Source: Charles Wesley Ervin
Copyright: (c) 2008 Charles Wesley Ervin. Published here for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line with permission.
This year marks the twelfth anniversary of the death of B.M.K. Ramaswamy, one of the pioneers of the Trotskyist movement both in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. Born in colonial Ceylon, Ramaswamy joined the country’s first socialist party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which was formed in 1935. But it was in India that he really made his mark. Sent by the LSSP to Madurai at the start of WWII, he was a founding member of the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI), the Indo-Ceylonese section of the Fourth International, the “world party of socialist revolution” which Leon Trotsky had launched as the revolutionary alternative to the Stalinized Communist International. Ramaswamy participated in the historic Quit India revolt of 1942-43. Despite the government repression, he developed BLPI branches in Madurai, Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), and numerous villages in the Theni District of what is now Tamil Nadu.
Ramaswamy was a gifted writer as well as an effective party organizer. He recruited and mentored many of the pioneer Trotskyists of Tamil Nadu. Working clandestinely during the war, he formed several unions in Madurai. In 1947 he helped his comrades in Madras (Chennai) lead the famous 100-day strike of the textile workers. Thanks to his work, the BLPI got a mass following and trade-union base that very few Trotskyist parties have ever achieved.
Ramaswamy never became famous. He died virtually in obscurity. I learned about him only after his death, while digging in the archives of the Trotskyist movement in India and Ceylon. Fortunately, several of his old party comrades are still alive and were glad to learn that someone was interested in Ramaswamy. I could not have written this tribute without the help of two of his oldest comrades: Karuppiah Appanraj in Chennai and Appavoopillai Patchamuthu in Colombo. I also gratefully acknowledge the help I received from Canadian Trotskyist journalist, Raghu Krishnan, who had interviewed Ramaswamy in 1991.
I decided not to encumber this tribute with the scholarly apparatus of footnotes. For sources and detailed background, please see my book, Tomorrow is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon 1935-1948 (Colombo: Social Scientists Association, 2006).
|B.M.K. Ramaswamy at his home in Chennai, age 77, holding the biography of Trotsky which he wrote and published in 1989-90. Photo: Raghu Krishnan|
Political Awakening in Colonial Ceylon
B.M.K. Ramaswamy was born in 1914 at Nattandiya, a village in Puttalam District, close to Negombo, Ceylon. His ancestral roots were in Tamil Nadu. Ramaswamy had an elder brother, Shanmuganathan, who also joined the LSSP, went to India, and worked with the BLPI. Patchamuthu tells me that Ramaswamy studied Sinhala in school and “passed out as a Sinhala trained teacher though a Tamil” in the ‘thirties.
These were exciting times. In India the Congress roused millions in the civil disobedience movements of 1920-22 and 1930-32. The turbulent Indian nationalist struggle resonated in sleepy Ceylon, particularly with the Tamil intellectuals in Jaffna, who formed the Jaffna Youth Congress and agitated for complete independence. The Jaffna Youth Congress inspired others to launch Youth Leagues elsewhere. In 1931 the various Youth League organizations united to form the Youth Congress. The Youth Leagues called for a boycott of the elections to the new State Council that had been created by the Donoughmore Constitution.
In 1932 year Philip Gunawardena, “the father of socialism in Sri Lanka,” returned home after ten years in America and England, where he had become a Communist and then a Trotskyist. A fiery platform orator and astute politician, Philip radicalized the Youth Leagues, while mentoring an inner circle of Marxists who became known as the “T Group” (for Trotskyist).
In late 1935 this group launched the LSSP. The founding conference, attended by some 40 Marxists and radicals from around the island, attracted a number of Tamils. Chellapa Tharmakulasingham, the first Tamil Marxist in Ceylon, organized the Omnibus Union in Jaffna. The brothers Vallipuram Sittampalam and Vallipuram Sachithanandam helped build the Tobacco Workers Union in Jaffna. Ramaswamy and his elder brother were also founding members.
The LSSP program called for national independence and socialism. The name “Sama Samaja” (equal society) was significant. The party opposed all discrimination based on class, caste, gender, religion, or language. The LSSP demanded that both Sinhala and Tamil be officially recognized as national languages. The new party carried the red flag emblazoned with the communist hammer and sickle emblem. Party members wore red shirts and raised the clenched fist salute. In the context of that time, all of this was outlandishly revolutionary.
The new party promptly contested the elections to the second State Council in 1936. Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera were elected. They used the chamber as a platform to criticize, mock, and shame the British government and the “brown sahibs” of the Ceylonese plantocracy.
Outside the genteel chambers of the State Council, the party leaders were engaged in a very rough fight to get a base in the working class in Colombo. The entrenched labor boss, A.E. Goonesinghe, sent armed thugs to break up LSSP meetings. Philip Gunawardena and his brother Robert attacked the assailants like wild tigers, earned the respect of the workers, and for the next five years fought an uphill battle to dethrone Goonesinghe.
I have not been able to find out much about Ramaswamy’s activities in the early LSSP, other than that he translated the party’s anthem into both Tamil and Sinhala and the Communist Manifesto into Sinhala (published in 1940).
War and Repression
In the late ‘thirties, while the Comintern was singing cheery songs of peace through the Popular Front, Trotsky warned again and again that only revolution could avert a terrible new “inter-imperialist” world war. The LSSP echoed that position. By 1939 the world was in fact hurtling towards the precipice. In August Stalin signed the infamous non-aggression pact with Hitler. One month later England and France declared war on Germany.
The onset of the war precipitated an inevitable ideological crisis in the LSSP. From the start a minority of the LSSP leadership had been soft on Stalinism. That turned to a hard pro-Moscow loyalty by the late ‘thirties. The dominant party leader, Philip Gunawardena, who had himself been a Communist in England, clearly recognized the threat. He forced a showdown and mustered a solid majority in the party’s executive committee to boot the Stalinists out of the party.
In the State Council Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera thundered condemnation of the “imperialist war” and refused to vote for defense funds. The pesky party was becoming a thorn in the side of the government in other ways, too. In the hill country LSSP agitators, including the young Patchamuthu, were spearheading strikes by the Tamil tea plantation workers. The British would tolerate no more. In June 1940 the government jailed the LSSP leader, Philip Gunawardena, and three of his lieutenants. The other party leaders quickly went underground to avoid arrest
After expelling the Stalinists, the LSSP executive committee proclaimed its solidarity with the Trotskyist Fourth International. The government banned the party. Many sympathizers retreated in fear. This was a moment of truth. The LSSP was now an outlaw party waving the red flag of a persecuted revolutionary minority. Ramaswamy and his brother remained steadfast.
The “Colonization” of India
From the start the LSSP had established fraternal connections with the Congress Socialist Party and other left-wing groups in India. The LSSP sent delegations to the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress. It was through these forays that the LSSP came into contact with groups of Trotskyists working in Bombay, Calcutta, and other towns. The Ceylonese Trotskyists wanted to help their comrades on the mainland get unified into a single party. In order to hasten that process, the LSSP decided to dispatch select party members to India.
The first to go was Vaithianathan Balasingham, a Ceylon Tamil from Jaffna who had joined the LSSP while a student at Ceylon University College. He was the elder brother of V. Karalasingham, who also joined the LSSP and went up to India during the war. In 1939 Balasingham went to work with the All Ceylon Estate Workers Union in Kandy and led strikes on several plantations in the Central Province. In May 1940 he moved to Madurai and assumed the name “Peter” for security purposes.
Balasingham got connected with a radical Congressman, T.G. Krishnamurthy, who was a supporter of the Fourth International. He had contacts in the high schools, colleges, and factories of Madurai. Soon Balasingham had cultivated a group of young sympathizers, which included C. Govindarajulu, a student at Madurai College, who is still alive in Madurai.
Given the police surveillance, Balasingham had to work clandestinely. He used his sympathizers as his “post box.” The police soon got wind of his activities nevertheless. A confidential government report (now declassified in the India Office Library in London) noted that Balasingham was “smuggling Trotskyist literature from Ceylon into the Tanjore district.” The last thing the British wanted was an LSSP in India.
On July 23, 1941 the police arrested Balasingham and three of his recruits. They found Trotskyist literature in Govindarajulu’s home in Vadugapatti. Balasingham and Govindarajulu were jailed for three months. The Chief Secretary of the Madras government informed the Home Department that the Trotskyist nucleus in Madras Province had been broken up.
After his release from jail, Balasingham resumed his political work. However, the life of this promising cadre was tragically cut short. On February 25, 1943, while walking on Turret Road in Colombo, he was struck and killed by a military lorry. A sad coincidence: C. Tharmakulasingham, the pioneer Tamil Marxist who was an LSSP front-rank leader in Point Pedro (Parutthi Thurai), died a tragic early death.
Mission to Madurai
The LSSP sent Ramaswamy to rebuild the fledgling organization in Madurai. He re-established connection with the students and the radical Congressmen. He called himself “S.P.” His elder brother, Shanmuganathan, joined him soon thereafter.
Another Ceylon Tamil supporter of the LSSP, Kanagarathnam, a proctor in Jaffna who had played a key role in testing the escape route for the Samasamajist leaders from via Velvettiturai in July 1942, himself followed suit and crossed over the Pal Straights to India in 1942. He decamped for a period of time in Madurai, where he helped the struggling BLPI group.
The political situation suddenly changed. Ever since Stalin signed his infamous non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939, the Communist Party in India was denouncing British imperialism and blaming the war on Britain. But in December 1941 the Germans attacked the USSR, taking the Soviets by surprise. The blow to Soviet defenses was nearly fatal. Stalin had to do a flip-flop. The Comintern announced that the Communist parties had to support Britain and her allies in the “people’s war against fascism.” In contrast, the Fourth International called for the defeat of Britain and her imperialist allies and victory for the USSR, which the Trotskyists regarded as still a “workers state,” despite the Stalinist regime which had usurped political power. This line resonated within the Congress leadership. In August 1942 the official Congress paper, Harijan , criticized the “Peoples War” line and cited the Trotskyist position as the better alternative.
K. Appanraj, who was then a student at the American College in Madurai, recalls: “The Communists moved a resolution in the student federation conference in Madurai in support of the People’s War. I strongly opposed it and walked out from the conference. This brought me to the notice of radical Congress leaders. They contacted me and took me to Comrade Balasingham and introduced him as ‘Peter’. For three or four days we had political discussions and then he suddenly disappeared. After that I was introduced to Comrade Ramaswamy. He led political classes regularly.” Ramaswamy recruited Appanraj.
Meanwhile, the war was moving ever closer. The Japanese captured Singapore and routed the British in Burma. Their subs prowled the Bay of Bengal. Japanese planes bombed the ports at Madras and Visakhapatnam in India and Colombo and Trincomalee (Thirukonamalai) in Ceylon. With the British in a tight corner, Gandhi upped the ante. He started talking about launching another mass civil disobedience movement to win independence.
The Ceylonese Trotskyists sensed that a historic showdown was in the offing in India. The LSSP cadres who were still at large decided to get to India as soon as possible. But first they had to rescue their four leaders from jail. That task was not as daunting or dangerous as it sounds. The imprisoned leaders had already recruited their warden. On the appointed night, a team of Trotskyists drove up to the jail and whisked away the prisoners plus their new comrade to hideouts that had already been secured in Colombo. Over the next three months the party made preparations for the exodus to India. In July, 1942 the top leaders and more than a dozen cadres escaped to the mainland in fishing boats. The larger contingent went to Bombay; the rest joined Ramaswamy in Madurai. This group included the Ceylon Tamils, S.C.C. Anthony Pillai, a member of the LSSP central committee, and Kanagarathnam, who had played a key role in planning the successful escape from the island.
In August, 1942 Gandhi gave his famous “do or die” speech in Bombay, calling upon his countrymen to force the British to “quit India” immediately. Unlike the CPI, which flatly opposed any struggle that might weaken the war effort, the BLPI gave unconditional support to any actions that were directed against British imperialism. The government promptly arrested Gandhi and other top-echelon Congressmen. That provoked angry protests in the streets of Bombay and across India. The mobs uprooted railway tracks, cut telephone and telegraph lines, torched railway stations and other government buildings, and tried to create as much mayhem as possible. There was bloodshed on both sides. In Madras Province on September 20 some Congress militants attacked the Kulasekarapattinam salt factory, burned down the weighing shed, and killed the assistant manager.
In Madurai Ramaswamy went underground with T.G. Krishnamurthy and other militant Congressmen. Together they produced and distributed leaflets supporting the mass revolt. The British authorities, who thought that the Trotskyist party had been smashed in Madras Province, sat up and took note. The police reported that the Trotskyists seemed to be influencing the underground Congress movement in Madras Province. Indeed, some conservative Congressmen complained about the Trotskyist propaganda in Congress leaflets.
Recruiting on the Run
Always staying one jump ahead of the police, Ramaswamy, his brother, and T.G. Krishnamurthy toured throughout Tamil Nadu, making contact with underground militants and leading study classes in Marxism. Krishnamurthy started translating Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution into Tamil.
Ramaswamy seems to have been an amazing recruiter. Thanks to his work, the BLPI soon had a network of members extending from Madurai south to Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) and west to the hill country bordering what is now Kerala. In the Theni District alone, Ramaswamy recruited members in Bodinayakkanur, Lakshmi Naicken Patty, Thevaram, Theni, and Pannaipuram. A number of these recruits from the hinterland went on to play important roles in the BLPI and later Trotskyist parties.
During the Quit India struggle some Congress militants carried out dacoities (robberies) to get money to finance the struggle. This was a practice that the early Indian revolutionary groups had started in 1906 during the Swadeshi movement. T.G. Krishnamurthy apparently decided that his group, too, should carry out a dacoity. He assigned his hapless associate, Karrupa Pillai, to rob a rich family living in the town of Devakotti. The dacoity was bungled. Two or three months later, the police arrested Krishnamurthy and another comrade, A.K. Ponniah Ambalam, and they were sent to the Vellore Central Jail. In jail Krishnamurthy won over several Congressmen, including a militant who had been sentenced to death for participating in the attack on the Kulasekarapattinam salt factory.
Poverty and Illness
After the Quit India revolt subsided, Ramaswamy resumed his clandestine organizing work in Madurai. Every day he faced risks. He had to always be on the lookout for the police, who were conducting a manhunt for the Ceylonese fugitives. He also had to worry about the Communists (Stalinists), who were collaborating with the government to support the war. As has been documented many times, the Communist Party of India played a despicable role. The Communists had no scruples about betraying Congress militants and anti-war leftists to the police. In Bombay the Communists infiltrated the BLPI branch, discovered where the cadres were living, and tipped off the police. As a result, the police smashed the BLPI branch in Bombay in July 1943.
Ramaswamy was a full-time party organizer. He subsisted on what Kanagarathnam was able to give him. But when Kanagarathnam returned to Ceylon, he was left penniless. Appanraj recalls: “In the early days Ramaswamy had no place to reside and money to pull on. Tailor comrade Siddhaman came to his help by accommodating him in his small tailor shop. The shop was closed on three sides by walls but no window for ventilation, no fan. The front side was closed by eight wooden doors. Ramasamy slept on the wooden cutting table. The Municipal Public Convenience was the toilet and bath room for him.” The little tailor shop became the “headquarters” for the BLPI branch. Appanraj recalls: “We used to go there very often to meet and discuss the party affairs.”
These hardships took their toll quickly. “The worst environment and poverty pushed him to tuberculosis,” says Appanraj. “Comrade Siddhaman took him to a doctor for the treatment and Ramaswamy was fighting against the disease with courage and difficulty. No one would have led such a dreadful life and carry on political work. But Ramaswamy, with sincere dedication, laid the strong foundation for the Trotskyist movement at Madurai and its surroundings.”
He formed unions in the Harvey Cotton Mills and the Mahalakshmi Mills in Madurai. He also developed a group of workers in the Sri Meenakshi Mills. Later, after the war, the BLPI was able to capitalize on this work. The BLPI led strikes in the Meenakshi Mills in mid-1946 and in the Mahalakshmi Mills in 1947.
A Close Call
Ramaswamy was active in the Goripalayam section of Madurai, near the American College. He recruited several young men in the area. One ran a tea stall, which Ramaswamy used as a place to meet sympathizers and talk politics. It was only a matter of time before the police sniffed out this activity.
“One day,” Appanraj remembers, “Shanmuganathan brought a man named Buhari. He was introduced as a Trotskyist of Ceylon. He also mingled with us and helped us in many ways. But actually he was a police spy.” He may well have been planted by the Stalinists. In any case the police raided the tea stall. Ramaswamy escaped just as the officers were entering. The police kept the stall under surveillance. The next day a party sympathizer walked into the trap. The police searched his home and found the hidden cyclostyle machine that the BLPI used to print leaflets. The police also found his diary, in which he had written the addresses of his contacts in the BLPI. The police pounced again. However, Ramaswamy had already left for Madras, as had Bodi Muthiah, S.C.C. Anthony Pillai, and Appanraj. In 1944 the Intelligence Bureau noted in a confidential report that “an underground organization of a potentially dangerous character was completely broken up.”
Next Stop: Madras
In Madras Ramaswamy joined the BLPI branch, which had become the largest in the party. He roomed with some sympathetic students in Purasawalkam. Given the no-strike policy of the Communist Party, the Trotskyists were able to make headway on the labor front. The BLPI had cadres working in the Perambur workshops of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway, a hotbed of labor and nationalist activity, as well as the huge Buckingham and Carnatic Mills (known locally as Binnys), the cradle of the Indian labor movement. The Madras Labour Union, the largest and oldest in India, began in the Binnys mills. Through the work of Bodi M. Muthiah in particular, the BLPI began to win support not only on the shop floors but also in the executive committees of the unions.
Ramaswamy and his brother were assigned to develop cells in the textile mills. They used to meet with the laborers in the slum districts which surrounded the mills. This was risky work in many ways. In his memoirs Robert Gunawardena, brother of LSSP leader Philip, recounts one of his visits to Madras in 1943: “Madras City at that time was in the grip of a wave of Cholera and it was highly unsafe for anybody to visit there. But I had to go there as two of our party workers from Ceylon, Ramaswamy and his brother who had left Ceylon earlier and come to Madras City, had organized a cell of workers at a textile mill. Ramaswamy was keen that I should meet these workers and give them a pep talk.”
Another Close Call
In 1944 the BLPI held its first all-India conference. Since the police had smashed the party branch in Bombay in July 1943, the BLPI decided to hold the gathering in Madras, where there was a sizable and well-functioning underground apparatus. The Ceylonese party leaders who had escaped the round-up in Bombay had escaped to Madras. With the police hot on their trail, security had to be tight. The conference was held at the BLPI “commune,” a large, two-story house in Venus Colony in Teynampet.
According to the minutes, “Comrade S.P.” (Ramaswamy) participated in the conference with full voting rights. The agenda was packed. The party had to discuss and formulate a line on an array of complex new developments, such as the rise of the Muslim League in India, the character of the war in China, and the role of the Soviet Red Army in Eastern Europe.
Just as important, the conference devoted considerable time to discussing party organization. The BLPI had been formally launched in May, 1942, at a small meeting in Bombay. Because only a handful of the Indian and Ceylonese leaders could attend this meeting, the party was established on a “provisional” basis until such time that a representative conference could be organized. At the Madras conference there was a spread of opinions on just how centralized the party should become at that point. Ramaswamy was particularly active in those debates. According to the sketchy minutes, he seems to have been consistently in favor of tightening and formalizing the party organization along Bolshevik lines.
Somehow the police found out that this conference was taking place. Patchamuthu, who was one of the delegates from Ceylon with full voting rights (in the minutes he is “Ganesh”), recalls: “On the third or fourth day this conference had to be abruptly terminated, as an urgent message came that the police were about to raid the place and arrest all the participants. By the time we received the message, most of the resolutions had been hotly debated and decided. We hardly had any time to say good bye.”
The fact that the BLPI was getting a base in Madras Province troubled the government. In their own way, they too realized the potential of a LSSP-BLPI axis based on the Tamils on both sides of the Palk Strait. The police stepped up their hunt for Ramaswamy. Since they didn’t know what he looked like, they brought their spy from Madurai up to Madras.
In April 1945, the spy, with police trailing not far behind, spotted Ramaswamy and Bodi Muthiah, the Madras organizer, walking in the bustling Moore Market, where they went to get non-vegetarian meals. He walked up and started a friendly conversation-that was his signal to the police who were watching from a distance. The police didn’t arrest them on the spot. That was not how they worked. They followed them back to Purasawalkam to find out where they were living. The police arrested them in their room, took them off to jail, and posted men outside to keep watch for others to arrive. Sure enough, the next morning one of the Ceylonese fugitives (the jail warden Solomon) came and, finding the room empty, went home. He was rooming with the party leader, Anthony Pillai, in a secluded house in Kilpauk. The police hit the jackpot. Later that night they arrested Pillai and two other Ceylonese fugitives. The local newspaper reported that the Ceylonese were arrested for having “illegal documents,” meaning banned literature of the Fourth International
Ramaswamy and Pillai were imprisoned in the Alipuram Jail, which was home to many a freedom fighter at that point. With his tuberculosis that jail sentence could have been fatal. Though he survived, he suffered from debilitating respiratory conditions for the rest of his life.
The Historic Madras General Strike of 1947
After his release from prison Ramaswamy resumed his work with the Madras party. The work that BLPI cadres (above all, Bodi M. Muthiah) had done in the Perambur railway workshops of the M&SM Railway Union and the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills was now paying off. The Perambur workers elected S.C.C. Anthony Pillai to be president of their union. In addition, the executive committee of the Madras Labour Union, which represented the workers in the B&C Mills, also elected Anthony Pillai president of the union in June 1946. This was a huge breakthrough. A talented and energetic Trotskyist now stood at the helm of the two largest unions in Madras. But it also presented an immediate challenge. The very next day the workers in the Binnys mills declared a strike. Pillai led the strike to a victory after 48 days of struggle.
In 1947 the Madras Labour Union again called a strike in the Binnys mills. The 14,000 workers responded as one man. The BLPI had to throw every single available cadre in Madras into the strike committees. Ramaswamy took an active role. This strike, which lasted more than 100 days, was truly a landmark labor battle in India. Although Binnys, with the full backing of the Congress government, wore down the strikers, the union emerged with tremendous prestige. Anthony Pillai was a hero. The BLPI cadres had proven their mettle in the heat of battle.
After the strike, the BLPI called mass meetings which attracted tens of thousands in Madras and Madurai. In Madras, the BLPI was in a position to rival the Communist Party, which had lost prestige and credibility as a result of its collaboration with the government and hostility to the Freedom Fighters during the war. The Communists recognized the threat. The Stalinists sent goondas to disrupt the BLPI rallies. But the Trotskyists had their own defense guards, including peasant activists from surrounding villages who came armed with spears, and the Communists had to learn the hard way that the Trotskyists would not be silenced.
Proposal to Enter the Socialist Party
In 1946 some members of the BLPI in Bombay proposed that the party enter the Congress Socialist Party. In their view the BLPI, though growing, was too small and marginal to get critical mass on its own. Therefore, the Trotskyists should join the much larger Socialist Party, constitute a de facto left wing, recruit to their faction, and exit stronger than before.
This “entry tactic” was not their brainchild. The godfather was Trotsky himself. In the mid-1930s, when the Socialists in the West were radicalizing under the impact of the Depression and the threatening rise of Hitler, Trotsky proposed that his followers join the Social Democratic parties and fight for their politics with the goal of winning over new cadres. The French, American, and several other sections carried out the raiding operation, with mixed results.
The entry proposal was placed on the agenda of the BLPI conference held in Bombay during May 1947. The pro-entry faction, dubbed “entry wallas,” argued that there was a rank-and-file revolt brewing in the Socialist Party and therefore the BLPI should “enter the SP with the perspective of crystallizing this growing opposition around its program and emerging from the SP with a considerably strengthened revolutionary party.” The majority, which included the delegates from Madras and Madurai, were skeptical and defeated the proposal.
However, the debate continued in the party branches over the next year. In Madras and Madurai, where the BLPI was stronger than the Socialists, the majority were opposed to merger. Ramaswamy and the Madras organizer, Bodi M. Muthiah (“Manickam”), were staunch supporters of the entry tactic.
The Socialist Party continued to grow dramatically. “In the year 1948,” Appanraj recalls in one of his letters, “the Congress Socialists held their All India Conference at Madurai for two days. On the second day Sri Jayaprakash Narayan addressed a public meeting in which lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of people gathered. Madurai had not so far seen such a mammoth public meeting except for Gandhiji. In that conference the Congress Socialist Party decided to come out of Congress and function independently under the name Socialist Party of India. J.P was elected unanimously as President of the Party. This public meeting and conference impressed our party people.” The Socialist Party looked like it was becoming the mass opposition to the Nehru government.
At the next BLPI conference, held in June 1948, the entry proposal was again placed on the agenda. Prior to the conference, the party branches elected their delegates. The Madurai branch, which was the second largest in the BLPI, elected Ramaswamy and Sethuraman, a graduate of Madras University who had become a party worker in the Madras Labour Union, to be their deleates. However, for some reason Ramaswamy did not attend. The minutes of the conference simply note “Ramaswamy absent.” The entry proposal was hotly debated at the conference. Given the differences, the delegates decided to call a special party conference as soon as possible to decide the issue.
The Special Convention of the BLPI convened in Calcutta on October 15, 1948. Once again, Ramaswamy was absent. This time, the minutes are more informative. “Two delegates from Madura who were elected on the entryist ticket were unable to attend owing to financial reasons. In fact one delegate who left Madura for the Convention had to return as he lost his money en route to Calcutta.” However, Ramaswamy must have been pleased with the outcome. After two days of discussion, the delegates reached consensus that the Socialist Party was in the process of becoming a “mass social democratic party” with a trade-union base. Therefore, in order to find a path to the working class, the Trotskyists should join the Socialist Party with a long-term perspective of building up a militant Marxist left wing. That proposal was adopted unanimously.
A Risky Proposition
When he first proposed the “entry tactic” in the thirties, Trotsky stressed that the maneuver carried considerable risk. If the Trotskyists didn’t function as a cohesive, disciplined group within the host party, they could sink into the quicksand of the Social Democracy. The BLPI leaders were well aware of that danger. They planned to set up a “guiding center” in Bombay, which would produce an internal discussion bulletin for the Trotskyist contingent.
However, the Socialist leaders were no fools. They knew exactly what the Trotskyists had up their sleeve; the “entryism” of the Trotskyists in the ‘thirties was hardly secret. Furthermore, the Socialists had their own bitter experience with “entryism.” In the late ‘thirties the Communist Party entered the Congress Socialist Party and took over entire branches. Once burned, twice shy. The Socialists demanded, as a precondition for the merger, that the Trotskyists agree to toe the Socialist line and refrain from any factional activity in their party.
The leaders of the Fourth International in Paris were worried that the BLPI was pushing ahead with the entry on such unfavorable terms. They sent a letter to the BLPI Political Bureau requesting that the entry be postponed until the party could have a fuller discussion with the participation of the Fourth International. However, for reasons which are not entirely clear, the BLPI leadership decided not to heed this sensible advice. The BLPI agreed to merger on the Socialists’ terms.
The BLPI ceased publication of New Spark and its vernacular newspapers. The cadres applied for membership in the Socialist Party as individuals. Much to the glee of the Communist Party, one of the most promising sections of the Fourth International thus vanished overnight. A heroic chapter had come to a close. Ramaswamy hoped the next chapter would be even better. Alas, he was wrong.
The Shipwreck of the BLPI
In Madras, where the BLPI had been much stronger than the local Socialist organization, the merger got off to a good start. Anthony Pillai, already a popular hero for his leadership of the huge mill strike of the previous year, went from one spectacular success to the next. In 1948 Pillai and two of his comrades were elected to the Madras Municipal Corporation (the city government). That same year he was elected President of the Madras Port Trust Employees' Union. He had become a trade-union leader with national stature. He installed many former BLPI cadres as office holders in unions he created and controlled.
Meanwhile, Ramaswamy, who had been a staunch advocate of the merger, was getting disillusioned. The Socialists would allow no sharp criticism. According to Appanraj, Ramaswamy got into quarrels with the local Socialist leaders and eventually “stayed away” from the party. He was not alone. Other former members of the BLPI, particularly in Bengal, also clashed with the Socialists and broke away to function independently or join other parties.
Ramaswamy was also deeply disappointed at the failure of the former BLPI leaders to provide leadership and keep the Trotskyist group together within the Socialist Party. They had tied their own hands by accepting the discipline imposed from the start by the Socialist leaders. As for the LSSP leaders who had returned to Ceylon in 1945, most of them relapsed into insular Ceylonese politics. Raghu Krishnan relates that even late in life Ramaswamy “was still somewhat bitter about the way in which the LSSP leaders abandoned the BLPI without any clear orientation or leadership once conditions in Ceylon allowed them to return.”
In 1951-52 the first general elections to the parliament of India were held. The Socialist leaders had high hopes. They ran 254 candidates in a campaign which presented the Socialists as the true heirs of the old Gandhian Congress. The Congress won in a massive landslide. The Socialists carried only 12 seats, polling less than 11 percent of the vote. The fact that the Communist Party got 16 seats (though polling only 3 percent of the vote) only added to the sense of humiliation.
The Socialist leaders were traumatized. They negotiated a hasty merger with the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party, which didn’t even pretend to be Marxist, resulting in the formation of the Praja Socialist Party in 1953. The old warhorse, J.P. Narayan, repudiated Marxism altogether, left politics, and dedicated his life to Gandhian social work. Another leader, Achut Patwardan, retired to an Ashram.
The Trotskyists rightly condemned the merger and rallied the dissident Socialists. At that point the Trotskyists could (and arguably should) have exited the corpse of Social Democracy and re-launched a Trotskyist party. In Madras and Madurai, in any case, they would have had significant popular support. While the Socialists had fared poorly in the parliamentary elections, Anthony Pillai had just been elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly.
However, Pillai and other former leaders of the BLPI decided instead to continue the “entry.” The Trotskyists proclaimed that they were “loyal Socialists” who were proudly holding aloft the old flag of the Socialist Party. They had been wearing the mask of reformist socialism and the mask was becoming the face.
Return to Ceylon
Meanwhile, Ramaswamy had other, more personal concerns. His parents in Ceylon were ailing and in need of attention. His brother wanted to remain in India. He published the Tamil magazine Unmai [The Truth]. So Ramaswamy went home to Ceylon in 1953.
He settled in Layards Broadway, a section of Central Colombo. Given his fluent command of the Sinhala language, he got a job teaching Sinhala. He also did a stint writing for a local Tamil newspaper. In 1954 he married and had a son, Desabandhu. He never regained his health. A LSSP old-timer, Clifton Bocks, tells me that Ramaswamy “looked frail at the time.”
Ramaswamy did not re-join the LSSP. The reason was political. Patchamuthu writes: “During the period in Sri Lanka from 1953, he was not actively involved in LSSP work. The fault was not his. The LSSP in 1953 was a mass party with a large trade union base. The leaders were absorbed and involved in parliamentary and election politics. The LSSP politics of that time did not provide a healthy environment for a comrade of Ramaswamy’s personality and caliber. Above all, he was a Marxist thinker.” He re-established contact with some of his old comrades, such as Kanagarathnam, who was then working as a legal adviser to the Ceylon Workers Congress, the largest union for plantation workers.
In 1956 the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike coalition, which now included the former Trotskyist Philip Gunawardena, was swept into power on a program of Sinhalese nationalism. The government exacerbated communal tensions with its policy of “Sinhala only.” There was an eruption of violence against Tamils. The LSSP courageously defended their democratic rights and opposed the rising tide of Sinhalese chauvinism. However, by the early ‘sixties, the LSSP was wavering. A section of the leadership, led by N.M. Perera, advocated an explicitly reformist line of socialism through the ballot box. In 1964 the LSSP followed the footsteps of Philip and entered a coalition government in partnership with Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The LSSP was expelled from the Fourth International for this act of “class collaborationism.”
The LSSP, like Philip before, abandoned its policy of parity for Sinhala and Tamil and climbed on the “Sinhala only” bandwagon. V. Balasubramaniam recalls receiving letters from Ramaswamy in which “he expressed his strong disagreement with the LSSP position on the Ceylonese Tamils.” Pandering to the Sinhalese electorate, the LSSP and its coalition partners in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies helped set the stage for the country’s descent into civil war.
In July, 1983, Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils in towns and villages across the island. Though he spoke Sinhala fluently, and had a deeper appreciation of the Sinhalese culture than the hooligans in the streets, Ramaswamy was not spared. His home was looted and burned. The marauding mobs attacked and injured his family. It was a devastating blow. Ramaswamy decided to return to India where he could at least live in peace with his fellow Tamils.
Since he had served time in jail during the freedom movement, he could qualify for the “Freedom Fighters” pension that the government had established in 1972. Ramaswamy went to Madurai, applied, and was awarded the “Samman” Pension from both the state and central governments. He then brought his family from Sri Lanka and settled in a small flat in Kottivakkam, on the southern outskirts of Madras, where his relatives lived. He began to build a new life in what he called “the sweet land of Tamil Nadu.”
Trotsky in Tamil
Ramaswamy started contacting old comrades scattered around the state. He was keen to gather a group which would translate Trotsky’s writings into Tamil for the benefit of the younger generation. He enlisted the help of his old comrades from the BLPI, and they formed the Samadharmam Ilakkiya Pannai [Socialist Publishing Society]. Ramaswamy, V. Balasubramaniam, and K. Appanraj worked on the translations, while Durairaj ran the publishing operation from a rooming house which he owned in Madurai, called the “Navajeevan” (New Life). The name was symbolic. Ramaswamy, now in his ‘seventies, was beginning his own najaveevan.
|Left to right: V. Balasubramaniam, P.V. Durairaj, and Siddhaman, standing below portrait of Trotsky in office of the Samadharmam Ilakkiya Pannai in Madurai, March 1991. Photo: Raghu Krishnan|
Working from his little flat in Kottivakkam, Ramaswamy wrote a massive biography of Trotsky, titled Tiratski vaazhkkai varalaaru - oru thiranaayvu [Trotsky Biography - An In-Depth Analysis]. The book was published in two volumes; the first in 1989, the second the following year. He also translated the famous “Last Testament of Lenin,” the document in which the Bolshevik leader called for removing Stalin as general secretary of the party. During the Stalin era, the Communists always denied that this document existed.
Balasubramaniam translated Trotsky’s writings on the Russian Revolution, which the Society published in 1991 as Tiratski: October Puratzhi [Trotsky: The October Revolution], with an introductory essay, Iru India Communist Katchigalin Ethir Kalam [The Future of the Two Communist Parties in India], in which Balasubramaniam correctly predicted that the Communist parties would evolve into social democratic parties.
Appanraj translated Leslie Goonewardene’s book, Rise and Fall of the Comintern: From the First to the Fourth International (1947), which the Society published as Puratzhi Pathai [The Way to Revolution]. The Society planned more translations, including Trotsky’s most important books, The Permanent Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed .
Ramaswamy was always a modest man. A former member of the LSSP who visited him in 1990 told me: “He did not beat his drums of glory nor did he sing a heroic ballad of fame and laurels.”
A Final Burst of Energy
In 1991 a Canadian journalist, Raghu Krishnan, went to India to visit relatives in Madras. Krishnan was and remains an active supporter of the Fourth International (more precisely, the branch known as the “United Secretariat”). He wanted to meet some of the old Trotskyists while he was in Tamil Nadu. Ramaswamy was ecstatic. As Krishnan wrote later, “he was overjoyed to re-establish contact with someone ‘from the International’ (and of Tamilian origin at that) after so many years. From his angle, 43 years had passed with no contact between the International and Tamil Nadu Trotskyists.”
Ramaswamy immediately contacted his comrades around the state and called a meeting for July 20, 1991, at the Navajeevan rooming house in Madurai. He hoped this gathering would be the founding conference for a new Trotskyist party. When Krishnan arrived, he was astonished to find “a vast collection of very old ‘traditionally’ dressed Tamil men, almost all former BLPI comrades but now politically inactive or maintaining links with the various groups they joined after the dissolution of the BLPI.” These men had once been the backbone of a growing Trotskyist organization with an impressive labor base. They had been led into the quicksand of the Socialist Party, and then left to sink. The Fourth International thus lost a unique opportunity to become a mass force, at least in South India. As a result, the Trotskyist movement in South Asia became marginalized in little Ceylon.
The participants decided to form a Tamil Nadu Organizing Committee to muster the forces to “re-launch” the BLPI. Balasubramaniam was elected Secretary and editor of the Tamil-language bulletin. Ramaswamy, though now frail and weak at age 77, made this work his mission. News of his efforts reached other veteran Trotskyists elsewhere in India. Raj Narayan Arya, a former member of the BLPI who had remained active in successive Trotskyist parties, recounted to me in a letter recently how excited he had been upon hearing this news: “I contacted Ramaswamy. He was pleased to get my letter. But he was almost invalid at that time - so weak that he could barely walk a few steps. So he gave the name of Balasubramaniam to me. I wrote articles and Bala translated them into Tamil and published them in Xerox copies to circulate to the comrades there.”
Unable to get out much on his own, Ramaswamy focused his life on his writing. He wrote to Ragu Krishnan frequently and in great detail about the work of the Organizing Committee. However, given the age of most of the participants, the committee didn’t make much concrete progress towards the ambitious goal of forming a new party.
Though suffering from chronic asthma, bronchitis, and various bone fractures, Ramaswamy soldiered on undaunted, writing letters, translating Trotsky into Tamil, and writing a book on the Chinese Revolution. As his health deteriorated, he had to move into a nursing home in the Adyar section of Madras. Yet he continued his daily routine of work. Ragu Krishnan says he received a steady stream of “information-packed letters” reporting “all the different contacts he made and initiatives he took.”
On September 30, 1995, at age 81, Ramaswamy died of a sudden heart attack at 2:45am. He was cremated in the Thiruvanmiyur cemetery at 5:00pm that same day. Appanraj remembers sadly: “For a great revolutionary only six or seven persons came to his funeral.” His passing went unnoticed in Sri Lanka. Patchamuthu relates: “Soon after his death in 1995, I tried to get some of my LSSP comrades to write a few lines in memory of his contributions in the glorious days of the BLPI but my request fell on deaf ears.”
I hope this belated tribute does justice to this forgotten “foot soldier of the revolution.”
In their memoirs both Robert Gunawardena and N.M. Perera mention a “Proctor Kanagarathnam” in connection with the escape from the island. This may be a reference to Walter Bernard Canagaratna (1900-1972). Born in Batticaloa to a Protestant family, he taught English and Latin at St. Peter's College, Colombo, and later studied law and became a well-respected Jaffna proctor. He converted to Catholicism and married the sister of S.C.C. Anthony Pillai in 1932. One of his sons, Alosious Jeyaraj Canagaratna (1934-2006), became a distinguished writer, journalist, literary critic, and translator; he produced books on Marxism and Literature and the selected writings of his close friend, Regi Siriwardena (1922-2004). See Robert Gunawardena, “My Political Life,” Daily Mirror , 7 December 1971; and E.P. de Silva, N.M. - A Short Biography , (Colombo, 1975), p. 21.
1. In their memoirs both Robert Gunawardena and N.M. Perera mention a “Proctor Kanagarathnam” in connection with the escape from the island. This may be a reference to Walter Bernard Canagaratna (1900-1972). Born in Batticaloa to a Protestant family, he taught English and Latin at St. Peter's College, Colombo, and later studied law and became a well-respected Jaffna proctor. He converted to Catholicism and married the sister of S.C.C. Anthony Pillai in 1932. One of his sons, Alosious Jeyaraj Canagaratna (1934-2006), became a distinguished writer, journalist, literary critic, and translator; he produced books on Marxism and Literature and the selected writings of his close friend, Regi Siriwardena (1922-2004). See Robert Gunawardena, “My Political Life,” Daily Mirror, 7 December 1971; and E.P. de Silva, N.M. - A Short Biography, (Colombo, 1975), p. 21.