VS Achuthanandan — much-loved Marxist veteran and champion of the working class turns 100

His assiduous stand on various issued has won him many enemies within the CPI(M), but the centenarian remains close to Kerala's heart.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 20, 2023 | 11:46 AMUpdatedOct 20, 2023 | 4:01 PM

V S Achuthanandan. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even as Kerala is celebrating the 100th birthday of communist veteran and former chief minister VS Achuthanandan on Friday, 20 October, murmurs could be heard in Left circles about the contents of the soon-to-be-released autobiography of MM Lawrence, trade unionist and Marxist leader.

The autobiography, Ormacheppu Thurakkumbol (While Opening the Casket), is believed to have not-so-flattering content on VS — as Achuthanandan is fondly known. Lawrence, now 94, has been an acerbic critic of VS, who held the latter responsible for the factionalism in the CPI(M).

Speculation about the content in the autobiography has been rife, but they became stronger after N Madhavan Kutty, veteran journalist and communist fellow-traveller, mentioned on Facebook that it might have scathing criticism of VS’s behaviour and style of functioning.

Lawrence dictated his life story to a few junior comrades and several people, including Madhavan Kutty, have been urging the publisher not to release the autobiography during the lifetime of both the towering communists.

Related: Was Communist icon VS Achuthanandan an Islamophobe?

Silent presence

One of the founding leaders of the CPI(M), Velikkakathu Sankaran (VS) Achuthanandan, has been confined to home due to age-related issues for some time now. The “conscience keeper” of the public, VS is the last of the surviving 32 communists who left the CPI in 1964 to form the CPI(M).

Until he withdrew from active politics, he was the most powerful voice in the CPI(M), often to the chagrin of his comrades, as he strictly adhered to the communist ideology and had uncompromising stands on issues of governance, inclusive growth, and the environment.

Though he has been silent for the past four years, VS remains Kerala’s most eminent social presence. Even his silence becomes vocal whenever his party and the present state government draw public ire for deviating from the Left politics and allegedly adopting crony capitalism.

Achuthanandan with Pinarayi Vijayan

Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: Supplied

For the Kerala society, VS is the last sentinel of the state’s working class and a doughty fighter who safeguarded the larger common interests throughout his life.

His adversaries within the party, mainly Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, are still not ready to forgive and forget the inner-party ideological war VS had initiated and continued for almost two decades since 2000.

The continuing hatred towards VS was visible in Palakkad district this week when some party workers organised an event to celebrate his 100th birthday. The party’s state leadership intervened and forced the organisers to exclude A Suresh Kumar, the former private secretary of VS, from the panel of speakers.

Suresh Kumar was expelled by the party a few years ago for indiscipline and was one of the confidants of VS. The party felt his recollections of the leader at the meeting might make many others within the party uncomfortable.

A school dropout, who served as the state’s chief minister until the ripe old age of 88, VS has been forced to confine himself at home — without even visitors as per medical advice — after suffering a stroke.

The Vijayan group effectively crushed VS’s once-strong support base by invoking the tools of discipline and “Leninist loyalty”. The once staunch supporters of the centenarian are now in the political wilderness, while those who shifted their loyalty to Vijayan are suitably rewarded.

When the makers of the controversial film, Kerala Story, misinterpreted an old statement of VS, the CPI(M) did not attempt to defend him and explain the context of the statement. His adversaries within the party supported vested interests in portraying VS as an anti-minority leader.

Related: Recalling how Gorbachev figured in an Achuthanandan-Pinarayi spat

Champion of working class

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan greeted VS as he turned 100, saying he was a champion of the working class who never compromised.


Achuthanandan with his wife. (File photo/Supplied)

However, the second Pinarayi government has been implementing several policies VS had disapproved or termed anti-Marxist. The fight against neoliberalism and crony capitalism, which VS once identified as the party’s key focus areas, has lost steam. Forcible acquisitions and projects damaging the environmental balance are now frequent, though VS had opposed them earlier.

For the Kerala society, VS continues to be the most popular and influential leader. People, regardless of political affiliations, feel his continuing silent presence among them astounding.

He is the lone political leader who won people’s admiration transcending generations. Thousands who recall his contributions on social media coinciding with his 100th birthday are mostly youngsters, reflecting the connection he had established with them.

From someone who cut his teeth in trade union politics, mobilising the peasants of Kuttanad to demand fair wages in the early 1940s, the question of land and associated vocations has been central to VS’s political outlook.

This drove him to launch a struggle in 1997 against paddy land reclamation, which soon drifted into what was dubbed as Vettinirathal Samaram, which saw VS supporters chopping down other crops grown on converted paddy fields. A decade later, in 2008, the government headed by VS enacted the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act.

VS was resilience personified from his childhood. He lost his parents at a tender age, forcing him to drop out of school. Yet he fought on, and Marxist leader P Krishna Pillai recognised VS’s organisational skills, and sent him to work among the Kuttanad farmers.

Also read: Coca-Cola’s offer to hand over its land, building to Kerala govt

Conscience keeper of the public

The Punnapra-Vayalar uprising against the Travancore Diwan’s bid to self-rule and follow the American governance model led to a mass uprising in which VS was tasked with working underground to organise people. But he was arrested from Poonjar and was tortured at the Pala police station.

Kodiyeri Achuthanandan

Kodiyeri Balakrishnan with former Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. (KB Jayachandran/South First)

He became the party’s state secretary in 1980 and a Politburo member in 1985 until an altercation with Vijayan saw his ouster from the party’s top decision-making body in 2009.

A hardliner, VS was locked in a bitter fight with EK Nayanar, which led to his shocking defeat in the Assembly election from Mararikulam in 1996. Even that did not deter him, however. He emerged as a mass leader from being a mere Marxist leader and got involved in the farmers’ and environmental issues in Palakkad and other places across the state.

His intervention in the Edamalayar case resulted in the conviction of the former minister K Balakrishna Pillai.

His style of speech, tonal variations, and stressing on certain syllables to drive in a point made him dearer to people who crowded his public events. His daring attitude often pitted him against the CPI(M)’s interests, such as his meeting with KK Rema, wife of the slain Revolutionary Marxist Party leader TP Chandrasekharan in 2012.

VK Sasidharan, his former additional private secretary who faced the axe from the party along with two other associates in 2013, recalled how VS immediately got to the core of the politics of free software use after a perfunctory briefing in 2001. As chief minister, VS spurred the state’s growth in information technology.

After the LDF posted a win in the 2016 Assembly polls, VS, who spearheaded the campaign, was made the State Administrative Reforms Commission chairman. He later resigned, citing age-related issues.

Also read: Recalling why justice eludes victims of Muthanga police action on Wayanad tribals

CPI(M)’s Fidel Castro

VS’s uncompromising stands made  CPI(M) national general secretary Sitaram Yechuri to describe him as the party’s Fidel Castro.

“Achuthanandan’s final public appearance occurred on 18 October, 2019, during a campaign rally for CPI(M), the candidate running for state Assembly from Vattiyoorkavu. That was two days before his 96th birthday, and he talked for three-quarters of an hour. Within six days, he suffered a neurological stroke that forced him to withdraw from public life,” according to Joseph C Mathew, a close confidant and chief minister Achuthanandan’s adviser on information technology.

Observers assert that VS’s enduring popularity is primarily due to his directness and simplicity. He has also always been eager to admit a mistake when any of his positions was proved incorrect.

VS has carved himself a niche space among Indian communist luminaries like BT Ranadive, AK Gopalan, and EMS Namboodiripad.

About 22 years ago, his wife Vasumathi, a Kerala Health Department nurse, retired. Currently serving as the deputy director of a government education company in Thiruvananthapuram, Son Arun Kumar holds an MCA.

Asha, his daughter, is employed as a scientist at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Biotechnology and has a PhD in pharmacology.