100 years and still a vital force: Viewing the Left from the shores of Kerala

Curiously, even as the CPM begins the centenary celebrations on Thursday, the CPI asserts that the party was formed only in December 1925.
E. M. S. Namboodiripad. (Photo | Express)
E. M. S. Namboodiripad. (Photo | Express)

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: October 17, 2019 marks an epoch-making moment in the history of the Communist movement in India. As the Communist Party of India (Marxist) gears up for a year-long celebration to observe the centenary of the formation of the Communist Party in the country, the Left is now ironically caught in a shrinking space in India's political landscape, while the challenges ahead are manifold. 

Going by the CPI(M)'s official documents, the Second World Congress of the Communist Third International set the ground for the formation of the Community Party of India on October 17, 1920 at Tashkent with seven members - MN Roy, Evelyn Roy-Trent, Abani Mukherjee, Rosa Fitingov, Mohammad Ali, Mohamad Shafiq and Acharya.

But curiously, even as the CPM begins the centenary celebrations on Thursday, the parent CPI asserts that the party was formed only in December 1925. According to the CPI, this happened in Kanpur where the first party conference was held and the party was named after debates over whether it should be the 'Indian Communist Party' or 'Communist Party of India'. The CPM and the CPI - the two most prominent Left parties in the country - are hence still divided over the date of its formation.  

CPM Politburo leader MA Baby invokes noted Urdu poet and freedom fighter Maulana Hasrat Mohani who put forth a Communist perspective at the Ahmedabad Session of the Indian National Congress in 1921, which raised the demand for complete independence for India, to stress his party is right. "That Hasrat Mohani put forth the ideological and structural fight at the AICC meet in 1921 itself shows that the movement was already formed. The Communists were targeted by the British rulers across the country. Many of the conspiracy cases came up before 1925," he said. 

The debate over its formation apart, Left leaders from both the CPM and CPI agree that with the dawn of its centenary celebrations, the Left parties need to indulge in some urgent introspection and drastic course correction. The Communist movement has undoubtedly made key contributions to the country's political landscape and is still very much relevant in India. At a time when the Communist movement is facing bigger challenges In India, the Left parties need to do some in-depth introspection and ensure necessary course-corrective measures. It also needs to urgently re-position itself to take on the multiple challenges as per changing times, said MA Baby. 

"Elsewhere in the globe, China has a communist government and Cuba still stands as a socialist nation, while the movement faced a setback in the USSR and Eastern Europe. In India, the Left parties -- not just the CPM but the CPI, CPI(ML) and others - should work towards forging a cohesive Left whole. While taking on these challenges, the Left should zero in on its weaknesses and ensure that suitable remedial measures are effectively implemented. Similarly, there is also some sort of misconception about the party among some people. Re-positioning the Left as per the changing global scenario is hence imperative," Baby added.  

Single largest contribution to Kerala

As far as Kerala is concerned, the Left movement and the state's history run parallel to each other. Sixty-three years after its formation, Kerala's past is intrinsically linked to its Leftist movement which has left an indelible imprint on not only its political history, but also on each and every milestone achieved in the course of shaping its socio-cultural fabric. The history of the Communist movement in Kerala is closely linked to the life of VS Achuthanandan, India's oldest living communist leader, who turns 96 on October 20, 2019. 

CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. (Photo | EPS)
CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. (Photo | EPS)

Now with its 14th Legislative Assembly led by a Left dispensation, Kerala's history can well be summarized in tandem with the Communist movement that began in the state in 1936, when five leaders including ideologue EMS Namboodiripad formed the Communist Party in Kerala. The Left in Kerala drew its energy from the blending of the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggles.  

Since the first government in 1957 led by EMS till the 2016 Pinarayi government, the Left has always exercised a considerable say in Kerala society, be it politics or not. Undoubtedly, the Land Reforms Act and the way in which it shaped Kerala's socio-political life over the decades, could well be summarized as the single largest contribution of the Left movement in Kerala. 

Kerala and its Communist movement 

The history of the Left movement in Kerala cannot be viewed in isolation as it emerged as a socialist struggle against capitalist and colonial forces during the freedom struggle. 

“It will not be a big exaggeration to say that seeds of the Left, Congress and Socialist movements were sown at Kannur jail and that too by Tiwari (Kamal Nath Tiwari)," writes EMS, referring to struggles during the ‘violation of law’ movement as part of the independence struggle. 

The Malabar Congress party where the Left had an upper hand led to the formation of the Communist movement through legendary figures like P Krishna Pillai, AK Gopalan and EMS. The Left came into existence through various such streams of political struggle. In Kochi and Travancore, the Congress was not very active in those days. And that's where the Left etched its primary role in societal consciousness. 

"After the Communists started to actively function, it fought against many a social evil including those of untouchability, caste-based discrimination and exploitation, deprivation of education and reluctance to employ the downtrodden etc" points out Left thinker Appukkuttan Vallikkunnu. 

There was a feudal system prevalent in Kerala which was administratively and politically divided into three sections - Travancore, Kochi and Malabar. The Left organized the masses, especially the working class, and wove them into an ideological and political whole through class-based movements and the Karshaka Sangham. 

"It was the Left that first succeeded in implementing the ideological perspective of Sree Narayana Guru's Renaissance movement on the ground. Culturally progressive literary movements contributed to the state's overall development. Hence a major socio-cultural base was set up in Kerala, even before the first Left government was formed in 1957," Vallikkunnu adds. 

Political writers point out that when the 1969 Land Reforms Amendment Act was passed, it was only in Kerala that the system of tenancy was actually abolished to a great extent, while in other states, the Act remained only on paper. A successful struggle for higher wages for agricultural labourers, espousal of demand of fair prices for farm products and fight for land have been identified as its three major components since the abolition of tenancy, according to N Krishnaji of Economic and Political Weekly.

It is curious, to say the least, that this path-breaking legislation was initiated by the first elected Communist government in India - arguably the second in the world -  led by Communist ideologue EMS Namboothiripad who assumed office in the 1957 elections, just a year after the state was formed. That it stood dissolved by the Centre in 1959 was just another of the state’s recorded historical mishaps.

Path-breaking measures

EMS later went on to become chief minister in 1967 and retained power till 1969. The Leftist movement under EMS and many others left an indelible mark on the progressive and working-class movements in the state.  "Land reforms were a huge success in the true sense of the term in Kerala, though they did have a fair share of criticism too. However, the positive impact of these reforms are gradually being obliterated due to a market-oriented consumer culture," observed Left ideologue NM Pearson. This has, in a way, also led to plantations coming under the siege of capitalist forces, he says.

The Left's contributions to the education sector are not something to be written off. It was the controversial Education Bill introduced in the assembly by the state's first education minister Joseph Mundassery that led to the liberation struggle that culminated in the EMS government's dismissal. The bill, aimed at ensuring social security and putting an end to injustices in the sector, attempted to get control over private educational institutions. Efforts to regularise the syllabus and pay structure invited the wrath of religious and community organisations. 

Introducing the idea of people's planning was another major Left contribution to the upliftment of the lower strata of Kerala society. The concept of a decentralized power distribution for planning and implementation was then a novel idea which did make an impact, though it cannot be termed a complete success even now. Taking planning to the level of the panchayat wards was indeed a major step, but lack of capital budgeting did pose a hindrance. 

Setting up of a cooperative movement in the state emerged primarily during the tenure of Left governments in the state. No one can deny that the lower and middle classes in Kerala garnered immense benefits from the same. Such decentralized initiatives had its adverse impacts, as many were left burdened with huge financial liabilities due to indiscriminate purchasing. 

The oldest living Communist in India

In 1964, the Communist movement in the country saw an unexpected split when 32 members of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) walked out of its national council to found the Communist Party of India (Marxist). At 96 now, VS Achuthanandan, the oldest living Communist in India, is the only one alive of the 32 leaders. 

A veteran of the 1946 Punnapra Valayar struggle, VS was subject to brutal torture in police custody. He epitomizes the struggles undertaken by the Left through the last six decades in Kerala. 

VS Achuthanandan. (Photo | EPS)
VS Achuthanandan. (Photo | EPS)

The much-debated and internationally acclaimed Kerala Model finds its roots in the innate Leftist focus on strengthening the public system in place. The Left brought in many landmark decisions including abolition of tenancy, fair wages to the working class and ensuring farmland to farmers. 

"Whenever the Left comes to power, progressive measures are adopted like strengthening the public sector, market interventions to check price hike and ensuring fair wages. But when the right-wing parties are in power, they go for tax burdens on the common man, while tacitly supporting rich and capital forces. This drastic difference can be seen in the 63 years of Kerala's history," Achuthanandan observes. The veteran goes on to affirm that the Kerala Model has not lost its sheen even after 63 years, thanks to the Left. 

The CPM takes over

In fact, it was the 1964 CPM formation that lent the Left movement its distinctive Kerala hallmark. "It is true that the Communist Party was split into the CPI(M) and CPI. Unlike the socialists, the Communists fought on questions of ideology and politics. It, therefore, became possible after a time for the two major organisations of communists, the CPI(M) and the CPI, to learn from experience and come together. This scope of unity in action has steadily expanded, though major ideological issues still remain in place. No such question of ideology and politics was involved in the mergers and break-ups of the various socialist groups," EMS Namboodiripad had recorded in January 1984.

Immediately after the CPM's formation, the Left underwent many ordeals, especially in the first elections it faced in 1965. Most of its leaders contested and won from jail. The two Left parties fought against each other, with the CPI aligning itself with the Congress. There was a major campaign against the CPM, accusing them of being Chinese agents. Though CPM went on to become the single largest party, it couldn't form a government, as 29 of its 44 MLAs were in jail. 

In 1967, a seven-party front led by the CPM fought a united electoral battle against the Congress reducing it to only nine out of 133 seats, while the CPM bagged 54 seats. The seven-party front government suffered a setback after CPI, RSP and League formed a mini-front to join hands with the Congress. 

Later in 1970, the Congress front formed the government, winning 69 seats while the CPM-led alliance got 46 seats. This period saw a downward spiral in the Left fortunes. The 1975 declaration of Internal Emergency in India saw the two Communist parties on opposite fronts - the CPM opposing Emergency, while the CPI supported it. 

Politically turbulent times indeed it was, an interim period in Kerala history witnessing a political seesaw of sorts. Though the Congress front recorded a huge victory in the ensuing elections winning 111 seats, it could not complete its tenure, after a section led by Congress veteran AK Antony parted ways and joined the CPM front. A section of the Kerala Congress led by KM Mani too joined the CPM front. 

To a large extent, Kerala politics got its current bipolar structure from there on, observes CPM's current state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan in an article on CPM's 50 years in People's Democracy. Kodiyeri added that the CPM's 10th Party Congress had cleared a tactical line to formulate the LDF. 

The Left and United Democratic Fronts (LDF and UDF) contested in the 1980 polls, where the LDF got 93 seats while the UDF ended up with 46 seats. Once the splinter 'outsider' groups, led by AK Antony and KM Mani, returned to the fold, LDF lost its majority, eventually leading to the UDF coming to power in 1982. 

The CPM again faced turbulence in its political and organisational structure, when veteran leader MV Raghavan, a strongman from Kannur, was ousted and the Left ally, the All India Muslim League, merged with the Indian Union Muslim League. Despite these setbacks, the LDF came to power in 1987. But four years down the line in the next polls, a sympathy wave following the Rajiv Gandhi assassination pushed CPM's EK Nayanar government out of power. 

KR Gowri Amma
KR Gowri Amma

CPM's prominent woman leader KR Gowri Amma was ousted from the party during this period. A firebrand leader, Gowri is one of the two living members of the first Kerala Assembly, the other being veteran CPI leader E Chandrasekharan Nair. It was Gowri who as revenue minister in the EMS ministry piloted the Land Reforms Act. Gowri and her husband TV Thomas, the industries minister in EMS government, chose to tread different political paths after the Communist party split in 1964.

Thunder in Spring

Though less prominent in Kerala's vast and eventful Left history, the Naxalite movement of the 60s has not gone unrecorded. What was later termed as Vasanthathinteh Idimuzhakkam (Thunder in Spring), ripples of the then turbulent movement can still be felt even now in Kerala.

In 1968, the movement began to sprout in Kerala when Naxals attacked the Thalassery and Puthuppally police stations. Led by a fierce Kunnikkal Narayanan in Thalassery and his daughter Ajitha and Varghese in Pulpally, the fiery attacks, unheard of elsewhere, left its mark in Kerala history. 

While one wireless operator was killed, the other Naxals escaped through the Thirunelli forests. In 1971, Varghese was shot dead in what was later termed as arguably the first-ever fake encounter in the state. Ajitha went through a painful and testing series of trials and travails. By the end of the 90s, a revolution led by former constable Ramachandran Nair drew attention to the episode, with worries of a Maoist upsurge in the air once again. Its roots could well be traced to the decades-old Naxal movement. 

Fast forwarding to now

In Kerala, at least, the Left remains a major power still. From 1996 onwards, the Left and United Democratic Fronts have come to power alternatively. 

Sudhakar Reddy, former general secretary, CPI, says, "The Communist movement will remain relevant in the country as long as there's exploitation of the masses by capitalist forces. At a time when there's concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, the Left has a major role to play. The formation of the Communist movement has been a point of debate between the CPM and CPI for long. However, the Communist parties should move ahead keeping Left unity in mind."

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