K. Madhavan was born on August 26, 1915 in a feudal, land-owning family of North Malabar in Kerala. His father was Achikanath Chirakara Raman Nair and mother Kozhummal Unnanga Amma. He joined Vijnanadayani National Sanskrit School at Bellikoth, Kanhangad in Kasaragod district in 1926 and was initiated into nationalist politics as a student at the age of 12. The school, set up by a Congress stalwart - his own cousin and political mentor - A. C. Kannan Nair along with Vidwan P. Kelu Nair and K. T. Kunhiraman Nambiar (former K.P.C.C. President), was founded for spreading Gandhian ideals such as campaign against untouchability, propagation of Hindi, etc.
It was this school that nudged young Madhavan into the vast world of idealistic political principles and social activism that lay beyond the sleepy, rustic and feudal environs of the Kasaragod region. In 1928, fired by the powerful articles written by Mahatma Gandhi in Young India, Madhavan worked as a volunteer in the fourth political conference of the K.P.C.C. at Payyannur in North Malabar, that was presided over by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. On his return, with redoubled enthusiasm, he plunged into all the constructive programmes dear to the Mahatma - spinning khadi using the charka, going to Harijans' huts and participating in cleaning activities and so on. In the same year, Madhavan along with his teachers and fellow students undertook a door-to-door campaign in order to raise funds for the Bardoli Satyagraha started by Sardar Vallabhai Patel in Gujarat.
Madhavan also participated in the Simon boycott agitation during this period. Eminent Congress leaders of the time including "Kerala Gandhi" K. Kelappan, K. Madhavanar, Krishnaswamy Iyer and others visited the school and interacted with the students. This gave Madhavan an opportunity to come in contact with and be further inspired by them, especially K. Kelappan. The high point in his student life came when he got an opportunity to play an active role in a grand reception arranged at Kanhangad railway station to honour Mahatma Gandhi as he passed through Kanhangad on 26 October 1929.
The historic Payyannur K. P. C. C. Conference was held from 25 to 27 May 1928. It was at this conference that a resolution demanding poorna swaraj was passed, a full year ahead of the Lahore A. I. C. C. meet. K. Madhavan, who was only 13 years old at that time, participated in the conference as a volunteer along with a group of students from Vijnanadayani School. At the venue, he was asked to perform menial labour like cleaning dirty vessels and kitchen utensils, which he had no hesitation in doing. These acts however were too radical considering his aristocratic background as well as his conservative upbringing until then and, quite naturally, provoked the violent wrath of his father, a prominent feudal chief of the area. Estrangement between father and son became sadly inevitable but Madhavan could not resist the call of Gandhian idealism and was drawn deeper into the nationalist movement. The Payyannur conference thus played a pivotal role in transforming young Madhavan into a committed Congress man.
The Salt Satyagraha spearheaded by K. Kelappan in Kerala in 1930 was another turning point in Madhavan's life. He was the youngest of the 32 members hand-picked by the K. P. C. C. leadership for the jatha from Calicut to Payyannur to show solidarity to the Mahatma. K. Kelappan himself had tried to dissuade Madhavan from participating in the jatha as he was too young (only 15 years at that time) to endure the strain and hardships of the struggle. But Madhavan's patriotic fervour was so intense that he would not be discouraged. Further, he voluntarily donated his gold ring to the Satyagraha fund.
Madhavan, along with eminent leaders Congress leaders Abdul Rehman Sahib, Krishna Pillai and K. T. Kunhiraman Nambiar, was subjected to severe police lathi charge at the Calicut beach. Subsequently, on being produced before the court, Madhavan claimed to be 19 years of age and embraced a 6-month stint of rigorous imprisonment at Kannur Central jail. K. Madhavan is now the lone surviving participant of the historic Salt Satyagraha.
The participation in Salt Satyagraha at a tender age, followed by imprisonment, made Madhavan a notable cadre member of the Congress in Malabar. When the Guruvayoor Satyagraha was launched by K. Kelappan in 1931 to gain right of entry to the Guruvayoor temple for the backward classes and the untouchables, Madhavan was asked by Kelappan to be a member of the jatha from Kannur to Guruvayoor that was led by prominent Congress leaders like T. S. Thirumumbu and A. K. Gopalan. When the jatha reached Guruvayoor, K. Madhavan was inducted as a full-time volunteer of the Satyagraha team.
The following months saw Madhavan immersing himself in the temple entry movement. Acting on Kelappan's instructions Madhavan, along with another young volunteer, stood guard at the gate braving the advance of an elephant that was goaded by the temple authorities to break the morale of the satyagrahis and ruin the agitation. When the elephant appeared reluctant to harm the children, the mahouts rained blows on the animal and pushed it forcibly between the boys. In the process, its belly grazed their bodies and threw them off their feet! Madhavan's active participation in the Guruvayoor Satyagraha was a landmark in his incipient political career because it reinforced his resolve to simultaneously devote his time for social uplift as well.
With the failure of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact in 1932, a state of emergency was declared in India. In retaliation, Kasaragod Taluk like various other parts of India got ready to launch agitations against the draconian British law. Earlier, K. Madhavan had led the people of the area in a peaceful picketing of toddy shops and been subjected to severe police lathi charge at Kanhangad town. Now, undeterred by such unjust penal action, Madhavan joined hands with the local Congress leaders to picket foreign cloth-shops and in the police lathi charge that followed K. Madhavan was beaten up till he fell unconscious.
In 1934, K. Madhavan, inspired by the national movement, decided to learn Hindi and got himself enrolled in the Hindi college at Ernakulam for the Visharath course. The principal of the Hindi College, Sri A. Chandrahasan was an ardent nationalist and encouraged Madhavan in his academic initiatives. There Madhavan came in contact with famous Gandhians like Kakka Kalelkar and Thakur Bappa who along with P. Krishna Pillai inspired him to popularize Hindi among the people of his locality and build up awareness among them about the need for uniting against the British.
After returning to Kanhangad, K. Madhavan started Hindi classes at several places including Bellikoth, Kanhangad and Nileswaram. Many students were attracted to these classes and subsequently they became active cadre members and leaders of the nationalist movement. This included N. Ganapathi Kamath Niranjana who became a notable writer in Kannada in the post-independence period and N. K. Balakrishnan who became a minister in the C. Achutha Menon cabinet during 1970-77 in Kerala.
From 1934 onwards, Madhavan, along with many of his associates within the Indian National Congress, got attracted towards socialism and became a member of the Congress Socialist Party within the Indian National Congress. He was elected as the first secretary of the Congress Socialist party in Kasaragod Taluk and also became a member of the K. P. C. C. In 1937, as part of the Socialist Party decision, peasant organizations were formed throughout Malabar. K. Madhavan was elected the first secretary of the peasant organization in Kasaragod Taluk and also became a prominent leader of the peasant union in Malabar. In these capacities, he led very effective campaigns against the eviction of poor tenants from their cultivated land as well as illegal extortion from the peasants by the landlords. The price he had to pay for such brave acts of selfless idealism was great. Seen as an enemy by his own rich landlord uncles and relatives, Madhavan was virtually ostracized by the aristocratic classes, misunderstood by his own mother and even feared by the younger members of his extended family. The pain and loneliness that such setbacks inflicted on him were intense but Madhavan did not permit his personal sorrows to compromise his efficiency or dedication to the public cause.
As the secretary of the Taluk peasant union, Madhavan organized peasant meetings at the grassroots level and set up numerous local units of the organization. He took the initiative to bring together all sections of farmers, irrespective of caste, creed and religion and under his leadership this movement became a campaign against caste hierarchy and oppression. By the end of 1930s the peasant organization became an unquestionable force in Kasaragod Taluk like in other parts of Malabar. When the Communist party was formed in 1939, K. Madhavan was elected as the first secretary of Communist party's Kasaragod Taluk Committee. He also became a member of the Malabar committee of the Communist party. As a founder leader of the Communist party in Malabar, K. Madhavan spent several years underground, giving up all creature comforts and often risking his life, in order to organize the movement at the grassroots level.
Gandhian programmes and ideals have been a guiding influence throughout Madhavan's life. Even after becoming a prominent builder of the Communist movement in North Malabar, he retained his affinity towards Gandhism. As a result, when the Communist party adopted the Calcutta thesis in 1948, K. Madhavan openly refused to implement its programmes in Kasaragod district. He had always toed the P. C. Joshi line which sought to strengthen the hands of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and induct progressive thinking in the nationalist movement.
Thus within the Communist movement he trod a lonely path, arguing in favour of amalgamating the ideas and idealism of Mahatma Gandhi with Karl Marx for the emancipation of the weaker sections of the society. He had always been of the view that Marxian programmes would gain more relevance and effectiveness in the Indian context only if they were integrated with Gandhian ideals. K.Madhavan was victimized and isolated within the Communist movement for adhering steadfastly to this maverick view but he never compromised on his ideological standpoint. When he brought out the second and third editions of his autobiography (written in Malayalam) in 2000 and 2010 respectively, he chose to have Memories of a Gandhian Communist as its title.
After being released from jail in 1950, following the Calcutta thesis, he continued to be active in the public sphere. In the post-Second World War period, when food shortage became acute, he stood in the forefront to set up an effective public distribution network so that essential items like rice, wheat and kerosene could reach the needy in time. Madhavan served as the president of Kanhangad Panchayat for a long period of 16 years.
During his tenure, he was instrumental in building roads, especially those connecting rural areas, and digging canals and ponds for the promotion of agriculture. He also played a pivotal role in introducing tractors for the first time in Kasaragod district, the first step towards mechanisation in the agricultural field in a backward area, and promoted diversification in the field of conventional agriculture by introducing side crops like cocoa and sericulture. Madhavan was the chief force in the formation of a marketing organization for arecanut farmers called CAMPCO, a joint venture of Kerala and Karnataka governments. He became a member of the sponsoring committee of CAMPCO and subsequently became its director.
During the 1970s in the C. Achutha Menon-headed government, when the Minister for Housing Mr M. N. Govindan Nair launched the One-Lakh-House Project for the poor, the Kanhangad Panchayat led by K. Madhavan became one of the first panchayats in the state to complete it.
His contribution towards preserving communal and political harmony has also been substantial. During the 1940s, a major communal riot between the Hindus and the Muslims was averted due to his timely intervention. Similarly during the 1980s when political clashes between the CPI (M) and the BJP cadres became rampant in Kasaragod district he took the initiative to put an end to them and conducted a "Shanti Yatra" through the affected areas.
As a social reformer K Madhavan took serious interest in setting up the first schools in Kasaragod district. In the 1950s K. Madhavan was fortunate enough to see his long-cherished dream and brain child taking shape - an upper primary school was established at Belur near Kanhangad meant to provide education to the deprived sections. He worked as its manager for several decades before handing over the reins to the state government. During the period of the first EMS Ministry in Kerala it was at his behest and persuasion that the high schools at Periya and Kayyur in Kasaragod district were started. K. Madhavan played a major role in bringing up the Nityananda Polytechnic Institution in Kanhangad.
His contribution to the cultural field is also equally notable. It was mainly through his efforts that a huge memorial in the name of Mahakavi P. Kunhiraman Nair came up at Kanhangad. It has now grown into a research centre and in recognition of the activities of the organization, Kerala government has been extending financial grants to it annually. Madhavan is the current chairman of the Mahakavi P. Smaraka Samithi, the Freedom Fighter A. C. Kannan Nair Study Centre, the Vidwan P. Kelu Nair Trust and the Mahakavi Kuttamath Trust.
In recognition of his immeasurable service to the national cause and active participation in the freedom movement, he was honoured by a "Tamrapathram" by the Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi during the silver jubilee celebration of our Independence in 1972.
In 1996 he withdrew from hectic political life and severed his official connection with the Communist Party. However he retained his emotional and ideological ties with the movements and proclaimed himself a Gandhian Communist, choosing to respond to all social issues as a private individual.
Last year an English version of his autobiography On the Banks of the Tejaswini (translated by P. Radhika Menon) was published by the National Book Trust, New Delhi. It gives a moving account of K. Madhavan's growth from a naive village boy to an acute political thinker; from a loyal follower to a leader in his own right; from a rebel to a respectable and respected statesman, and also highlights the urgent need for interweaving Gandhian and Marxist ideals and methods to take India towards the path of true equality and social justice. In 2011, the Kannur University honoured him with a D. Litt. degree. K. Madhavan turned 100 on August 26th 2014 and leads a relaxed life in his residence at Kanhangad, Kasaragod district, North Kerala.