To the CPI(M) comrades of Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency, VP Sanu is not just another name. It is the name they have given to their hopes and aspirations. This 30-year-old is the youngest candidate the party has fielded in the state for the upcoming election to take place on April 23. Senior Indian Union Muslim League leader and sitting MP PK Kunhalikutty is the UDF candidate in the constituency.

Sanu was a school goer when he began his political career by forming an SFI (Student Federation of India) unit, the student wing of the CPM. He later became national president of the organisation. The party rewarded his spirit when he was reelected as SFI national president for the second time in 2018.

Strongly defending the stands his party has taken on various issues, Sanu believes the party has to change with the changing needs. Excerpts from an interview:

Since you are a student leader, let us begin from there. You are someone who has organised students to protest against the suicide of Dalit students in Indian universities. But your organisation and the Communist party itself do not give adequate space to leaders with Dalit background. Don’t you think this attitude has to be changed?

First of all, when we say about the Dalit representation in the leadership, it cannot be said that there are no Dalit leaders in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or in its student organisation. There have been a great number of leaders from the community in various party organisations and units at different places and time. SFI Kerala state president V Vineesh, SFI Tamil Nadu state secretary V Mariappan, Karnataka state president Ambarish, Telengana state secretary Kota Ramesh, Madhya Pradesh state secretary Kuldeep Pipal, all these are from Dalit background. SFI Maharashtra state secretary Balaji is a tribe. SFI former All India general secretary Vikram Singh is a Dalit. Sometimes, they are chosen consciously. But most of the times, they grow in the organisation and reach at the leadership on their own. And this is not a recent trend. There have always been very staunch leaders (in the organisation) who hail from Dalit communities. MP PK Biju, who is a former SFI national president, is from a Dalit family. The party has always given enough attention to this matter. But the number is still not sufficient and the party has the opinion that more conscious efforts are needed to increase the number of leaders from the community. The work towards a change in this regard has already begun.

There is a recent trend in Indian universities for Dalit and minority students to organise and contest elections under a single banner — especially after Rohit Vemula’s death. Last year, Dalit and minority student associations at UoH contested election under the umbrella body United Democratic Front. The union was led by Ambedkar Student Association. There was Bahujan Students Front (BSF), the Dalit Students’ Union (DSU), the Muslim Students’ Federation (MSF), the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the Students’ Islamic Organisation of India (SIO) and the Tribal Students’ Federation(TSF). Is this because the Dalits, as well as minority students, believe they have no space in mainstream student organisations. Why do they feel this insecurity and exclusion?

SFI did not support this association because there were also fundamentalist groups like SIO in the union. They are speaking of minority communalism while SFI stand against communalism of any sort. So there was no logic in associating ourselves with this union. Now the Dalit organisations are out of this union. They have lost trust in the association. The have realised that it was not the actual platform. So now we will make an association with these Dalit groups and contest elections. It was SFI which brought students from Dalit communities to the leadership. It was SFI which made students from minorities, religious minorities and sexual minorities union leaders. SFI has always included students from all sections and have always given attention to make the best of them at the helm of the respective unions. While other organisations promote themselves based on the leaders’ cast identity, especially those from Dalit background, SFI and other CPI(M) organisations recongnise them as party leaders. The cast of a leader is irrelevant in the party. Therefore it looks like there are no Dalit leaders in SFI.

There have been committees since 2007 to study the issues faced by Dalit students. But the problems remain unresolved. Dalit students continue to suffer in Indian universities. What sort of intervention SFI has made so far?

As per records, since 1989, eleven students from Dalit families committed suicide in UoH (University of Hyderabad) alone. SFI has always been intervening in these issues. There was cases in JNU where students with excellent marks in written exams come out with 0 marks in interview. When this was noticed, SFI held protests. We helped those students file case at the court and finally they were given the scores they actually deserved and eventually the University had to take them back. In the case of Dalit students, justice is a rare happening while denying it is very common. SFI continues to work towards a change. Universities reflect what the society practice. Indian society is basically casteist and it is horrific in Northern states. Last year, I had gone to Morena in MP, as part of a fact finding team after a the Dalits were attacked following a hartal conducted by the Dalit associations in protest against the court ruling which diluted the Dalit Atrocity Act. What we could witness there was beyond our imagination. A Dalit BJP MLA’s house was attacked by his own party men and he had to leave the place. In yet another incident in UP, a BJP election candidate is made to sit on the floor of a house of an upper cast.

There are only two women leaders who are able to make it to the Politburo ever since the 7th Politburo formed in 1964 after the CPI(M) emerged as a separate party following the split. It was only in 2005, Brinda Karat was given an entry into it (18th Politburo). And it took yet another decade for another woman, Subhashini Ali, to be elected. Do you think the number of women leaders in the party and the roles played by them are satisfactory?

Yes, it’s a fact that there is a significant dearth of women leaders in the party, but there have always been mighty women leaders. In Kerala, the first ministry had Gouriyamma. Susheela Gopalan is another prominent leader. And yes, the party is very much bothered about the number. There is conscious effort being made to increase the number of women in the leadership. The topic was in discussion during the last state plenum and it was decided to include at least two women in local area committees and it is working. There are some area committees in Malappuram district where there are three women members though the number is still meager, provided the fact that an area committee comprises of 19-20 members. But from nothing to two in each area committee is an achievement. Conscious efforts will be made to increase this number and a change will surely happen. The party district secretary at Alwar in Rajasthan is a woman. Karnataka has women as district secretaries.

In Kerala, recently women came together to proclaim equality. They made a human wall with the help of the ruling Left government. The message of the wall was equality in all spheres. But when Lok Sabha candidates were announced, only two women found place in the list of 20.

The candidates were decided based on the winning prospects rather than gender and still there are two women who could make it into list is an awesome thing. This is viewed in positive spirit.

In 1991, your father VP Sakariya contested the Assembly election. The UDF candidate that time was PK Kunhalikutty. Almost 30 years have since passed, and now you are contesting elections and the opponent is still PK Kunhalikutty. This clearly shows his supremacy in the region. How do you present yourself before the voters in Malappuram constituency? What makes you a promising candidate in the constituency?

My true relations with many many people in this constituency, the student friends in the campuses and the campuses themselves are my real strength. I consider my close friendship with the students as my real asset and the campuses in the district as my confidence. Even if I get stuck at night anywhere in this constituency, there will be a vehicle to pick me from the spot and a home for me to stay. This connect was not built overnight. My experiences and activities as Balasangham district secretary and later as student leader connected me inevitably to Malappuram. There are absolutely no campuses in the district where I have not spent a day. Besides, when we analyse the trend in last several election, it can be seen that there is an obvious increase in the left votes while the votes for UDF candidates remain stagnant. The increase in left votes are coming from new voters. This time, there are 1,46,000 new voters in the constituency. I strongly believe these young voters will vote for me.

Recently Politburo member Vrinda Karat commented that Indian Union Muslim League had lost its secular character. Will you support this comment?

That is a reality. The Muslim League has a history of standing with the legitimate needs of Muslim community. But nowadays, they are doing anything to win election, to an extent of publicly joining hands with fundamentalist and communalist groups such as SDPU. They team up with the big men in the religion only to make sure the muslim votes in the region are safe with the muslim league. It is quite obvious that the Muslim League no longer stands for the betterment of the community. When the muthalaq bill was put to voting, the muslim league candidate in the constituency who is a sitting Rajya Sabha MP, abstained. Either this was an adjustment with the ruling party in the Centre or Muslim League has not taken the issue seriously.

Kerala is infamous for political murders, especially in northern districts and partibnularly in Kannur. As per police records, over 170 people were brutally killed in the last 17 years. Interestingly, the number of Left wing victims and that of right wing victims are on a par with each other. What are your thoughts and observations regarding violence in politics?

No matter who die, violence and political murders have to be condemned and curbed. When it comes to the number, as many as 578 CPI(M) comrades have been killed till date. The number on the other side is much lesser. RSS took hold in Kerala, or at any other part in India, through violence. 33 SFI members and leaders were killed, including the latest case of Abhimanyu Maharajas. But there are no cases in which the SFI perpetrated violence and murder. As long as we are not beaten first, there won’t be The party has always been tolerant but still, we are not Gandhians. We can not keep silence when we are beaten. Whenever SFI perpetrated violence, the party has taken strong action. There are cases in which SFI unit committee of a prominent institute was dispersed to form a new one, following several unfortunate incidents in which the former committee was involved.

When Rahul Gandhi visited Wayanad as part of his candidacy from the constituency, a war of words ensued between Left and Congress leaders. How important is it for the Left government in Kerala to build a healthy relationship with the Indian National Congress, especially when both the parties consider BJP and RSS their biggest foe?

The neo-liberal policies were initiated by the Congress in India. In fact, BJP’s financial policies are just a continuation of Congress policies. When GST was implemented, Congress claimed that it was their idea. It was a special case in 2004. The UPA was formed to stop BJP from coming into power. Congress declared that they were fighting against BJP and RSS. If that is the case, Rahul Gandhi should have chosen a constituency where the fight is directly between the Congress and the BJP. Instead, he chose Wayanad. This clearly shows their prime motive is to fight against the CPI(M). Besides the soft Hindutva policies of the Congress can not be justified. So that is why we asked the Congress to have a clarity on these matters. Then only we can think of a coming together in the national level this time.

When actor Dilip was caught in an abduction case, you asked SFI units in colleges to not invite actors and other movie artistes who publicly exhibited their anti-women attitude, as guests to the programmes conducted by the organisation. Was this appeal taken in its true spirit?

It was taken very seriously by the SFI units. They strictly stayed away from inviting such individuals.

There are several social media groups, who appear to be left leaning, using vulgar languages and language of hatred when they speak against their political opponents. Don’t you feel it’s necessary to curb such practices?

Such tendencies can not be tolerated. Strict warning has been given to such social media groups.

As SFI national president you have done a national tour through 22 states, starting from Kanyakumari. How fruitful was the exercise? Can you share any memorable incident from the tour?

Not just this tour, I have participated in many mass struggles at all these places in the past few years. It is such tours and interactions, which give us the real picture of India as a whole. We come to know that Kerala is much much better in many aspects when compared to the North Indian states. While in Kerala, Government run schools get smart classrooms, in North India thousands of Government schools are listed to be closed down. In Madhya Pradesh around 30,000 schools are facing closure threat. Not just in the case of public education, public health, agriculture, in almost all the area closely associated to the human life, these north Indian states remain under developed. There are villages in MP which have now transformed into the reservoir of Sardar Sarovar dam. I met people who said their houses are now under the dam. They lamented that the places where their fathers and grandfathers were buried are now under the water. The tour received applauds at all the places. In Vidarbha, where farmer crisis is horrific, a group of farmers gave us grand welcome. It was SFI which organised protest marches against the Government’s indifference towards the farmers and tribes.

(The interviewer is a Kerala-based independent contributor)