Thinker, doer, history maker

Print edition : April 04, 1998

E.M.S. NAMBOODIRIPAD (1909-1998) was, in all probability, the most important revolutionary figure modern India has produced. He was certainly the most accomplished, the most original and creative, and the most enduringly influential on the larger stage. Although their lives, styles and socio-political circumstances could not have presented a more fascinating or educative contrast, Mao Zedong of China alone can rival him in historical importance as an "interpreter of Marxist thought in the less developed world" (as President K.R. Narayanan observed in his warm tribute). EMS' international reputation in Communist and progressive circles rests pre-eminently on his accomplishments as theorist and intellectual path-finder. His vast body of writings on an awesome range of subjects, which will no doubt be issued in time as his Collected Works, will long be read for the riches they offer to all manner of readers in India and abroad.

As has been pointed out in the assessment by Prakash Karat, a younger colleague, published in this issue, "EMS with his extraordinary intellectual genius was able constantly to stay ahead of his contemporaries in applying Marxism to the specific conditions in Kerala and later the whole of India." His analyses of landlordism and land relations, nationality formation in Kerala and India, the character of the Indian state and society, evolving Indian politics, the opportunities and limits of parliamentary democracy, Communist participation in State governments, the planning process, the caste system and the tricky class-caste equation, the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and various aspects of history and culture are contributions of unsurpassed originality, brilliance and influence in the Indian Left.

But EMS was great not just for the creativity and brilliance of his contributions to Marxist theory and thought over more than half a century. Anti-imperialist and patriot, social reformer, Chief Minister of India's first elected Communist Government, architect of India's first serious land reform experiment, leader with a radical educational vision, underground party organiser, great communicator, ex-Congress leader who became general secretary of both the undivided CPI and the CPI(M), he was a Master of practice.

Tolerant, respectful of differences and fair-minded, EMS was known to take his time to arrive at a position (most famously, during a crucial period when the Communist Party of India was in a process of fierce inner-party struggle and splitting). But he never hesitated to take sides once his mind was made up. A believer in democratic dialogue and tireless discussion of issues that matter, he was also a fierce polemicist and controversialist, a mass agitator whom governments and opponents learnt to fear. Free from ego problems and hangups, he felt free to lay out his differences and criticisms straightforwardly and without inhibition - and to accept criticism without rancour or subjectivism.

In personal as well as in larger socio-political terms, the life story of EMS can be read as a story of recurrent challenge and creative, obstacle-clearing response. His initiation into public life came with an adolescent struggle to overcome his high-caste, feudal landlord origins through progressive humanism and personal morality of a high order. His first significant success came in the social realm: it was in the youth struggle within the community to "make the Namboodiri a human being". EMS' passion against high caste oppression, untouchability and unseeability was able to move mountains.

EMS made a unique contribution to the development of a theory and practice of participation by a Communist Party in elected State governments without losing sight of the priority of developing mass movements and struggles by the working people. At times, he faced vicious attacks from the ultra-Left and the naxalites of the world for his 'revisionism' and 'right-reformist' practice. But EMS' two terms as Chief Minister of Kerala are unparalleled for leadership vision, the focus brought to two critical issues - land reform and education - and communicating a sense of revolutionary priorities and sheer quality. Nor did he show himself enamoured of office. In fact, after 1969 he showed little interest in becoming Chief Minister again. As Prakash Karat points out, during his last days he was "deeply concerned with the corrosive effects of parliamentarism which subordinates the interests of the mass movements and the demands of class struggle."

Likewise, the man who more than any other helped shape the social, political and economic development of modern Kerala - and its enviable social indicators - was far from complacent about what had been achieved through a combination of struggles and constructive efforts over many decades. He took fierce issue with any scholarly attempt to 'romanticise' the Kerala developmental 'model', insisting towards the end of his life on highlighting the downside of the experience.

EMS the revolutionary showed fortitude, resilience and equanimity of a rare order. Dismissal and destabilisation of Left-led State governments, setbacks to the movement, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist systems, ideological and political reversals, repression as well as the dangling of illusions - these were powerless against the strength of his Communist conviction and the sunniness of his disposition.

This is, in effect, a special issue condoling the passing of EMS but also celebrating his many-sided gifts. His contribution as a towering genius of the Indian revolution is assessed by longtime comrade and associate, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who succeeded him as general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and also by a colleague belonging to a much younger generation, Prakash Karat. EMS' lifelong engagement with history, and in particular the history of Kerala and of the Indian freedom struggle, is evaluated by a distinguished professional historian, K.N. Panikkar. The quality, power and subtlety of EMS' internationalist vision is analysed by distinguished economist Prabhat Patnaik. EMS' outstanding importance in the social, economic and political development of modern Kerala, indeed in raising the developmental level of a region and millions of working people in particular, is profiled by Frontline Deputy Editor and economist V.K. Ramachandran. There are other interesting contributions providing insights into EMS the man of letters and man of culture, EMS the Chief Minister, EMS the family man and so on (some of which will be published in the next issue of Frontline).

A genius of many sides and gifts, this dimunitive, amiable and somewhat shy man with a stammer strode the Kerala and national stage as a colossus. More than any other person on the Indian Left, he succeeded in bridging the gap between theory and practice, conceptualisation and action, movement and organisation, high-soaring individual genius and disciplined collective functioning. EMS' greatest achievement as a revolutionary was the integration of all these sides. This was achieved in a lifelong practice of transparently simple living and high thinking, integrity that remains beyond question, morality and humanism of the highest order that is profound, class-based and partisan in a progressive sense.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor