The Pioneers: K.R. Gouri Amma

Print edition : June 06, 2008

K.R. Gouri Amma. She had to undergo unimaginable torture at the hands of the police early in her career.-S. GOPAKUMAR

THE longest serving member in the Kerala Assembly, the one who has served in the largest number of Assemblies in Kerala, the oldest member in the State Assembly, the member of the first Communist Ministry in 1957 who (as Revenue Minister) piloted the land reforms Bill, one of the ablest administrators Kerala has seen. Such descriptions may seem a stark contradiction to scholarly conclusions drawing on K.R. Gouri Ammas political life, such as: The pressures working against womens public political activity are as great in Kerala as elsewhere in India.

In popular perception, there is no other person who epitomises women in public life in Kerala today more than the diminutive 89-year-old Gouri Amma, a former CPI(M) leader who is now chairperson of the Janathipatya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS), the party she founded after she was expelled from the CPI(M) in 1994.

Gouri Amma has had an exciting and lengthy political career in Kerala as a student leader, trade unionist and womens leader and Minister in successive Left Front governments. She came into the public eye in 1946 as a student activist urging the then princely state of Travancore to join the Indian Union. She participated in student struggles as part of the Quit India movement and became the first woman from the backward-caste Ezhava community to graduate in law.

She went to prison in 1948, the year she joined the Communist Party at the behest of her elder brother. Except in the first universal suffrage elections in Travancore in 1948 and in the 1977 and 2006 Assembly elections, Gouri Amma gained impressive victories in all other Assembly elections. She was a Minister in communist-led Ministries in Kerala in 1957, 1967, 1980, and 1987.

She was president of the Kerala Karshaka Sangham from 1960 to 1984 and the Kerala Mahila Sangham from 1967 to 1976. Jailed on a number of occasions for her political activities, she had to undergo unimaginable torture at the hands of the police early in her career.

By the late 1980s, Gouri Ammas reputation as a communist and a feisty, no-nonsense administrator had reached its zenith. In March 1987, when the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front won the Assembly elections, it was widely perceived that she would be the partys choice for the chief ministership. But the mantle fell on E.K. Nayanar.

This event, among others, and the fact that she never rose to the central leadership of her party in spite of her experience and ability are often cited variously as examples of the limitations of women or limitations of backward castes in politics in Kerala.

As a prominent woman member of Left Front Ministries, Gouri Ammas private life came under the public glare and she faced criticism about women entering public life, especially after her marriage to the communist leader T.V. Thomas. When the Communist Party split in 1964, the couple found themselves in opposing camps. It was a trying period for her, balancing her private and public life, especially when both wife and husband became Ministers representing the two parties in the coalition Cabinet in 1967 and stayed in adjacent official residences in Thiruvananthapuram.

In his well-known work published in 1992, Politics, Women and Well-being: How Kerala Became a Model, political scientist Robin Jeffrey draws on the lives of four Kerala women, among them Gouri Amma, to understand what lessons should and should not be drawn from Keralas development experience. From his brief study of Gouri Ammas life, he concludes: Though she has been the most prominent woman in Kerala politics for thirty years she has paid a price. She is unlikely to gain the prizes which, had she been a man, she might have expected. Her career stands as a warning against romanticising about the place of women in Kerala.

Gouri Amma was expelled from the CPI(M) in 1994 for anti-party activities. In the same year, she founded the JSS with a largely Ezhava support base in and around her native Alappuzha district. The JSS soon became a partner in the United Democratic Front coalition, and Gouri Amma, after over 45 years of being a firebrand communist, became a Minister in the Congress-led Cabinet from 2001 to 2006.

R. Krishnakumar
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