As we drove into Kochi, red flags with the hammer and sickle greeted us almost as soon as we entered the city. My son, whose energy and patience were flagging, suddenly perked up. “Wait!” he said. “Where are we?”
It was like we had entered another alternate universe. My son who had been studying about Indian democracy and who has been exposed to ample anti-communist, anti-China rhetoric through the media was surprised to see Mao smile benignly at him from behind parked vehicles.
Nearly every other lamp post and pillar had him exclaiming in delighted horror. “Isn’t that Hugo Chavez!” he cried, before he spotted Stalin standing guard outside the entrance of a Pay and Park lot. Karl Marx was expected, but Maradona’s smiling face confused all of us and demanded some quick googling to find the connection between Maradona and Communism. Turns out Maradona was an anti-American Leftist.
By the time we reached our hotel room, Kerala’s Communist party propoganda had been so successful that I myself was wondering if I had remembered history correctly. I mean, maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad… and I never knew Mao could look so gentle and kind. I may have misjudged the man.
Over our weekend in Kochi, we could not escape the hammer and sickle at all. And I began to wonder how Communism took hold in Kerala? And why has it survived? Afterall, history has not been kind to Communism. There are 5 nations that call themselves communist today: Cuba, North Korea, China, Laos and Vietnam and I wonder if any of them had Stalin staring sternly at cars entering a pay and park lot.
Communist leaders abroad have always concerned themselves with class struggle and the inequities of industrial economies. Yet despite typical Indian hero worship (parents even name their children after Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev – listen to this interesting podcast about why they do), political thinkers in Kerala were original thinkers. The founding fathers of Kerala’s Communist party, like EMS Namboodiripad, P. Krishna Pillai and A.K. Gopalan, saw socialism and communism as a possible solution to the social inequalities caused by caste, gender and religious discrimination.
EMS Namboodiripad (EMS) came from the highest landowning caste in Kerala. The Namboodiris are the Brahmins and at the time, they were a feudal elite who intermarried with the Nairs (the caste of the monarchs) to dominate society, art, culture, politics and even the economy. While EMS could have led a comfortable life, he was influenced by a rising political awakening across the nation in the 1920s. Like AK Gopalan, his comrade who came from the Nair class, and P. Krishna Pillai, he was inspired by Gandhi’s satyagrahas and joined the Indian National Congress.
But over time, like many other regional political thinkers and actors, EMS and others were increasingly disillusioned by Gandhi’s particular blend of politics and spirituality. While Gandhi might be what was needed to get national independence, Gandhi’s method did not feel practical to the issue of caste discrimination, gender inequality nor did it address the issues of landless peasants. EMS came to see Gandhi as a “Hindu fundamentalist” and yet he also recognised Gandhi as a complex person and had embraced his ideas of simple living.
In 1939, after leaning more and more to the left, first within the Congress party, and then out of it, EMS, Krishna Pillai and AK Gopalan formed the Communist Party in Kerala. In 1956, when Kerala became a state, EMS became its first Chief Minister – the first and only non-Congress chief minister in India at the time.
How had the Communist party become so successful? I think this is because of the grassroots efforts of the Communist party in Kerala. Krishna Pillai, still fondly remembered as a founding father of Communism, died at the age of 42 while hiding from authorities in a little hut. He was bitten by a snake. Although a leader of great repute, his premature death isn’t very surprising because he lived an action packed life. Coming from a poor family and having left home early to make his way in the world, Pillai was uniquely qualified to understand the suffering and the needs of the masses. Everywhere he went his emotional attachment to the cause and his personal interest in the people was evident, and so Pillai became an effective missionary of sorts. He brought Communism to all corners of his state and made an intellectual philosophy a meaningful cause. Of course, the British and the Indian government had concerns about Communists and all their talk of armed revolution, but it is important to note that apart from the Punappra Vayalar uprising against the Diwan of Travancore in 1946, Kerala’s Communists functioned within the India’s democratic multi-party framework and grew increasingly popular because were addressing specific social problems.
So when Kerala became a state in 1956, EMS became the chief minister, because the people in Kerala were familiar with the Communist Party. Those in power in Kerala society trembled because with his arrival came also terrible signs that things were about to change. EMS quickly set about making aggressive agrarian land reforms by capping the amount of land anyone could own and passing ownership of land to tenants who had been working that soil for generations. Although he could not immediately bring these land reform laws into action, eventually it went a long way in redistributing land and opportunity across Kerala.
Unfortunately, he perhaps tried to do too much too soon. His controversial attempts to reform private education to make it more accessible to all, led to vast, mostly peaceful protests led by the Syrian Catholic Church, Nairs and the Congress. In 1959, EMS was forced to resign and Kerala was under President’s rule for a while. He came back to power in the 1960s where he was able to pass more reform laws and today is credited for the state’s high literacy rates.
A curious thing I learnt as I read about EMS and other Communist thinkers in India was how international the Communist movement was. Indian Communist thinkers like M.N. Roy travelled outside India, even meeting Lenin, and helped other countries with their own movements. During the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Communists like EMS remained neutral – choosing to side with neither Mao-led China nor their own nation, India. Isn’t that curious? In the minds of the early Communists what came first – the political ideology or their nation? And what about Indian Communists today?
At any rate, today, nearly 75 years later, from the looks of things Communism is still going strong in Kerala. It bypasses religious differences by being vocally atheistic. Their gods were the faces we saw on the sides of Kochi’s street – Lenin, Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Engels, Marx, EMS, Krishna Pillai and others. Like the hundreds of Hindu gods who smile down at us from prints on the wall, in calendars, wedding invitations and car stickers, they are more or less forgotten in our daily busy-ness, and only remembered in times of crisis or when in need of inspiration.