The Pioneers: Suseela Gopalan

Print edition : June 06, 2008

Suseela Gopalan. She made her mark in the Lok Sabha, to which she was elected three times.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

IN more ways than one, the political lives of K.R. Gouri Amma and Suseela Gopalan, the only women leaders to emerge into prominence in recent times out of Keralas patriarchal political climate, follow a similar trajectory.

Both were born in the politically fertile soil of Alappuzha into families whose male members had played an active role in early communist struggles in the State. Both joined the Communist Party in their student days and made their mark, initially, as union leaders, organising farm workers and coir workers respectively. Both married prominent communist leaders. While Gauri Amma was worse off for it, Suseela and her husband, A.K. Gopalan, the great communist organiser and parliamentarian, together made a rich and varied contribution to the communist movement.

Both women opted to be in the Communist Party of India (Marxist) after the spilt in the Communist Party in 1964 and became leaders and legislators in their own right. Both rose to such stature in the CPI(M) as to become Ministers in the State handling important portfolios.

Suseela Gopalan was a member of a family that had played an active role in the historic Punnapra-Vayalar struggle. By the time she joined the Communist Party in 1948 at the age of 18, she had already invited punishment from the college authorities for trying to establish a students organisation. Very soon, she began her political activity among coir workers in Alappuzha under the influence of her uncle, a Vayalar hero, and became well known as a trade union leader. In 1957, she married A.K. Gopalan, whom she had come to know during his days of hiding in the Alappuzha region.

In 1964, after the Communist Party split, Suseela became a member of the State committee of the CPI(M) and won an election to the State Assembly in 1965 while still in jail for her communist struggles. Throughout her life, she was associated with the trade union movement and served for a period as the State vice-president and later all-India vice-president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

She made her mark as a Member of Parliament, being elected in 1967, 1980 and 1991 from Ambalappuzha, Alappuzha and Chirayinkil constituencies respectively, all in south Kerala.

Suseela turned out to be an outstanding parliamentarian, especially in her later stints, playing a leading role, for instance, as a member of the Joint Committee of Parliament to examine the working of the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 and later in the enactment of the anti-dowry law.

She was always in the forefront of struggles for the rights of the working people, especially of working women, and was one of the founders of the All India Democratic Womens Association, becoming its first general secretary in 1980. She was president of AIDWA until her retirement in 2001 and a member of the Central Social Welfare Board from 1980 to 1984 and of the Coir Board in 1984 and from 1991 to 1995.

In 1996, Suseela Gopalan contested the Assembly elections in Kerala. It was an election marked by the defeat of CPI(M) leader V.S. Achuthanandan, then a strong candidate for chief ministership, and the absence of E.K. Nayanar, a former Chief Minister, from the fray following his planned appointment as State party secretary. When the results were announced, Suseela Gopalan was the most prominent among the successful CPI(M) candidates and was widely expected to be nominated to the Chief Ministers post. The party chose E.K. Nayanar, and Suseela went on to become the Minister for Industries and Social Welfare in the Nayanar Cabinet. Later, in an interview, Suseela said: The media made an issue of my chief ministership. I did not want to be one at all. I was never in the picture.

Unlike Gouri Amma, who acquired a reputation for being tough and brusque, Suseela Gopalan was often perceived as a warm and friendly person. Suseela Gopalan died in Thiruvananthapuram on December 19, 2001, after a long and courageous battle against cancer.

R. Krishnakumar
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