First Communist Ministry in Kerala: An Innovative Experiment at Democratisation

Dr. J. Prabhash

The 1957 EMS Ministry of Kerala – commonly known as the First Communist Ministry – is a milestone in the history of modern Parliamentary Democracy. The importance of this experiment lay not merely in the fact that it was the first instance of a Communist Party assuming power in the world through universal adult franchise, after the famous Sanmarino experiment of Italy.

Significant this was, but historic was the initiative it had undertaken in redefining social relations and democratising the development process within the cramping limits imposed by a bourgeois democracy, and that too a highly centralised federal system. In this fundamental sense, therefore, EMS Ministry tried to prove what Lenin said about Parliamentary Democracy:

Bourgeois Parliament is a ‘pigsty’. But one ‘should make use even of the pigsty of bourgeois parliamentarism especially when the situation is obviously not revolutionary’ and ‘convert representative institutions from mere talking shops into working bodies’.1
However, the assault of the vested interests on the government, with the blessings of the caste and communal forces and the tacit approval of the then mainstream media, leading to its eventual dismissal two years later (1959) proved two basic facts about democracy: the extend of social change and transformation a revolutionary political force like the Communist Party could bring about; and the need for politicising the masses and transforming them into a class instrument through constant political agitations. The record of the first Communist Government in office should be reviewed against this background.

It was already stated that the ministry took important initiatives in redefining social relations in radically new ways. And this was attempted, by developing a new concept of citizenship, one which was based on an empowered sense of self-worth to be achieved through active state intervention in critical areas of social life. Naturally, agrarian relations and educational reforms were listed as top priorities by the government followed by industrialisation and decentralisation. While feudal relation prevailed in the agrarian sector, education remained as a source of exploitation for both the teachers and students. Interestingly, these were also the sectors where stakes were high for caste and communal interest groups in the then prevalent historical conjuncture in the state (perhaps even today in the case of education). Therefore any change in the statusquo meant upsetting their deep seated privileges and well entrenched interests. At he same time, conversely the mass of the people could be empowered only if the toe hold of such interests were shattered. And it was this socio-political imperative which prompted the government to move in this direction.

Agrarian and Education Reforms

The reforms introduced in both these sectors were actually modest rather than revolutionary. It was neither possible in the then existing Kerala situation nor permissible under the Indian Constitution to go for such radical changes. Infact, EMS Namboodiripad himself makes this point clear while speaking about inherent limitations of a radical movement working in a bourgeois set up. He says:
In the road towards people’s democratic revolution, Governments which could usher in only limited social changes might come to power in some states. Though they could not effect any fundamental social transformation, they could do certain nominal things. The duty of the Communist Party then is to become the catalyst of such changes, in the process strengthening itself and making the people conscious about the imperative for basic changes.2
True to the spirit of the above statement, the government sought to abolish absentee landlordism, put a ceiling on the maximum area of land that could be held by an individual and distribute the surplus so generated among the landless in such a way that the tillers of the soil were ensured a piece of plot for residential purpose. In the education sector efforts were at ensuring the security of service of teachers and other staff members, including the payment of their salary by the government. Standardisation of fees, syllabus and admission of students, prescription of suitable qualification for teachers and their appointment by the management from the list prepared by the PSC and prevention of maladministration of schools were the other important elements of the proposed law introduced in the Assembly. None of these provisions could be interpreted as unnecessary, excess or unwarranted. Even the opposition by and large welcomed the bill and, Pattom A. Thanu Pillai, who was to be the Chief Minister subsequent on the mid-term elections of 1960, went to the extent of stating that ‘such a bill was long overdue’.3

Industrial Policy

In the industrial sector the government launched a long term programme of blending the need for increasing production with protecting the legitimate interests of the working class. Two points were stressed to achieve this objective: co-operation between the management and workers; and encouraging private investment in the state’s industrialisation drive. Here again EMS’ vision was perceptive. While addressing the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the All India Trade Union Congress – Trade Union wing of the then undivided Communist Party-in December 1957 at Iranjalikuda, he said:
Without the active cooperation of the management and workers, without pooling together the resources of the state and private individuals for retaining and expanding the existing industrial base, without launching new industrial undertakings, the working class of the state has no redemption.4
The party was clear in its perception and level headed in its execution. The ideas was to allow the private sector to expand and the capitalist class to grow so that ultimately production and employment opportunities could be enhanced. Subsequently the social environment needed for the realisation of socialism was to be created by organising the working class and democratising the state administration. This was exactly what the party envisaged at that point of time. It was as a first step towards this that Birla was invited to invest in Kerala and launch the Mavoor Rayons factory at Calicut.

Administrative Reforms and Decentralisation

The government also laid great stress on reforming the administration as a condition precedent for democratising the society. This was done by constituting a committee with non other than the Chief Minister himself as the Chairman, within a couple of months (15 August 1957) after the assumption of office.5 On the basis of the recommendation of the committee, efforts were made by the government to introduce administrative decentralisation, and two legislations for the purpose – Kerala Panchayat Bill (9th December 1958) and Kerala Zilla Samithi Bill (6th April, 1959) – were tabled in the Assembly.
The theoretical justification behind this move was such as using decentralisation as a means of extending class struggle on a more manageable and palpable basis.6 The plan definitely was to capture state power at the grass root level decentialised institutions and making use of them to protect the class interest of the subaltern sections. There was, thus, a clear cut class basis and politics to the whole process of administrative reforms and decentralisation envisioned by the EMS Ministry. This was no mean thing when viewed against the social mores of the second half of the previous century.

‘Liberation’ struggle

On hindsight it becomes clear that the twenty eight months the Communist Ministry was in office witnessed certain bold and creative public initiatives in democratisation, development and social engineering. Most of these initiatives were unprecedented in Kerala and administered a rude shock to the vested interests, particularly the Catholic Church and the Nair Service Society, the social organisation of the powerful Nair community. For the Catholic Church education was the heartburn and for the NSS, agrarian reforms.
The Congress Party which was initially surprised at the magnitude of change initiated by the government, later decided to stall such moves lest it would lose its political constituency in Kerala to the CPI. The Congress leadership, therefore, mobilised smaller parties and splinter groups and even the Muslim League which its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, once described as a ‘dead horse’, and launched the infamous ‘Liberation’ Struggle against the government. The political combination by itself was not formidable, but when joined hands with communal forces like Christian Church and NSS, it proved deadly. It was a social, political and communal combination-all the three in one. The intensity of the fire power of this combination was increased by the munificent financial help it received from the Central Intelligence Agency of the United State. Thus it was a motley combination of caste, politics and CIA, with the central government under Jawaharlal Nehru acquiescing this anti-democratic and anti-constitutional move.

Involvement of CIA

The involvement of CIA in easing out the Communist Government has been a subject of great controversy both in India and US ever since 1959. According to authoritative sources, CIA’s role in the whole process was in the form of financial help in organising the agitation against the government. For instance, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the American Ambassador to India, has this to say about it:

We had twice, but only twice, interfered in Indian politics to the extent of providing money to a political party. Both times this was done in the face of a prospective communist victory in state elections, once in Kerala and once in West Bengal, where Calcutta is located. Both times the money was given to the Congress Party which had asked for it.7

If what Moynihan said was true, a basic question as to the real motive of the Americans in intervening in the issue on the side of Nehru’s Congress need to be addressed. One justification for their intervention in this regard could be the desire to prevent the rise of communism – through peaceful or revolutionary means – not only in their backyard but anywhere in the world. While this was definitely true, per se it was too simplistic a justification. There was also another side to the whole issue: US wanted to force Nehru to bite his own ‘socialist’ bullet. It may be recalled that the assumption of office by the Communist Party in Kerala came against the backdrop of three momentous developments in the country, all of which came to be associated with the rising tide of socialism – the socialist resolution moved personally by Nehru in the Avadi Session of the Congress (1956) committing the party as a whole to the idea of establishing a socialist pattern of society;8 the launching of the second Five Year Plan in 1956 with a perceptible socialist slant (there was also much talk about the Soviet influence on the plan, during those days); and the nationalisation of the Insurance Companies (1956). All these meant, for the Americans, that the country was towing the socialist line. It was this reading of the political situation in India which prompted the United States to use the ‘socialist’ Nehru and the ‘socialist’ Congress to stall one of the most important initiatives at socialist transformation by dismissing the Communist Government in 1959, through the phantom of the ‘Liberation’ Struggle. Knowingly or unknowingly, Nehru walked into the US trap and lost his credibility not only as a democrat but also as a socialist.

Kerala’s Civil Society and the Struggle

Questions need also to be asked about the attitude of the civil society in Kerala-particularly the attitude of the ordinary masses- towards the agitation. Did the mass of the people participate in it on the side of the vested interests? Or, conversely, did they come forward to protect a government which was launching one of the best progressive experiments hither to unknown in the whole democratic world?
This is a difficult question to answer especially in the absence of hard empirical data. However, on the basis of leading sociological impression, it could be stated that a section of the common people participated in the agitation, party due to ignorance and fear, and partly due to caste and communal pressure. The last point was particularly true of the Christians as the Church considered participation in the agitation as a Christian virtue and read pastoral letter in the churches. consequently the laity was afraid to flout the ecclesiastical hierarchy openly though a large section of them welcomed the policies initiated by the government. V. Viswanatha Menon, an erstwhile leader of the CPI(M), succinctly crystalises their feeling in his autobiography thus:

In the thick of the ‘Liberation’ Struggle, a group of people (Christians) came to my house once at midnight. When enquired about the reason for their untimely visit they said ‘ we are the tenants of the Perumanoor Church in Ernakulam. We want to know whether as tenants of the church we are eligible for the benefits of land reforms. We have come here without the knowledge of the church authorities.9

That a section of the people who had participated in the agitation later repented their action itself is a proof of both the fear that gripped them and ignorance they had on the issue. Even a stalwart of the agitation, Fr. Vadakkan, testified to this when he conferred later that the ‘Liberation’ struggle ‘represented a confluence of vested interests’.10

All these showed not only the extent to which Kerala society was communalised, but also the presence of a critical gap in politicising it. That a highly literate society and one which witnessed a strong current of social renaissance fell an easy prey to the propaganda of vested interests definitely points towards this deficit. In a sense this is the greatest drawback of democracy as well and Kerala is a prey to this even today. There are still instances in which pieces of progressive legislations not getting the requisite support from the Kerala’s civil society. The latest additions in this list are the laws passed by the UDF and the LDF Governments relating to the self- financing educational institutions.11 This, therefore, is a peculiar streek of the malayalee society which was exploited to the maximum by the vested interests during the ‘Liberation Struggle’.

Looking back, it is a clear that right from the days of independence the struggle in Kerala has been between the progressive forces on the one side and communal groups and parochial interests on the other. In the instant case where the EMS Government tried to redefine social relations and democratise development, the sectarian interests tried to pull back the society with a great measure of success. Consequently this drained the strength of all progressive forces, strengthened communalism and paved the way for opportunistic politics. Since then, Kerala has been moving forward hesitatingly, often in the manner of one step forward and two steps backward. Incidentally, the present government also faces the same dilemma as was faced by the first Community Ministry, as the forces which were actively involved in the ‘Liberation’ Struggle then are still powerful and are working with a vengeance.

Notes and References

1. Quoted in Sumanta Banerjee, ‘Salvaging an Endangered Institution, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLI, No. 36., 9-15 September 2006, p.3841.
2. E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Communist Party in Kerala Vol.II(M), Trivandrum: Chintha, 1986, p.131.
3. Joseph Mundassery, Kozhinja Ilakal(M), Trichur: Current Books, 1996, p. 226.
4. Quoted in Tom Nositter, Communism in Kerala: A Study in Political Adaptation, Delhi: OUP, 1982, p.160.
5. Other members of the committee were Joseph Mundassery, NES Ragavachari, Prof. V.K. Nandan Menon, H.D. Malavya, P.S. Nataraja Pillai, and G. Parameswaran Pillai, For details see J. Prabhash, Panchayati Raj (M), Trivandrum: State Resource Centre, 1995.
6. John Moolakkattu, ‘EMS and the Discourse on Decentralisation in India’, Paper presented in the National Seminar on Democracy, Decentralisation and Participatory Development: Decentralised Governance in Kerala, A Decade and Beyond, Trivandrum: V.K. Sukumaran Nayar Chair for Parliamentary Affairs, University of Kerala, 24-25 April 2007.
7. Daniel Patrick Moynihan with Suzanne Weaver, A Dangerous Place, Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1975, p. 41.
8. This was subsequently reiterated by the party in January 1959 at the Nagapur session. It is an irony of history that the same party, later (June 1959) came to spearhead an agitation against the Communist Government in Kerala.
9. V. Viswanatha Menon, ‘Kaalathinoppam Marikkatha Ormakal'(M), Samakalika Malayalam Vaarika, Vol.11, no.1, May 18, 2007, pp. 52-53.
10. Fr. Vadakkan, Ente Kuthippum Kithappum (M), Kottayam, NBS, 1974.
11. It may be noted that the law passed by the present LDF government has much more socially redeeming propensities than the one passed by the previous UDF government. Even then, it hardly got the backup support it deserved from the civil society of Kerala.