D Raja, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) spoke to Sreerag PS- the Associate Editor of Indian Ruminations, at CPI headquarters, Ajoy Bhavan in New Delhi. In the interview, Raja speaks in detail about his early life, the struggles he had growing up as a Dalit and climbing the ladders to become his party chief. He also speaks in the interview regarding the Dravidian movement in Tamilnadu, the Agrarian crisis in India, the tenure of the Modi Government and the objectives before the communist parties in India.
Sreerag PS: Could you share with us about your childhood and early life experiences that influenced your political and ideological outlook?
D Raja: It is a long journey. I was born in a tiny village in Tamil Nadu on the bank of river Palar, in Vellore district. My parents were landless agricultural workers and we used to live in a small hut. Cooking, sleeping and everything were done in that small hut. My parents gave birth to six sons and one daughter. I am the second son and we are six brothers [in which] two brothers are no more. [I had] one sister, she was the youngest and she is also no more, during COVID she had some problem and she passed away. In our childhood, my parents did all the help for our education. Unlike others they wanted us to study. They sought us to go to school and did not force us to follow their profession of working in somebody’s land. We were all sent to schools and I went to Harijan Welfare School, which is an elementary school, class one to five. Then I went to high school which was also in a small town at the bank of river Palar, Pallikonda. I used to be good at studies. There was a mid-day meal scheme brought by late Kamaraj, who was the Chief Minister of the State. My mother also used to work as a mid-day meal cook [for] some years and in those days that was an ordeal for any Dalit family. Then at high school, I didn’t have lunch at all, because my parents could not afford to pack lunch for me. Only whatever frugal food is available in the morning, we call it kanji, we used to have it and go to school. During then my teachers were fond of me as I used to be good at studying. Whenever I went to the ground with the other students, my physical education teacher used to tell me, “You have not taken lunch, you better go to the library reading room and sit there”. That is how I started going to the reading room library. I started reading all books which came on my way. My Head Master, Varadachari, used to admit in the prayer meetings that ‘this boy reads beyond his age’. The books and my studies gave me some kind of power to question everything. Whatever good qualities, and virtues I have, I inherited from my mother and father. They were hardworking people, very honest helpful to the people around us and they never spoke lies, and they’d never have any iota of intention to cheat. We inherited those qualities. When I was in class 10, I read ‘My Experiments with Truth’ or ‘Satya Sodhanai’ by Mahatma Gandhi. After reading that, I made a comparison. What is the great quality that Gandhi had, which I don’t have? Finally, I arrived at one conclusion. Gandhi was a vegetarian and I was a non-vegetarian. After that, I stopped eating non-vegetarian food. I became a complete vegetarian. I did not even eat eggs for two years; but, this gave a lot of trouble to my mother. She had to pass through great ordeals. Because we used to have a water pond; a common pond where people used to go and do fishing. It was luxurious food. When my mother cooked for others, she had to find some other vessel and some other food for me, and it was a great trouble for my mother. After seeing these difficulties, I decided that for Gandhi it would have been easy to be a vegetarian, but for us, it is not possible. And, I turned back to non-vegetarian. That was the time when Kamaraj was the Chief Minister. Congress was in power in Tamilnadu. The Indian National Congress was one of the main political streams in our state during the period; the communist movement was also one of the important political streams.
I went to a college named GTM College – Government Thirumagal Mill’s College. There was a mill called Thirumagal mills in the locality. The owners of the mill donated five lakh rupees or so to the government [to set up] the college and thus the name GTM College. Even today, it is called GTM College, but it is a government [run] college, and I went to that college in Gudiyattam, the town that is known for communist movements. And they used to fight the elections from the very first round of elections. The town produced several freedom fighters as well. Pallikonda also produced numerous freedom fighters and the communist movement was also in the mainstream. As you said, it was the time that the Periyar movement and the Dravidian movement was gradually growing. I can say that from my own family experience as well – my elder brother’s name is Selvam, my name is Raja, but my immediate next, younger brother’s name is Karunanidhi. Then further, my brothers were named as Karunakaran, Kannadasan and Kalayarasan. These are all due to the impact and growing influence of the Dravidian movement and Periyar movement. Ambedkarite movement was also very significant.
Are you saying that Ambedkarite Movement was popular in Tamilnadu even during your college days?
Yes! My village used to celebrate Ambedkar’s birth anniversary every year. People from KGF Kolar and Maharashtra used to come and deliver speeches hailing Dr Ambedkar. They used to print leaflets; I read ‘Educate, Organize, Agitate’ for the first time from there. Whenever I got that leaflet, I noticed Dr Ambedkar’s name – Dr Bhim Rao Ramji Ambedkar– and two lines [mentioning] the degrees he obtained from various universities. This struck me, how come this man had so many degrees? How did he emerge as a great scholar? I have grown up amid all these ideological and political currents; the Congress, the Communist, the Dravidian and the Ambedkarite movements. In fact, I heard about Karl Marx, when I was in class 10. My Tamil teacher had to take a lesson on Thiruvalluvar, our great poet-philosopher in Tamil. The subject matter was Thiruvalluvar’s economic thoughts. Before starting the lesson, my Tamil teacher Vaidyalingam asked the students whether anybody know about Karl Marx. I used to sit in the first row, right in front of the teacher. He started asking from the last row and finally, he came to me [and asked], “at least, you…, do you know about Karl Marx?” Then I got up and said, “I don’t know”. My teacher commented, “If you do not know, then I should not have asked others”. It was at that time I felt some kind of a shame.-. How come we don’t know about Karl Marx? That was in my mind all the time. Then I started questioning why my people used to suffer? They all work hard and were honest people like my parents. Why other villagers should suffer? Why they should live in huts when others have reasonably good houses? And why our people should suffer due to lack of medical facilities? Why even very ordinary needs are not fulfilled? So I started questioning. This questioning took me to confront all ideological and philosophical movements. I studied Gandhi and Nehru. I started engaging with all these people, and I started to find out what is communist movement, the Dravidian movement, the Periyar’s self-respect movement, the social reform movement, the Periyar’s fight against superstitions, Periyar’s fight for social justice and many other things; of course, Ambedkar and his fight against the caste system. . In my village, people used to fight against Brahmanism openly. I grew up amidst all these struggles. In college, I started reading Marx, I read about dialectics, dialectical materialism, historical materialism, the Marxist philosophy for beginners. I was a science student. I did B.Sc. in mathematics, but I used to study Karl Marx [as well]. One day, I went to a trade union office of Beedi Workers Union. A leader of the Match Workers Union there had all books and I saw ‘Capital Volume I’ among them. I jumped and took that copy. The trade union leader was so happy, and said, “Oh, I was waiting for you. I was waiting for somebody to come and take the book and study. That person has come; you have come. It is your book. You may take it”. I started reading ‘Capital Volume I’ on my own.. It took me to the Marxist ideology which answered my questions. Whether it be a question on the issue of caste, poverty, discrimination, or inequality, I found Marxist philosophy as the most appropriate one. A theory cannot remain just as a theory; the theory must lead to practice, practice must strengthen our theory. That’s how I joined the All India Students Federation (AISF) in my college. At the same time, I joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) as well.
My questioning of the problems of life around me and the sufferings of my parents and my people; my search for answers and my thirst for knowledge led me to come to this movement. Then [there is] no question of looking back. I moved from stage to stage, I was secretary of All India Youth Federation (AIYF) in Tamilnadu, I was a member of the State Executive of my party in Tamilnadu. Then I was General Secretary of All India Youth Federation at the national level. Later, I became a National Council member, Central Executive member-, and finally, now I am the General Secretary of the party.
What made you choose North India as your area of activism? What were the challenges you faced initially?
It wasn’t a big challenge, because somehow I used to speak in English. Even when I was in high school, I used to speak in meetings in English. In the meetings organised by English literary forums, my teachers used to dictate versions to me and I used to memorise and speak it during my school days. When I went to college, I used to write my speeches. I used to win prizes in elocution competitions and essay writing competitions. I was an inter-college debater, both in English and Tamil. That helped me. I used to teach English and mathematics. Then I left that job and became a full-time functionary of my party. When I was in Tamilnadu, I participated in national-level campaigns, meetings in which I communicated in English. I had no problem even though I didn’t know Hindi, and eventually, I became the General Secretary. At the same time I used to try to learn Hindi; now I speak a little bit of Hindi although I am not very well versed in it. But I deliver speeches in Hindi and people appreciate that. So, I never faced any challenge, other than the political and ideological challenges of other parties and movements. Because the communist movement is something that has to fight ideologically, politically against the ideology of the exploiting classes. It is a fight between exploiting classes and the exploited classes. We are with the working class, peasantry and all other sections of the tiring masses. That was the challenge and that is the challenge. Language itself is not a big challenge. There is an interesting instance with VP Singh. Singh, invited me for a campaign in Allahabad and I told him, I can’t speak in Hindi to the farmers to which he replied, “Raja, you don’t worry about that, your very presence is enough. That will give a message this man is our man; he stands with us and he fights for us. That is enough, you come”. That is the way I think it is if you are really sincere in the fight for the country; for the people, then people will respect and listen to you, whichever way you try to communicate.
How do you see yourself as the first Dalit to be the General Secretary of a Communist Party in India? Do you think communist parties failed to promote leaders from deprived backgrounds into higher positions of the party?
Firstly, I’m telling you, I was the first graduate in my village. Even among the other sections, the non-Dalit sections, there was no graduate from my village at that time. Then I became a political activist; a communist activist. Communist Party stands for classless casteless society… So CPI has been growing and consolidating its position. And we used to address the question of social justice, the question of social discrimination and the protection of rights of the Dalits. Even this month, we are going to have a national-level convention on Dalit rights and movement in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. So, we reach out to Dalits and other downtrodden sections. As far as my case is concerned, it is not because I happen to be the son of a Dalit, that the Party promoted me to this position. No…, even my leaders before me say that it is not because he hails from such a community, but because of the talents and –capacity he has to lead the Party and nobody can undermine him intellectually or politically. History has its own way to provide opportunities for fulfilling the requirements of the time. That’s how I became the General Secretary. And of course, this created a very strong reaction or response among the people and –the political parties. It is true that many independent authors idolize this and has written a lot of things about it.
Sreerag: Yes, I read a Kancha Ilaiah piece calling it a historic decision.
Raja: I know Kancha Illiah wrote and several people keep writing on it. Ambedkar had to fight for the annihilation of caste. We are all fighting, but still, it is there. Now, look at what is happening in Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh, how Dalits are being lynched! Even in Gujarat and other states, this caste system is horrific. If you want me to say what are the challenges we face today, what are the issues the revolutionary movement has to address, number one, according to me, is the ‘Caste’, number two is the ‘Class’, and number three is the ‘Patriarchy’. We live in a caste society and no religion is free from caste. Hinduism, of course, it is based on the caste system. This is not a question of faith or rationality. Hinduism or Hindutva try to perpetuate the caste system. But in other religions also people are divided into caste lines. You are from Kerala and you must know, how caste wise Christians are [divided]. Even people come to me to raise the issue of reservations for Dalit Christians. Similar is the case with Dalit Muslims, OBC Muslims etc… So religion has not provided any answer to the caste question.
The other one is class; the means of production are in the hands of a few people. They exploit the labour-power of working people. This class division is getting very intense in the present situation. Because the corporate houses have grown, and the people have become poorer and poorer, the class struggle is intensifying. Then the Patriarchy; women do not have equality. They are suppressed and are not treated at par with men. This is a patriarchal society. We have to break this Patriarchy and free our women. These are the fundamental questions of our society and these are the challenges before any political party; particularly, the communist parties.
Do you think an electoral alliance among Dalit, Left and Muslim organizations is possible?
We are fighting for minorities. Whether they are Muslims or Christians or Parsees… We are fighting for the protection of the democratic rights of minorities. Of course, class consciousness is emerging in every caste and every religion. It may not be par with what we expect it to be. But, it is growing. In such a situation, when we fight against the corporate houses, the big business houses, we should also fight against caste discrimination and social discrimination simultaneously. We should fight for social justice and social equality. Dr Ambedkar has made it very clear in the constitution that, ‘We the People’ should strive for Justice. Social, political and economic justice. Equality, Liberty and Fraternity must exist as a trinity and you cannot separate one from the other. How do you achieve this as long as caste is there? This is why Ambedkar said ‘Annihilation of Caste’ must be the task before everybody. So this is India and the Indian question is primarily a caste question. We Indians, wherever we go, we carry caste with us. Whether we go to Europe, America or Australia, we carry the caste and we try to live based on that caste division. Thus, it is an Indian problem one has to fight. The Communist Party of India (CPI), and, I understand, other parties including the left tries to address these questions.
Do you think an electoral alliance is possible?
We are working together. It varies from State to State, which I must underline. Many parties use Ambedkar’s name. Even BJP talks about Ambedkar and tries to appropriate Ambedkar. BJP talks about Gandhi, [but] are they sincere? Are they real? So now, the point is, when we fight against caste discrimination, economic disparity or exploitation, we should try to unite all secular and democratic forces. That is what we are trying to do.
We are speaking at a juncture where the farmer’s protest is on the verge of a victory, what message does the protest give to the Modi government?
In Independent India, this is the biggest, historic and most popular movement. Political parties must draw lessons from this. They should draw lessons as to how the movement could sustain for more than one year and force the government to repeal certain laws which the farmers have been fighting and agitating. One has to study the movement and draw lessons for the future. Now, the farmers are being supported by Trade Unions. That way the unity of farmers and workers is emerging and all other civil society groups, whether it be youth, students or women, they all gave support to the farmer’s agitation. This is a new situation. How parties like communist parties, would draw lessons and take the movement forward, that we will have to wait and see.
What message does this protest give for the Modi Government?
Modi cannot take people and democracy for granted. Already Modi’s Regime is characterised as ‘Elected Autocracy’. This elected autocracy can lead to a fascist dictatorship. This is the lesson we draw from history. These dictators cannot rule forever. We see this not only in the history of Germany but recently with Trump in the US also. This is a message to Modi as well. He cannot take people for granted and he cannot use all powers at his command to crush the people’s movements and uprisings. Nobody should think that they can succeed forever. Ultimately people will succeed and people will show who the real power is and uphold democracy.
You once spoke in the parliament regarding short-term solutions and long-term solutions to the agrarian crisis in India, can you elaborate on that aspect?
Agriculture is an important economic sector in our country. Agriculture is scheduled in the state list, which is for the state governments. But the centre is encroaching upon the state governments’ rights and appropriating powers of the states. This must stop. This is why several states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Punjab and others have passed a resolution against Agricultural laws. If elected state governments do not agree with such laws, how central government can impose them? So these are the questions that we need to understand. Agriculture needs more investment and farmers need more support from the government. Since agriculture depends upon – ecology, climate and other factors, our farmers need adequate protection and support. Several commissions including the Swaminathan Commission have studied the agrarian crisis and made several recommendations. The demand for a separate budget on agriculture and other related issues are being raised in the parliament. Let us see what the future is.
The Modi Government is in full swing to privatise the public sector, the corporate giants are using new techniques and technologies to influence the public. Does the CPI have any strategy to counter the privatization of the public sector and the corporate loot?
The BJP thinks using social media and other technologies can condition – and hijack people’s minds. It is known to others as well. At present, BJP has huge money power. It is the richest political party in the country. The way they use the electoral bonds, the way they try to manipulate many things is to get more money. It is the richest political party, so they use the money to recruit cadres for social media. They call them warriors. This is known to everybody. But resources are limited [for us]. Despite that, every party is having its own social media networks. We are also having social media networks. It may not be very strong and widely spread all over the country as BJP’s. But we are doing that. We try to build counter-movements for the propaganda and – the ideological offensive coming from the BJP and the RSS.
How do you see a revival of the left in the coming years? How do you and your party plan the future?
The left will have to grow strong because ultimately it is the future and that is why we say socialism is the future for humanity as a whole. If socialism has to be achieved, the communist movement has to grow in strength. When I say strength, it is ideological, political and organisational. During this process, communists should also work with other democratic forces and parties so that a broad-based unity emerges to take on the battle with RSS-BJP combined.
The interview is a condensed and edited version of the original conversation.
Cover Photo by Raneesh P.R, Creative Director, Indian Ruminations