Tribute | The life and times of Berlin Kunhanandan Nair

Kunhanandan Nair a person who grew up with the Communist movement from its early days in Kannur. Photo: Manorama

When the 23rd party congress of the CPM got underway at Kannur earlier this year, Berlin Kunhanandan Nair, living through the autumn of his life, hoped he would be invited as a guest. But that was not to be. The veteran was no longer in the party's reckoning, as he had committed the cardinal sin of caricaturing the leader of the party as Kerala's own Gorbachev.

However, for a Communist party steeped in its history and traditions and heroic folklore, this was an unfortunate way of paying back to a veteran.

For, Kunhanandan Nair was not a small fry to be completely ignored and snubbed by the new party leadership.

He was a person who grew up with the Communist movement from its early days in Kannur, where the Kerala Communist Party was born way back in 1939.

Kunhanandan Nair was associated with Balasangham, its children's wing, which the party had established in those villages, where violent peasant revolts erupted in the next decade.

By that time, Kunhanandan Nair had left his village and moved to Bombay, where he became part of a fledgling party working underground with an internationalist agenda.

In 1942, the CPI castigated the Quit India movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi and backed the British, who were fighting the World War in alliance with the Soviet Union.

Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose left India secretly, reached Japan via Germany, and formed the Indian National Army to march on to India.

Loyal communists like Kunhanandan Nair were on the streets of Bombay dubbing Netaji a stooge of the Japanese, much to the anger of Indian nationalists.

But the communists were never swayed, as they considered themselves internationalists and hoped for a world revolution.

The Soviet Union was the beacon of this movement and Ajoy Ghosh, the CPI secretary, sent Kunhanandan Nair to Moscow to study in the party school set up by the Communist Party Of Soviet Union.

It was there he met Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the German communist party which controlled the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a part of the Soviet bloc. The Berlin Wall was just built dividing the city, which shocked many Germans and invited global criticism.

It was then Kunhanandan was deputed to Berlin as a reporter for the Communist party newspaper, the New Age.

Kunhanandan was part of the central office of the CPI in the forties and fifties both at Calcutta and Delhi and it was his contacts with senior leaders, adventurous nature and in-depth knowledge of the English language that made him the natural choice of the party for this assignment.

His contacts with the early leadership of the party have been acknowledged by most writers. He had also claimed that he was part of the team that secretly managed to take four politburo members of the party to a Russian submarine in 1952 for that historic meeting with Joseph Stalin to sort out internal differences in the movement.

The party at the time was following the Ranadive thesis of an armed revolution. In Telangana and other places, communist revolutionaries were in armed conflict with government forces. Many had lost their lives, the party was banned and its leaders and activists were in hiding. So it was a huge task to safely take veterans like Ranadive, Ajay Ghosh, S A Dange and M Basavapunnaiah to the submarine that waited for them off Diamond Harbour in a small country boat, and then to Europe from where they travelled to Moscow.

Mohit Sen, who was in the central office at the time, has described this historic trip in his memoirs and said that this whole secret trip was planned and executed by veteran journalist Nikhil Chakravartty, then in charge of the party office.

From the sixties to the nineties, Kunhanandan Nair was an influential journalist based in Berlin. He had wide contacts with the German and Soviet leadership and was even invited as a guest to the CPSU party congress. He was also honoured by the GDR government with an award.

In those days, he worked as an unofficial ambassador of Indian communists in East European socialist countries and played host to many Indian leaders who visited Germany and other places. Among them was EMS Namboodiripad, who took a two-month sojourn in Berlin for treatment during the turbulent days in 1969, when his government in Kerala was tottering.

Kunhanandan Nair was not on good terms with Dange, who became the most powerful leader in CPI after the death of Ajoy Ghosh. Soon he was divested of his official position as correspondent for the party newspapers. Then he became part of the Blitz weekly run by RK Karanjia from Bombay and reported many international developments for the paper.

After three decades in Germany, he came back to India and became a confidant of V S Achuthanandan, who was emerging as the state's powerful leader in the nineties. This made him a controversial figure in Kerala politics as he worked as the henchman of VS in their attacks on rivals like Pinarayi Vijayan.

In fact, during the height of this power struggle, he was removed from CPM's primary membership and party members were instructed not to get in touch with him. The one person who defied this diktat was none other than chief minister Achuthanandan who, in 2011, went to his home at Narath and had a highly publicised meeting with his old pal.

The party had banned having any meal with Kunhanandan Nair and so VS took only a glass of water, leaving the sumptuous dinner cold. But then Achuthanandan lost ground in the intra-party strife and Pinarayi Vijayan took full control of the CPM. Many of his followers were thrown out of the party, leaving him a lonely and powerless person, a lamentable figure living in his past glory.

VS had lost most of his followers and admirers and among them Kunhanandan Nair also.

Kunhanandan Nair found the old Kerala Globachev a much better and more admirable leader and started singing paeans. He started inviting the younger comrade from Pinarayi, whom he had feted at his home many times in the good old past.

Kunhanandan Nair was fond of showing the room in his house where Pinarayi Vijayan once slept, even as he flaunted the cot that was once used by P Krishna Pillai, the first secretary of the Kerala party.

These antics did him no good, going by the fact that none of his wishes in those final days was heeded by the party.

First was a desire to meet Pinarayi Vijayan and apologize, and the second was to be at the party congress at his home turf. The first wish was not to be because Pinarayi would not forgive or forget the insults heaped on him by the opportunistic 'old fox' from Berlin.

But it would remain a slur on the party that it failed to honour such a veteran – who was a delegate at the first party congress held in Bombay in 1943 – was simply ignored at his old age, after he had openly expressed his wish and made no secret that he regretted his mistakes.

Now that Kunhanandan Nair is gone and his adventurous life remains a saga of the old heroic days of the party, he would be feted as a veteran, post-mortem. He has been laid to rest with leaders draping him with red flags and workers shouting inquilab zindabad.

Hopefully, his life and career would be presented in a balanced and objective light by the party in the coming days because, at the end of the day, Kunhanandan Nair belonged to a generation of communists who defied everything for a cause and lived a truly internationalist career.

(The author is a veteran journalist)

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