The people's leader

Published : Jun 18, 2004 00:00 IST

E.K. Nayanar, 1919-2004

in Thiruvananthapuram

PERHAPS death gave communist leader and former Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar the most resounding mandate of all. Even seasoned politicians, including close comrades, looked on incredulously at the unprecedented swell of emotion that swept Kerala as crowds, unmindful of the driving monsoon rain, thronged the AKG Centre, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s State headquarters, and the Durbar Hall of the government Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, lined the nearly 600-km route that his funeral procession took overnight in virtually incessant rain from the State capital to his native Kannur district in the north, and waited patiently in serpentine queues at the town halls in Kozhikode and Kannur to have a glimpse of his body. A hero's farewell was finally accorded to him at the Payyambalam beach in Kannur, late in the night on May 21, two days after his death at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi.

Without doubt, Nayanar had touched the hearts of people irrespective of their politics in a State where he was the longest serving (4,009 days spread across three tenures) Chief Minister. The bond that the genial politician with his seemingly innate populist streak forged with the man on the street, with his rustic dialect-laced humour, earthy logic, endearingly sharp tongue and communist convictions had made him stand apart from most of his political contemporaries who were given to circumlocution and aloofness.

The 85-year-old Nayanar was admitted to the AIIMS on April 26 for advanced treatment of diabetes, after a brief stay at the Medical College Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram earlier. His condition became worse following kidney and heart failure on May 6 when he was put on the life support system.

ERAMBALA KRISHNAN NAYANAR was the last of the generation of political leaders in Kerala, feudal in origin and radical in politics, who had committed themselves to the lot of the ordinary and downtrodden people and earned their uninhibited respect and affection. He was born into wealth and privilege in British-ruled Malabar (north Kerala), at a time when the Congress was considered by the authorities as a recruiting ground for subversives, and communist ideas were sprouting in the country. His father Govindan Nambiar, however, believed in the feudal way of life and would often fly into a rage when the young Nayanar began to frequently don the Gandhi cap as a student volunteer enticed into the national movement by his close relatives, most prominently, uncle and the late communist leader K.P.R. Gopalan.

Nayanar would say later that among the events that made a deep impression on him at that time was the commotion at home and his village following the admission of a Dalit girl in the local family-run school at the behest of K.P.R. Gopalan and his compatriots. Nayanar famously helped in the establishment of a library and named it `Shri' Harshan Library, after Harshan, a member of the oppressed caste who was tortured to death at the Kannur Central Jail for his participation in the national movement.

Northern Kerala then was a den of pervasive class and caste oppression, corruption and brutal policing methods. The first signs of protest too had emerged and like many of his contemporaries Nayanar played an ardent role in the student and youth movements in his native Kalliasseri village. He dropped out of school in his final year, as political activity began to demand much of his time, even running away from home for a brief time when his father beat him up for participating in an anti-liquor agitation. The event led to a change in domestic equations and made him enter politics full time. By the late 1930s, Nayanar had become an active member of the student and farm worker's movements in Malabar and was led into the socialist path by prominent leaders like P. Krishna Pillai.

Nayanar became known as a political organiser soon after he was put in charge of the workers of the Aaron Mill in Kannur district. He was entrusted with the job of organising the mill workers in secret but the union's activities became well-known and the management dismissed about 30 workers. What followed was an indefinite strike by the workers seeking reinstatement of their colleagues and demanding more concessions. The 46-day-long agitation was led by Nayanar locally, with support from Krishna Pillai and the legendary A.K. Gopalan from outside. Rallies of farmers carrying farm produce were held to help the starving families of the agitating mill workers. The agitation spurred the growth of the communist movement in north Kerala even while it firmed up the management's resolve to suppress it. Workers and their leaders, including Nayanar, were beaten up and arrested.

Kerala was in turmoil by the time Nayanar came out of jail after six months. The Pradesh Congress Committee with its socialist orientation was then organising a protest against rising prices of essential commodities and the oppressive policies of the government. Nayanar was one of the organisers of a protest rally at Morazha in Kannur district on September 15, 1940, in which a sub-inspector and a head constable belonging to a police party trying to disrupt the meeting were killed. Nayanar went into hiding for over six years without realising that he was not listed as an accused in the case. During this period he played an important role in the establishment of the communist and farm worker's movements in Kasaragod district and south Karnataka. In fact, Nayanar's elder brother was instead named as the accused in the case and sentenced to life imprisonment, at the initiative reportedly of the managers of the Aaron Mill.

Like many members of the fledgling communist movement, Nayanar too was intoxicated by the thrill of organising the party. Under Krishna Pillai's instructions, he worked in the Kayyur-Cheemeni areas of Kasaragod district, even while trying to escape detection by the police. A strong movement had grown in a short period of time against the oppressive feudal system. A head constable who tried to abuse and beat up some activists leading a demonstration was stoned by party workers. The constable jumped into the river Tejaswini and drowned. The police then unleashed a reign of terror at Kayyur. Nayanar and a few of his friends escaped to the forests of East Eleri. Nayanar was listed as the third accused in the case, though he was not directly involved in the particular incident. Four other accused in the case were sentenced to death. He continued to work for the party incognito until 1946, when the new provincial government decided to drop the case.

In later years, Nayanar used to recite a Malayalam poem repeatedly to his comrades, which roughly translated, meant: "A life, however beautiful, my friends, has something missing in it, if it has not been to the hangman's chambers, the prison or the battle field." It had a lot of meaning for Nayanar, who had indeed worked "underground" in all regions of the State. After the Kayyur incident, Nayanar had switched his area of activity to Travancore (south Kerala) where, masquerading (initially) as a proof reader in a prominent Malayalam newspaper, Kerala Kaumudi, he organised party activities from Thiruvananthapuram to Kanyakumari and later in Kottayam and Alappuzha. Nayanar devoted boundless energy to the communist cause and rose in the Communist Party of India (CPI), becoming the Kannur taluk secretary in 1948 and the Kozhikode district secretary in 1955. In most of his media interviews, Nayanar reminded everyone in his inimitable naughty style: "Does (Chief Minister) A.K. Antony know every panchayat in Kerala? He does not. But I know every village in this State like the back of my hand. There is no place where I have not been in hiding from the police."

Nayanar was a member of the national council and State executive of the undivided CPI. When the party split in 1964, he was among the 32 members who walked out of the CPI national council to form the CPI(M). He became a Member of Parliament in 1967 from Palakkad but faced defeat five years later, in Kasaragod. In 1972, he found himself at the helm of affairs of the CPI(M) when he was elected the party State secretary. He fought a tough by-election at Irikkur in Kannur district to become a member of the State Assembly for the first time in 1974.

Six years later, the party chose him to lead the first Left Democratic Front (LDF) coalition in government as Chief Minister. Nayanar, with his guileless persuasive skills, was the natural choice then to lead an experimental coalition after nearly a decade. However, the government fell in 20 months, when a section of Congress MLAs led by A.K. Antony withdrew support to it. But when the people grew weary of the successor Congress-led United Democratic Front government, the LDF won an impressive victory again in 1987, though it had declared a no-truck policy with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a bold one in the coalition-ruled State.

A new pattern was emerging in the public life of Nayanar. During the election campaign, though (then) party colleague K.R. Gouri Amma was reported to be the choice for new Chief Minister, eventually it was again, Nayanar. He became Chief Minister once again in 1996, though he did not contest the election and was leading the party as its State secretary. But when the then Opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan, who was expected to be the Chief Minister, suffered defeat at the CPI(M) stronghold of Mararikkulam in Alappuzha district, Nayanar got the top post. Nayanar would always say that he would forcefully argue in support of his viewpoints within the party fora, but once the party took a decision, "like a true communist, I would abide by it and support the party view in public".

EVEN during the early 1980s, Kerala was seeing an amazing transformation in the public profile of Nayanar, from an old-fashioned communist organiser to an egalitarian man of the masses, a charming speaker, an impertinent and witty political entertainer whom the crowds, comrades and political opponents loved to watch and listen to. People began to demand his affable presence and assurance at every public occasion and, like a lucky mascot, Nayanar led the LDF government when it launched all of Kerala's best known developmental and welfare initiatives since the land and educational reforms of the first communist Ministry led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. They included the successful efforts to strengthen the public distribution system, to boost agricultural production and to decentralise power (through the district council experiment) and the inspiring mass campaigns that made Kerala the first fully literate State in the early 1990s. It was during his last stint as Chief Minister that the LDF launched the People's Planning Campaign in 1996, the radical experiment in democratic decentralisation that caught the attention of the world.

Nayanar lived modestly, but Kerala was not always sure how to deal with such a politician. Their Chief Minister next door and their party secretary perhaps did not understand the niceties of his position, but it was a delight watching him on stage or on camera, especially in one of his waspish moods. He had a manner of saying obvious truths in a hilarious way, abruptly, flashing his toothy grin, vivifying the most serious of political occasions. It never failed to make the audience roar with laughter. He showed an effortless irreverence in the use of unfamiliar ideas and languages such as English. No topic daunted him. He was not a stickler for protocol.

Although he was an extremely skilful politician, he sometimes liked to call himself a journalist. Indeed, he edited the party's Malayalam newspaper, Desabhimani. His favourite second newspaper was The Hindu. He read a lot and wrote several books and some poems (after a fashion). Whatever his other hobbies were, spending money was not one of them, as his doting wife Sarada ("retired teacher," as Nayanar fondly used to describe her) would tell everyone. He gave his wife and children the freedom to choose the life they wanted, not necessarily as communists, to believe in god, to worship in temples and to select their vocation. He had a sweet tooth and even during his last days would reach for payasam at an opportune moment when his wife or comrades turned away their attention. He also used to puff at a beedi, clandestinely. All this is part of the Nayanar lore in Kerala.

But, significantly, throughout the rough and tumble of coalition rule in such a politically volatile State, it is this lore and the person behind it that persuaded a lot of simple people in Kerala into believing that besides ideological commitment, a lot of pragmatism too was needed in day-to-day politics to run democratic governments. It is this quality that has found Nayanar a place in the hearts of the people of the State, and perhaps makes him one of the most popular communist leaders Kerala has produced, along with E.M.S. Namboodiripad and C. Achutha Menon, multi-faceted personalities known more for their intellectual prowess and administrative skills. With his heart never far from the red flag, Nayanar, on the other hand, could literally present himself to the party as a leader who could help it concoct a winning political formula on several occasions.

A variety of lovable cartoon characters have been cast in Nayanar's image, wearing a banian, a chequered lungi, a headband and smoking a beedi, and constantly in conversation with the common man on everyday problems of life and politics. It is this interactive Nayanar who came to life in myriad ways for thousands of people in Kerala as they watched his eldest son light the pyre at the Payyambalam beach and his comrades raised the slogan: "No! No! Nayanar is not dead! He lives, he lives, he lives through us!"

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment