THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A century ago, Gouri Sankunni was a known name in Malabar. Wife of Sankunni, who was in the Madras Government Service, she was one of the first Malayali women post graduates. A girl named after her would go on to become an iconic Left leader in Kerala.
KR Gouri Amma, who passed away on Tuesday, was so named by her father after he attended a reception in honour of Gouri Sankunni. On returning home, he told his pregnant wife that he planned to name the child, if it's a girl, after Sankunni's wife. The rest is history.
Long seen as one who would become the first woman Chief Minister of Kerala, Gouri Amma might have undoubtedly been the best Chief Minister the state never had.
Those familiar with her administrative style never fail to reiterate that KR Gouri was one of the finest ministers the state has ever seen. Bureaucrats were fond of her and clearly enjoyed working with her. They found her a good administrator, as she was endowed with great clarity of thought, telling them what she wanted to do and then giving them enough leeway to get it done.
In 1987, she was projected as the next CM, with the entire state reverberating to slogans of Keram thingum Kerala naadu, KR Gouri bharikkatte (Let KR Gouri rule Kerala - the land of coconut trees). But it was not to be. Not only did she not become the CM, she was also later expelled from the party.
Twenty seven years after the CPM expelled her, her query at the time still remains unanswered. "Why was I thrown out of the party?"
Gouri believed that it was EMS Namboodiripad himself who was behind the plot that cost her the Chief Ministership and led to her subsequent expulsion.
Veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar believes that Gouri may well have been right in her assessment."You can't blame her for saying that EMS was responsible for keeping her out. He knew that if she continued in the party, no one could prevent her from becoming the CM. She had a mind of her own and was not someone out to further any personal agenda," he observed.
In 1987, the party had tacitly given one and all the impression that KR Gouri would be their Chief Minister. After the polls, the entire party rank and file wanted her to be the CM, but Left allies were keen on TK Ramakrishnan. But eventually, it was EK Nayanar who got lucky.
To quote Gouri herself: "In my opinion, he (EMS) was a 'Namboodiri' who believed that only the upper class should wield power. Otherwise why would he have invited Nayanar who had till then never been in the picture to suddenly helm the government?"
In fact, she had mentioned more than once that EMS was not very keen on the lower castes coming to the forefront, thereby exposing the hidden claws of caste politics even within the most revolutionary outfits of those times.
Sources who were part of inner-party circles at the time, however, strongly refute such allegations against EMS who they say was being unduly blamed. "In fact, the only statement that EMS made at the state committee meet was that Gouri had never been able to confine herself within the disciplinary confines of any party forum," confided a leader who was part of the CPM state committee that had demoted her to the Alappuzha district committee.
Interestingly, Gouri's demotion in the party came on a historic day. "After coming out of the state committee meet in the evening, the leaders witnessed an unexpected hartal across the state. It was December 6, 1992, the day of the Babri Masjid demolition," the leader remembered. Action against her was taken based on the party probe by MK Krishnan and P Karunakaran who were known loyalists of VS Achuthanandan and EK Nayanar respectively.
Left observers feel that the CPM had miserably failed to effectively use a charismatic leader like her to connect with the masses.
One of the founding Left leaders in Kerala, she was part of the first democratically elected Communist government in the world under EMS. Champion of many a struggle including the Punnapra Vayalar uprising, she was subject to brutal torture in police custody.
Noted political commentator Appukkuttan Vallikkunnu feels that the CPM did not truly appreciate the leader for who she really was.
"A fiesty firebrand leader, she was the most aggressive woman revolutionary leader the state had ever seen, someone who could easily be compared to the likes of Rani of Jhansi. She belonged to that rare breed of revolutionaries who was moulded in the furnace of exceptional personal and political circumstances of her times. Her one cult statement that she often made - "I would have given birth to thousands of 'lathi' babies, if policemen's lathis could impregnate" - gives us a glimpse of her deadly grit and courage," he added.
One of the oldest serving politicians in Kerala politics, she was the CPM's biggest crowd-puller in the state at one point of time.
An iconic Communist who brought in the Land Reforms Act, she left her mark in the legislative field too. The longest-serving woman minister in the state, she was elected to the Legislative Assembly 10 times and was minister for about 15 years as part of six different governments. She was a minister in the communist-led ministries in Kerala in 1957, 1967, 1980, and 1987 and also became a minister in the Congress-led Cabinet from 2001 to 2006.
After being expelled from the CPM in 1994, she floated the Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithy and later won the polls without the support of any major front in 1996.
Gouri belonged to that era of leaders who had worked at close quarters with Communist legends like P Krishnapillai.
Generations of Malayalis have stood witness to the tumultuous twists and turns in both her political and personal life that spanned over a century. Her every breath was for the cause of Communism. Her ideological battles and struggles had their repercussions in her personal life too. Yet she never flinched from taking a stance or speaking up for herself.
While still a young comrade, she did not think twice before rejecting none other than legendary Communist AK Gopalan who wanted to marry her. This in itself speaks volumes about the woman she was.
In 1957, she married her cabinet colleague and Left leader TV Thomas. The inter-religious marriage - a quite uncommon occurrence those days - was held with the party's blessings. In fact, the party was clearly told about their relation in 1952 itself making every twist and turn in their topsy-turvy marriage a party affair too.
Her marriage and life with Thomas had to bear the brunt of the party's split in 1964 with Gouri opting to branch out with the CPM, while Thomas chose to stay on with the CPI. Both gradually parted ways, though that was not the only reason for their separation. In 1977, when TV breathed his last, Gouri was, however, at his side.
With KR Gouri bidding adieu after over a century of a well-lived life, an era in Kerala politics has drawn to an end. Though she severed ties with the Communist party in 1994, she very much wanted to return to the Left citadel in her final years.
Several attempts were made to bring her back into the Communist fold, but it now remains an unfulfilled dream - both for her and the Communist movement in Kerala.
Poet Balachandran Chullikkad's lines aptly capture the essence of who she was for a generation of Keralites.
Ithu Kettu konde cherubalyamellam
Indeed, the one who instilled confidence and pride in revolutionary spirits of Kerala for over a century is no more!