Guest post by BOBBY KUNHU
Rasheed, a political activist, award winning journalist and activist was one of the founders of the Trotskyite movement in India and the RSP in Kerala. He passed away on the 6th of January, 2017
It is very unusual for a grandchild to write public obituaries for grandparents – but Comrade M. Rasheed was a person of unusual politics and his death definitely warrants an unusual response requiring the obituary also to be unusual. Given that the significance of Comrade Rasheed’s life was his unwavering integrity to ideals that he fell into the bad books of his father and walked out of the political party he co-founded, given that he never shied from expressing his opinion on anyone – it would only be right in writing this as a critique of the human being he was – and I am sure he would not have expected anything less from me.
Accidents of birth are very burdensome, especially when one is acutely aware of the location of such accident. It becomes tougher to handle when one side of your ancestry has successfully been through rebellion not only against their social locations, but also against each other for five generations. But, many of these rebellions, in the public space were without rancour, discord or distaste. For perspective, this story needs to start with such an anecdote.
In the 1920s, a well known religious reformer from the Mappila community in Malabar, Marakkar Musaliyar was arrested for hiding the whereabouts of his son against whom there was a lookout notice. When he was produced before the magistrate and was asked how he wanted to plead, Musaliyar answered that he was guilty of only one offence and that was fathering a son called Moidu! Musaliyar was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment.
Shortly after this, the son surrendered and cleared the charges against the father having harboured him as a fugitive. After this term of imprisonment, probably Musaliyar thought that a marriage would make his son more circumspect in taking on the state and arranged his wedding to a woman from his village Marancherry called Pathunni. Rasheed was the first son born of this union.
Moidu Moulavi was one of the co-founders of the Indian National Congress in Kerala along with his much younger mentor and the mystique Mohammed Abdurahiman Sahib. He was also a religious scholar who emphasized on the need for reforms within the Mappila community including secular education and women’s education. He was also the general secretary of the Islahi conference held at the sidelines of the 1919 Ottapalam Congress meet, which emerged to become the later reformist Mujahid movement of Kerala. Moulavi’s social and political commitments meant that he hardly had time for his family. Comrade Rasheed’s memories of his father during his childhood were scant – as the father was away most of the time either with his political activism or in jail. Rasheed used fondly narrate the story of how his neighbours had taught him to receive his father returning from one such imprisonment with a song taunting him not to trouble the government. His spells of imprisonment (he spent 14 years in jail in total) also resulted in big age gaps between his five children.
Moulavi was a strong believer in education as a tool of empowerment and though not having undergone sufficient secular education himself wanted to ensure that his children did. It was towards this end that he took his elder son to live with him in his quarters at the Al Ameen lodge in Calicut. The lodge was also the political headquarters of the Congress movement and Rasheed was enrolled in the Ganapathi Boys High School. I suppose he got more of an education at the lodge surrounded by intense activity rather than his school. Mohammed Abdurahiman Sahib took him under his wing and became his mentor. Moulavi may not have been too comfortable with this as he was particular that the son concentrate on his education. However, with Abdurahiman Sahib on his side, Comrade Rasheed soon got deeply involved in Congress politics.
Comrade was useful as an errand boy and a courier as the police were unlikely to suspect a child to be carrying contraband political material. He fondly used to narrate this story of how when he was carrying some pamphlets, he saw a policeman approach him – scared he squatted behind some bushes pretending to defecate till the policeman went away. He was jailed however for the first time when he participated in the Quit India movement and boycotted school. He spent 3 months behind bars and to the chagrin of his father was expelled from school because of this.
Two of his close lifelong associations from this time were with P.K. Ravindranath, his classmate who got expelled along with him. Ravindranath had to run away from home to escape jail and landed in Bombay, where he had a illustrious career as a journalist with newspapers such as Free Press Journal and Times of India, Press Advisor to the Government of Maharashtra and Director, Nehru Centre and Bal Insaan, who also left Kerala to escape prosecution and landed in Bombay with a job in Kamani group of industries and ended up founding the Kamani Workers Union and the independent trade union movement.
Along with his mentor Mohammed Abdurahiman, Comrade Rasheed’s sympathies were with the socialist wing of the Congress. It was also during this time that he came under the influence of the second mentor who came into his life – Comrade K. Damodaran – the first Malayali communist and the founder of the Kerala chapter of the Communist party. He did not share Mohammed Abdurahiman’s scepticism for communism on grounds of its avowed atheism but his fascination for the communist ideology was in check because he was deeply suspicious of Stalinism and the communist party’s open endorsement of the same. He started reading up on Trotskyism and started regular correspondence with Trotskyites from Bombay and Calcutta. He had also established correspondence with M. N. Roy and V. M. Tarkunde.
It was perhaps in his search for a credible alternative as an avowed Trotskyite to the Stalinist Communist Parties that he remained allied with the Congress Socialist Party along with his Trotskyite comrades. In a parallel to his mentor Damodaran, he was the first Malayali Trotskyite. I do not know the exact details, but he was part of the founding of the Communist League, comprising of former Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, members of the Socialist Party and a splinter faction of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India. He also has served as the General Secretary of the League.
It was his search for a viable political platform that got him an invitation to attend the third National Conference of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) at Basti in 1948. Comrade Rasheed reached a midsummer hot Delhi, travelling ticketless, as he had no money for the fare. Seeing that he was barefoot and could not bear the Delhi heat, Comrade Tridib Chaudhuri is supposed to have bought him his first pair of footwear. From Delhi, he proceeded to Basti and as he was the sole delegate from South India, he was asked to speak. Not confident at that time with English and Hindi – he spoke in Malayalam and received a standing ovation.
He bought RSP into Kerala. One of his collaborators in that was Advocate P. M. Padmanabhan, a senior counsel at the Kerala High Court. When the Kerala Socialist Party split in October 1949, a section of senior leaders including N. Sreekandan Nair, Baby John and K. Balakrishnan joined RSP increasing the presence of the party. He was also the founding editor of the party organ Sakavu (meaning Comrade). But, apart from editing the party organ he was not interested in the short term aim of electoral mobilisation. His interests lay in expanding his theoretical horizons and trade union mobilisation.
This also was behind his extensive wanderlust. Bombay became a home away from home. His friends from Kerala P. K. Ravindranath and Bal Insaan – already entrenched in the movement in Bombay acted as his hosts. The other comrades with whom he developed intimate and lasting relationship in Bombay were S. B. Kolpe, journalist and president of the All India Working Journalists Union and George Gomes of the Bombay Dock Workers Union. Kolpe’s office in the Docks was the hangout also because it was the only place one could be assured of some minimal food when there was no money.
In the meantime, Trotskyite politics was on a roller coaster across India, from the forties till the seventies. There were multiple groups and constant attempts at unifying these splinter groups. Along with his friend Kolpe and mentor Tridib Chaudhuri, Comrade Rasheed was part of almost all of these processes. International politics and Indo-China war also played an important role in this. Between 1948 and 58, none of the Trotskyite parties were affiliated to either of the Fourth International bodies. The Trotskyites were clear about one thing that they did not support what they called “petty bourgeois entryism” of the Indian communist parties as well as the adventurism of the Naxalites.
RSP also was criticised by the Trotskyite groups for their involvement in the Left Front governments in Kerala and West Bengal. But Comrade Rasheed’s parting of ways with the RSP came at a later juncture in 1967. He shared the dislike of the Indian Union Muslim League with his father and considered the party feudal. It was at the time when the RSP in Kerala decided to join the alliance, which included the Muslim League, that he formally quit the RSP in protest. He completely associated himself with the newly formed Socialist Workers Party through the Marxist League in Kerala with its second national conference at Baroda. He also was instrumental in establishing the Young Communists (Trotskyists) in 1969 in Kerala as part of the SWP. He was also the editor of the party organ Chengathir (Red Stalk). At the third national conference of the Socialist Workers Party, the party was renamed the Communist League of India and Comrade Rasheed was elected its General Secretary. He quit the league in 1976 owing to its ambivalence to opposing the emergency and with it all his formal associations with all Trotskyist political formations.
On the personal front, his journey towards the Left of the political spectrum met with the disapproval of his father and the untimely death of his mentor Abdurahiman Sahib in 1945 did not help. Another reason that fuelled the father son rift was his marriage to Beepathu – a school teacher from Veliyancode. Rather than Moidu Moulavi, it was his wife Pathunni who was opposed to the alliance. Few months back when I was interviewing him for a monologue on Beepathu Teacher that I am working on, he happened to divulge the reasons for his mother’s displeasure.
Firstly, he had found his bride by himself through a common family friend and the two of them had decided that they would get married to each other. Secondly, according to him his mother Pathunni, considered the landed feudal Mappila family that she hailed from, as the standard for a prospective bride for her first born. The disenchantment was so much that none of Comrade Rasheed’s immediate family attended the wedding. After the marriage, the couple continued to live in Beepathu teacher’s parent’s home for many years and their first child, my mother was born there.
Of course with the increasing rift, he could not stay on at Al Ameen lodge and had shifted his residence – but Calicut was still the core of his political activism despite him having shifted his base and his political life demanding increased travel – not just within Kerala, but also outside in Bombay. So, insofar as his family was concerned, he was an absentee father and husband leaving the reins of running and supporting the family to Beepathu teacher. This did not cause any discord between them for ‘teacher’ very well knew this would be the case when they got into their matrimonial arrangement. It also meant that teacher had the upper hand in all arrangements and decisions relating to the family.
Father and son showed healthy respect for each other as political adversaries. There is an oral mythology that lives on in Malabar. When Moidu Moulavi was roped in to campaign for driving out godless communists from Kerala during the Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Movement) – at a meeting in Manjeri, after his speech someone in the audience is supposed to have questioned the father about the godless activities of his son. To this Moulavi purportedly responded – he was fine with whatever his son was doing as long as he was not with the Muslim League. One political bond that the father son duo shared was their dislike for the Muslim League in both its pre and post independence avatars. Here I need to add a caveat that each of them had good personal relationship with individual members of the party – particularly C. H. Mohammed Koya, M. K. Muneer, Samadani etc. On the other hand Comrade Rasheed’s work table always had three icons – a picture each of Trotsky and his father and a crucifix. He attributed all the three to be inspirations for his politics.
After the birth of their first three children, familial relations thawed and Moidu Moulavi decided to bring up Rasheed’s second child – perhaps as amends to his son or as an antidote to the fact that there were no children around him at that point of time or a combination of both. Ironically it was this son that turned out to be the cause of Moulavi’s disappointment and Rasheed’s personal tragedy. Nonetheless political differences seemed to outgrow familial affection.
One of the most important and bitter point of contention that came much later was the control and ownership of Al Ameen Ltd., a Section 25, not for profit company that was originally floated by Mohammed Abdu Rahiman Sahib’s brother in 1948 to propagate the political memory of Sahib. Before people misunderstand, the quarrel was not financial, but over the legacy of Mohammed Abdurahiman Sahib. By 1970s, though it owned prime real estate in Calicut city and a printing press on the campus that had started republishing Mohammed Abdurahiman’s newspaper Al Ameen in the 60s and many alternate, working class and student newspapers and pamphlets, were published from here. The company itself was in doldrums. Comrade Rasheed worked to resuscitate the dying company through the 70s and raised money for this by issuing shares to people across the board using his goodwill. Here it has to be noted that shares were dispersed in as widespread manner as possible. The change in share patterns meant control of the company changing hands to known Marxist ideologues, which Moulavi openly resented. The tragedy is that Comrade Rasheed’s elder son V. Abdul Gafoor in order to wrest control of the company with an eye on its property persecuted him and forced him to withdraw from the company’s activities. Today Al Ameen Ltd. through a series of private share issues and without any reference to the people who founded it in 1948 and those who bailed it out in 1970s, and the purpose for which it was founded, is engaged in purely commercial activities making money and comforts for those who control it. The relationship had reached such a low that Moulavi and Rasheed were not on talking terms with each other. Abdul Gafoor manipulating this rift to his own financial advantage did not help things.
The press was one of the hubs of cultural and intellectual activities in Calicut. Initially Rasheed ran the press along with his second son Baby Rasheed and Advocate Padmanabhan’s son Satheesh. Being right next to the railway station, it was the point of meeting for many literary and cultural icons of Kerala, including the late John Abraham and Kakanadan. It was also a hub for student politics and far left ideologues as many of their pamphlets and magazines were printed here often on credit.
My relationship with Comrade Rasheed predates even my parent’s wedding being arranged. The violence of the RSS at a bad riot in Ranchi in 1967 had shaken my yet-to-be father who is an atheist to the core. Because, the RSS could not find the identity of South Indian Muslims by their name, they raided the HR documents of Heavy Engineering Corporation, where my father was working and started attacking people based on those documents. So at my birth, my father was determined that I don’t have any marker officially that would showcase the community I was born into. When my parents could not find an appropriate name, Comrade Rasheed stepped in and offered to suggest a name on the condition that it would be final and no question would be further asked – and thus I was named. The name could possibly also be a continuation of Babu and Baby as his sons were called.
My birth caused some serious shifts in Comrade Rasheed’s lifestyle. This was partly because I was the first grandchild and partly because I was the only grandchild for more than a decade. I received more attention from him while growing up, than his own children and he is the biggest influence on my persona and choices I have made in life. This doesn’t mean that our relationship was hunky dory; we had our own share of strife and disagreements. Before I was two, my father quit his job with a public sector undertaking and shifted to the Sultanate of Oman. My mother Rasheed’s eldest child Jasmine and I spent the next two years with him in Calicut – first in a rented house in a suburb called Panniyankara, later in a property owned by Al Ameen off Link road. My grandmother also stayed with us as long as she could during that period
These were exciting political times as the state of emergency came to an end and the first non-congress union government was elected to power. The house used to be a hub of activity with political discussions almost all around the clock. These were some of the first memories that I formed. Being at an impressionable age, I became an ardent fan of Morarji Desai – including his penchant for drinking his own urine as therapy. I had started going to a kindergarten nearby and it was Comrade Rasheed’s responsibility to drop me off at the Kindergarten – of course by foot. The morning walks were marked by Comrade Rasheed making a provocative statement about Morarji Desai which would offend me and that would set off an heated debate.In the midst of one such debate, I tripped and fell, my forehead hitting the corner of a parapet wall and started bleeding profusely. (My memory of it is thick blood blinding my eyes – but that could be because of my relatively small size and the fact that it was the first accident in my memory). Comrade Rasheed panicked and could not do anything and rushed me home, where Beepathu teacher cleaned me up and got me to the clinic of our family friend and GP Dr. Venugopal. For all the fuss and drama, I was perfectly fine except for a snick which got dressed immediately and within minutes after snacking on a chocolate I was back to my calm self. So to make a conversation, Dr. Venugopal asked me as to what exactly happened and to everyone’s amusement, I very seriously told him that Comrade Rasheed had pushed me on the parapet because he did not like Morarji Desai!
When my father returned to India and our family moved to Salem, Tamil Nadu – Comrade Rasheed would use every opportunity to visit me. Every time he travelled to Bombay and back, he would break his journey at Salem only to spend time with me. On the other hand, whenever I had my holidays, I was his constant travel companion in Kerala. Travelling with him meant walking or using the cheapest form of public transport. Even when friends or relatives offered him a lift, he would politely refuse and carry on by foot. One of my most memorable walks was with Comrade Rasheed when I was 13, covering a distance of around 61 kms over a span of two days. Those days the countryside hardly had compound walls and pathways were essentially based on convenience. We started one morning from his house in Panampad near Ponnani, Malappuram District, walked through coconut groves and paddy fields stopping for refreshments and dropping in on friends, co-travellers and relatives. Throughout the walk, he regaled me with stories and mythologies of the places we were passing through, including first hand history. Whenever I complained of tiredness, he would assure me that the next destination was just 5 minutes away.
The first night, we reached one of his closest friend and fellow Trotskyite, George Mash’s house at Pavaratty whose wife Alice aunty pampered and treated me to some of the best delicacies making the long walk worthwhile. (She passed away a short while after that due to breast cancer)
The next morning we set out with the same no routine and reached Thrissur town in the evening. My first memories of writer, editor, journalist and award winning translator Moosakutty Nakkolakkal is from then. After spending some time with him, he dropped me off at a relative’s house where there were other children to keep me company while he stayed back at Moosakutty’s place. The next morning we set out for Pudukkad and spend the first half of the day with the family of late Rajettan, an entrepreneur and a close friend of both Comrade Rasheed as well as my father. Post lunch, we took the first public transport – a bus- on the journey (perhaps he realized that I might soon protest) to Alwaye to his sister’s place – a scenic old house by the river. It was also on that trip that I first met the noted artist and Laurie Baker’s student M.V. Devan The return journey I didn’t trust his promises of short walks and was completely by buses and uneventful!
As I reached my adolescence, I was a superstitious mess, who was scared to sleep with the lights off. It was on one of his trips with his friend Athadi Damodaran that he gifted me with Abraham Kovoor’s “Gods, Demons and Spirits” that converted me into an atheist. And like any new convert, I was a fundamentalist and deeply apologetic about my identity and origin. This started becoming a serious issue of contention between the two of us. I could not understand his engagement with Muslim politics in particular. The discord became more vocal when he started contributing to Madhyamam – which I saw at that point of time as regressive – given that it was run by Jamaat-e-Islami. He did not try to out-argue me – instead patiently tried to instill in me the importance of engaging with my own identity without being ashamed of it. I suppose I learned my lesson much later with political and activists engagements in my adult life.
He facilitated much of my worldview – including encouraging my fascination for literature and getting me to introduce myself to literary stalwarts. Two friends that I made this way include late Kamala Suraiyya and K. Satchidanandan. He also brokered peace between my parents and me when I decided not to pursue science based professional education. In all matters pertaining to politics or family he treated me as an equal. When he realized that I was addicted to smoking – he gifted me his discarded pipe with the hope that I would inhale less of the poison. On a lighter note, he requested me not to smoke in his presence not because he had a problem with it – but onlookers would be uncomfortable!
Rasheed’s fascination for Salem was not just his grandson – but his love for Sivaji Ganesan cinema. Every time he visited – he would frequent all the local theatres that showed any Sivaji movie. He would roam around Salem, make friends on his own and had his own little social life which ranged from an ageing Dalit leader of the Communist Party of India to a Gujarati photographer. But then he would do this wherever he went. Once on a trip back from Bombay, his travel companions happened to be a Bohra Muslim family with whom he got very friendly. They shared their food and drinks with him and overall had a pleasant trip. When they reached Katpadi station, the patriarch of the family asked him where he had stayed in Bombay. When he said that he was the guest of Asghar Ali Engineer – the family apparently completely clammed up and shut him off for the rest of the journey. Later, when his co-traveller from the Bombay trade union movement – Insaan moved to Salem, he found another reason to visit Salem.
While Rasheed considered himself to have retired from active political activism – the growth of Hindutva politics and consequent Muslimophobia in the eighties and the nineties disturbed him and he started being vocally critical about the way mainstream media and politics fostered Muslimophobia and Hindutva. It was in particular this political consciousness that led him to engage with community organisations and it was an extension of his political self. This did not in any way affect his conviction in Trotskyite politics or his lack of religious belief. When he visited me in February 1998 at Delhi – my friend Milton Francis, a reporter with Madhyamam then gifted him with a book on O. V. Vijayan’s spirituality and life view – he half in jest told him that Marx and Trotsky were enough to fill any spiritual void he may have.
Despite his rift with his father, Rasheed would insist that I visit Moidu Moulavi every time I was in Calicut. I was like a receptacle that communicated between father and son. Moulavi also looked forward to my visits and they were always punctuated with story-telling sessions – even after I had become an adult. The father-son rift saw final resolution at the deathbed of Moulavi’s second daughter from cancer in 1991. She is the youngest person to have died in the direct family.
Rasheed was an avid letter writer. His persistent letter writing got him many friends across the world. He swore by the Indian post and was more comfortable in articulating even his angst and emotions through letters. He always carried an arsenal of pens, post cards, inland covers and stamps in his shoulder bag. This also made him pen friends from across the world, especially with those who had left political inclinations. One story that floats around in Veliyancode, where his family lived for a long while as his children were growing up was the arrival of an American teenager in the early 1950s. This boy, the son of a senior US diplomat had managed to reach Veliyancode despite all the obstacles. There were no public transport to the village itself and he would have had to hike for kilometres together. He did not know a word of Malayalam and nobody in the village seemed to know English. And most people knew of Comrade Rasheed only as Beepathu teacher’s husband. Unable to find the house, he roamed around for some hours before spotting a meeting which was being held under a red flag. And he was directed to Rasheed’s house. For the village every white man was English and with the rarity of white visitors has the visit of the Englishman etched in its memory.
His letter writing found him friends not only across the globe, but also at home. After he started his column, Vayanikidayil (Between Reading) in Madhyamam, he encouraged his readers to communicate with him and religiously replied to them. Once he wrote about his step-uncle, a polygamous preacher who contracted marriage at every village he went to preach. Nobody knew how many wives he had or children he had fathered. On a walk with his wife, when she had to use the restroom, they ventured into the nearest house only to find out that this was one of this uncle’s families. He ended the piece with a note that other similar lost cousins could get in touch with him and did manage to connect with a couple of them.
Rasheed’s progressive positions on women’s education, empowerment and agency won him many women fans and admirers. But that was one area of acrimony between him and me. The problem was that while he advocated the importance of education for women and all his sisters were educated and his wife was the head of the family, his own daughters were married off immediately after they finished their tenth class. I am still not convinced with the excuse that he gave me – that his wife was the head of the family and final decisions regarding the family was taken by her – and it was she who decided that the girls should be married off when good alliances came about. Apart from the feebleness of the excuse, I do not believe that he did not have persuasive powers over his wife.
It was only after the retirement of Beepathu teacher that the couple started having a permanent hearth together. Beepathu teacher initially moved to Calicut. But being used to the unpolluted air of Veliyancode, she started developing a number of health problems. Further, she was missing her circle in Veliyancode and this along with other minor family issues got them to move back to Veliyancode. They were ageing and it was becoming increasingly impractical to let them live by themselves – to top it Beepathu teacher was fast slipping into Alzhiemer’s based dementia. Their elder son Abdul Gafur took them to his house on the pretext of taking care of them – got their properties registered in his name and threw them out. My father got a desperate call from Comrade Rasheed and that is how the couple spend the last four years of their lives in Salem. This incident broke the man’s heart and will to live. He felt his self respect was compromised and holding back his tears told my father that he would have managed somehow if it were not for his unwell wife. He was more than in love with his wife. The only personal date that he remembered was their wedding anniversary, not even his own or birthdays of his children. When Beepathu teacher passed away last January – I think he gave up on wanting to live. He would tell people that his warranty period had expired and he was living out the bonus. After a brief stay with his younger daughter, when he got back to Salem he gave my mother all the clothes that were presented to honour him prophetically saying in jest that it was unlikely he would get any more. He died less than a month later.
Well, I don’t believe in divinity, but I do believe in poetry. And I believe that it is one of my life’s poems that the person who took care of me when I was in my formative years was taken care of by me in his departing years!