A great life

In idealism and exhaustive pursuit of ideology, EMS stands out as a model for political India.

Published : Apr 04, 1998 00:00 IST

IT is hard to define what makes a truly great leader but E.M.S. Namboodiripad was never in doubt about it. He said once, "Individuals become leaders only because they serve the people of the country. The minute they start doing something else, the minute they drop their ideals and ideology and work against their party or the people, they cease to be leaders."

EMS is among the rare Indian leaders who abided by this rule through his public life that lasted more than seven decades. His prescient presence as leader, thinker and theoretician played a pre-eminent role in shaping a modern and cohesive Kerala out of its unsettling political and social history. His tireless efforts as an analyst and commentator helped evolve a form of Communism that suited Indian conditions.


In idealism and exhaustive pursuit of ideology, EMS stands out as a model for political India. He thought differently from his contemporaries, lived dangerously to overcome the limitations of his times and worked constantly for the freedom of the individual and society from the clutches of imperialism, feudalism, fanatic casteism and, more recently, abhorrent communalism.

BORN on June 13, 1909, EMS was the son of Elankulam Manakkal Parameswaran Namboodiripad, a Sanskrit scholar, and Vishnudatta. Theirs was an aristocratic Namboodiri family in Perinthalamanna taluk of the present Malappuram district. EMS had four sisters and three brothers; two brothers died soon after birth and an older brother had a mental disability. He lost his father at a very early age.

EMS was affectionately called Kunju (the little one). As was the custom, Kunju's early education was at home. He was imparted a rigorous, ritualistic training in Sanskrit language and literature, logic and the scriptures. Later, he was taught Malayalam, Hindi and English. His mother and his Sanskrit teacher, Agnitratan, influenced him in his early years. It is said that his mother was keen to make him a Sanskrit scholar and wanted him to excel in the anyonyams (vedic recitation contests). This was not to be. Kunju insisted that he be sent to school. About his education at home and his experiences as a schoolboy at Perinthalmanna, EMS recalled later:

"Even those who completed such a system of education (at home) would not understand the Rig Veda because students were required only to learn by rote the various sooktas and not their meaning... I felt I had started a new life when I joined the school. An entirely new atmosphere than what I was used to. Members from all castes and communities were my fellow students and teachers. Learning was not alone but together, in groups of 25 to 30 students."

EMS' earliest struggles were against the feudal system to which he belonged. V.T. Bhattathiripad, M.B. Bhattathiripad and the young revolutionary EMS were responsible for awakening the Namboodiri community to new social realities. Those lower down in the caste hierarchy, such as the Pulaya, Ezhava and Nair communities, had already experienced the stirrings of social change. They launched a journal Unninamboothiri in which EMS published for the first time his progressive ideas - radical for the times.

EMS became an assistant secretary of the Valluvanadu Yogaskshema Sabha, an organisation of Namboodiri youth that fought against the retrograde customs in the community. At 16, he became the secretary of the Yogakshema Sabha and campaigned vigorously for liberating Namboodiri women from oppressive customs. In 1931, EMS took the initiative for the first widow remarriage in the Namboodiri community for which he was "ostracised", ineffectively though. He organised picketing at venues where old men tried to marry young girls and collected funds to fight the karanavars, the heads of traditional matrilineal families, who would not allow their wards enough means even for a decent education.

When EMS began college, Travancore and Cochin were coming alive to the national freedom movement. He abandoned his degree course to join the Independence movement. Even as a schoolboy, Namboodiripad went to Madras to attend the All India Congress Committee (AICC) conference. Later, he attended the Payyannur conference of the AICC, which was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru whose socialist leanings within the Indian National Congress had attracted EMS' admiration.

After 1932, EMS devoted his energy to fighting British imperialism and this was a period when he was either incarcerated or forced into hiding. The experience gave EMS the opportunity to meet freedom-fighters from different parts of the country. While in jail at Kannur and Vellore, he established links with socialist leaders within the Congress. In 1934, he joined the Congress Socialist Party. EMS retained links with the Pradesh Congress Committee and attracted national attention when he was elected PCC secretary. A majority of the newly elected PCC members supported the Left-socialist viewpoint, unlike the PCCs in other parts of the country.

Even when he worked as the PCC secretary, EMS had doubts about the effectiveness of Gandhi's peaceful agitations to achieve social revolution and freedom. His meeting with P. Krishna Pillai in the Kozhikode sub jail helped him substantiate his critical outlook regarding Gandhi's vision. The two of them began to work closely together, first as leaders of the Congress Socialist Party and later as leaders of the Communist Party. Organiser Krishna Pillai, legendary mass leader A.K. Gopalan and EMS founded and built the Communist movement in Kerala.

By the end of 1937, EMS was again elected to the PCC but soon right-wing Congress leaders prevented anybody with left leanings to contest the elections to the Madras Legislative Assembly. At a time when many Congress leaders were lured by power and position, EMS and his small group of comrades campaigned to make ordinary workers and peasants politically conscious about social inequities and Communist ideals.

EMS was elected to the Madras Provincial Legislative Assembly in a byelection and became a member of the inquiry committee established to study the tenancy relations in the Malabar region in 1939. When the Congress members reached a consensus in favour of the landlords, EMS presented the lone dissenting note in favour of the tenants. This was the harbinger of the most comprehensive land reforms in South Asia for which EMS provided the initiative nearly two decades later.

In 1940, the British Government banned the Communist Party. Communist leaders in Malabar went underground. About his years in hiding, EMS later recalled:

"April 1940 was a turning point in my life. Seven months had passed since the Second World War began. All of us were engaged in anti-War activities. The party decided we should go into hiding. One night, I left home without telling even my wife. I left her and our one-year-old daughter. Nobody knew for how long a period. It created a lot of tension inside me... in another way it was a happy occasion. For the first time in my life I could establish a heart-to-heart relationship with ordinary people who were not members of my community - peasants, farm and fish workers, the poor. Until then my relationship with them was only in my mind. It had not touched my heart."

No ordinary Namboodiri would have dared to rub shoulders with the "untouchables", the ordinary farm workers, peasants and their families, eat meat and fish with them and become a part of their lives for days on end. But EMS' work was to be among the lower castes, untouchable labourers and ordinary workers. In his lifetime, EMS was a significant force in the social revolution that transformed Kerala from an obnoxious past when untouchability and unapproachability were practised to the equitable society that it is today.

In 1947, soon after he emerged from hiding, EMS announced the sale of his family estate and donated the handsome proceeds to the Communist Party. The party used this amount to relaunch the defunct Desabhimani as a daily newspaper in 1947 and EMS was made the Editor. Desabhimani, which was first launched in 1942 as a weekly, had been banned by the British.

In his autobiography, EMS said that the changes that he underwent at a personal level were as important as the social changes that he was instrumental in bringing about. He noted, "Although I was born in a family that was at the top of the caste-ridden feudal society, I grew up as a Communist and a party worker who was engaged in ridding society of the evils of casteism and feudalism. I evolved further so as to sell my huge estates and donate the entire proceeds for the party. This is what made me the adopted son of the working class."

In 1957, the world's first elected Communist Government came to power in Kerala. Within a week, the EMS-led Government introduced an ordinance (and later legislation) that fixed an absolute ceiling on the land a family could own and ordered distribution of all excess lands to the landless. It also granted fixity of tenure, freedom from eviction and the benefit of a fair rent to be set by impartial land tribunals. Cultivator-tenants were conferred the right to buy at a modest payment and over a phased period the title deed of the land that they worked. The land rights of unauthorised hutment dwellers were defined.

Vested interests opposed the legislation, which together with the Education Bill passed by the EMS Government created a dramatic change in society. The result was one of the first dismissals of a State Government under Article 356 of the Constitution. This was engineered by Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru at the behest of his daughter Indira Gandhi who was then the Congress president, alleging a breakdown of law and order in the State.

As required by court, the Act was later replaced by another law which contained the provisions of the earlier Act. Two successive non-Communist Governments did not implement this new law, which was challenged in the court on the grounds that it contravened the fundamental rights. During the second tenure of the Communist Government in 1967-69, the EMS Government placed a new land reform (Amendment) Act before the legislature, which restored and amplified the radical proposals in the Kerala Agrarian Relations Act, 1960. Through major amendments, the land that could be held under ceiling was reduced and the jenmi system abolished. The new Act, the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, was passed without a dissenting note in 1969.

EMS was also the architect of Aikya Keralam (unified Kerala) incorporating the erstwhile princely states of Travancore and Cochin and parts of the British Malabar districts. He argued that a division of the country into States should be solely on the basis of language and cultural affinity of the people living in a region, and this was based on the declared policy of his party at that time.

EMS steered the progressive literary and intellectual movement in Kerala and made his mark also as the first Marxist historian in the State. The progressive literary movement evoked a social response and achieved a sincerity of approach to people's problems. It encouraged the creation of outstanding works in all areas of Malayalam literature.

These years were also spent shaping the party newspaper, Desabhimani. In April 1997, soon after the daily launched its fifth edition, EMS told Frontline: "When Desabhimani was started...the Communists were a small but committed group in Kerala, pursuing a political line (against the British war efforts) that isolated them from the people. The original objective of the paper was therefore to give publicity to the party's line and to answer criticism against it." For a long time it was a party paper meant only for party members, but Desabhimani, which grew under the constant guidance of Namboodiripad, is today the fourth largest circulated Malayalam daily.

The last important phase in EMS' life was his evolution as Marxist thinker and theoretician, especially after the Communist Party of India (CPI) split in 1964. Even as his closest associates faded away into history, EMS guided the movement through the thick and thin of Indian politics. He was elected to the CPI Central Committee in 1941 and to the party Polit Bureau in 1950. In 1962, he was elected general-secretary of the undivided CPI. In 1964, after the party split, he was elected a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a post that he held until the very end. He was the CPI(M) general-secretary from 1977 to 1992, when he returned to Kerala on account of failing health.

Even after his return to Thiruvananthapuram, he continued his hectic schedule as party idealogue and writer. The handsome income that he generated through his writings went to the party, which in turn looked after his spartan personal needs.

In the last one year, EMS often expressed his concerns about the development crisis in Kerala and said that the acclaimed Kerala model was insufficient to address urgent developmental needs. He prescribed decentralisation of power and involving people from all walks of life irrespective of political affiliations for the all-round development of the State. The State Government incorporated his suggestions in the People's Campaign for the Ninth Plan. EMS, who was the chairman of the high-level guidance committee formed to implement the campaign, is known to have complained at the committee's last meeting in September 1997 about the slow implementation of the programme.

Until his last day, EMS remained active. A few hours before his death, he dictated two articles to his personal assistant, Venu. One was on the need for a joint effort to fight the forces that threaten secularism in the country - coincidentally on the day the Bharatiya Janata Party ascended to power at the Centre - and the other on "Desabhimani's responsibility today", to mark the anniversary of the newspaper's Kottayam edition.

No tribute can do justice to the glorious and multi-faceted life led by EMS - anti-imperialist, social reformer, literary critic, Marxist thinker, theoretician and historian, and above all a person loved and held in esteem by millions of people.

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