May 27, 2020
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Memories Of The Radical

EMS gave Marxists the first lesson in governance—and changed the face of Kerala

Memories Of The Radical

IN Elamkulam Manakkal Shankaran Namboodiripad's passing, the Left movement has lost one of its primary propagandists and interpreters of Marxism. To the Marxist faithful, Namboodiripad was a symbol of political constancy. Even when the ideology seemed to falter in Eastern Europe, he remained firm in his belief. To the last, he kept his faith in the certitudes of Marxism.

EMS turned the CPI(M) into a player in bourgeois parliamentary democracy. That is his abiding political legacy. He changed the popular perception of communism as a movement working outside the democratic process, a party intolerant of dissent and prone to dictatorship. Namboodiripad pioneered the transformation of the communists into a force capable of participation in the democratic system—and coming out on top. This was the thundering message conveyed through the ballot in 1957. The first elected Communist ministry died young, no thanks to Nehru and Indira Gandhi, but it lives on in the memory of the world.

During his brief flirtations with power, Namboodiripad sought to leave his party's imprint on Kerala. He championed the cause of land reforms which eventually led to the dismantling of the feudal order in the state. It was a model which other communists governments in the country chose to follow. Of course, EMS invited the wrath of the landed gentry. But history would remember him as the man who not only dreamed but succeeded in translating some of it into reality.

EMS had his pet vision of the nation-state. He was not a blind votary of representative democracy. He was seduced by the model of participatory democracy practised in the ancient Greek city-state. Namboodiripad envisioned a blend of the representative and the participatory, so that people could run their own lives rather than leave the job to elected representatives. EMS invested his energies into what he dubbed the People's Plan, an audacious but workable exercise in grassroots democracy which devolves power to the panchayats.

Namboodiripad was a career politician with a difference. He believed that politics cannot be separated from culture. He did not define culture as a leisure or a source of entertainment, but as something that reflected the power structures of society. Language is an instrument of culture as well as a political tool. It legitimises the existing close and power structures of society. The modes of address, for instance, change as language moves across the social ladder. EMS emphasised the importance of cultural reform and saw it as an integral component of political regeneration. To empower people meant not just to give them land or jobs but also to alter their cultural notions and values.

EMS was perhaps looking back to his past when he espoused this belief. His feudal origins fuelled his reformist zeal. His youth was spent as an activist tilting at the evils of his Brahmin heritage. The community closed ranks and EMS was ex-communicated. The consequences were traumatic. When his mother died, he wasn't allowed near her funeral pyre. From a distance he watched the smoke rise.

Namboodiripad covered his emotional scars with political activism. As a communist operative on the run, he went underground. Communism was a bad word in the '40s. It was a period marked by a frenzy of writing and politicking. Namboodiripad and his comrades set up the first Communist Party office in Kerala. It was a heady past that would later become the stuff of Leftwing folklore.

Namboodiripad evokes the images of a splendid era. The peasant struggles, the hallowed march of the Communist movement through the peak period of 1945-47, culminating in the uprising at Punapra Vayalar and coinciding with Telengana and the 'Tebagha' peasant movements. And then, after Independence, the descent. The Calcutta Conference of 1948, the drift from the nationalist mainstream, the backlash from the state, the repression, the underground. Then the change of heart in 1951, the historic resolution at Calcutta to endorse the parliamentary process. The first general election under the Indian Constitution brings the Communist party to Parliament as the major opposition party.

It was a breathtaking panorama. Marred in later years by discord within the party; the Chinese invasion divided the Communist party. Namboodiripad pulled his punches on the Chinese action. The party broke up. In October 1964, the first congress of the Marxist Party was held in Calcutta. The rupture was complete.

In Kerala, the CPI(M) had the rural masses, the CPI got the intellectuals. In ensuing years the pattern crystallised. EMS watched as lumpens crept into the ranks of the CPI(M).

The task of the CPI(M) in Kerala is to resurrect its lustre of yesteryear. To recall an era when the Communist movement was the single-most dramatic influence that changed the face of society. The reforms on the agrarian front marked by the abolition of landlordism, the advent of land ceiling and land for the landless; the birth of trade unions on the industrial front; the revolutionary Education Act that ensured salaries from the government for teachers in privately managed schools. The list is endless—all these reforms bear the signature of E.M.S. Namboodiripad.

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