– Prabhat Patnaik
The Communist Party, consisting of Marxist revolutionaries who had emerged, to start with, in different parts of British India, had made significant inroads into the princely states by the early 1940s. Telengana, Punnapra-Vyalar, Ranpur and Nilagiri (both in Orissa) illustrated this spread of the Communist movement from British India to the princely states. In the south, in the British Indian territory itself, the Communists were so strong that in the 1952 elections to the Madras province, consisting largely of the old Madras Presidency, they emerged as the single largest Party in the legislative assembly, but were denied, unfairly, the chance to form the government. Instead, Rajaji was brought from Delhi to head the first elected government in the province. After the formation of states on linguistic basis, when the old princely domains were assimilated with regions of British India, the strength of the Communists in the south got enhanced in two specific areas where they could hope to form governments. These were Andhra and Kerala. They failed in Andhra in March 1955 but succeeded in Kerala in April 1957. Interestingly their vote share in the two states were not too dissimilar. But they faced united opposition in one, and not in the other. Kerala thus became the site for the first elected Communist ministry in the world. (True, San Marino and Guyana can claim precedence over Kerala in this regard. But San Marino is too small; and Chedi Jagan’s party in Guyana, though inspired by Marxism, and consisting of Communists, was not exactly a Communist party).
The first Communist ministry had its task clearly cut out, namely, to carry forward decisively the democratic revolution which the Indian National Congress, notwithstanding the promises made in its 1931 Resolution at the Karachi session, had shown itself incapable of doing. Historical experience confirms that wherever the bourgeoisie appears late on the historical scene, it invariably compromises with feudalism instead of dealing those heavy blows against it, which it had done earlier in its career. It is the working class and its political formation, therefore, upon which the task of carrying forward the democratic revolution devolves in these circumstances. Post-independence India had been no exception to this. Hence, when the Communist government came to power in the state, its task was clear; but it was constrained by the Constitutional limits within which state governments have to function.
The two spheres, where the state government could push forward, given its Constitutional limits, related to agrarian and social issues. The Congress had of course brought in land reforms in the states it ruled, in the form of tenancy reforms and land ceilings, but these, as several studies show, had not succeeded in breaking landlordism. At the most, some rich tenants had succeeded in getting ownership rights, but the old landlords could continue, provided they used concealed, and hence insecure, tenancy, or took to capitalist farming with wage labour. Landlordism therefore continued, but the position of the petty tenants, far from getting better, actually worsened: many were evicted or reduced to inferior status as tenants at will. In fact prior to Kerala, the only other state where fairly successful land reforms had been carried out was Jammu and Kashmir under Sheikh Abdullah in the early fifties.
The Land Reforms Bill of 1959 introduced by the first Communist ministry had the very clear objective of breaking landlordism. It wanted to realize the slogan of “land to the tiller” which had been the promise of the freedom struggle. The idea was to make tenants the owners of the land they cultivated and to ban future tenancy in all forms. Resuming land for “own-cultivation” which was a euphemism for tenancy-at-will or wage-based cultivation, and which had been the bane of land reforms undertaken by the Congress governments, was not permitted. Not surprisingly, there was a furore over the Land Reforms Bill, with landlords up in arms.
This was accompanied by a second furore, and that was on the Education Bill, which sought to regulate private educational institutions. The syllabi, and the salaries and working conditions of the teachers, in private institutions were brought into conformity with what prevailed outside. And the Bill provided for government takeover of private institutions where the management went against the law. The Bill was an essential measure for introducing modern, secular and quality education in the state, in the place of the education that was being provided by a host of religious and caste-based organizations that ran these private institutions.
The furore that accompanied the tabling of these two Bills, as is well-known, led to the so-called “liberation struggle” that eventually resulted in the infamous decision of the Central government to dismiss the Communist government, a decision criticized by even Professor S.Gopal, Pandit Nehru’s acclaimed and sympathetic biographer. While the Communists lost the election that followed, they managed interestingly to increase the percentage of votes they polled.
But even though the first Communist government could not implement its proposed legislation, the lead it provided started a process that broke to a considerable extent the feudal shackles over Kerala’s economy and society. There was no going back on the agenda it had put forth, and in the course of time Kerala emerged, apart from West Bengal, as the most successful state in the area of land reforms. By 1993, 1.5 million tenants in the state had benefited from tenancy legislation, with 2.43 lakh hecatres of land accruing to them. In addition 5.28 lakh agricultural labourers had been provided house-sites. To be sure, there were important segments of the poor who could not directly benefit much from the land reforms measures, such as the tribal population, fishermen and agricultural labourers (whose gain was confined to house-sites). But even though the task is not complete in this sphere, as also in the sphere of regulating private educational institutions where the 2006 LDF government had to bring in fresh legislation, what has been achieved is nonetheless quite remarkable. Indeed the very fact that issues confronting the state even today were anticipated by the first Communist ministry shows the prescience of that ministry.
But it also shows the persistence, at least in the social realm, of the feudal shackles. This has to do partly with the fact that certain spheres have remained untouched by reform, but partly also with a revival or even the appearance for the first time of certain feudal traits that either did not exist earlier (or existed only marginally) or had received setbacks. For instance, notwithstanding the enormous achievements of Kerala in the realm of women’s literacy and women’s education, patriarchy was never confronted head on. Feudal-patriarchal attitudes therefore persist in the realm of gender relations. In addition there has been a recrudescence of religiosity, casteism and even of institutions like dowry. This has accompanied a process of economic dis-empowerment of the poor which has occurred paradoxically during the very period when Kerala’s growth rate appears to have picked up.
The peasantry, liberated from the feudal yoke, has become a victim of the capitalist world market, where the prices of the cash-crops, to which it has increasingly been moving, have shown in a secular sense a relative, and even an absolute, decline. The agricultural labourers, though protected by a comparatively high minimum wage, have witnessed dwindling employment opportunities. The conditions of the marginalized groups like the dalits and the tribals have become even more precarious. On the other side, middle-class incomes have increased sharply, together with middle-class consumerism, which paradoxically has denied resources to the state exchequer to a point where even the famed “Kerala model” of social security is in jeopardy for lack of public spending. Inequalities in Kerala have increased greatly in the neo-liberal era, despite the large remittances from the Gulf, which have been a source of support for the bottom half of the population. Together with these inequalities, pressure has increased for the use of the government’s limited fiscal resources for luxury infrastructure projects and for “social bribes” to domestic and foreign corporate capitalists to invest in Kerala.
The first Communist ministry therefore is not just an historical episode to be remembered and celebrated on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its formation. The process it initiated has gone far, but still remains incomplete. Kerala has witnessed much change, and yet the issues it confronts today are not altogether different from those which it confronted in 1957. And the social forces opposed to the democratic revolution today are no less strong than they were in 1957. Their composition may not be identical today to what it was in 1957, but their power remains significant.
It follows that the need today is not just to complete the unfinished agenda of the first Communist ministry in the state, but even to re-assert that agenda, which sought to achieve a democratic and egalitarian Kerala, against other competing agendas that are fashionable in the present neo-liberal era.