K.R. Gouri Amma

K.R. Gouri Amma: Death of a red star

Print edition : June 04, 2021

K.R. Gouri Amma. Photo: H. Vibhu

March 6, 1968: K.R. Gouri Amma distributing pattas (land deeds) to landless settlers in the Barton Hill Colony in Thiruvananthapuram. As Revenue Minister in the first E.M.S. Namboodiripad Ministry, she piloted the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill, a revolutionary piece of legislation that triggered a radical transformation of agrarian relations in the State. Photo: The Hindu Archives

March 1967, Hyderabad: Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad (second from right) and Revenue Minister K.R. Gouri Amma in discussion with their Andhra Pradesh counterparts K. Brahmananda Reddy (second from left) and V.B. Raju with regard to the import of rice from that State. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Political leaders with Gouri Amma celebrating her hundredth birthday in Alappuzha in 2019. Among them, (sitting, from left) Speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala. Photo: Suresh Alleppey

K.R. Gouri Amma (1919-2021), the only surviving member of the first democratically elected communist government in Kerala in 1957, was committed to the cause of the working class and the downtrodden until the end.

To those who were born in Kerala in the decades preceding Independence, the feisty K.R. Gouri Amma must have been an uncommon woman. It was a time of unprecedented social and political tumult in the region, when the movements against British rule and demanding a responsible government in Travancore and Cochin were at its peak; the Communist Party was gaining legitimacy among large sections of society; and mass struggles and public action challenging the then rulers, traditional social customs and caste discrimination and demanding the right to decent food, shelter and education were becoming a part of daily life. There were very few women gaining education beyond a certain level, and fewer still entering politics.

Gouri Amma, who passed away in Thiruvananthapuram on May 11, was born into this milieu and yet became one of the most well-known women leaders of the Left movement in India and the most prominent woman in Kerala politics from pre-Independence days. She had crossed 102 and was the only surviving member of the first democratically elected communist government in Kerala that came to power in 1957 under the leadership of E.M.S. Namboodiripad.

Gouri Amma was a member of the Communist Party-led Ministries in Kerala in 1957, 1967, 1980 and 1987 and later in the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) Ministries led by A.K. Antony and Oommen Chandy in 2001 and 2004. She held prominent portfolios in all the Ministries she served and had the distinction of being one of the longest-serving MLAs in the Kerala Assembly. She was the youngest member of the first communist Ministry, and as Revenue Minister piloted the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill, a revolutionary piece of legislation, which triggered a radical transformation of agrarian relations in Kerala and paved the way for its social and economic progress.

Education and political entry

Gouri Amma was born on July 14, 1919, as the seventh daughter of K.A. Raman and Parvathi Amma in a wealthy Ezhava backward caste family which owned vast tracts of land in and around Cherthala. Inspired by the teachings of the social reformer Sree Narayana Guru, Raman wanted his daughters to have a good education more than anything else.

After her studies at the local government high school, Gouri Amma was sent to Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, and subsequently to St. Teresa’s College in the same city, where she graduated in History with distinction and gold medal from the Madras government. She then graduated from the Government Law College in Thiruvananthapuram, the first woman from the Ezhava caste to get a degree in law. Soon she enrolled as an advocate at Cherthala, refused an offer from C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, the then Dewan of Travancore, to be appointed as a magistrate. Instead she joined the Communist Party in 1948 at the behest of her brother, K.R. Sukumaran, who was already a party member and trade union leader. Their father was a staunch Congress party supporter and had wanted her to be a good lawyer, or a judge even.

However, in the first election with universal suffrage held in erstwhile Travancore in 1948, Gouri Amma, then a student activist and a young woman of 28, was chosen as the Communist Party’s candidate at Cherthala in Alappuzha district, near her place of birth. Like all other communist leaders, she too lost the election, but by then had earned the wrath of the British and Travancore governments and underwent imprisonment and police torture for “provocative speeches and engaging in mass agitations”. She had started working for the Communist Party among coir workers in and around Cherthala even before she became a party member because most of the prominent communist leaders and organisers such as P. Krishna Pillai were either in prison or forced to go into hiding.

Gouri Amma’s steadfastness and commitment to the cause of the working class and the downtrodden, her role as a student activist in the Quit India Movement and as an early woman leader urging the then princely state of Travancore to join the Indian Union led to her victory in the next election to the Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly from the Aroor seat near Cherthala in 1952. She was in prison throughout that election campaign. She won in the election held two years later, too, in 1954.

She was president of the Kerala Karshaka Sangham from 1960 to 1984 and the Kerala Mahila Sangham, the Communist Party’s women’s association, from 1967 to 1976. She was jailed on several occasions for her political activities but won impressive victories in all the Assembly elections that she contested, except those held in 1948, 1977 (the election held soon after the Emergency), and in later years in 2006 and 2011, when she contested as a candidate of the Janadhipatya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS), a party she founded after her expulsion from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1994.

Fiercely independent

By the late 1980s, Gouri Amma’s popularity and reputation as a fiercely independent leader and a no-nonsense administrator was at its peak. In the election campaign held in 1987, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) projected her as the Chief Minister designate and she was apparently given such an impression by the party’s State leadership. But once the election was over and the LDF emerged victorious, the CPI(M) chose E.K. Nayanar instead.

Gouri Amma’s disillusionment could only be imagined, and it soon turned into rebelliousness, initially within party forums, and later in public. There were allegations made especially by the CPI(M)’s opponents that she had been sidelined because she belonged to a backward caste and was a woman. She herself had said that she faced “extreme harassment within the party” from the leadership at that time.

No doubt her relationship with the party leadership became tense as she began to disobey party directives and seemed to confer frequently with the party’s opponents. Among them were the then ruling Congress and its partner in the UDF, the Communist Marxist Party (CMP) led by M.V. Raghavan, another prominent leader who had been expelled from the CPI(M) earlier, and who was then the Cooperation Minister in the UDF government.

In late 1993, the UDF government offered Gouri Amma the chairpersonship of an all-party committee ostensibly for the development of Alappuzha district and she accepted the post. Her party colleagues, however, alleged that it was a plot to weaken the Alappuzha District Council, the fledgling local body then dominated by CPI(M) members. Gouri Amma ignored party directives to quit the all-party committee, which led first to her demotion to the party’s Alappuzha district committee and, subsequently, when she refused to attend the meetings of the district committee, to her expulsion from the party itself on January 1, 1994.

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 UDF, and Gouri Amma, after over 45 years of being a dedicated communist leader, became a Minister in the Congress-led Cabinet from 2001 to 2006.

Her total commitment to the CPI(M) until then can be gauged from the most famous episode in her private life, which came under severe public scrutiny after she fell in love with her party colleague and prominent communist leader T.V. Thomas. Gouri Amma used to say that she discovered later that Thomas was a “man who had a weakness for wine and women”, and that she had wanted to call off their marriage. But it was the early days of the first Communist Ministry, and the party insisted that she must reconcile her differences with Thomas and marry him to avoid a public scandal. The marriage took place on May 30, 1957, at ‘Zanadu’, Gouri Amma’s ministerial residence in Thiruvananthapuram.

Later, when the Communist Party split in 1964, the couple mutually agreed that both of them would continue to be in the CPI(M). But, very soon, T.V. Thomas accepted the invitation from the communist leader M.N. Govindan Nair to join the Communist Party of India (CPI), while Gouri Amma decided steadfastly to remain in the CPI(M). Husband and wife became Ministers representing the two competing parties in the coalition Cabinet in 1967 and stayed in adjacent official residences in Thiruvananthapuram. T.V. Thomas passed away in 1977, after a long battle with cancer, and Gouri Amma, whose personal life had remained deeply miserable, would continuously rue the fact of their long estrangement. She said in an interview years later: “I could have been less adamant.”

Gouri Amma was a Minister in all Left governments in Kerala until her expulsion from the party in 1994. Even though many of her party colleagues advised her to appeal to the party leadership for reinstatement, she never did, and instead launched the JSS.

Only much later in life, as the grand old lady of Kerala politics, with her name still carrying the revolutionary charm of the communist movement in Kerala, would she gradually capitulate to overtures from her former party and colleagues, the public functions on her birthdays becoming the venues for it.

A communist till the end

Soon after her party’s poor showing in the 2016 Assembly elections, the JSS left the UDF, and later split into several groups, and Gouri Amma, who wanted to go back to the CPI(M), slowly withdrew from active politics. But it was obvious that throughout, despite her bitter quarrel with her old party, and even when she was in the UDF with her JSS, Gouri Amma remained a communist at heart until the very end. True to her independent nature and character, she also remained a devotee of Krishna, all through her life.

Gouri Amma had been unwell for a while and on April 13 had moved from her home in Chathanad in Alappuzha district to live with her relatives in Thiruvananthapuram. She was admitted to a private hospital in the city on April 22 with “fever, breathing difficulty and urinary tract infection”. A hospital medical bulletin said she was being treated for septicaemia and that her condition remained critical “in view of severe infection and other comorbidities”.

Gouri Amma’s eventful life came to an end at 7 a.m. on May 11, with her return to the CPI(M) remaining an unfulfilled dream for her and her colleagues and admirers in the communist movement in Kerala.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor