Fighter all the way
|P. Ramamurti, whose birth centenary is observed this year, spent all his life for workers’ rights and social justice.|
At a meeting held in Chennai, glowing tributes were paid to the memory of the doyen of the Indian trade union movement by his colleagues and successors in the communist movement from different States. They recalled his achievements also as a freedom fighter, legislator and parliamentarian. They remembered his guidance to the Communist Party as a Marxist theoretician during some of its crucial moments and the concern he had for every party worker. The speakers extolled his unflinching faith in secularism and social justice, his consistent interest in protecting public sector undertakings, his advocacy of making the mother tongue the medium of instruction and, above all, his humane approach to the problems of the underprivileged.
Ramamurti was born on September 20, 1908, in a land-owning Brahmin family at Veppathur village in the undivided Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. His father died when he was three. Five years later, the family moved to Madras (now Chennai), where his brother, Mahalingam, took up a job at the Currency Office. Ramamurti, whose primary education was in his native village, now continued his studies at a school in Triplicane, where the family lived.
He was drawn into the freedom movement during this period. The fiery speeches of nationalist leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Subramania Bharati at the nearby Marina beach and incidents such as the Jallianwalabagh massacre provoked him to join the national movement under Gandhi’s leadership.
When Gandhi launched the Non-Cooperation Movement and leaders called upon students to join only national schools, Ramamurti left the Triplicane school to join the National School in Allahabad, which was run by Jawaharlal Nehru and Purushottam Das Tandon, who later became the Congress president. The Allahabad experience helped Ramamurti speak Hindi fluently.
After about two years, the authorities decided to close the school for want of students. Ramamurti visited C. Rajagopalachari, popularly known as Rajaji, at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. This was his first meeting with Rajaji. On Rajaji’s advice, Ramamurti returned to Madras to resume studies at his old school.
Later he joined Presidency College, Madras, for higher studies. Within months, the college authorities accused him of working for a Congress candidate in the State elections and threatened him with disciplinary action. Ramamurti left the college and joined Banaras Hindu University, then under the control of Madan Mohan Malaviya, another freedom fighter. When he was in the final year of his two-year degree programme in science, he led the protest against the visiting Simon Commission in 1929. The next year he was jailed for six months for participating in the agitation against the use of foreign cloth.
After his release from jail he returned to Madras and took part in the Congress’ activities. Inspired by Gandhi’s campaign against the oppression of Dalits (whom Gandhi called Harijans) by caste Hindus, Ramamurti organised Dalits against untouchability. At that time, Dalits were denied entry into temples. Ramamurti organised cobblers in the Triplicane area, all Dalits, to fight against the discrimination. He urged them to participate in the elections for the posts of trustees of the famous Parthasarathy temple.
According to the temple rules, only Thenkalai Vaishnavites could become members of the trust and participate in the elections. But the Vaishnava temple at Triplicane, the heartland of Hindu orthodoxy, denied access to cobblers though they donned namam (a religious symbol) on their foreheads like all Thenkalai Vaishnavites.
Ramamurti helped them recite slokas from Divya Prabandham, a Thenkalai Vaishnava text, and get the Vaishnavite symbols chakra and conch tattooed on their upper arms, and took them to the temple officials, demanding that they be allowed to participate in the elections. The priests refused to concede to their demand.
The trustees got an injunction against Dalits becoming members and claiming voting rights. Ramamurti helped them file an appeal in the Madras High Court, which allowed the appeal. Gandhi wrote in Young India that it was a “great victory”. The temple administration enrolled the Dalits as members but said they could not contest the elections since they did not own property as per temple rules.
Soon Ramamurti became a Congress activist. When Jayaprakash Narayan formed the Congress Socialist Party, which functioned within the Congress, he joined it. Around this time, he got some Marxist text, interestingly, from an intelligence official. In association with P. Jeevanandam, popularly known as Jeeva (Frontline, August 24, 2007), and a few others, he organised rickshaw-pullers, workers in snuff factories, and others. Later he became involved in organising workers of textile mills, sugar factories and engineering units. He appeared before labour tribunals to argue the cases of workers in industrial centres such as Madras, Madurai and Coimbatore.
In the 1930s, Ramamurti, along with B. Srinivasa Rao, or BSR as he was known, launched struggles against the oppression of farm labourers, most of whom were Dalits. At a Congress political conference held at Bathlakundu, he moved a resolution demanding the abolition of the zamindari inam system. Jeevanandam supported it. A section of the delegates proposed an amendment that the system be abolished after paying compensation to the inamdar. Ramamurti opposed it. The resolution was passed, but the then Prime Minister of Madras Presidency, C. Rajagopalachari, had his own reservations on the issue. The move had to wait for a later day to get the government’s nod.
Ramamurti now came into contact with the legendary Communist leader P. Sundarayya, who used to cycle 175 kilometres from Nellore to Madras to organise workers. This relationship and his discussions with Jeevanandam took Ramamurti to the underground Communist movement. Gradually he moved up the ladder in the Communist Party and central trade union organisations. He had a number of conspiracy cases against him and went to jail.
Even as Ramamurti was in jail, he was elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly from Madurai North Constituency in the first general elections after Independence, in 1952. The United Front, which included the Communist Party, won a majority. The Congress, however, formed a Ministry with Rajaji as Chief Minister by making him a member of the State Legislative Council and winning the support of two small constituents of the United Front, promising ministerial berths.
Ramamurti challenged Rajaji’s nomination to the Council in the Madras High Court. In the first ever public interest petition in the country, he argued in person that the nomination was against democratic norms. The petition was rejected on the grounds that the court could not decide political rights or enforce public interest or constitutional conventions. “The very same principles PR [P. Ramamurti] advocated in 1952 were emphatically accepted by successive constitutional benches of the Supreme Court nearly three decades later,” wrote R. Vaigai, Ramamurti’s daughter, a lawyer, in an article recently.
As Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, he made many remarkable speeches in the House. His speech in Tamil during the debate on the first State Budget earned him the appreciation of Finance Minister C. Subramaniam. He repeatedly pressed for making Tamil the official language of the State, the court language and the medium of instruction at all levels.
He took the initiative to pass a number of Bills relating to peasants and agricultural workers. He never missed an opportunity to press for comprehensive land reforms. He also highlighted the police atrocities against striking workers and agitating peasants. During this period, Ramamurti fought relentlessly with the Union government to get the Neyveli lignite and power project in Tamil Nadu.
Many leaders of the past generation recall the contribution made by Ramamurti for the success of the talks between the Tamil Nadu and Kerala governments in the 1950s over sharing of river waters. The discussions facilitated the diversion of surplus waters in the Periyar and Aliyar rivers to Tamil Nadu, which could enhance its irrigation and power resources substantially at a crucial time.
Despite political differences, Ramamurti maintained cordial personal relations with many of his contemporaries such as Rajaji, who as Chief Minister called communists “enemy number one”; “Periyar” E.V. Ramasami, founder leader of the Dravida Kazhagam; K. Kamaraj, former Chief Minister and later Congress president; and C.N. Annadurai, founder-secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. He also had a good relationship with the Nehru family.
In 1964, there was a rift in the Communist Party of India over ideological issues. Ramamurti was one of the nine founder-members of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which broke away from the CPI. Later, in 1970, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was also split and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) was formed, of which Ramamurti was the founding general secretary.
He toured the length and breadth of the country to strengthen the trade union wing. He used his oratorical skills in many languages to widen the base of the party. He wrote a number of books and pamphlets on several contemporary issues during this time.
Ramamurti was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1967 and to the Rajya Sabha in 1971 and 1977. He played a significant role in his 16-year career as a parliamentarian. His valiant fight in the Rajya Sabha in 1979 against the agreement between Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) and the German multinational Siemens, which he thought was aimed at killing indigenous initiatives in the field of science and technology and bringing great harm to public sector undertakings, is well known. His spirited speech that lasted nearly two hours saved BHEL for the country. Ramamurti’s warning against deals with multinationals and foreign countries at the cost of India’s self-reliance and sovereignty is still relevant.
Although Ramamurti was relieved of party responsibilities in 1983 owing to ill-health, he was in touch with trade union leaders, offering them his guidance whenever needed. Even his last public speech a couple of months before his death in Chennai on December 16, 1987, was at a conference of Tamil Nadu Mill Workers Federation at Coimbatore.