KERALA’S first ministry was a milestone in the history of the world, especially with regard to the communist movements. It was set apart by the fact that it was the first ministry to assume office in the bourgeois parliamentary structure. A communist rule in the small corner of a country, governed by a constitution, built on the principles of bourgeoisie democracy. This was unprecedented in the history of the international communist movement.
Governance by a small group of people in a country with diversities in language, dress, work, food and worship, raised fresh challenges for the Indian communist movement. Kerala’s answer to that challenge was the EMS ministry. Communist movements till then had only come to power through the revolutionary movements of the working classes. The communist ministry of 1957 was thus creating new history, though State power did not reside in the states. Kerala’s first communist ministry took upon that extraordinary challenge by resorting to practical politics. Thus, it became a text book to movements across the world.
At this juncture, it would be beneficial to look back at what the first communist government had done. It is to be studied not just against the backdrop of Kerala’s history, but in comparison to Indian and world history. One needs to look at how that government’s contribution in each sector was significant socially and historically. Such a study will serve as a beacon light in our new circumstances. But, it cannot be undertaken by a single person or a group of people. It needs to be a collective effort of all those who have a people’s view of history.
Kerala was reeling under landlordism and after effects of colonialism when the first government assumed office. It was hence important to implement the policies that were evolved as a part of the freedom struggle, which were not implemented anywhere else in the country, by the very forces that proposed them. They moved towards doing whatever was possible within the limits of the Constitution. The EMS government proved that much can be done within those limits. Such measures were reflected in the lives of ordinary people of Kerala as well as in its development.
Through its very first ordinance, the government made eviction of tenants illegal. It was a body blow to the jenmi-landlord system in Kerala. The jenmis were deprived of the right they enjoyed till then to evict their tenants who had been tilling their lands for generations. Such a move was unimaginable to any other government in India. The ordinance later became a law. It was a clear statement that no matter what obstacles may come their way, the government would be on the side of the toiling masses.
Education Bill was another major law that was implemented. Schools were run according to the whims and fancies of its owners in those days. Teachers were dismissed from service at random and they were not paid their full salary. The Education Bill put an end to all that by bringing in service and salary rules for the teachers and prescribing a code of conduct for the schools. It was a giant step in ensuring that teachers could serve with dignity.
Another historical decision of that government was that the police would not be allowed to intervene in labour struggles. Prior to this the police in the State acted as a militia of the employers, which often resorted to brute force to end strikes. The government’s decision put an end to such anti-people measures.
Constituting of public service commission for recruitment to government jobs, and the first initiatives in decentralization were all contributions of the 1957 government. Its focus was on liberating Kerala society from the clutches of feudalism and casteism to build a modern society. The outlook and policy of that government was to provide social welfare efforts for immediate relief of the people in distress and to take up projects for the long term development of the state. The world renowned Kerala development model had its origin in these efforts of the 1957 government led by EMS.
But in 1959, the first ministry of Kerala was undemocratically dismissed by the Union Government under the Congress. It unmasked the democratic pretensions of the Congress. It also exposed the lip service to democracy by the Indian ruling classes, not only to the people of India, but also around the world. 1957 gave to the Communists in Kerala an opportunity, to which there was no precedence. As they were confined by a Constitution that was not in tune with their principles, they did not express helplessness saying that nothing can be done within the purview of such a Constitution, or entertain the false notion that the solution to every problem can be found through constitutional means. Instead they worked to improve the lives of people through constitutional means where it was possible, and sided with struggles of people outside the parliamentary framework. This approach is a good example of Marxism applied on the basis of Leninism, where the praxis is informed by a concrete understanding of concrete conditions.
It was not just the international Communist movement that had keenly observed that ministry, but the people of the whole world. Friends as well as enemies kept an eye on its activities. What followed was the coming together of all the reactionary forces against the Communist government. Land owners disgruntled by the land reform laws, casteist and communal forces, the power hungry Congress party and the imperialist forces found a common enemy in the Communists and formed united front which manifested as Vimochana Samaram. The government did not lose the support of even a single member of the 65 representatives in the assembly it started out with, but the Union Government under the Congress dissolved the ministry by invoking article 356 of the constitution. This was a huge blot on Jawaharlal Nehru’s image, whom many had praised as the biggest advocate of democracy. History recorded it as the most undemocratic act in the largest democracy of the world.
Every Indian must remember this bit of our history when the most progressive government in a state was removed through undemocratic means. It also reminds us as to why the casteist and communal forces in the country, the bourgeoisie who are the self proclaimed apostles of democracy, and the imperialists all find a common enemy in the communists. The experience of the 1957 ministry is a lesson for the society as a whole. The congress took every possible reactionary elements together with them to forge an alliance, and in doing so maligned the social fabric of Kerala with casteist and communal venom, the debilitating influences of which are still felt in Kerala’s society.
Vimochana Samaram was not a spontaneous outcome which was the culmination of dissent expressed by vested parties against the government since its inception. Instead it emerged at a time when the opposition was losing steam. It was a movement manufactured by the media and casteist communal forces. The opposition deliberately employed violence to create unrest. The movement also benefited from the involvement of certain anti-communists and writers who spread lies and spewed casteist and communal venom.
More than resolving their stated demands, Vimochana Samaram was aimed at disrupting the ministry. Congress joined hands together with the communal forces to achieve this. They feared that they may not be able to make a comeback if the Left Government completed its term of five years. The imperialists including the United State of America were wary of the possibility that a success for the Communist Government in Kerala might create a favourable situation for the Communist movements elsewhere in the country. This prompted them to get involved with the reactionary forces. This incident was followed by similar imperialist outreaches, both politically and militarily, when they unseated left leaning governments in several third world countries. So what happened in Kerala cannot be seen in isolation, but must be viewed from the context of imperialism in the Cold War era.
It is proved beyond doubt that Vimochana Samaram was orchestrated by anti communist foreign forces. The role of the CIA in providing assistance through injection of funds and the constant monitoring of the situation in Kerala by the US State Department is now common knowledge, thanks to contemporary official records that have now been made public.
For the current LDF government the diamond jubilee of the first Kerala ministry is an occasion to reiterate its commitment to build a new Kerala. Our state is a model to the rest for the rest of India when it comes to literacy, life expectancy, male-female sex ratio, infant mortality and maternal mortality. Ours is a society that has successfully built a system for universal education, extensive health services and an extensive public distribution system. One needs to bear in mind that this was not achieved on the back of a surplus of resources as enjoyed by the developed world. This has been achieved by socially and financially empowering the working class and by ensuring a fair distribution of the resources.
Our progress has been driven by extensive land reforms, putting an end to evictions, spearheading agitations for the redistribution of excess land, struggles for decent wages, and implementation of reservations. The efforts of the left progressive movements in the state and their governments have primarily ushered in these changes. The major beneficiaries of these steps have been the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward segments of the state.
Our march forward must be informed by the struggles that have moulded us; but we must not ignore the opportunities that we have missed either. Successive governments failed to follow up on land reforms with effective measures which could have improved productivity. Education Bill was not succeeded by an innovative plan to improve the quality of teaching. Literacy movement was not followed up by a plan to translate it into social literacy. A plan for universal housing also met a similar fate.
People’s Planning was introduced in the state with much vigour so as to comprehensively implement the reforms that were to follow land reforms, agrarian reforms and decentralisation. Though it was a success in terms of revolutionising planning, local resource allocation, decentralisation and ensuring people’s participation, its full potential was not realised, as some of its provisions were watered down. Our focus now is to revitalise it and bring it back on track.
We can preserve the giant strides we have made in the social sphere only by ensuring continuity in development. We can achieve this only by being objective about our strengths and weaknesses. We also need to be clear about what we mean by development and have a plan laid out for achieving it. Development for development's sake will not be of any use.
The present government in Kerala is one that can proudly stake claim to the tradition of the first ministry of 1957. This lineage is reflected in the four missions it has initiated. We have made it clear that the voices of the marginalized and those who were ignored thus far in the development narrative, will be heard this time around. Ever since the formation of the State of Kerala, left governments were always instrumental in formulating long term visions for its development. Haritha Keralam (waste, water & agriculture), Ardram (health care), LIFE (housing & livelihood) and Comprehensive Education Reform, the four missions will also follow the Left’s tradition of building a New Kerala, of contemporary relevance.
Our policy is to provide immediate relief to those who are in distress as well as to undertake long term plans for development. Though our finances are limited, we are not making an excuse out of it. We cannot wait indefinitely for attaining a stipulated level of economic development to proceed with our plans. That is precisely why we have instituted the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), to mobilise funds for infrastructure development. Our two pronged strategy, relief for the distressed and plans for long term development, is reflected in all our policies; including debt relief programs, social security pensions, reopening of shut down factories and taking over of schools under threat of closure.
On the 60th anniversary of Kerala’s first ministry, we are rededicating ourselves to work for a more egalitarian, developed, progressive, peaceful, secular, free and democratic Kerala. No greater respect can be paid to EMS and his ministry, than making an affirmation to realise their dreams and hopes for a New Kerala.