EMS and Kerala: Life and times

Print edition : April 04, 1998

The political-theoretical line formulated by EMS laid the basis for the far-reaching changes brought about by public action in Kerala after its formation in 1956.

TO trace the political and intellectual career of E.M.S. Namboodiripad is to trace, in substantial measure, the history of the social, economic and political development of modern Kerala. No person has played as important a part in the socio-political and cultural life of a region of India for as long a period in the 20th century as has EMS in Kerala.

As is now well known, Kerala's progress in crucial spheres of social and economic development has been substantial, and significantly better than other States of India. Consider some statistics that are often used by social scientists as indicators of social development, and from these, some of the changes that EMS saw in a lifetime. In 1911-20, the years of EMS's childhood, the expectation of life at birth in the areas that make up modern Kerala was 25 years for men and 27 years for women. In 1990-92, men could expect to live 69 years and women 74 years (the corresponding figures for India in 1990-92 were 59 years and 59.4 years). The death rate in Kerala was 37 per 1,000 in 1911-1920 and 6.1 per 1,000 in 1990-92 (the all-India figure in 1990-92 was 9.8). The infant mortality rate in Kerala, 242 per 1,000 live births in 1911-20, was 17 per 1,000 in 1992 (all-India, 1992: 79). The birth rate in Kerala, 40 per 1,000 in 1931-40, was 18.5 per 1,000 in 1990-92 (all-India, 1990-92: 29.5 per 1,000).

The people of 20th-century Kerala have altered radically a system of agrarian relations that was among the most complex, burdensome and exploitative in India, and have won important victories against some of the country's most monstrous forms of caste oppression. Public action in recent decades has narrowed the gap in health and educational facilities and achievements between the districts of the north and the districts of the south, a gap that widened during the period of colonial rule.


EMS addressing a public meeting in Kozhikode.-COURTESY: KERALA KAUMUDI

The modern State of Kerala has also introduced a series of interesting protective social security measures that attempt to provide pensions and other payments to working people in the so-called "informal" sector, and to destitute and physically handicapped persons. Kerala is the only State in India where there is mass literacy (and near-total literacy among adolescents and youth), and is also the State with the lowest proportion of child workers in India. Nutrition levels have improved in Kerala after the 1970s, and, according to official data, household consumption levels were higher than the Indian average by the late 1980s. The public food distribution system, the best among India's States, gives basic nutritional support to the people of Kerala.

Kerala's accomplishment shows that the well-being of the people can be improved, and social, political and cultural conditions transformed, when there is theoretical clarity and determined public action. In the transformation that has taken place in the State, the most important agency of change since the late 1930s has been the Left movement in the State. The Communist Party, and the organisations of workers, peasants, agricultural labourers, students, teachers, youth and women under its leadership, have been the major organisers and leaders of mass political movements in Kerala since the end of the 1930s, and have been the major agents of the politicisation of the mass of Kerala's people.

Radical Left-minded individuals in Travancore began to make an impact on intellectual life in Kerala from the early part of the century; the Communist movement, however, began in Malabar. There is a stimulating scholarly literature and there are memoirs by leading participants, and novels as well, on the Left movement in Malabar in the 1930s and 1940s, which deal with the events of the time and with the people who lived and died in its cause. The number and quality of the extraordinary mass organisers and leaders for which the Communist movement in Malabar is famous are remarkable. Selfless, enlightened, and acutely sensitive to injustice, the Communist organisers of Malabar faced extraordinary repression by the ruling classes in order to achieve a better future for the people of Kerala and of India.

THE Communist movement in Kerala was led, from its inception, by three extraordinary individuals - P. Krishna Pillai, a genius of organisation; A.K. Gopalan, an unsurpassed mass leader; and E.M.S. Namboodiripad, thinker, theoretician and active revolutionary and politician. The three were recruited by P. Sundarayya in the 1930s to the Communist Party from the radical section of the Congress movement, and their joint contribution has been the foundation of the Left movement in the State. It is clear that the movement in Kerala today still bears their stamp.

EMS himself had been active in the movement for social reform among Namboodiris, particularly in the movement against the oppression and seclusion of women of the caste. He came to the freedom movement through the Congress in Malabar district. In an interview with me in 1992, EMS spoke of the roots struck by the Congress in rural Malabar in the 1930s and of his own entry into the freedom movement:

As far as the freedom movement is concerned, it had reached the villages even in the days of the non-cooperation movement. You remember the Malabar rebellion of 1921. Even before that, the district of Malabar had a series of Congress and Khilafat committees, almost every village would have one Congress Committee and one Khilafat Committee. Although that was suppressed after the rebellion, its roots continued. An organised liberation movement of this sort dates back to the 1920s - in fact, I am a child of that movement.

EMS rose quickly to a position of leadership in the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, and the forms of organisation of the Congress in rural Malabar initiated by him were unique.

As soon as we started work in the Congress, that is, in the mid-1930s, we started to organise night schools and reading rooms. When I was first elected the organising secretary of the KPCC - that is, in 1937 - our effort was to have, in every village, a village Congress Committee and, attached to it, a reading room and a night school.

THROUGH his writings and practice, EMS guided the Communist movement towards assimilating the most progressive features of diverse local socio-political movements and giving them new philosophical and political direction. These different movements in Kerala included the freedom movement, the radical and anti-caste sections of the social reform movement, the movement against landlordism, the movement against autocracy and monarchy, the movement for the linguistic reorganisation of the region and for the establishment of a unified Kerala, and, of course, the modern movement of workers, peasants and radical intellectuals. Communists were among the early organisers of mass political organisations of women in the State. They played a leading part in the literary movement and in the cultural movement (including the theatre movement) in Kerala. School teachers were key activists and mass organisers of the national movement and the Communist Party; they were the first organisers of the granthashala (library) movement and the movement for literacy in Malabar. In the 1970s and 1980s, activists of the Left movement were the main activists in the popular science movement led by the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, and in the Total Literacy Campaign of 1989 to 1991.

IT is no exaggeration to say that the political-theoretical line formulated by EMS laid the basis for the far-reaching changes brought about by public action in the State of Kerala after it was formed in 1956. (Indeed, EMS was one of the first to articulate clearly the demand for an Aikya Keralam - united Kerala - based on the linguistic principle and bringing within it the princely states of Travancore and Kochi and the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency.) He was active in the peasant movement in Malabar, he helped to formulate the demands of the peasantry, and was really the architect of India's first land reform. (His Note of Dissent to the Malabar Tenancy Bill in the late 1930s was a landmark document of its time.) He was active in the movement for the public distribution of food and was instrumental in formulating a food policy for post-1957 Kerala. His writings on history, society, culture and literature played no small part in public discussion and activism in these spheres. His understanding of the position to be taken by a Communist Party towards the anti-savarna movements was crucial to the Left's advance in Kerala. T.M. Thomas Isaac, a leading scholar of the Left movement in Kerala, characterises the attitude of the Communists in Kerala towards caste reform movements in this way:

While supporting and actively participating in the social reform movements in various communities, particularly the anti-savarna movements of the oppressed castes, the Communists (also) sought to build class and mass organisations irrespective of caste, and raised caste reform slogans as part of their anti-feudal democratic struggle. The Communists carried forward the radical legacy of the social reform movement and won over a large part of the masses in these movements, while the elites within these castes began to confine themselves to sectarian demands and withdraw into casteist organisational shells.

Elections were held to Kerala's first Legislative Assembly in 1957. Of all the political forces in the State, only the Communists had a coherent vision for Kerala's future; they knew what they were going to do and how they would go about it. In June 1956, the Communist Party in Kerala met in Thrissur to discuss a policy framework for Party activity in Kerala, and the document that emerged from the meeting, "Communist Proposal for Building a Democratic and Prosperous Kerala", provided the basis for the Communist election manifesto of 1957, and, indeed for future public policy in the State.

The first Government of Kerala was a Communist Government, and there was, of course, no doubt about who would lead it. E.M.S. Namboodiripad was sworn in as the first Chief Minister of the State on April 5, 1957. The major features of the agenda of the new Government and of later Communist ministries in the State were, among other things, land reform, health, education and strengthening the system of public distribution of food and other essential commodities. Land reform and the public distribution system are recognised as unmistakably Communist projects; it is noteworthy that the EMS Government's first Ordinance on land reform was promulgated on April 11, just six days after the Ministry was formed. Communist-led governments also worked on policies that helped bridge the gap between regions, they drafted early legislation on local self-government, and the ministry of 1987-1991 provided administrative and institutional support to the Total Literacy Campaign. A major feature of political reality in Kerala today is that the Left has been successful in making many parts of its agenda part of the broad social consensus in the State.

For all this, EMS was far from being complacent, or uncritical of the course that change has taken in Kerala. In his view, reflected sharply in his writings and interviews on Kerala in the 1990s, the concentration on development in the social sectors of Kerala's economy had led it into something of an impasse, characterised above all by the contemporary crisis in the spheres of employment and material production in the State. He had no patience with scholars who attempted to romanticise a "Kerala Model" of development. For him, the very high rates of unemployment in Kerala and the low rate of growth of its economy were politically and socially unviable, and he saw the task of transforming the conditions and levels of production in the State's economy as among the topmost items on the Left agenda.

Those who shall take on the task of building the Kerala of the future that EMS envisaged shall have special historical resources on which to draw, including basic land reform, an educated, skilled and politically conscious working class and unique achievements in the fields of health and education. To the making of all of these, the contribution of E.M.S. Namboodiripad - Communist, freedom fighter, Marxist thinker, political activist, administrator, historian and social theorist - is immeasurable. EMS was, as President K.R. Narayanan said in his condolence message, sui generis.

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