'Berlin' Kunhananthan Nair: A Communist Who Was in the Thick of Things When History Unfolded

As the only surviving delegate from the first party congress of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1943 held in Bombay, Nair’s passing definitely marks the end of an era.

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Earlier this year, on March 25, I contacted Communist old-timer ‘Berlin’ Kunhanandan Nair at his ancestral home in Narath, Kannur. I wanted to interview him and also browse through his legendary collection of books and periodicals. Mostly restricted to home following the onset of COVID-19, Nair wanted me to wait – at least till the 23rd Party Congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) being held in Kannur ten days later.

“Although I can barely see with my eyes, I am hoping to make it to the front row of the EK Nayanar Academy (venue of the party congress) for the inaugural session,” he spoke expectantly. But have you received an invitation, I asked? “You see, how can they not invite me? I was a delegate at the inaugural party congress in 1943 and for the first time the event is being held in my native place and I have got to be there. And I have raised this demand publicly so they can’t ignore it now.”

The 96-year-old was hoping that he would still receive an invitation for the mega event at the last moment. Alas, it was not to be. Nor was I able to meet him either.

Kunhanandan Nair (1926-2022), who passed away on August 7, had an uncanny ability to be in the thick of things when history unfolded. As someone who reported from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) within six months of the Berlin Wall being erected in 1961 till its momentous fall in 1989, Nair found his journalistic and political life intrinsically intertwined with the Iron Curtain that literally existed those days. And hence, it is only fitting that he came to be eponymously known as ‘Berlin’ Kunhanandan Nair.

And, as the only surviving delegate from the first party congress of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1943 held in Bombay, Nair’s passing definitely marks the end of an era. Born to an influential family in Kannur in 1926, he received his party membership from none other than the legendary P. Krishna Pillai himself back in the day, and he was the first general secretary of the Balasangham (then Bala Bharatha Sangham) modelled after the Young Pioneers in the Soviet Union at the age of 12 in 1938.

Tasked with presenting the report of his committee at the first CPI party congress, he went on to partake in every party congress of the CPI – Calcutta (1948), Madurai (1953), Palakkad (1956), Amritsar (1958) and Vijayawada (1961) – till the eventual split in the party. Marking his political activism with the Morazha movement in 1940, Nair found himself in Kozhikode, Thiruvananthapuram, Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta through the ‘40s and went on to make acquaintance with every significant leader of the Communist Party those days.

Following the untimely demise of Krishna Pillai, Nair worked closely with E.M.S. Namboodiripad, but it was Ajoy Ghosh, then general secretary of the CPI, who saw to it that he was sent to study Marxist-Leninist theory at the party school in Moscow in 1958 and later, also facilitated his deployment in Berlin in 1962. It was at a chance meeting of Ghosh with GDR president Walter Ulbricht in Sochi in August 1961 that the latter suggested sending an Indian correspondent to Berlin to counter the western media’s interpretation of the Berlin Wall. Ghosh didn’t have to think beyond Nair, coincidentally accompanying him at this meeting.

And for the next three decades, Nair was stationed in Berlin, following a brief period of uncertainty when the CPI split in 1964 after throwing his lot with the newly formed CPI(M). Not being a correspondent for the Communist Party’s mouthpiece New Age anymore, Nair was formally employed by the left-leaning Blitz, edited by the legendary R.K. Karanjia, with whom he had made acquaintance from his days in Bombay. Having already written for the weekly tabloid from 1963 as its ‘German correspondent’, he began filing stories with the byline Kunhanandan Nair, Berlin thereon.

Also read: Behind CPI(M)’s Decline Lies Stalinist Structure, Ideological Confusion Over Electoral Strategy 

Kunhanandan Nair
The Devil and His Dart: How the CIA is Plotting in the Third World
Sterling Publishers (January 1986)

A 30-volume hard-bound collection of major scoops and stories from his 1,200-odd reports for the Blitz from 1963-1993 has been preserved at his home in Narath even to this day. Kunhanandan Nair managed to interview world leaders such as Khrushchev, Molotov, Brezhnev, Walter Ulbricht, Erich Honecker, Fidel Castro, Cheddi Jagan, among others for the illustrious publication. He also managed to break major scoops like “Plot To Kill The PM In Paris” on Rajiv Gandhi and unravelled the mystery behind the Kanishka flight bombing in 1985, thereby briefly becoming a target of the Khalistan in the ‘80s. One of his greatest moments was the publication of his book titled Devil And His Dart: How The CIA Is Plotting In The Third World which, noted journalist P. Sainath recounted, was attended by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer.

Kunhanandan Nair might have traversed the corridors of the socialist universe during his three-decade stay abroad but he also engaged with the politics of his party back in Kerala over those years. Always a Communist first and a journalist later, he stood for ideological dogma and was a ‘Stalinist’ in every bit of that sense, even dubbing the Tiananmen Square massacre as “counter-revolutionary”.

In his autobiography, Nair states how he had major differences of opinion with “Russi” (Karanjia) on the issue of Stalin, Tiananmen Square protests, Poland and the India-China war – and yet they could work together through these differences. Nair goes on to state that even Karanjia’s then deputy editor, P. Sainath, often differed with his editor. Speaking over the phone, Sainath stated that yes, this was true. But also the folks at Blitz were pretty much like a family and that they all had great regard for Kunhanandan Nair.

“Karanjia was a liberal editor whom you could differ with. I am truly sorry to have missed meeting Kunhanandan in his later years, although I really wished to,” he said. On his memories of being colleagues for a decade at Blitz, Sainath remembered Nair as a thorough professional and a stickler for deadlines. “We did not meet frequently as he was based in Germany but he was a great help when I or any of our colleagues were on tour. Kunhanandan Nair was also a huge repository of knowledge on the underground activities of the Communist Party in the ‘40s and early ‘50s,” signed off Sainath.

But it was only a decade after his Blitz career that Kunhanandan Nair really made a splash in Kerala politics. Working with party secretaries V.S. Achuthanandan, E.K. Nayanar, Chadayan Govindan and Pinarayi Vijayan for a decade from 1991 after shifting base to the AKG Centre, the state party headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram, Kunhanandan Nair had a ringside view of the changing dynamics within the party.

The ideological clash which exacerbated after the 1998 CPI(M) Palakkad State Conference got recalibrated when allies V.S. Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan found themselves in opposite camps in the new millennium. While the clash was essentially ideological, it soon became personality-driven and culminated in wresting control of the party organisation by 2003. And the dogmatic in Nair rallied with Achuthanandan against the ‘official’ faction led by the Pinarayi Vijayan-Prakash Karat axis.

Nair initially flung himself into the duel when he joined the issue with his contemporary and Marxist ideologue P. Govinda Pillai, following the latter’s interview with Bhashaposhini in 2003, where certain observations about Namboodiripad garnered controversy. The ideological duel was fought on the pages of popular weeklies with Pillai’s counter in Kalakaumudi in 2004 and soon, Kunhanandan Nair started serialising his autobiography in Mathrubhumi literary weekly in 2004, thereby opening a new frontier against the state leadership under Vijayan.

In March 2005, shortly ahead of the CPI(M) Malappuram Conference, Nair was expelled from the party – his membership dating back 66 years then – following the publication of his last four chapters of the autobiography titled Polichezhuthu.

The social boycott

Nair took it personally and ventured to write the second part of his autobiography titled Olicamerakal Parayathathu, this time shedding more party secrets, particularly embarrassing to Pinarayi Vijayan and his clique. One particular incident pertained to the circumstances of the college admission of Vijayan’s daughter Veena at the Amrita Viswavidyapeeth in Coimbatore when CPI(M) was at the vanguard of an ideological offensive against the setting up of self-financing colleges in Kerala. None of the people at the centre of that controversy – be it Mata Amritanandamayi, Captain Krishnan Nair of the Leela Group, businessman Varadarajan or Pinarayi Vijayan himself countered the incidents recounted in chapter 6 of the book titled ‘Dahikkathe poya oonu’.

Dr P.K. Gangadharan, the nephew of Kunhanandan Nair (also the son-in-law of former chief minister P.K. Vasudevan Nair), says: “Back then I had requested my uncle not to reveal such secrets but everything he had become personal for him by then. Many idols would be revealed to have feet of clay if such personal information were passed around.” Vijayan copped a lot of bad press in its aftermath and the CPI(M) hit back at Kunhanandan Nair by enforcing an embargo and social boycott of his family in Kannur.

By 2014, however, Nair had a change of heart, when he began to distance himself from Achuthanandan. Nair was supposedly peeved at Achuthanandan’s attempts to unduly promote his son Arun Kumar, something he construed as incongruous with the former chief minister’s image of being above board. He was also disillusioned about Achuthanandan missing a great opportunity at walking out of the party after being denied a seat in 2006 to start afresh, as it happened in 1964 when the latter walked out of the national council of CPI.

In the wake of the brutal hacking of renegade Marxist T.P. Chandrasekharan, whom Vijayan had branded a ‘kulamkuthi’ (traitor), Nair once again revived his proposal but Achuthanandan deemed that he was too old to fight another battle and succeed. On his part, Nair came around to the view that Achuthanandan was only hankering after power and the chief minister’s chair than waging an ideological battle within the party.

Announcing that he would support CPI(M) candidate P.K. Sreemathy in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Nair struck a conciliatory tone and expressed his wish to be back in the party. He also went on to state that Achuthanandan should consider retirement and concentrate on writing his autobiography. But a comeback when Vijayan was state secretary always seemed improbable.

Also read: How a 1921 Tussle in Moscow Shaped India’s Early Communist Movement

Kunhanandan’s political stand

When the Alappuzha State Conference of the CPI (M) came along in February 2015, Achuthanandan had become a pale shadow of his old self, his clout in the party at an all-time low. Although Nair flung to the defence of his old comrade when Achuthanandan famously walked out of the venue of the state conference, his objection was relatively muted. And the event also coincided with the elevation of Kodiyeri Balakrishnan as party secretary in place of Vijayan, which culminated in Nair getting back his party membership a couple of months later. He promptly donated a parcel of prime land at Mayyil in Kannur to the party to build a local committee office along with some 2,000 books from his personal collection.

G. Sakthidharan, editor of Janashakthi fortnightly, says: “Berlin Kunhanandan Nair wasn’t consistent in his political stand; he kept oscillating.” Dr Azad Malayattil, a Left ideologue, countered the claim: “Kunhanandan Nair always had ideological clarity. He opposed what he deemed revisionist tendencies internationally as well as within the CPI(M) in Kerala”. As for his patching up with CPI(M) in later years, Azad saw it as an extension of his ideological moorings.

K.C. Umesh Babu, famously ousted from the CPI(M) for writing a poem in Janashakthi fortnightly in 2007, also concurs: “For someone who had every chance to go down the social democrat route, being at the centre stage of the global changes in the 1980s’, Kunhanandan Nair remained steadfast to the Marxist-Leninist ideology, even fiercely taking sides in the intra-party fracas back in Kerala.” On Nair’s U-turn of sorts, Umesh Babu had this to say, “Maybe he was fed up with the social boycott and wanted to exit on good terms and as a card-holding member.”

But Nair’s public wish to see Vijayan in 2021 even as he turned 95 makes Umesh Babu and Dr Azad squirm. According to a close confidante of Nair, he genuinely hoped Vijayan would fulfil his wish – after raising it privately with Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and later publicly – but it was not to be. Nair himself expressed a desire to wipe his slate clean and let bygones be bygones but Vijayan was in no mood to relent – especially since Nair continued to stand by whatever he wrote, although he had conceded that he took things far too personally and felt some of his remarks were “inappropriate” in hindsight.

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: PTI/Files

Nair had famously dubbed Vijayan the “adopted son of the capitalist class”, a play on something EMS would often invoke: that he is the adopted son of the working class (having been born as a landlord, EMS donated most of his wealth to the party). Dr Gangadharan Nair added, “I had no doubt in my mind that Pinarayi Vijayan would never forgive. He was my senior in college and I have known him since then. And I was sure the party would snub my uncle for the party congress.” The chief minister would not oblige Kunhanandan Nair’s last wish even to partake in his funeral.

After the funeral of Kunhanandan Nair, CPI(M) Kannur secretary M.V. Jayarajan made a curious statement (possibly to counter the backlash in the media) that the party wished to invite Nair for the party congress but that he was too weak to attend. Dr Gangadharan, who lit the pyre, rubbishes the claim: “My uncle was healthy enough to attend the party congress in April if he were to receive an invitation. He had no major issues and it was only in July that his health started deteriorating when his body began rejecting food. That was a sign.”

Left theoretician N.M. Pearson summed up: “Berlin Kunhanandan Nair wasn’t without faults. But he devoted his entire life to the Communist ideology.” Nair often invoked Lenin saying that being a communist itself is the greatest honour. Well-known columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni, who joined Blitz towards the end of Nair’s tenure added: “Nair Saab was an integral part of Blitz; his investigative reporting made all of us proud and his passing is a loss to the entire journalist fraternity.”

Anand Kochukudy is an independent journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post.