In November 1968, deeply influenced by the Naxalbari incident in West Bengal, a group of revolutionaries in Kerala attacked two police stations in north Kerala which historically came to be known as the Thalassery-Pulpally attacks. The Thalassery attack failed, but the one under Arikkad Varghese on the Malabar Special Police camp at Pulpally killed two cops. It sowed the beginning of the Naxal movement in Kerala. The only female revolutionary in that group was the 18-year-old K. Ajitha. Trekking in the bitter cold through the deep forests of Wayanad, in pants and a blouse and a thin jersey, she was among the few in that group that refused to desert the path they had chosen to liberate the peasants from the shackles of slavery and misery. Many of her comrades had dropped out of the mission as the police closed in on them. This fledgling Naxal group also attacked the houses of landlords and distributed the grain and money found there among the tribals and workers of the land.
Ajitha was born to Marxist-Leninist followers Kunnikkal Narayanan and a Gujarati schoolteacher Mandakini in 1950. Ajitha herself plunged into activism early in her life. In high school in upstate Kozhikode, she led a protest against the reduction of ration rice to six ounces per person—her first march. In 1967, she quit her formal education and joined her father in printing pamphlets and taking part in discussions. Ajitha, who was mesmerised by the books of Mao and a keen listener to Radio Peking, was intent on freeing herself step by step from the worldly values. Her family knew that it would have to be the Naxalbari path for them. There was also anger against the Marxist leadership for the betrayal of the Naxalbari movement; so they protested against the P. Sundarayya, general secretary of the Marxist party when he visited Kozhikode. The leaders of the Naxalbari movement heard of this and Narayanan, was expelled from the Communist party for protesting against the Marxist leadership stand, and others were invited on board of the All India Co-ordination Committee. All this was just talk but their call for action came in the form of a letter from a peasant in Pulpally. The peasants of Pulpally were being harassed by the police for encroaching into the forest areas and the MSP camp was set up there to evict them. The feudal system of low wages by the estate employers of Wayanad was another reason to go there. The idea of a heroic revolution could move people all over the state into and potent power that would uproot the foundations of a feudal society was an idealism they shared. Mandakini soon resigned as the headmistress of the Gujarati school in Kozhikode and proceeded with her daughter to Manathavady in hilly Wayanad to join comrade Varghese to plan their next move. Narayanan stayed in Thalassery to plan the attack on the police station there. Mandakini, however, was too unwell to take part in the attacks but was jailed nevertheless later on. A few days after the Pulpally attack, Ajitha and the other comrades were caught from nearby Adakkathodu and brutally assaulted in police custody. The police paraded Ajitha in pants and blouse (see pic) in an attempt to portray her as a “whore”. She spent nine years in jail and is a feminist activist today.
According to Ajitha, though the Communist party leaders had not approved the Naxal path, they had tried to delineate the attacks from their peasant struggles, some quick changes were brought about like land reformation act. Soon after the Thalassery-Pulpally incident, the government gave the peasants the right of ownership to the land they held. It opened the Dinesh Beedi in Kannur, which was closed down after the owners shifted their factory to Karnataka, and gave employment to the jobless workers. Soon a tarred road came up in Pulpally and there was bus service from Pulpally to Sultan Bathery in Wayanad.
In 2017, the Kerala government told the state high court that Varghese was a hardcore criminal and therefore his family cannot be paid compensation for the killing in a fake encounter. Ajitha, who was under his leadership, says this is wrong—for, Varghese was a fearless man at the forefront of liberating the peasants from feudalism and was no common criminal.
(With inputs from Ajitha’s memoirs, Ormakurrupukkal)