Kerala – The First Elected Communist Government
THE formation of the communist government in Kerala on April 5, 1957 was hailed in India and throughout the world as a new experiment. Before this, the Communist Party had never won a free and fair election in any part of the world. The Communist Party won 65 seats in the then legislative assembly of 127 and emerged as the single largest party in the first elections held for the newly formed Kerala state. It secured more than 50 per cent of the votes in 34 constituencies and between 48 and 50 per cent votes in 8 constituencies. It was a positive vote for the Communist Party, with people reposing faith on the Party and its policies.
Within a week of the inauguration of the Communist government, it had passed legislation in favour of the peasants. On April 5, the government was sworn in and on April 11, the government issued an ordinance prohibiting all evictions: no tenant, sub-tenant, occupant of homesteads, was to be evicted on any ground, including failure to pay rent in time. Furthermore, all court proceedings initiated by landlords against tenants, sub-tenants or occupants of homesteads were stayed. Never before had the rural poor in the state secured such an extensive relief from the oppression of landlords.
This emergency legislation was a prelude to the lasting legislation that was being prepared to integrate the land tenures of the three constituent parts of the new state – Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore – each of which had laws on landlord-tenant relationships. While integrating them to form a common land law for the whole state, every effort was made to meet the pressing demands of the rural poor for which the Kisan Sabha and other organisations of the rural poor, including organisations of agricultural workers, had fought for over two decades.
The state committee of the Party, the Party legislature group and committees of the Kisan Sabha at all levels from the state to the village, were engaged in the process of consultation, conflict and attempts at reconciliation. The Agrarian Relations Bill provided the maximum possible relief to the mass of the rural poor, cutting across caste, communal and political considerations. The prohibition of evictions and the declaration of a moratorium on rent payments made in the ordinance was the beginning of a process through which lakhs of peasants, agricultural workers and other sections of the rural poor got immense livelihood support. April 11, 1957 was thus a red-letter day for the mass of the rural poor in Kerala. The ordinance and the final bill adopted in early June 1959, marked a new stage in the economic and the socio-cultural life of the people of Kerala. It ended the economic oppression and the socio-cultural domination by a small minority of the upper-caste landlords on the mass of the rural poor.
Next in importance to the Agrarian Relations Bill was the government’s statement of policy on the relations between the police and the people. As it happened with the Agrarian Relations Bill, the police policy of the government inspired the common people, while vested interests attacked it bitterly.
The police policy of the government made two major departures from the earlier policy. First, it strictly prohibited third-degree interrogation methods and demanded that the investigation of crimes be in accordance with the law of the land, which formally prohibits torture of persons in custody. Second, with respect to mass struggles and the organisations that lead them, the new policy declared that police should not be allowed to be used by landlords and the bourgeoisie to suppress strikes and struggles of the peasantry and other working people. The government would try to settle industrial disputes through negotiations between employers and employees through the labour department.
Detention without trial, which had been a weapon in the armoury of the Congress government ever since it became India’s ruling party, was not allowed to be used against individuals and organisations involved in people’s struggles. The government also declared that there would be no police verification of the character and antecedents of a qualified job-applicant as was mandated by the central government.
Another important area where the government strove to bring a change was the decentralisation of power from the state to the lowest level, panchayats. The government appointed a committee to examine the entire problem of administrative reforms, of which democratic decentralisation was an important element. It worked for more than a year and submitted its report. Following these recommendations, the government prepared two new bills for introduction in the Assembly. The first vested in elected panchayats all the functions discharged by revenue and other department officials at the village level. The second proposed to transfer many functions discharged by district officials to an elected district council, with an elected president and assisted by a permanent official of the status of deputy collector.
Had the Kerala government continued for its full term of five years, the system of panchayati raj in its two-tier form would have been firmly established in the state.
The action of the Communist government that generated the most acute controversy was the education bill. Just like the Agrarian Relations Bill and the police policy, which roused the anger of the bourgeois-landlord ruling classes in general, the Education Bill angered the section of the same classes belonging to the Christian community in particular, since the bill was connected with the ownership and management of educational institutions in which the Christians, as a community had very big stakes. The leadership of the community was able to generate fear in the minds of the masses that their religion was under attack.
The objective of the bill was not to seek the abolishment of the system of private management of educational institutions, but was more modest. Its primary objective was to provide for direct payment of salaries to teachers in private educational institutions without any deductions by private managements; to curb the power of managers to suspend or dismiss teachers from employment; to fix criteria for the appointment of teachers, and so on. The underlying idea of the bill was that teachers in private educational institutions would receive the same emoluments as their counterparts in government institutions. In other words, the right of private managements to own and manage educational institutions was being controlled, and not abolished.
The owners of the private educational institutions projected the entire bill as an attack on their rights as owners and managers of educational institutions. Headed by the Christian churches and the Nair Service Society, the two major corporate managements of private educational institutions, they unleashed an extensive propaganda of lies that the bill was an attack on their right to property and a measure to nationalise educational institutions.
The opponents of both the Agrarian Relations Bill and the Education Bill took the battle to the central government and appealed it to withhold the assent to these bills. The Congress led central government, with its anti-communist bias, obliged and returned the bills to the legislature.
An anti-Communist front was formed consisting of representatives of the Congress, Muslim League, PSP, the Catholic Church and Nair Service Society. They launched a Vimochana Samaram (liberation struggle). This became a violent agitation in which government offices and police stations were attacked. The whole purpose was to paralyse the functioning of the government and use that pretext to demand central intervention. The Nehru government, under pressure from the then Congress President
Indira Gandhi, obliged and dismissed the state government invoking Article 356 of the Constitution. Later, it was revealed that the CIA had given funds to the Congress leadership to finance the agitation to topple the Communist government – a fact admitted by the then US ambassador to India, Ellsworth Bunker.
The Communist government in Kerala took various steps for improving the condition of dalits and other backward communities who were oppressed on the basis of their caste for generations together. The government enlarged the scope of reservations in educational institutions, for entering government services and also devised other means of helping the members of the backward communities. Caste and communal leaders of the so-called ‘forward’ castes naturally used this as an opportunity to mobilise the masses of these communities against the Communist Party and its government.
Another pioneering contribution of the Communist government was the establishment of a robust public distribution system. It took energetic steps to ensure that rice obtained within the state and procured from outside was distributed properly. The entire state was covered by ‘fair price shops’, whose number increased from less than 1000 to nearly 6000.
In order to ensure proper distribution of rice and other essentials to the people, the government took the initiative to form people’s food committees. These committees consisted of representatives of all political parties to advise the concerned officials about the number of fair price shops needed in their area, to locate them where they were required, identify the person who would run them and so on. These committees were also tasked with identifying the families of lower incomes to whom the supplies have to be made and give them an identity card and cut corruption. These committees were formed at panchayat, taluk and other local levels. At the state level, there was an all-party State Food Advisory Committee. The state level committee was tasked with identifying the problems arising out of the running the entire system and suggest means to overcome them.
The electoral victory in 1957 gave the Communists in Kerala an opportunity, to which there was no precedence. Constrained by the limits of the Constitution, the Communist Party 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.
Unable to counter the onward march of the Communists, the central government invoked Article 356 and dismissed the democratically elected government in 1959. It was a dark day for Indian democracy. The Party had organised protests across the country against the dismissal of the Kerala government on August 3. On that day, more than 30,000 people marched in front of the parliament in Delhi.