Talking about Kerala

Published : Apr 25, 1998 00:00 IST


This conversation with E.M.S. Namboodiripad took place almost six years ago, on April 28, 1992. The context was this: I was at work on a research paper on Kerala's development achievements and, as any person who has worked on Kerala knows, EMS' writings on Kerala's history, society and politics constitute foundational material for any such effort. In 1992, I met the source himself for a conversation on certain specific aspects of my work; in the event, from EMS' responses to my somewhat disparate questions emerged a lucid, coherent and insightful picture of certain important features of modern Kerala's development. EMS' account here illustrates the extent and depth of his knowledge of Kerala and his willingness to push forward the boundaries of Marxism in order to understand the society in which he lived; it also illustrates his modesty about his own role in modern Kerala and his rejection of any kind of complacency with respect to its achievements.

The conversation falls into four parts. In the first section, EMS presents his views on aspects of Kerala's contemporary economy. Kerala has been recognised internationally as a region set distinctly apart from the rest of India in respect of achievements in education and health (including women's and girls' education and health), land reform, the struggle against untouchability, the movement for food security and bridging regional disparities (see Frontline, April 17).

Although he was one of the architects of Kerala's successes in the field of public action, EMS campaigned tirelessly against an uncritical attitude towards the current state of Kerala's economy. He believed - and this opinion is reflected sharply in this conversation - that the concentration on its achievements with respect to "social indicators" had diverted attention from its failures in the spheres of production and employment. In this part of the conversation, he also expresses his belief that the major constraint on the development of industry in the State was a failure of consciousness with regard to the problems of material production.

In the second section, EMS speaks about the distinct contributions of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar - the three regions brought together in the modern State of Kerala - to the State's development. In the literature on regional issues in Kerala's development, the dynamism of the Princely States, particularly Travancore, is often contrasted with stagnation in British-ruled Malabar; it is often assumed that, in regional terms, Kerala's development involved taking the lessons of Travancore and applying them to Malabar.

This perception of Malabar as an area of unrelieved backwardness and no change must be recognised for what it is, a partial and ill-informed view. It was the people of Malabar who faced the most archaic and reactionary system of agrarian relations; it was the people of Malabar who confronted British colonial power directly. An anti-imperialist, anti-feudal movement, based on mass organisations of workers, peasants, agricultural workers, teachers and youth and led by the Left-wing (and later Communist) contingent of the freedom movement was Malabar's specific contribution to development, as was the new direction the Left gave to the movements against autocracy and caste oppression in the Princely States. EMS summarises his view on this succinctly:

As a matter of fact, the anti-imperialist freedom movement and the Left in that movement came from Malabar to the States part, while education and socio-cultural developments went from the States part to Malabar.

EMS was the first social historian of Kerala to bring analyses of social and marriage practices in traditional Kerala to bear on an integrated Marxist understanding of social development in the State. His writings in this field are a model of rigour and creativity; some of his observations on social organisation and social development are in the third part of the text that follows.

Kerala has India's most successful public distribution system. The establishment of Kerala's PDS is widely recognised - as is the implementation of land reform - as being specifically a Left-led project. EMS was active in the movement for food from its beginning in the War years, and in the concluding section of this text, he makes a brief comment - a typically modest one - on its origins.

Contemporary economy

The recent development history of Kerala has set it distinctly apart from the rest of India in respect of what are now called "human development" indicators, although it has done relatively poorly in respect of industrial and agricultural growth. Would you comment on the recent interest in social and economic development in Kerala?

We must remember that while the development experience of Kerala has a positive side, it also has a negative side. In terms of the production of material values, we are very backward. That backwardness is increasing. Although some efforts have been made by Left Front governments to correct the balance, these have not gone far enough. It is here, perhaps, that West Bengal stands better. As a result of Left Front rule for the last 14 years, there has been a big change. There has been change in the rural areas. One factor that has acted in their favour is political stability. From 1977, the State has had, continuously, a Left Front Government. Political instability adds to the negative factor here; although some improvement was registered during the four-year Left Front Government here, the impact was not enough. One reason for this is that people here have been taught to think that development means only the development of social services; they don't think that industry and agriculture should be developed.

During the first Communist Ministry, we tried to make the first break in that sphere. Our effort was to bring industries via the private sector, because the possibility of industrialisation through the public sector was not very bright in Kerala. So we brought the private sector from outside: the Birla factory in Mavoor, the Premier Tyres factory in Kalamassery. This was in industry. In agriculture also, a small beginning was made with the fostering of green manure. C. Achutha Menon, who was the Minister for Agriculture as well as for Finance, took this as his mission. Popularisation of green manure, through which productivity in agriculture can be increased without the use or with very little use of chemical fertilizers. These were the two directions in which we tried to increase production in industry and agriculture. It could not be kept up because that Government was brought down and, until the 1987 Left Democratic Government, there was continuous political instability. This is where West Bengal differs.

So when we assess the development experiences of these regions, we must take into consideration the composite picture, otherwise our picture will not be correct.

Land reform was perhaps the first concern of your first Government; the initiation of land reform must also be considered one of its greatest achievements.

When you talk of the achievements of the first Communist Government, the major achievement was this: from the time that we issued the first Ordinance banning all evictions, the peasants (that is, the actual cultivators), in practice, got the land, at least in those areas where we had strong organisations among them. Although they were tenants, they could not be evicted; so they stuck to the land. With regard to paying rent, they did not pay rent scrupulously; the Ordinance had banned evictions even for failing to pay rents. So in practice, at least in those areas where the kisan organisation was strong, ever since 1957, the peasants were gradually developing into owners. This was our biggest achievement. But unfortunately, following this, organising and mobilising them for the improvement of production could not be done. There, as I told you, a beginning was made.

How do you characterise agrarian relations in Kerala today? Landlordism in the old form has ceased to exist, that is, the big janmi, but landlordism of that nature was in fact absent even in the Travancore and partly in the Cochin part of Kerala. In Cochin, the change in feudal forms of property was less than in Travancore, but even there, almost half the cultivable lands were big pandaravaka.. So the type of janmi who was very strong in the Malabar part was absent in Cochin and Travancore.

In 1957, as you know, first an Ordinance was issued banning all evictions, even for arrears of rent. After that, even in Malabar, the old type of janmi ceased to exist.

But there is landlordism of the other type, that is, those who also get their lands cultivated through wage labour and those who live on usury and also the dominant section in rural trade. In place of the old janmi a new class has come into existence - big landlords who get their lands cultivated through wage labour, those who live by usury and wholesale trade. This is the type of new landlord. This type of landlordism does exist. In this situation, the majority of the rural people are either small landholders or landless people. The kisan movement has to address itself to the problems of this section, that is, small landowners and agricultural labourers. This means that problems concerning seeds, other inputs of agriculture, and prices have become dominant in the propaganda and other organisational activities of the kisan sabha, while earlier, the dominant place was given to the problem of abolishing landlordism of the old type.

Do you consider the slogan against landlordism still relevant in Kerala?

Yes, it is relevant provided you understand this difference. The exploitation of this new class of landlords - that is, the big cultivators who get their land cultivated through wage labour, those who live on usury, those who live on wholesale trade - this type of landlord dominates the village today. So the bulk of the people, that is, small landowners and the absolutely landless labour, they have to fight this class.

Do you characterise this new landlord class as having a precapitalist aspect?

Precapitalist...yes. Precapitalism in Kerala terms should be seen as not merely economic, but as having a social and caste aspect as well. Even in the Christian community, there are Syrian Christians, and Latin and backward class Christians. Caste is a very important factor in the development of the kisan and agricultural labour movement, particularly the agricultural labour movement.

Landlordism is not only an economic category; it is also social, cultural, and political. For instance, in terms of caste, in the old system of landlordism, the dominant castes were the caste Hindus and Syrian Christians, the caste Hindus in particular, and, among caste Hindus, Namboodiris in particular. This was the caste form of landlordism. This has changed now.

What, in your opinion, are the major constraints on the growth of industrial capital in Kerala?

The major constraint is the consciousness of the people, particularly the intelligentsia, who think that development means progress only in education, public health, communications and transport. They do not attach any importance to the problem of improvement in the production of material values. The system of education developed under the British and under princely rule was also intended to train administrative cadre; general education and graduation being laid down as a condition for the recruitment of even clerks. There was no vocational bias at all. The most talented boys and girls go into general education, neglecting training in scientific and technological fields.

I am, therefore, of the opinion that a complete restructuring of the educational system is necessary for changing the consciousness of the people in favour of material production.

Does the present situation represent a failure of entrepreneurship, of capitalist enterprise? Why has capital not been invested?

As I told you, this is the consciousness; as a result, whatever capital one can gather is invested in transport, hospitals, schools and colleges. The consciousness that capital is intended to industrialise and modernise the economy is not there.

So why don't capitalists seek the avenues of profit that they do elsewhere?

Because of this general consciousness and because of the educational system, their mind doesn't go that way at all. The psychology of the people has been turned away from material production.

Kerala has some history of entrepreneurship, particularly in plantations and trade.

Plantations were originally started by the Europeans and then taken over by the Syrian Christians and some others. It is true that elements of capitalism developed, not only in plantations, but also, for instance, in Kuttanad. While this is true, it was far less than was possible if the consciousness was there. For instance, even those who go to the Gulf and earn a lot, and who invest in lakhs, do not think of investing in industry or the development of agriculture. This is part of the consciousness; it has come through generations.

Economic theory suggests that natural resources, an educated and skilled labour force plus a history of enterprise is something of a winning combination.

(Laughs) In colonial conditions, sections of the English-educated middle class did, of course, go to industries, but they were a small section, and in a State like Kerala it was a still smaller proportion.

Travancore, Cochin and Malabar

Comrade EMS, can we turn now to another subject, to the distinct ways in which the three component parts of Aikya Keralam - Travancore, Cochin and Malabar - contributed to Kerala's development?

Social services were far more developed in the States (here and elsewhere, "States" is short for "Princely States"; in this context, Cochin and Travancore) than in Malabar. One reason for this, according to me, is that in contrast to many other parts of India, the coming of British rule led to a certain amount of modernisation, which affected the ruling families of Travancore and Cochin, so much so that these ruling families were close to the developing bourgeoisie. They encouraged, in different ways, development in education, health services, road communications, and all other social services. These had the patronage of the government. The Malabar part of Kerala was part of British India. Although the Malabar part of the Presidency itself was better in this respect than the rest of the Madras Presidency, it lagged behind the States part of Kerala. This is one aspect of the historical situation that has to be looked into. I have not been able to come to definite conclusions, but this is the way in which my mind is working.

In the period before the formation of the Kerala State, the social and cultural part of bourgeois development was greater in the States part, but the political part - that is, the national struggle - was developed more in the Malabar part, because of the direct presence of British rule. As a matter of fact, the anti-imperialist freedom movement and the Left in that movement came from Malabar to the States part, while educational and socio-cultural developments went from the States part to Malabar.

It is my impression - I am not sure - that with all the progress that has been made in West Bengal, the socio-cultural life of rural West Bengal is still behind rural life in Kerala. That is my impression; I am not sure.

Bengal comrades certainly say that.

I remember when I first went to West Bengal's villages, the people there were surprised when they heard that there were tea shops in villages in Kerala (laughs). This was a matter of surprise to them. The urbanisation of villages must now have spread in West Bengal as well. I remember Nehru having said that for development it is necessary to have three things in every village: a panchayat, a school and...I forget the other thing.

A post office?

No, he didn't say a hospital either. He used to raise this in his speeches to the National Development Council, but I heard this for the first time in his talks with me.

A feature of the West Bengal scene is, of course, the rural-urban contrast.

Yes. There is no such contrast in Kerala. Kerala, in fact, is a continuous village.

What do you see as the origins of this?(Laughs) I don't know.

It does appear that Kerala's rural-urban continuum is a phenomenon with a very long history.

Perhaps it cannot be explained exclusively through recent developments. This must have been there even in pre-capitalist days.

On a related theme, long-distance roads (and north-south transport) seem to have developed relatively late in Kerala.

To a certain extent that is true. I remember that when I first took over as Chief Minister, when I had to travel from the southernmost part of Kerala to the northernmost part, I had to cross almost a dozen and a half ferries, at each of which I had to wait. But today you can go from one end of Kerala to another without crossing a single ferry. I remember that in my first constituency - from where I was elected to become the Chief Minister - within that very constituency I had to cross five ferries.

In Malabar, the Left also appears to have played the vanguard role in literacy, through the granthashala movement and so on. It took from the social and cultural movement of the south and led it in the north.

As far as the freedom movement is concerned, it had reached the villages even in the days of the non-cooperation movement. You remember the Malabar rebellion of 1921. Even before that, the district of Malabar had a series of Congress and Khilafat committees, almost every village would have one Congress Committee and one Khilafat Committee. Although that was suppressed after the rebellion, its roots continued. An organised liberation movement of this sort dates back to the 1920s - in fact, I am a child of that movement.

Was it not a significant feature of the Malabar movement that when you went to the villages, you also took literacy and libraries with you?

Yes. As soon as we started work in the Congress, that is, in the mid-1930s, we started to organise night schools and reading rooms. When I was first elected the organising secretary of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) - that is, in 1937 - our effort was to have, in every village, a village Congress Committee and, attached to it, a reading room and a night school.

This was unique in India.Yes.

...that is, the Malabar experience of one village Congress Committee, one reading room, one night school.

That was the ideal; it may not have been achieved everywhere.

Even such a goal was unique in India.Yes.

How do you explain this particular feature of the movement in Kerala?

(Laughs) I can't explain it. (Pauses) You see, even before the Congress developed in Malabar, some such tradition of organisation existed even in Travancore. When organisations such as, first, the SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana) Yogam, and then the NSS (Nair Service Society), developed, these organisations, though formed on the basis of caste, had roots in the rural areas. So perhaps we took over that tradition of organisation for the freedom movement.

Since the formation of Kerala, the gap between Malabar and the rest of the State... slowly closing. There is another fact here that should be noted. Even before Kerala State was formed, cultivators from the Travancore part of the State began to go and settle in the Malabar parts. It began as early as during the War, but after Independence it developed much more and after the formation of Kerala, it became widespread. This is one of the reasons why, in addition to political and administrative integration, there has been an emotional and cultural integration of the people in the three parts of Kerala.

Even as between North Malabar and South Malabar, let me give you an example from my own experience. I first went to North Malabar in 1927. When I reached there, I resided with a family, but the way the members, and particularly the women members, of the family spoke the language, I couldn't understand them. Now that gulf has, to a large extent, been bridged.

Two factors which have led to the cultural and emotional integration of the people of Kerala are the radio and cinema.

And the Communist Party?(Laughs out loud)

Kathleen Gough suggested that in Malabar, in the initial stages after the advent of the British, there was a decline in literacy. Is that likely?

One fact that has to be noted is that until the 1930s, in Malabar district the British continued the old janmi system, resisting every change, so much so that the first tenancy legislation in the Malabar part came almost two decades after Travancore.

On a decline, I do not know in what sense you mean this.

In the number of people who were literate, and also in the number of pathashalas.

But considering this word "decline", I do not know whether things were better earlier.

The evidence that I have seen suggests that they were not; in Bengal, though, it has been suggested that the coming of the British coincided with the destruction of pathashalas.

Yes.Was this the case in Malabar as well?

I do not know whether that type of destruction took place in Malabar. One form of destruction and decline may have been there, and that is the strengthening of the feudal hold on the tenantry. In the pre-British days, the janmi's hold on the tenantry was more customary and traditional, so much so that the janmi used to give a lot of concessions to the tenants. A consequence of British rule was that everything became statutory, so much so that the exploitation by the janmi of the tenants became much more intense under the British. The decline of social and cultural life due to this may have been there. About the other type of actual destruction, I don't know.

Social organisation and social development

You spoke of the impact of modernisation on the royal administrations of Travancore and Cochin. A parallel has been suggested with the Meiji Restoration in Japan, where royalty disbanded the old...

I have a feeling that the royal families in the States of Travancore and Cochin were closer to the people than the princes even in the rest of India. After all, even the Maharajahs in Travancore and Cochin led a relatively simple life, closer to the people, in contrast to their counterparts in the north. That being so, they could imbibe the feelings and aspirations of the rising bourgeoisie.

Is there some further explanation for the fact that in Travancore and Cochin, the Maharajahs did not live in the kind of splendour that is associated with royalty? Does it have to do with marriage practices, and so on ?

I have been studying the books written by some of our younger historians. They have made a big contribution in integrating the study of social development with the study of the development of the means of production. In that sense, they have contributed to historiography. But I have a feeling that they have not been able to study the development of social and family life. For instance, I was just reading two books written by young historians in Malayalam. They do not deem it important to explain - it is also difficult to explain - that phenomenon peculiar to Kerala, that is, the system of marriage, and, in particular, the types of marital relations among the upper castes. This is something peculiar to Kerala. Nowhere else does it exist. Our younger historians, whose contribution I value very much, have not bothered to consider this aspect.

In your earlier work, you have written of the continuity between the matrilineal and the patrilineal in Kerala, an idea that, unfortunately, does not seem to have been pursued in the literature. And in your autobiography, you have a discussion of the interplay of social status and marital relations.

Yes. As a matter of fact, although they based themselves on traditional accounts, the older historians were stronger than our younger historians in this respect. Although their studies did not lead to any firm conclusions, they were conscious of that problem, whereas I don't find these people paying attention to it.

Does this "closeness" that you spoke of - the royal families being able to understand local aspirations - does this have to do with patterns of social and family life and marriage practices?

I think so. After all, both in Cochin and Travancore, the person who became the Maharajah lived, for the major part of his life, almost as a commoner. Only when he reached that age, when his predecessor died, did he become a Maharajah. Till then, he was almost a commoner.

The public distribution system

A relatively under-researched feature of social development in Kerala, and, as I understand it, a contribution of the Left, is the system of public distribution.

Yes. Actually, during the War, particularly during the latter part of the War, in the People's War period, we, through our kisan sabhas, trade unions and other mass organisations, insisted on procurement from the landlords and distribution through fair price shops. Because of our pressure, and because of the administrative need of the British Government itself, they set up ration shops and subsequently converted them into the producers' and consumers' cooperative societies. This was in Malabar. The same thing was repeated in Travancore and Cochin. As a matter of fact, during C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar's rule in Travancore, this slogan of government procurement from the landlords and distribution through the ration shops was in practice. We can't claim that we invented that demand, but in its original implementation, our pressure was very much there.

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