“There is no question of secular democracy, not to speak of socialism, unless the very citadel of India’s ‘age-old’ civilisation and culture — the division of society into a hierarchy of castes — is broken. In other words, the struggle for radical democracy and socialism cannot be separated from the struggle against caste society.”
Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad, Kerala’s first chief minister and one of India’s leading communist leaders, was born on 13 June 1909 in the present-day Malappuram district to a Brahmin family. EMS, as he was popularly known, died on 19 March 1998.
His father, Parameswaran, died when EMS was a child. EMS studied at the Victoria High School and Victoria College (Palakkad), and the Thrissur’s St. Thomas College.
He was also taught Sanskrit and the Vedas at home for a while. Later, contrasting the two experiences, he said: “Even those who completed such a system of education (at home) would not understand the Rig Veda because students were required only to learn by rote the various sooktas and not their meaning. . . . I felt I had started a new life when I joined the school. An entirely new atmosphere than what I was used to. Members from all castes and communities were my fellow students and teachers. Learning was not alone but together, in groups of 25 to 30 students.”
From early on, EMS was associated with anti-caste campaigns in the Namboothiri community. In college he was attracted to the Indian National Congress and the freedom struggle. For his nationalistic activities he was sentenced to three years in jail, and released in 1933. In the Kannur central jail he met communist leaders and was influenced by their ideology.
He co-founded the Congress Socialist Party (a wing within the Congress) in 1934 and became one of its joint secretaries. He later headed the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee and was elected to the All India Congress Committee. In 1937 he was elected to the Madras legislative assembly.
But eventually he became a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI).
Later, tracing his own political and intellectual evolution, he recalled: “April 1940 was a turning point in my life. The party decided we should go into hiding. One night, I left home without telling even my wife. I left her and our one-year-old daughter. Nobody knew for how long a period. It created a lot of tension inside me . . . in another way it was a happy occasion. For the first time in my life I could establish a heart-to-heart relationship with ordinary people who were not members of my community — peasants, farm and fish workers, the poor. Until then my relationship with them was only in my mind. It had not touched my heart.”
He joined the Central Committee of the CPI in 1941. Post 1947, he went underground for a few years after the Centre banned the Communist Party as it called for an “armed uprising”. Eventually, however, he returned to mainstream politics.
In 1957 he became the first Indian to head a democratically-elected Communist government. As Chief Minister of Kerala he was a pioneer of land reforms. However, after widespread protests and unrest in the state, triggered primarily by a new education policy, his government was controversially dismissed in 1959 by Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress government at the Centre.
After the split in the Communist ranks in 1964, EMS became a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In 1967, he became the Kerala Chief Minister for the second time, leading a coalition of seven parties. But this time, too, he could not complete his full term in office. He was the Leader of Opposition in the state Legislative Assembly from 1960-1964 and 1970-1977.
EMS was a prolific writer and commentator as well. As Kuldip Singh wrote in The Independent after EMS died: “Apart from being an astute politician who led the workers’ struggle for over six decades, EMS was an author, historian, social commentator and theorist who astutely adopted Marxist and Leninist ideals to Indian conditions. . . . He lived in a small house rented for him by the party in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, and, before retiring from active politics in 1991, daily woke at 4.30 a.m. to write articles, dictate pamphlets or a speech. All earnings from his voluminous writings went to the party chest.”
In his 1987 publication Reminiscences of an Indian Communist, EMS wrote: “If the ‘experiment’ in Kerala showed anything, it is this: The struggle in the parliamentary arena, including the formation of state governments when a majority is secured, is one specific form of class struggle in which the struggle on the parliamentary arena would have to be subordinated to, though being integrated with, the extra-parliamentary struggle.”
After 1991, he retired from active politics.
At the age of 89, EMS had completed another column for a Marxist publication when he complained of breathing trouble. He died in hospital soon after in Thiruvananthapuram on 19 March 1998.
In a tribute to EMS during his birth centenary, senior Communist leader Prakash Karat wrote in the CPI (M) journal, People’s Democracy, “For the Communist and Left movement in India the theoretical and practical work of EMS Namboodiripad is a rich and abiding legacy. The essence of that legacy — study of Marxist theory, its creative application to the live and concrete conditions of society, the firm belief in the emancipatory goal of socialism and a total identification with the people — has to be transmitted to succeeding generations of activists committed to the people's cause.”
Also on this day:
1938 — Sai Paranjpye, film and television writer and director, was born
1939 — Abbas Ali Baig, Indian cricketer, was born