Long before the Gulf oil boom began, many a resident of villages in the Palakkad district boasted of a family member or close relative in Malaysia. In the 1930s, the British rulers of the Madras Presidency (of which Palakkad was a part of) encouraged the migration of Indians to what was then known as Malaya to meet regular labour shortages in the colony. Many migrants from the villages of Palakkad went on to become highly successful within a generation in the country. One migrant, who would go on to become a national hero in Malaysia, was born in Tholanur, a village in the Kuzalmannam block. Palayil Pathazapurayil Narayanan made the journey across the Palakkad Gap and onwards to Madras and Malaya in the early 1930s to further his education.
At that time, Malayali community life was thriving in the country. The community had almost 35,000 members in the early 1930s, and was the second largest Indian group after the Tamils. The Malayali community that consisted of labourers, traders and administrators even set up several Malayalam medium school in the peninsula. Quite a few members of the community shared the same dream as many Gulf expats do today - that is to make their fortune and head back to Kerala for a comfortable retired existence. However, fate would have something else in store for Narayanan.
In the last month of 1941 when the Japanese invaded and occupied Malaya, the British fled and chaos ensued. Narayanan was an engineering student in Kuala Lumpur at that time. With the Japanese occupying Malaya, the young man would be forced to discontinue his studies and work in a tin mine. This is where he got his first glimpse of working class life in the Malay Peninsula. In 1943 he met Subhash Chandra Bose and, like many other Indians in Malaya, felt inspired enough by the charismatic freedom fighter to join the Indian National Army.
Labour rights and trade unionism
After the British retook Malaya, Narayanan took up clerical jobs in rubber estates. Although his condition was better than the labourers on the plantations, many of them indentured, he felt a great deal of empathy with the workers who were being exploited by the owners. Labourers were made to toil daily for around 12 hours for paltry wages. He decided to form a trade union along with 10 men to look after the interests of the plantation workers. This union would eventually morph into the National Union of Plantation Workers of Malaya.
By the time Narayanan was in his mid-20s, he was already a known figure in the country, as he was able to keep the trade union movement away from a communist takeover, keeping the movement non-political. Though he fought for the country’s independence, Narayanan did cooperate with the British to ensure the trade unions in Malaya kept a distance from any kind of politics, while respecting the individual choices of members.
Communist insurgents, who played an important role in fighting the Japanese occupation of Malaya, had sympathisers in the country, especially among the large Chinese minority, and their control of trade unions in Malaya would have had an impact on how the country would have shaped up after attaining independence from British rule.
The global trade union movement became a battleground during the Cold War, leading to non-communist nations creating the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Narayanan was invited as one of Malaya’s delegates for the founding conference of the confederation in London in 1949. A year later, he would be elected as the president of the Malayan Trades Union Congress (later the Malaysian Trade Union Congress). He was just 27 at that time, and was affectionately called PP.
“PP’s National Union of Plantation Workers helped lay the foundation for trade unionism in the country, promoting workers’ interest and protecting their rights,” former New Straits Times Group Editor Ahmed Talib wrote in 2019. “He helped give birth to other trade unionists who later made a name for themselves. Workers found their voice when trade unions were formed though they were not necessarily always calm and composed.”
In 1962, Narayanan was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service for his dedication “towards workers' rights that propelled Malaysia to the forefront of trade unionism on the world stage.” He became the second Malaysian and first Malayali to win the award. Verghese Kurien would be the second son of Kerala to win the premier Asian award.
Praising the National Union of Plantation Workers formed by Narayanan, the Magsaysay committee said, “Negotiate first’ is the rule, and compromise is usually reached without stoppage of work. The union discourages communal discrimination and maintains political affiliation is an individual matter for each member.”
In his acceptance speech, Narayanan spoke of his struggles to start a trade union movement and keep it democratic: “Subversion was the order of the day. There was massacre and arson. The game was loaded against us. There were the workers insulated by the feudalistic employers on one side and on the other the threat of the terrorists, who were determined to wreck any democratic trade unions.” He also credited the 10 others who supported his initiative and dedicated the award to workers across his country. “To me the greatest significance of this moment is that for the first time in the history of Asia the worker has been elevated to a position that his humble representative has been chosen to receive this award,” he added.
Narayanan continued to be the champion of workers’ rights over the next few decades, heading Malaysian, Asian and international bodies at different periods. He passed away at the age of 73 in 1996.
A road in the city of Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, was named Jalan P P Narayanan in his honour - something that links the Palakkad district’s Tholanur village with Malaysia.
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)