One morning four decades ago, Thiagu killed a man. It was neither a mistake nor an accident. He and his associates planned carefully, made a failed attempt a few months earlier and finally managed to murder a landlord on that morning of September way back in 1970, hacking him to death on the spot. In an era where the attempt was to overthrow “casteist” and “classist” rulers, that killing was to herald ‘Spring Thunder’ in Tamil Nadu.
K Thiagarajan alias Thiagu was then a young man of 20, when he read Naxal leader Charu Mazumdar’s revolutionary exhortation ‘To the Youth and the Students’. The impact it had on the young man’s mind was such that he left his studies the next day and moved to villages to be among the peasants and working class, toiling among then even while educating and preparing the masses for the revolution that he then believed was imminent and inevitable. Change was the goal, armed uprising was the means and violence was but a justifiable path for the greater common good.
“The idea we had then was that if we kill a few landlords who oppressed the poor and attack the police who always sided with the rich, we would be able to create a revolutionary base in Thanjavur first and take the struggle forward from there. Though the means were violent, the objective was a just one,” recalled Thiagu.
The target was Muthu Thangappa, a 40-something landlord, at Thiruvonam village in Thanjavur district. Thangappa, a former panchayat president, was not a big landlord, but was allegedly casteist; one who they believed had murdered many poor peasants.
At around 7 a.m. on September 27, 1970, as Thangappa washed himself in the village pond and was to proceed to drink arrack as was his routine, a squad of five hacked him and assaulted another who tried to stop the attack.
Though the squad members dispersed from the scene immediately, Thiagu, who was new to the area, was caught within a few hours. Some of his accomplices, too, were soon in police custody. The group tried to attempt an escape by attacking the police party that took them to the Thanjavur sessions court for trial, but failed.
During the trial, the accused refused to cooperate with the hearing, maintaining that the “bourgeois” court cannot judge their actions. Instead, while the trial was going on, they shouted slogans, sang revolutionary songs and staged plays about a classless society. Without an advocate to argue their case, the verdict went against them—Lenin Rangasamy and Gurumurthy were awarded death penalty and the rest, including Thiagu, got life imprisonment.
When the case came to the High Court for confirmation, a few lawyers appealed against the sessions court verdict. “Though we refused to appeal, continuing our boycott of the proceedings, the case automatically came to the High Court for reference trial as is mandatory for all cases where the verdict is capital punishment. I wrote to senior lawyer Krishnamurthi stating that we don’t want to appeal to which he replied, ‘We will save you in spite of you’,” says Thiagu.
In the reference trial, the higher court observed that despite the insistence of the accused to boycott the proceedings, the trial court erred in not appointing a lawyer or at least cross-examining the witnesses, leading to a procedural flaw and ordered a retrial, this time at the Nagapattinam sessions court.
That court not only confirmed death for Lenin and Gurumurthy, it also turned Thiagu’s life imprisonment to death penalty in the verdict passed on July 7, 1972. The three death penalties were subsequently confirmed by the High Court in October.
Waiting for death inside the prison, they read a lot and discussed all that they read, which gradually changed their outlook towards the path they had undertaken even as they stood by the aim. This led Thiagu to disown killings as the means to overthrow the system.
“When I looked back and re-examined the whole process and ideas, I realised that however noble the goal, the means we adopted were not the best. When the landlord was murdered, the lower castes distributed sweets and when we were awarded death, the caste Hindus did the same. We were not able to overcome these biases,” says Thiagu.
Even though the trio didn’t want to seek mercy, an activist, A G Kasturirangan, popularly known as AGK, drafted a petition on their behalf in 1973 in which he referred to a similar case in Kerala where one Mundur Ravunni was let off the gallows as the person he was accused of killing was a cruel landlord. The next year, on April 10, 1973, Thiagu, Lenin and Gurumurthi had their death penalty reduced to life imprisonment by the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi.
During his time in prison, Thiagu read and reread, discussed and debated about the world, life and politics. He translated Karl Marx’s Capital for the first time in Tamil, ran a handwritten paper inside the prison called Swatanthiradaham (Thirst for Freedom) and fought for the welfare of prisoners through the Organisation for the Rights of the Imprisoned. “For us, prison was just a venue, a platform where you stage the struggle. We educated many, made them aware and started discussing public issues,” he says.
On November 29, 1985, Thiagu and the other two were released from prison after the authorities confirmed that they were no longer a threat to the society.
After his release, Thiagu immersed himself in finishing his work on translating Capital, which he eventually completed seven years after his release from the erstwhile Chennai central prison. Politically, he moved from Maoism to Indian mainstream Communism, though not for long. By then he was attracted to Tamil nationalism that was not acceptable to the Left and he was expelled from the party.
Around this time, Thiagu started a school, Thai Tamil Primary School, outside Chennai which focussed on educating underprivileged children. The idea was to educate children so as to equip them to be constructive elements with the larger goal of a casteless, classless society. Twenty years hence, the school has nine teachers for 150 students, running classes from KG to class 8.
He is now the president of Tamilar Desiya Viduthalai Iyakkam, a forum that advocates independence of Tamil Nadu through a political process. He writes extensively on most social matters, especially Tamil nationalism, Sri Lankan Tamils and abolition of death penalty. He is among the prominent speakers in Tamil Nadu on any of these subjects.
accessed on 10th October 2011
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