turn back.

On October 20, 1946, the Travancore State Congress submitted a petition to the government with 27 demands. One of the main demands was to replace the Diwan and responsible governance.  

On October 22, the All Travancore Trade Union Congress declared a nationwide strike. As part of this, a workers' demonstration was held in Alappuzha town. All the factories remained closed for the day.

The workers went on a march from Alappuzha to Punnapra on October 24, 1946, the King's (Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma Maharaja of Travancore) birthday. The troops fired on the crowd to disperse the crowd at Kalarcode.  This is marked as the first incident in the Punnapra Vayalar Samaram. 

An armed protester attacked a police outpost near Punnapra and killed a sub-inspector Velayudhan Nadar and three policemen. The police fired back, killing 27 people. 

On October 25, martial law was declared in Cherthala and Ambalapuzha taluks.

As part of the struggle, workers in Mararikulam, Menasseri, Olathala, and finally Vayalar clashed with the police and the army. They fought against the Travancore army's rifles with varikundams (spears made out of areca nut tree stems) and daggers.

The Travancore army surrounded the communists at Vayalar on 27 October 1946 with the help of the Travancore navy isolating Vayalar, which is surrounded by water on three sides. The army moved and killed over 470 communists within minutes and the state army lost 40 soldiers. 

Thousands of people died as a part of the revolt at different places in Alappuzha. 

After such violent encounters with the rebels, the Travancore army crushed the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising with an iron fist.

📝 Read More: Alappuzha District. 

Result:

The Diwan was not ready to give up. With the support of C. P.,  Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma Maharaja of Travancore issued a declaration of independence on 18 June 1947. But the newly formed Indian Union was not ready to accept it and negotiations began.  

An assassination attempt was made by a social activist K. C. S. Mani (Konattu Madam Chidambara Iyer Subrahmania Iyer) on Sir C.P at the Swati Tirunal Music Academy at Trivandrum on 25 July 1947 but both the Diwan and assailant escaped unscathed.  

On 30 July 1947, the Maharajah of Travancore decided to accept the Instrument of Accession into the Indian Union. On 13 August, Travancore acceded to the Indian Union. Subsequently, the Diwan's reign was finally over on 19 August 1947. 

One year after the Punnapra-Vayalar agitation, India became independent. Mature voting rights were restored and on 24 March 1948, Pattom Thanu Pillai became the chief minister.

Criticisms

  1.  Prof. Sreedhara Menon maintained this was a proper struggle against the declaration of 'Independent Travancore' by the then Travancore government. 
  2. Historian Manu S. Pillai also described Punnapra-Vayalar as an Ezhava-Dalit uprising against the Travancore Kingdom.

Punnapra-Vayalar in Arts & Literature 

"Ullaka" (ഉലക്ക, Novel) – P. Kesavadev.
“Triumph and Tragedy in Travancore: Annals of Sir C P’s Sixteen years”  – A. Sreedhara Menon (2001).
"Revolt of the Oppressed: Punnapra and Vayalar 1946"  – P. K. V Kaimal.
“Sir C P Ramaswami Aiyar: A Biography” – Saroja Sundararajan.
"Vayalar Garjikkunnu" (Song Title) starting with "Uyarum Njan Nadake..."  – P. Bhaskaran.
            (song banned by Sir C.P. during the rebellion)


📝SideNotes:

  • Vayalar Stalin – C.K. Kumara Panicker.
  • First President of Travancore Communist Party – K.C. George.
  • The predecessor of Communist Party in Travancore was – Youth League. (Previous Year PSC Question: Lab Technical Assistant, Vocational Higher Secondary Education, 2018)
  • The women activist who took part in the general strike​, led by Tiruvitamkur Coir Factory Workers Union (TCFWU) at Alappuzha in 1938 – Arya Pallam. (Previous Year PSC Question: Junior Instructor (Wireman) Industrial Training, 2016)

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