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60 Years On, Kerala Remains Indebted To Its First Government

It was one of the first instances of a Communist government coming to power through a democratic system.

07/04/2017 11:48 AM IST | Updated 08/04/2017 10:52 AM IST
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As I write this today, 5 April, 2017, Kerala is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its first government.

The linguistic state came into being on 1 November, 1956 under the States Reorganisation Act by merging Travancore-Cochin state with Malabar, then a part of Madras state.

As Kerala took birth, no elected government was in power in the state. The Panampilly Govinda Menon-led Congress government of the state of Travancore-Cochin (formed by merging the princely states of Travancore and Cochin on 1 January 1950) had lost majority on account of factionalism and President's rule was on.

The first government in Kerala had so many peculiarities and firsts. It was the first instance of a Communist government coming to power anywhere in the world through a democratic system, save for San Marino, a tiny island off the coast of Italy. The government had many stalwarts manning the ministries, a la the first Nehru ministry of Independent India.

A lot of what Kerala has achieved since then can be traced back to the legislations attempted by the 28-month EMS government.

The election of 1957 and the historic verdict set the standards for future governments in the state. A lot of what Kerala has achieved since then can be traced back to the legislations attempted by the 28-month government.

The election result was influenced in part by some of the events that preceded it. The tactical and political nous of the then general secretary of the Communist Party in the state, MN Govindan Nair, contributed a lot to the performance in the election.

During the process of the reorganisation of the state, the three-member Fazal Ali State Reorganisation Commission, which included 'Sardar' KM Panikkar, consulted all the stakeholders including major political parties. The Travancore Tamil Nadu Congress (TTNC) successfully led the movement to merge four Tamil-speaking taluks in South Kerala into Tamil Nadu. Kerala retained Peerumedu, Devikulam and also got the Kasargod taluk from South Kanara in the north.

What it actually did was consolidate the position of the Communist party and a curious religious redistribution that ultimately helped them. The Christian population, which was totally opposed to the Communists, came down from 31% to 24% and the Communist vote bank of Ezhavas went up from 22% to 26%.

After the stunning election result, there were insinuations that Fazal Ali Commission member 'Sardar' KM Panikkar (who incidentally was the father-in-law of CPI general secretary MN Govindan Nair) was influenced by the Communist party. But the Communists had cleverly used multiple strategies to pip the Congress that ruled Travancore-Cochin state from 1950-56. The Communists conducted a caste-based survey across the state and fielded winnable candidates of the dominant caste in almost every constituency. They also did not go for any alliance with the socialists and the RSP, despite being allied with them earlier.

In the end, they won 60 out of the 126 seats and formed the government with the support of five among the 14 independents. The candidates for the post of Chief Minister were TV Thomas, the former leader of opposition in the Travancore-Cochin assembly and Marxist theoretician EM Sankaran Namboodiripad (EMS); the latter eventually got the nod.

The new government ushered in a slew of legislations that fell afoul of the dominant forces in the society including the Catholic Church and the Nair Service Society (NSS).

The 11-member ministry included stalwarts like Education Minister Joseph Mundassey (who was also a prominent literary figure), Law Minister VR Krishna Iyer (who would go on to make his mark as a jurist later) and Health Minister AR Menon, among the independent candidates.

Labour Minister TV Thomas, Finance Minister C Achuthamenon and Revenue Minister KR Gowri (the only surviving member of that ministry today) were among the CPI ministers. Ministers Thomas and Gowri tied the knot within a couple of months though their marriage fell apart after the split in the Communist party in 1964.

The new government proceeded to usher in a slew of legislations that fell afoul of the dominant forces in the society including the Catholic Church and the Nair Service Society (NSS).

A week into the tenure, an ordinance was promulgated stopping eviction of the tenant farmer. It was followed up with the Agrarian reforms bill that set a ceiling of 15 acres of cropland on land ownership. Ensuring the rights for tenants and agricultural labourers and conferring ownership rights on tenant farmers, the government attempted to bridge the social imbalance. Though this bill got passed, it took another decade for the law to be adopted after EMS won another term as Chief Minister in 1967.

Among the 88 bills enacted, the prominent ones included the Minimum Wages Act for workers in 18 industries and for agricultural workers, the Maternity Benefit Act, Agriculturist's Debt Relief Act etc.

But what ultimately led to its ouster was the Education Bill that envisaged universal free education and regulating the appointments and working conditions of government-aided educational institutions. There was also a provision to take over any government-aided educational institution if it did not meet the conditions of the bill. The Church and the NSS saw it as interference into their domain as they controlled most of the educational institutions in the state.

The Liberation Struggle or "Vimochana Samaram" spearheaded by the Church and the NSS that peaked around 5 June 1959 led to the dismissal of the first EMS government in 1959. There were other factors contributing to the downfall too, but that's a topic for another post.

However, the people of Kerala will forever be indebted to the first Communist government in the state for their legislations and attempted reforms that had far reaching consequences.

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