It was time of uprising of agricultural workers. 50 years ago, dalit agricultural workers of Keezhvenmani, a village in Tanjore district, organised under the CPIM to fight for their rights. Although agriculture was their livelihood, the means of production, including tools– land, seeds and capital – were all with upper castes. The consequence of this situation was that many were forced to suffer as bonded labour throughout their lives while others earned low wages. It was to combat this situation that dalit workers began to fight for their rights.
In 1968 the agitation reached its peak. In response to workers organising for their rights, the powerful landlords unleashed the power of the state. In one village in Tanjavur, workers used whatever weapons they had, knives and sticks, to block 12 police vans which had come to suppress their struggles. They let one van free to free their captured comrades after a police inspector signalled “peace” by showing a white cloth .
The workers pledged not to harvest the fields without a wage hike. They merely asked for an extra half measure of grain per kalam as additional wages. The employers refused and brought workers from other districts instead. Workers remained steadfast, harvested the fields themselves, but refused to turn it over to the employers. As the anger rose, the landlords brutally assaulted on of the union representatives. Workers were able to prevent this. It was in this scuffle that one of the agents of landlords died.
As night fell, on that day – 25th of December, the landlords surrounded the workers homes and began to shoot with guns. To escape the gunfire, 44 people mainly women, children and elderly ran and took shelter in the hut of the villager Ramaiyya. The landlords’ goons locked them inside and set fire to the hut. They did not let a single person out and instead stoked the fire until every person inside was burnt alive. They were enraged not only because workers were demanding wage increment but mainly because the lower caste had the audacity to question their authority and privilege of their caste. The brutal attack was an outcome of this heightened hegemony which they wanted to maintain at whatever cost.
It has been 50 years since the Keezhvenmani massacre. The DMK government which was in power at that time did not seek justice for the workers. The party which had once propagated socialism ended up supporting the capitalist-class during the workers’ uprising. Going one step further, the High Court acquitted the main accused Gopalkrishnan Naidu saying that it was not plausible that the landlords who did not wish to even touch dailts, would want to murder them. The press reduced the massacre to a mere conflict between two worker groups.
Even today, it is the power of the employers that continues to rule. When workers of Sanmina factory demand a wage increment, the manager replies – You should not be asking me, I will take care of you and decide on your behalf. When nurses ask for better wages and employment security, the chief justice of the Madras High Court asks them to find other work. The High Court denies bail for 147 workers of Maruti saying that if they were given bail, foreign investments in the country would reduce. Many of these workers have since then been acquitted. Employers know that once workers begin to unite, organise and demand their rights, the power of the ruling class will be in danger. To prevent this, they are willing to go to any end, including murder.
There is only one way for the working class to resist this attack! To develop a united working-class consciousness and work together, shoulder to shoulder. On 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of the brave agricultural workers in Keezhvenmani, let us take inspiration from their struggle and strengthen our resistance.
 The details in the article are drawn from Comrade Mythili Sivaram’s articles on Keelvenmani, compiled in the book ‘Haunted by Fire’. One article is available at http://www.epw.in/journal/1973/21/our-correspondent-columns/tamil-nadu-gentlemen-killers-kilvenmani.html