He was a true communist, humane and selfless, with a strong belief in secularism and equality. Like other leaders of the communist movement in the early decades, he faced severe repression. For him, politics and family life were inseparable.
“If your charge is that we have conspired to overthrow the British along with the 40 crore Indians, we accept the charge.”
— P. Ramamurti’s fearless defence in 1941 as the first accused in the Madras Conspiracy Case electrified millions of young Indians. He was sentenced to four years rigorous imprisonment along with other communists – among them, C.S. Subramaniam, Mohan Kumaramangalam, and R. Umanath. If he were alive, he would be a 100 years old today.
A freedom fighter and an architect of the Indian communist movement, he was at once a leading trade unionist, a legislator, and a Marxist idealogue. He was affectionately known as PR. His actions were radical and influenced millions but he was never content with them. In the 1930s he organised Dalits living near Triplicane’s Parthasarathy Temple in Madras to get voting rights at the Temple Trust. It was a historic victory in the Madras High Court. Mahatma Gandhi, in Young India, called it a great victory for the cause but PR was dismissive. He said in an interview to the Nehru Museum Library (1978): “I laughed at it. What was the achievement, as if it was a big revolutionary thing?"
Disillusioned with ‘Congress socialism,’ PR turned to communism in 1936. After the Communist Party split in 1964, he became one of the nine founder Polit Bureau members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He was the first general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions.
A phenomenal organiser, he led the labour movement across the country. The strikes he led between 1930 and 1950 made workers in Madras refer to the Communist Party’s Broadway office as the ‘strike office.’ Working together with A.K. Gopalan, B. Sreenivasa Rao, and Manali Kandasamy, PR organised and led tenant farmers to fight oppression and exploitation by landlords. From being a handful of protestors, they became an organised force, many among them transformed into radical leaders.
PR’s campaigns led to significant law reforms between 1948 and 1956. Hundreds of tribes branded by law as criminals gained their human dignity through a denotification order, the first ever in Indian history, in 1949. Cultivating tenants earned better wages and social freedom. These actions made him so popular among agricultural labourers that Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari remarked: “Don’t they know that I have passed the laws and not Ramamurti?”
PR came from an orthodox Brahmin family but abjured caste or class. My sister Ponni recalls that when she was 10 years old, her teacher saw PR and K. Kamaraj come to our school to take us home. The next day Ponni was asked by her teacher, “neenga enna jathi?” (which caste do you belong to?). Ponni was confused and could not answer. When she asked our father, he laughed and said “manitha jathi” (humankind).
Imprisoned again in the Madurai conspiracy case, PR was released on the eve of India’s Independence. Since the Communist Party was banned even thereafter, he was arrested again. In all, he spent nearly nine years of his life in prison and another five underground.
In 1952, while in jail, PR won his Madras Legislative Assembly seat from Madurai with a huge margin. The Communists-led coalition was on the verge of creating history to become the world’s first democratically elected communist government. The Congress was pushed to a minority. However, Rajaji who had not contested the election was nominated to the Legislative Council and invited by the Governor to become Chief Minister. The Congress began horse-trading to win over independents to prevent the Communists from coming to power.
PR immediately filed the first ever public interest writ petition in the country, challenging Rajaji’s nomination as MLC. His arguments in the Madras High Court anticipated the “basic structure” theory evolved by the Supreme Court years later. Arguing in person, he contended that Rajaji’s nomination was aimed at defeating electoral results and democracy and the court should prevent this in the public interest. Chief Justice Rajamannar and Justice Venkatarama Ayyar rejected his arguments, opining that the court could not decide political rights or enforce public interest or constitutional conventions. The very same principles PR advocated in 1952 were emphatically accepted by successive constitutional benches of the Supreme Court nearly three decades later.
He was a true communist, humane and selfless, with a strong belief in secularism and equality. The leaders of the early years of the communist movement faced severe repression. Their struggles met with adversity and were at the cost of their family lives. Their politics and family lives were inseparable. My sister and I, first generation children of Indian communists, were raised in a different milieu. As children raised in Delhi, we spent a lot of time in the party commune, where families of comrades lived in one room per family and shared common meals and other amenities.
To me the party was a large family. Party discipline percolated through the family. While in school, Ponni and I had only two sets of clothes, one to wear, the other to be washed. My mother had about five sarees. Life was spartan, but we were happy.
Since both my parents were communists and had faced imprisonment, we grew up hearing of many struggles. Facing the police without fear came naturally to us. The police raided our home in the dead of night when the communists were arrested in 1962-63 during the India-China war. They raided and rampaged our house in search of PR. Failing to get any lead from my mother who remained calm, they pulled off our sheets while we were asleep. The next day we went to school as usual. From such experiences, I learned to challenge injustice without fear.
While my schoolmates spoke of outings with their father, my sister and I could see our father only once in nearly four months. When he was home, it was hardly for a week. In the 1960s, when he was imprisoned, we did not see him for nearly three years except when he was on parole briefly. I remember how surprised he was after one such release to see I had grown tall.
He compensated in full measure whenever he was with us. He was an extremely affectionate father and his coming home was a matter of great joy. We travelled widely with him and he would tell us the history of the places we visited. Ponni and I learnt more from him than in our history and geography classes.
In keeping with his beliefs, PR gave away, long before 1947, his share in the agricultural lands in Tanjavur’s Vepathur village to the cultivating tenants. He treated families of comrades and friends as his own. Their problems were his. His growth in stature never separated him from people.
A Member of Parliament in both houses between 1960 and 1983, PR never let his sharp instincts, ever ready to face state oppression, fade. Late at night on the 25th of June 1975, we received a phone call at home in Delhi informing us about the proclamation of Emergency and the large-scale arrests of opposition leaders. Leaving behind our car, PR immediately got into a taxi to go to the CPI(M) headquarters, disguising himself in a head gear and taking me along as cover. He asked the driver to take a circuitous route and stopped the vehicle near the office’s back-gate. He then walked to the office in the dead of night to discuss counter strategy.
PR created history by replying in Tamil to the budget of 1953 in the Madras Assembly. A powerful speaker, he had the art of explaining complex economic and political issues in simple terms. His speeches were evocative, making the audience participate and drew packed crowds. I saw him address innumerable hall meetings during the Emergency; he held his audience – students, teachers, scientists, and the intelligentsia – in rapt attention.
When banks were nationalised, PR lobbied keenly in support of the move. Newspapers were agog with reports of the Supreme Court striking down the law and the quick response of Parliament in introducing the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to bring back the nationalisation measure. I was in high school then and felt an urge to understand law. During my discussions with my father, he explained to me how Parliament’s moves towards greater distribution of wealth were defeated in courts. He was my inspiration to become a lawyer and to use law as an instrument for social transformation.
PR was a strong defender of our national interests and the public sector. His 1979 speech in the Rajya Sabha opposing the BHEL–Siemens collaboration deal, for which 30 minutes were allotted, was extended to two hours as he held members in attention with his mastery of facts and analysis of the economic perils of the agreement. The rest is history. BHEL is today one our Navaratna PSUs.
PR continued to shape India’s history until his death on December 15, 1987. His political opponents respected him and he had friends across party lines. His close friend Harkishan Singh Surjeet noted: “PR had no enemies.” President R. Venkataraman said in his tribute: “With his demise, public life has lost a forceful personality and many of us a warm friend” (Hindustan Times, December 16, 1987).
PR continues to live in people’s hearts and his legacy will inspire generations to come. Ponni and I are truly privileged to be his daughters.
(R. Vaigai is a practising lawyer at the Madras High Court. She is Chennai district president of the All India Lawyers’ Union, and director of the People’s Law Centre, Chennai.)