EMS: Bouquets and Brickbats

M G Radhakrishnan


View From My Window

EMS and Deng Xiaoping at Beijing in 1983| Screengrab

There is a rare video clip on the Internet of a meeting held in April 1983 in Beijing between EMS Nambooodiripad and China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. After offering a cigarette which EMS declined politely, Deng tells him, "In the past, we (the Chinese party) had failed to understand many things. Now we realize and understand many things though not in full yet...Revolution in any country can be conceived by the people of that country alone..no outsiders should intervene, for they are not familiar with the conditions of that country like the comrades there would be. Chinese comrades are not familiar with the conditions in India like you are...relations between our parties were severed. But we are not responsible for that...the "Gang of Four" was responsible....".

Nothing vindicated EMS Namboodiripad more as the leader who strove most to shape an independent identity for the Indian Communist movement, keeping equidistant from both the Soviet and Chinese parties.

There may not be many leaders who are hated and adored in almost equal measure, like EMS. But he was indifferent to both bouquets and brickbats alike. His barb about a complimentary reference by a prominent newspaper known for its anti-Communism is well known. "If they have said something good about me, I am sure I have done something wrong."

Interestingly, the visceral hostility towards the veteran hasn’t died even a quarter century after he passed away. The reason could be that his views and life continue to disturb his detractors or their successors. The abusers include those from the ultra-Left and Right, upholders of identity politics, and the die-hard Dangeists who think he was the chief architect of the party’s split and subsequent decimation of CPI.

Indeed, like every leader, EMS, too, deserves to be criticised. More so, since he was involved with practically every aspect of Malayali life for a very long time. More than any other political, social, or cultural leader of the post-independent Kerala, EMS played the most in the making of modern Malayali. Therefore, he has to answer most for what is right and wrong about the contemporary Malayali society or the “Kerala Development Model.”

The Communist patriarch's twenty-fifth death anniversary is an ideal context to study him objectively. Yet, we have missed the opportunity with the usual accolades on the one side and sheer slander on the other. Forget the fan club. But what about the critics? Sadly, most rants and one-liners hardly looked more substantive than gossip-mongering. Many found pleasure in calling him a “Namboori” who thought and acted only like Savarna Namboodiri. The proof? He never gave up his surname nor “let” his children marry non-Namboothiris. Some bent backward to parrot the master baiter, MGS Narayanan's harangue, to “disprove” that the Marxist gave away his family wealth to the party. Some even regurgitated the canard, exposed long ago, that EMS was speaking at a Yogakshemasabha meeting in Punnapra while the Punnapra Vayalar uprising was happening. Interestingly, even those who have rubbished Marxism as trash condemn EMS for not being a true Marxist! Shouldn't they be happy if that is so?

EMS Nambooodiripad

It requires extraordinary gall to call EMS a hardcore Namboodiri, of all other things. His very emergence in public life when he was 14 was by waging a relentless battle against all the perceived elements of Namboodiri identity or their socio-economic hegemony. The youngster spent his entire time speaking, writing, organising plays, widow marriages, fighting the decadent Namboodiri establishment, and persuading the community to shed their caste trappings to live like other humans. After he threw himself into full-time politics as a Congress freedom fighter and later as a Socialist and Communist, secularism and class politics were his articles of faith. In 1939, as a member of the Madras legislature, EMS, the scion of one of the wealthiest landlord families, wrote his famous dissent to the Malabar Tenancy Reforms Committee, demanding the abolition of the landlord system without paying any compensation.

His ground-breaking book of 1948 -Keralam Malayalikalude Mathrubhumi- was the first to go beyond the classical Marxist paradigms of class. He conceptualized for the first time the role of caste in perpetuating the peculiar feudal system that existed in Kerala, which he called Jati (upper caste)-Janmi (landlord)-Naduvazhi (bureaucracy) hegemony. IS Gulati and Thomas Isaac wrote that “it was not an eclectic description but the conceptualization of the complex pre-capitalist social formation in the region with profound implications for the Left agenda in the state.”

When EMS held authority as the Chief Minister for the first time, he walked the talk. His government launched the Land Reforms that ended feudalism and cut at the root of his own caste’s social and economic hegemony. Despite their significant drawbacks, the reforms were the most comprehensive in the country and the first major step for the backward and oppressed to claim legal ownership of property.

EMS was the only leader we see in history as the harbinger at every milestone of Malayali society’s journey forward in the 20th century; from the days of the renaissance to when we battled our way out of casteist medievalism; when we heeded the call of the freedom movement, and subsequently when the oppressed classes organised under Socialism and Communism.

His contribution to the cultural realm was phenomenal even when he remained neck-deep in day-to-day politics. Even if we may differ from his positions on culture or aesthetics, can anyone deny that there was never another Malayali politician who took culture as inseparable from politics? Perhaps, apart from Gandhi and Nehru, no other active Indian politician has written as much as EMS, which collectively runs into 100 volumes, including 80 books in Malayalam and twenty in English.

One could have ethical differences with EMS’s many tactics he played to achieve his political goals. But his impeccably clean and simple personal life, begun since his Gandhian days, remained unsullied to his end. Kerala can’t name many Chief Ministers who started their life in the lap of plenty but ended willingly in absolute austerity. He took an office of power outside the party, barely for four years, even when it was his for the asking.

With EMS’s exit, the Left movement appears to have run out of big ideas that take the state forward. This sharply contrasts with the past when it created most of Kerala’s progressive milestones like land reforms, decentralisation, complete literacy, etc. Most of all, wasn’t he the conscience keeper inside the CPI(M)? Given how the party and its leaders have taken to after his passing, one wonders if he was the party’s last gatekeeper. It was also when internal democracy was alive in the party. Despite being the tallest leader, EMS was, until his last, constantly challenged and questioned by even at party’s lowest bodies. Contrast it with now.

Despite all this, EMS needs to be closely interrogated by history. Notwithstanding Kerala’s continuing to be a model for human development even six decades after its birth and its evolution from poverty to prosperity, the state’s miserable failures include unending industrial and agricultural stagnation, unemployment, etc. Despite Kerala’s progressive image, why do elements like casteism, patriarchy, and inequality thrive in its ugly underbelly? As a child of Western enlightenment and classical Marxian class politics, wasn’t EMS also unaware of micro-political issues like caste, gender, environment, sexuality, etc.?

However, to be fair, he never hesitated to admit to the failures of the Kerala Model, of which he was one of the chief architects. Yet, did he have any answers? EMS is also accused of not making any original theoretical contribution, unlike his Asian counterparts like Mao or Ho Chi Minh. Yet, haven’t EMS and his movement shown by practice (with all its warts), how a Communist party could function within a multiparty democracy.

Even though EMS’s state did not see any interesting assessment of him on the 25th anniversary, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, eminent diplomat and Mahatma’s grandson, did one. Citing EMS’s graceful assessment of Prime Minister Nehru on the latter’s 75th birthday in the immediate aftermath of the dismissal of his government, Gandhi laments the drying up of the legacy of grace in politics. Gandhi also asks all the present leaders, including Pinarayi Vijayan, to heed EMS’s six decades-old warning about the inner rot that power games generate.

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