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"An Iron Harvest" By C.P. Surendran

Reviewed By Vinod K. Jose

28 July, 2006
Countercurrents.org

As the Naxalite movement grew in strength by the 1970s, it was common for college campuses to be frequently raided by the Police. Anyone could be picked up on suspicion regardless of whether they had anything to do with the movement or not. One day, Rajan, a young engineering student at the Regional Engineering College, Kozhikode, was not only arrested but went missing in police custody. What exactly happened to Rajan, one still doesn’t know. But all we know is that he died in police custody. It is widely believed that Rajan was brutally tortured by the police, killed and the body disposed off. Rajan’s disappearance became the much talked about issue among the Malayali public at the time with Rajan’s father, Echara Warrier, approaching the court with a habeas corpus writ petition. The court observed that the Government of Kerala had lied in its affidavit. This led to the resignation of Kerala Chief Minister and Congress leader, K. Karunakaran, who was the home minister at the time of the incident. However, with none of the politicians and policemen responsible for the murder punished even after 30 years, justice continues to be denied.

Eventhough justice is still denied the custodial death of Rajan and the Naxalite movement continues to inspire Malayalam literary imagination. Numerous short stories, novels and plays have been written on it. Film makers have made internationally acclaimed films (For example Piravi, by Shaji N. Karun). In regular intervals, reports from investigations on how police disposed Rajan’s body, testimonials by retired constables who have confessed that Varghese, one of the prominent leaders of Naxalite movement in Wayanad, was shot in a fake encounter, surfaces in the Malayalam newspapers. It is the same Rajan’s story and the Naxalite movement that has inspired C.P.Surendran, a journalist, poet in writing his debut novel, An Iron Harvest, the book under review.

John, the main protagonist of the novel is described as the ‘young Che Guevara like leader of the Maoist organization Red Earth’. John, a student in the Regional Engineering College, Kozhikode, joined Red Earth and has led a guerrilla squad in many of its operations. Varkichayan, expelled from a mainstream communist party, is the main leader of Red Earth. Alongside the story of Red Earth, there is another story that enfolds. This is on the disappearance of a classmate of John, Abe, who according to the author is ‘a political innocent’, from police custody. It is believed that Abe was tortured and killed in police custody, and the body was then disposed off by the crime branch police, Raman, who heads the counter-Naxalite operations during the Emergency. Abe’s father, Sebastian, knocked on many doors for justice, but in vein. Raman, being a close associate of the Home Minister, Shankaran Marar, was given protection from all his adversaries. During an attack on the police station, John and his men are caught. Raman takes John to a forest and shoots him and even gets a promotion for that. But, when the National Emergency is over, Sebastian approaches the court, and gets Marar and Raman convicted for his son’s murder. Justice is delayed, but delivered finally. And the novel ends.

In an interview to Deccan Herald, the author, C. P. Surendran echoing the middle class concerns on the movement which inspired him to write the novel says, ‘An Iron Harvest comes from my friends in school and college who died for what was perhaps never there. Call it revolution, if you will. What was all that pain and courage for? Now I sleep in an air-conditioned room and flowers bloom over their graves. What is the value of heroism?’ It is the deep middle class cynicism and individualism embedded in the above statement that prevents the likes of C. P. Surendran from going beyond the usual rhetoric that is often aired and making a more rational analysis of the Naxalite movement for what it was. When an author begins with the premise that the movement was an effort in vain, then one can expect where the novel would be heading. Besides, in Wayanad, where much of the plot in the novel enfolds, it was because of those on whose graves flowers bloom today that minimum wages began to be implemented; feudal lords stopped harassing the adivasis and tenants; practices like Vallikettal, whereby adivasis would be auctioned in wholesale at Valliyurkavu temple to work as slaves in the farms of landlords, came to an end; Kerala Scheduled Tribes Act that promised ‘to restore all alienated land for adivasis’ got passed. Naxalites fell short of achieving their goal, but if it had not been for them, issues such as the agrarian crisis in Wayanad (manifested in the alarming rate of farmers’ suicides), alienation of land from the adivasis (the 2003 police firing on adivasis inside Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary), large scale deforestation (the felling of trees in Wayanad by the Birlas since 1960s for their newsprint factory and the subsequent environment movement) etc. would have remained in oblivion. ‘What was all that pain and courage for? Now I sleep in an air-conditioned room and flowers bloom over their graves’. May be the likes of C. P. Surendran would always pretend not to know what all that pain and courage was for. For the air-conditioned room has a way of quarantining one from the messy reality of the world.

When a novelist claims that his work “is based on a true incident”—a claim that gives legitimacy to the book—one expects him to portray the period and its reality with some objectivity. But, in respect to the plot, the characterization and the many details on the period, An Iron Harvest proves to be contrary. His characterization leaves an impression that Naxalites were just some trigger-happy men, who drank and doped all the time, and who were brought together by mere personal affinities than any common understanding of politics. Nair is a dope supplier who runs his business in a pan shack at a busy street in Kozhikode. One day, during a protest that turned violent against government, he is knocked unconscious. Varkichayan, a Naxalite leader, saves him and takes him to a hospital. As a gratitude to Varkichayan, Nair becomes a Naxalite! Such is the callousness of the characterization that is done. If one is to read the biographies of people who were once part of the Naxalite movement (Eg. Ormakurippukal by Ajita) or talk to an elder in Wayanad, it becomes amply clear that Naxalites like Kisan Thomman, Sukumaran, Kunjaman, Joseph, Sankaran Master, Thettamala Krishnankutty, Maran, Choman Mooppan et al. were people with tremendous understanding of what they were doing and why they were doing it. They were farmers, union leaders, adivasis, school teachers or those who broke away from the mainstream communist parties, each of whom had a distinct history of political engagement. But, in An Iron Harvest, the author makes sure that none of these Naxalites are brought alive in the characters of Heston, Rajan, Mani and others.

From a novel telling Naxalite stories, one would at least expect the author to provide the readers with some accurate portrayal of how a guerilla squad carries out an operation. This is also lacking in this novel. The author seems to have done very little research on this matter and leaves much of it to his imagination. For example, this is how a decision is taken among the characters to attack a police station:

‘I think we should conduct a raid,’ John said.
… ‘We have to decide which police station to raid,’ Nair said.
‘Pulpally of course,’ Heston said.
‘It is too far away…,’ John said….
‘Tirunelli is more accessible to us,’ John said.

And so, they attack Tirunelli station. But why do they attack? Do they attack out of boredom? Do they really target a police station according to how accessible it is to them? Why does the author remain silent about the politics behind such operations? Is it because, it would make it easier for him to parrot what the mainstream media and the intellectual class in our country today, are saying about the ‘mindless violence’ of the Naxalites?

In 1968, close to a thousand poor farmers, mostly from Meenachil taluk in Kottayam district migrated to Pulpally Panchayat in Wayanad. When they started cultivation, the Pulpally devaswam (temple authority), claimed ownership over 27,000 acres of their land and asked them to vacate from those land. The Forest department initiated the process of eviction. Farmers resisted, and subsequently the Malabar Special Police (MSP) was called in (MSP was a colonial armed police force started by the British to crush the Mappila resistance and the numerous smaller resistances in Malabar. Post independence, MSP came under Kerala government. After the Naxalite movement, they conjoined MSP with Kerala Armed Police). MSP, camped in Pulpally Sitadevi temple, began to harass the farmers who continued cultivation. A memorandum from these farmers reached a group of Naxalites. They organized a couple of meetings with the farmers and decided to attack the MSP camp in Pulpally. According to the testimonials of the locals, this was how the ‘Pulpally station attack’ happened. It is in the light of this real incident that the author writes about the ‘Tirunelli station attack’. There is however a difference. As far as the author is concerned the attack was just the outcome of the decision made by a bored group of six guerrillas who one fine day felt like attacking a police station and thereby, choosing the most ‘accessible’ police station in the vicinity. Whereas Pulpally station attack was done by a group of approximately hundred men and women, who were to be evicted from the land they lived. Of course, this kind of fact would not make it into a novel that completely misses out on the politics behind the Naxalite movement. To the credit of the Naxalites, the farmers finally got their land back in Pulpally.

It is also important to take note of the role that the author assigns to women in his novel. Convicted in the ‘Pulpally station attack’, Ajita, a woman Naxalite leader, spent nine years in jail. Her mother Mandakini, a Gujarati and a former headmistress in a school in Kozhikode, had also joined the Naxalite movement. There were many other women who sympathized and conspired with the movement. However, the author portrays the Naxalite movement as a purely male affair, devoid of any participation of women. At the same time, the only woman who gets some amount of attention in the novel is Janaky, a childhood friend and a former lover of John. Janaky gets married to Raghu, who works in Dubai, and has a one year old child, Mohan, who suffers from progressive atrophy of the heart. She returns to Kerala and John goes to meet her after he receives a letter from her. After years of separation, the warmth between them lingers, leading to a clumsy, frantic lovemaking. Later in the day a conversation starts between them. Janaky tries to convince John who, in her words, has changed from ‘my lover to the rebel of lost causes’, about the worthlessness of his politics. John disagrees and tries to convince Janaky about the relevance of his politics. Getting nowhere, the conversation ends bitterly with Janaky grieving ‘sometimes I feel bitter that you preferred politics to me. Guns to my roses’. The author gives the impression that women after all are not interested in ‘politics’, especially the one that is armed with ‘guns’, which also explains for the absence of any women Naxalites in the novel. Instead, he confines women to a world of ‘roses’, away from ‘politics’. As a result, he reinforces the existing gender stereotypes.

The author’s research on the differences between Naxalite politics and the politics of mainstream communist parties are also poor. When the senior most leader of Red Earth, Varkichayan discusses politics with John, which by the way is the only instance in the novel where a top leader discusses politics with anyone, a distorted representation of the issues raised by the Naxalites in Wayanad is given. On the fundamental limitation of their movement, John says: ‘…And the fundamental limitation is that the mainstream communist parties have corrupted the worker’s ideology to the point that he thinks that things will change through the ballot box. He is not entirely in the wrong either. The Land Reforms Act that the Communist ministry brought into effect gives him hope in parliamentary politics…As far as I’m concerned if we are able to unionize the workers in the plantation and ensure them a reasonable deal in terms of wages, that in itself is a big achievement. Revolution perhaps can wait.’
‘Fair enough,’ Varkichayan wheezed.

To be fair to the Naxalites in Wayanad of the 70s, Land Reforms Act was the first thing that they attacked. Their numerous pamphlets talked of how land reforms failed to change the land ownership pattern, and how it provided loopholes for meeting the interests of the rich plantation owners. One such ‘exemption’ in the Kerala Land Reforms Act 1969, which was a boon for the rich farmers, stated, ‘ceiling is lifted in the, case of rubber, tea and coffee plantations, private forests and patently non-agricultural lands and lands belonging to religious and educational institutions’. The Naxalite movement, which was more active in the agricultural hill areas of Kerala, ‘exposed land reforms’, convincing their constituency of poor farmers, agriculture laborers and adivasis of the need to take to a revolutionary path. The slogan of the mainstream communist parties, ‘land to the tiller’, and the electoral promise they made regarding redistribution of land in favor of the landless poor, were misnomers at least for the peasants in plantation districts like Wayanad.

The National Sample Survey (37th round) has some interesting data on the land distribution in Kerala. Even after the land reforms, while 76.3 per cent of the Kerala population, owning merely 00.00—00.99 acres of land per household, hold merely 21 per cent of the total land in Kerala, 9.3 per cent of the population own a whopping 54.2 per cent of the land. It is quite clear from this that the land reforms in Kerala happened at a superficial level. When the main protagonist in the novel, John, is portrayed as convincing his leader Varkichayan, on the efficacies of Land Reforms, and opts not to raise the issues of land distribution in Red Earth’s campaign, the plot moves far from the reality of the period, and the issues raised by the movement. And to one’s surprise, the main leader, Varkichayan without a debate, seems to approve of John’s line of argument.

The real life story of Rajan and his father Echara Warrier is a story wrought with injustice and anyone who has followed the case would agree on that. Like many other court cases where political bigwigs and senior police officers are involved, nobody ever got punished for the murder and even Rajan’s dead body remained undelivered to his family. A few months ago, Echara Warrier too passed away. Despite all this, the author would like to make it a success story in the novel. Sebastian, father of Abe, who approaches court soon after the Emergency, manages to sent Marar, and Raman to jail, thus ‘restoring honor to his son’. According to a reviewer of An Iron Harvest in a newspaper, ‘Sebastian nearly drowns in despair, but in the end emerges a winner, redeemed by what he so irrevocably has lost’. Is this act of twisting a story of injustice into a matter of celebration justified?

The author rightly knows what the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of the book is. Hence, he has identified it and tailored it around the context of a ‘Maoist revolutionary organization’, something that is exotic and sellable these days. Sadly, it is one of those works which has failed to objectively analyze Maoist politics, but one that reaffirms many of the earlier middle class prejudices.

The blurb in the opening page of the book introducing C.P. Surendran declares him to be ‘one of the most important poets of India.’ Whether that is an exaggeration or not, his debut novel definitely would not make him ‘one of the most important novelists of India.’ The novelist fails to portray the spirit of the real life story, distorts facts, and gives an image makeover, perhaps, a consequence of writing it ‘from the comforts he gets from his AC room’, as he said, and forgetting to be truthful to his ‘friends graves’, and their stories.

Vinod K. José is the reporter in Delhi for Radio Pacifica Network, an American newscast. Vinod is from Wayanad, Kerala. He can be contacted at vinodkjose@gmail.com . This review was done for Biblio

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