MM Lawrence, nonagenarian Marxist leader from Kerala and senior trade unionist has the image of being an undaunted fighter all his life. Lawrence, who began his political activism by unionising manual scavengers, had never shied away from taking on his opponents, ideological or not, within the party and outside. His demeanour was always that of a boxer with clench fist and a sharp tongue who loved one-on-one contests.
Lawrence, who hails from the Latin Catholic community is one of the first generation leaders of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in the state. As an activist of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and later the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) he played a key role in organising port and factory workers in Kochi and helped deepen the party's class character and base.
A key event in his political career was when he became an accused in the infamous Edapally police station attack of 1950, which resulted in the death of two policemen. The incident resulted in Communist party being banned in the state.
When the CPI split in 1964, he chose to be with the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Lawrence along with E Balanandan, KN Raveendranath and VB Cherian, the tallest leaders of the CITU were dramatis personae in the many factional feuds simmering in the party since the 1980s. Lawrence, a former Member of Parliament from Idukki, has held several positions in the party including the convenor of the Left Democratic Front (LDF).
For long he had been a bitter critic of senior CPI(M) leader VS Achuthanandan, whom he had accused of spearheading factionalism in the party, mowing down opponents from the CITU group. Both the leaders haven’t seen eye to eye for a long time and it is perhaps not unusual that 94-year-old Lawrence’s biography, which had been long in the making, has numerous references on Achuthanandan, who is set to celebrate his 100th birthday later this week.
The biography ‘Ormacheppu Thurakkumbol’ (Opening the memory casket) published by the DC Books and set to be released soon, has several adverse references against Achuthanandan including that the senior leader had given a written complaint against EMS Namboothiripad, the first Chief Minister of Kerala, to Basava Punnaiah, party’s national leader and member of the politburo. The book also gives an insider’s view of the tumultuous years of factionalism within the party and the impacts of the internecine conflict.
The complaint, according to Lawrence, castigated EMS, the party’s General Secretary, for openly supporting the entry of Indian Union Muslim League into the Left front, a political stand allegedly contrary to the official stand of the CPI(M). EMS had written an article in support of this and Lawrence alleges that the complaint was given when Basava Punnaiah arrived to attend the Kozhikode state conference of the party in 1991. He tried to convince the central leadership that the views of EMS are against party interest but when it failed to elicit any response, Achuthanandan raised the allegation that "the central leadership was favouring EMS".
The 1991 state conference saw VS Achuthanandan losing out to EK Nayanar, who became the party’s state secretary. The book extensively narrates the political intrigue during the Kozhikode state conference, where Nayanar was elected by a margin of two votes. “I was asked to tell the media during the press meet that Nayanar’s election to the post of state secretary was unanimous and I obliged,” Lawrence reveals in the book.
Lawrence also sheds light on the bad blood between the party’s national general secretary EMS, who had relocated to Thiruvananthapuram before 1991 because of health conditions and, and VS Achuthanandan, who was the state secretary. The presence of EMS, who was immersed in reading, writing and known for his speeches, lit up Kerala politics and cultural scene. Lawrence alleges that the presence of EMS was an irritation for Achuthanandan, who felt his importance was waning. Though it was not expressed outside it reflected in his actions, writes Lawrence. “He didn't have any qualms to insult anyone whom he did not like," writes Lawrence.
By the end of the 1990s, the CITU camp, which included MM Lawrence, was decimated by VS Achuthanandan, who was sulking from the electoral defeat he experienced in 1996 at Mararikkulam, his hometown. Achuthanandan believed that his defeat was orchestrated by the CITU faction.
The electoral rout was shocking as Achuthanandan was the potential Chief Ministerial candidate of the CPI(M). Party inquiry and assessment showed the CITU faction allegedly plotted with local CPI(M) leaders to ensure Achuthanandan’s defeat. This coupled with allegations related to Lower Periyar tunnel construction scam minimised the influence of Lawrence and the CITU faction, which had the backing of the party's district committees.
In 1998, Lawrence, a Central Committee member of the party, was demoted as a member of the Area Committee in Kadavanthra for his involvement in the activities of ‘Save CPI(M) Forum. He returned to the Ernakulam District Committee after the re-election of AP Varkey as the party’s district secretary.
Detailing the struggles he had to undergo because of the factionalism, Lawrence alleges that a move to trap him in corruption allegations related to the Lower Periyar dam tunnel project of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) was made by Kallada Sukumaran, then Director General of Prosecution (DGP), and a close ally of Achuthanandan. Lawrence, who was a non-official member of the Board was later absolved of the charges.
Lawrence also alleges in the book that Achuthanandan nurtured severe animosity against former Chief Minister EK Nayanar's political secretary AP Kurian and tried to settle scores with PK Chandranandan, a leader of the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle.
Lawrence ends the chapter on factionalism titled 'Vibhageeyatha' by stating that the issue of factionalism in the party has declined considerably. “Progress can be made only if the party marches ahead in unity. My desire is that it should be like that. It is not one or two persons who have made this party. It is the selfless work of hundreds of comrades who dedicated their lives and that of their families for the sake of the party. Any propaganda contrary to this is not factual and will be a setback to the party and organisation. The history of communist movements in various countries are before us. We should keep that history in our mind,” writes Lawrence.
Abhish K Bose is a journalist based in Kerala.