One more May Day. As I watched through my window in the cloudy morning, my neighbourly “attimari” workers assembled and hoisted the red flag, as always. Inquilab Zindabads rent the air. The box speaker tied to a nearby coconut palm blared out the familiar KPAC numbers, including the immortal Balikudeerangale. A few months ago, in true Kerala style, these comrades were running around adorning the street with festoons and cutouts of Attukal Ammachi, organising free meals in connection with the Pongala. I notice the once young and militant comrades are turning grey and tired, the sloganeering, slightly jaded. I remember some of them telling me recently that they were out of work these days as there weren’t any more construction activities around. Their union rules prevented them from working outside their “designated area”. They lamented they were unskilled for any other profession. Their children, too, ill-educated or underskilled, find it hard to get jobs. They also told me confidentialy that some of their comrades have been “bought over” recently by the “communal unions”. It gave me a clue to seeing some of them with multi-hued wrist threads or lengthening beards. The spirit and zeal for the international day of the workers appear to be declining even in Kerala when it always passes unnoticed in most other places. Perhaps, a sign of the times. Trade unions’ clout fades even when the problems the working class face have only become more complex.
Besides, the unions and their leaders have also missed the historic importance of this year’s May Day. It was the centenary of its celebration as workers' day in India. May Day was celebrated for the first time in India in 1923 at Chennai under the leadership of Malayapuram Singaravelu Chettiar, also known as Singaravelar (1860-1946), arguably India’s oldest Communist and South India’s first Communist. Come to think of it, Chettiar, who presided over the country’s first Communist conference at Kanpur in December 1925, also appears to be forgotten like many other very interesting early Indian Communists (like Satyabhakta) even as global icons are memorialized and saluted ad nauseam. Strangely, a Communist citadel like Kerala, lying next to Tamil Nadu, and of which a major segment was the latter’s part, has hardly noticed Chettiar, who was also associated with founding India’s first trade union in Chennai in 1918. How many of us have heard of Chettiar, a generation senior to the famed founders of the Indian Communist movement?
May Day, internationally celebrated as workers’ day since 1889, was observed for the first time in India in 1923 at a meeting held at Chennai’s High Court beach, presided by Chettiar. Chennai’s prominent Congress leader, trade unionist, and top lawyer, Chettiar, launched at the meeting a new party, Hindustan Labour and Kisan Party, to function within Congress. Swadesamitran, the first Tamil newspaper owned by Indians (quoted in Chettiar’s only biography -Singaravelu, first Communist in South India-penned by K.Murugesan and C.S. Subramanian) reported his speech; “Considering the appalling conditions of the workers of the Madras city, I was seeking a way out for the upliftment of the workers. Suddenly, an idea struck me that workers of Madras and other places also should observe the first day of May as the day of the working class, and in order to remove the difficulties of the workers in factories and to help them, it was necessary to form an organisation”.
Chettiar was born to a middle-class family belonging to the fishermen's community in 1860. He was among the few in his community to receive a good education. After graduating from the Presidency College, he took a law degree and enrolled as a lawyer in the Madras High Court. A major turning point came when Chettiar visited London in 1902 to explore rice trading prospects. There he happened to attend the World Buddhist Conference, which made him a Buddhist. Inspired by Iyothee Thass (1845-1914), the sagely Tamil Dalit Buddhist and anti-untouchability activist, Chettiar joined Chennai's Maha Bodhi Society of Buddhists.
But by the 1920s, Chettiar joined Congress after Gandhi -nine years younger than him- made it into a mass movement with agitations and struggles of workers, peasants, etc. Quitting his profession, he burned his gown in public and led the various agitations to protest against Rowlatt Act, the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, etc. He joined the Non-Cooperation movement and led the boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales.
By then, the victorious Russian Revolution and Marxism had caught the imagination of many youngsters, inspired the mushrooming of labour unions, and triggered strikes against exploitation by British capitalists. Always identified with the oppressed sections, Chettiar was at the forefront of the labour agitations of the period. He came into close contact with prominent nationalists and labour leaders of the region like T.V. Kalyanasundara Mudaliar (Thiru Vi Ka), Subramaniam Siva, Rajaji, the Malayali barrister George Joseph, Satyamurthy, and others. Chettiar led the long and legendary strike in the British-owned Buckingham and Carnatic Mills in 1921.
The period also witnessed the phenomenal rise of the backward castes in the form of the Self Respect movement in Tamil Nadu led by EV Ramaswami Naicker. Chettiar was associated closely with the movement and EVR. However, though Chettiar fought the pro-Brahmin tendencies within Congress, he remained aligned with it even when many in the Social Respect movement distanced themselves from it, and some, like those of the Justice Party, even turned pro-British. To check the anti-Congress Justice party, Chettiar was in the forefront with EVR, Thiru Vi Ka, Gooti P Kesava Pillai (not a Malayali), Chakkarai Chettiar, and others to launch a non-Brahmin organisation -Madras Presidency Association- attached to the Congress.
By then, Chettiar was a prolific writer doing regular pieces in The Hindu and other newspapers on nationalist and labour issues, which displayed his Socialist leanings. He wrote to AITUC and Gandhiji on the need to assume more pro-Labour and anti-private property positions. His open proclamation of being a Communist was made in his speech at the 1922 Gaya session of the Indian National Congress, although he reiterated his support for Gandhian non-violence. Chettiar explained that on the point of non-violence, he differed from fellow Communists abroad. He was praised by Communists like MN Roy, who, despite some differences, marveled “at the courage of the grey-bearded man to openly proclaim himself a Communist when younger spirits quailed in terror at the prospect of government prosecution and ostracism from the ranks of respectable nationalism.” Chettiar met Communist leader SA Dange at the Gaya Session.
Chettiar continued to be in Congress but launched the Labour and Kisan Party to highlight workers issues. When Lenin died in 1924, Chettiar organised meetings in Madras to mourn. In March, Chettiar was arrested in connection with the historic Kanpur Communist conspiracy case, accused of having links with Roy and other Communists who had formed the Indian Communist Party in 1920 at a meeting held in Tashkent. Other accused included early Indian Communists like Muzaffar Ahmed, Dange, and Roy. However, Chettiar was not imprisoned as he was seriously ill. The repression did not deter Chettiar as he presided over the first Indian Communist Conference at Kanpur the next year as the proposed President, S Saklatwala, the British Communist MP, could not make it. Chettiar’s speech highlighted the need for nationalists to focus on the problems of the poor, warned against caste and religious differences, which would disrupt national unity against the British, and referred to the principles of Communism as the guide to a free India.
Chettiar organised a civic reception to Saklatwala in 1927 when he visited Chennai. In 1928 Chettiar led a spate of labour strikes, including the legendary agitation by the Southern railway workers. He hosted at his home all the Communists who attended the Madras Session of the Congress in 1927. He continued leading Congress agitations against the Simon Commission and was arrested in 1929 for railway strikes. On his release after 18 months, Chettiar was also associated with the anti-caste self-respect movement and atheist activities led by EVR. The early 1930s saw intensive anti-British activities by Communists in Chennai as elsewhere in the country, which led to its ban in 1934.
By then, age and illness kept Chettiar from full-time activities though leaders like Roy, Dange, Abani Mukherjee, SV Ghate, and others visited him when they arrived in Chennai. Chettiar was married to Angammal, and their only daughter was Kamala. His grand-niece Seetha was married to the British Communist-turned-rightist Philip Spratt, who was also one of the architects of the CPI. Chettiar continued to guide and advise younger Communists like Amir Hyder Khan, P. Sundarayya, P. Jeevanandam, P. Rajavadivelu, K. Murugesan, and others who worked underground in the Madras presidency for the CPI. The 83-year-old Chettiar attended the meeting to celebrate the abolition of untouchability in 1943 in Chennai with EVR. His last meeting was the Press Workers Conference in 1945 before he died on 11 February 1946, a year before his dream of a free India was realised.