The Liberation Struggle and the Dismissal of the First Communist Ministry in Kerala

The Liberation Struggle and the Dismissal of the First Communist Ministry in Kerala

Abstract

 In the first general election held to the Kerala State Legislative Assembly in February-March 1957, the Communists won sixty seats out of 126. With the support of five independents, the Communists formed government under the leadership of E.M.S. Namboodiripad on 5 April 1957. This was for the first time in India the Communists came to power through democratic process. On coming to power the Communists made major land marking reforms on education, land and administration. It irked the vested interests in Kerala and brought them in alliance with the opposition political parties who had been awaiting an opportunity to dismantle the Communist government. The combined alliance of the community organisations and political parties organised liberation struggle against the government to end Communist rule in Kerala as all other options to oust the ministry had been exhausted. The present paper analyses how the liberation struggle led to the fall of the government.

Keywords  

 Liberation, struggle, Centre, Communist, vimochanasamaram

The genesis of the liberation struggle may be traced back to the very day the Communists assumed power in Kerala. Since then the opposition political parties had been working towards to topple the Communist ministry. But all its attempts ended in failure. Side by side the Catholic Church and the Nair Service Society had been clamouring for the withdrawal of the controversial provisions of the Kerala Education Act and the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill trough petitions and demonstrations. But the Communist ministry did not heed it. When they realized that the pressure and persuasion were not enough to resist the Communist onslaught on them, the Christians and Nairs were left with no other choice but to decide an all-out political war to oust the Communists from power. Soon the agitations of the Catholic Church and the Nair Service Society and the opposition political parties merged into one, and they adopted the non-heard extra-constitutional method of liberation struggle or vi mo chana vimochanasamaram to oust the Communist Government from power. In the fight, all the major opposition political parties- Congress Party, Praja Socialist Party, Muslim League and  Revolutionary Socialist Party and the community organizations- Catholic Church and Nair Service Society joined under the leadership of Mannath Padmanabhan, the NSS Leader, with the support of All India Congress Committee. The struggle had two phases. The first phase was from early April to early June 1959. During this period the liberation struggle was at its formative stage. The second phase known as Direct Action was from early June to the dismissal of the Ministry. This period witnessed the use of violent methods against the government.

A large number of people attended the liberation struggle. The agitators included laborers, teachers, peasants, students, religious men, political and community leaders. It also registered massive participation of women. So naturally a question arises why the people en masse joined the struggle even though a majority of them were the beneficiaries of the Communist Government and instead they ought to have supported the government. And why these people actively participated in anti-education bill agitation, Kattampally agitation, students’ boat strike and finally school closure movement.

There was no doubt that the agitation had its origin in the decision of the Catholic Church to keep its schools closed in protest against the Communist Government’s Kerala Education Act. The bitter hostility of the church towards Communism acted as the powerful motivating force behind the agitation. Soon the NSS found common cause with the Catholics and its leader, Mannath Padmanabhan, formed the Vimochana Samara Samiti because the Nairs were aggrieved with the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill and the reservation policy of the Communist Government. Even though the SNDP had not officially joined the agitation against the government, the top brass of its leadership mostly Congressmen actively engaged with the agitation. The Muslim League had not even minor grievances against the Communist Government. In fact, it disagreed with some of the charges leveled by other parties against the government, particularly regarding the reservations in services and the appointment of a Muslim to the State Public Service Commission. However, the Muslim League joined the liberation struggle to get recognition as an all-India organization from the Congress Party.

In Kerala, the Communist Government provided a stable government as never before. The short period of seven years between 1949 and 1956 had witnessed the rise and fall of five ministers-four Congress and one PSP-in Travancore–Cochin. These ministries were the product of political instability, groupism and internal strife. Now these parties were denied opportunity to come to power again because of the stability of the Communist Government. It antagonized the opposition political parties.

The educational and land reforms introduced by the Communist Government were the measures the previous Congress and PSP regimes tried to implement. But this did not materialize because of the stiff opposition from the Catholic Church and the landed magnets. These vested interests had no shame to go to any extent to protect their interests including the unseating of the government in power. On coming to power, the Communist Government introduced the educational and land reforms which the previous regimes failed to implement. It irked not only the vested interests but also the Congress Party and PSP which formed the previous governments. The Congress Party and the Praja Socialist Party believed that the successful implementation of the educational and agrarian reforms would increase the popularity of the Communist Government among the teachers and the peasants and it would stand in the way of the coming of the Congress Party and PSP again to power. It forced the Congress Party and the PSP to align with the Catholic Church and the NSS to prevent the implementation of the educational and agrarian reforms.

Initially, the RSP supported the Communist Government but later turned against it. The only complaint the RSP had against the government regarded its labor policy. The RSP felt that the government had followed a systematic policy of encouraging only unions sponsored by the Communists and adopted an entirely hostile attitude towards other unions.

This was for the first time in India a non-Congress Party emerged as a majority party on the floor of the legislative assembly and formed the government. It surprised and shocked all India Congress leadership. That is why the AICC extended support to the KPCC to agitate with other opposition political parties and the community organizations against Communist Government in the form of a liberation struggle. Had the AICC been not interested in ousting the democratically elected Communist Government, it would have instructed the KPCC to withdraw from the agitation and reprimanded the errant Congressmen.

About Jawaharlal Nehru, he could not tolerate the rule of any party other than the Congress in States or at Centre. In the 1952 elections, the popularity of the Congress Party was somewhat reduced particularly because of the Central Government’s unnecessary tilt towards the capitalist bloc. As a result, Nehru made certain changes in the domestic and foreign policies of the Government of India. He turned his attention from capitalist bloc to Communist bloc at international fora and in the home he started nationalization of private concerns. Against this backdrop, the Communists came out victorious in 1957 in Kerala, and he decided to give a chance to the Communists to rule.

When the liberation struggle started, Nehru Government did not provide moral and political protection to the Kerala Government. The least that Nehru as Prime Minister could have done was to condemn the movement which was meant to paralyze the administration. As the Government of Kerala was a part of the administration of the whole of India, and as such, under the Constitution they were entitled protection while Nehru expressed himself against the agitation in Bombay and violent activities against the Punjab Government, in the case of Kerala, his attitude had been one of silent eloquence or a condemnation of the Communist Government. In Uttar Pradesh, the birthplace of Nehru,  all the opposition and the one-third of the Congress members rallied together against the government and it resulted in the lack of majority support for the government in the legislature and Nehru remained mum on these developments. Instead of making adequate measures to contain the agitation, Nehru dubbed it as a mass upsurge which helped only the agitation to become a formidable one. This was a grossly discriminatory attitude.

Nehru said that a feeling of distrust against Communist Government had grown that the bonafide of the government were doubted by the people. He narrated many charges that had been made by the Government of Kerala by the opposition such as unfairness to other parties and violence towards members of other parties and so on.  But Nehru did not consider equally dangerous, and even graver nature had often been made by the parties of the opposition and even by Congressmen against ministries led by the Congress. Punjab, West Bengal, Andhra and Uttar Pradesh were a few examples. In these cases, he uncritically accepted the version given by the State Ministry concerned.

Nehru Government’s role right from the beginning had one of encouragement and abetment, and the liberators had the privilege of meeting the President, the Prime Minister and the other Union Ministers.

Nehru’s appeal of non-violence in the agitation might be interpreted as an indirect approval of the agitation of Congressmen in Kerala against the Communist Government. Moreover, Nehru did not offer any comment on the open alliance of Congressmen in Kerala with the NSS and Catholic Church. Nehru characterized the liberation struggle in Kerala as a civil war just before the dismissal of the ministry. But the agitation in Kerala was not a civil war in the actual sense of the term as there was no struggle between two groups of people.

But it did not mean that Nehru remained a mute spectator on liberation struggle to raise the situation in Kerala for Central intervention. In fact, he had no intention to interfere in Kerala. Even before the Congress Party started liberation struggle to get rid of the Communist Government, Nehru categorically stated that he would not concern nor propose nor intend to fall Communist Government except through democratic process. In private he was more strong warning Mannath Padmanabhan, the NSS Leader, that the State Government had the right to suppress the agitation and the Central Government would if necessary, come to their assistance.

The non-intention of the Central Government to intervene in Kerala affairs could be gauged from the speech made by Mannath Padmanabhan in New Delhi that if the Central Government had no interest to topple the Communist Government, at least the people might be allowed to do it. Thus the non-intervention of the Central Government pressurized the liberators to intensify the agitation against the Communist Government. Consequently, the liberators began to attack the Communist legislators and unleashed violence and terror in Kerala by the second part of July. The police firing in Ankamali was the part of it. In Ankamali the inebriated liberators stoned the police station, and the police had no option but to fire.

But Nehru was found guilty of not taking severe action against the Congressmen for promoting violence against the Communist Government. Had Nehru been intervened earlier and warned the participation of KPCC in the struggle to oust the Communist Government, liberation struggle would have failed because the KPCC was the main force behind the agitation in Kerala and R. Sankar spoke not merely as the President of the KPCC but also as one of the warlords of the vimochana samaram.

The liberators had a sound financial backing and got economic support from Christian organizations in United Kingdom of Great Britain, United States of America, Canada and West Germany. Father Joseph Vadakkan, one of the main forces behind the liberation struggle, later confessed that he had known several persons received lakhs of dollars from the United States of America to fund the freedom struggle. The industrialists and capitalists made their contribution through the Churches. Mannath Padmanabhan spent fifty lakh Rupees in the liberation movement.

The Communist Government was also equally responsible for the agitation. The interference by party men in the administration was a firm policy in all the Communist countries. The party not only decided the broad policies for the Communist governments but also commissioned to supervise and control the detail of the day to day administration. The party was occupied more important position than the administrative boss. The party was superior to everybody else. Therefore, when a Communist interfered in the administration, he would feel that he was doing his duty. He had no guilty conscience. Nor did he think that he was injuring the party principles, interest or discipline. He was working in consonance with the philosophy and ideology of the Communist Party. For years Joseph Stalin was a Secretary of the Communist Party in Russia. He wielded more powers than the nominal Prime Minister there. When Prime Minister Bulganin and Communist Party Secretary Khrushchev came to India, it was not the former but the later dominated the scene and made the most famous speeches and announcements. The post of Prime Minister was a mere decorative appendage of the party boss. The Communist Parties have no chairmen or presidents. The highest office in the party is that of the Secretary. The party secretaries in Russia enjoyed absolute powers. The theory in Communist countries was that the party was important than the government and this importance of the party must manifest itself not only in the broad policies laid down by the government but its members should control and supervise the details of the day to day administration. The question why the former defense minister of Russia, Zhukov, a war hero, was removed from his office. The charge against him was that he was undermining the party influence in the army.

Taking examples from Soviet Russia the first Communist ministry in Kerala used its power to spread Communist ideology through the governmental machinery. The appointments of the people’s committees to supplement the activities of the officialdom reduced the distance between the party workers and government in running the administration. The focus of these committees was the protection of party interests. Even the school children were not spared. Through the newly revised textbooks, the government tried to inculcate the students the importance of Communism and the achievements of the Communist countries. It infuriated the Catholic Church. The formation of cell courts went against the principle of natural justice. It attracted the wrath of the non-Communists. Again the government supported Communist culprits, and it drew reverse remarks even from the judiciary several times against the government. Worst of all, the promotion of Communist trade unions by the government irked other trade unions and managers. It only swelled the number of liberators.

All these did not mean that other Congress-ruled states were free from similar charges. Nor did the previous Congress and PSP regimes in Travancore-Cochin. But there was a difference between the other Congress-ruled States and the first Communist Government in Kerala. As the other Congress-ruled States enjoyed the support and backing of the Union Government, no liberation struggle would be strong trough the intervention of the Union Government under Article 356 of the Constitution of India. But in Kerala, the liberators thought that Central intervention was possible.

The Kerala Education Act attracted the most powerful opposition. In this regard, Nehru expressed the view that Catholic Church in Kerala was a significant force which the Communist Government could not ignore. He further stated that the Communist Government would carry forward the Education Bill only by influencing the church. He added that the government was far away from them and antagonized it and faced harsh consequences.

The failure of the Communist Government rested with that it did not turn up for a round table conference with the Christian managements and Catholic Church in the initial stages of the introduction of the Education Bill. The government invited the managements and church for a meeting only at the instance of Nehru in the first week of July 1959 when the agitation for toppling the Ministry reached a stage which could not be suppressed through a little conference. On the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill, the government would have prepared the bill so as to avoid the wrath of the small holders of Travancore part mostly Nairs.

The extreme anti-Communist feeling was propagated based on caste and religion by the opponents of the Communist Government. The government could not suppress it. It brought even the sympathizers against the government. The Communist ministry also failed to prove beyond doubt certain allegations leveled against the government. The opposition parties used it as a powerful weapon to oust the ministry.

The government stopped the usage of preventive detention, and it was not used even once in Kerala under Communist regime. The government failed to take legal action against those who contributed inflammatory speeches, cooked stories and articles. It spread the message that the government was weak.

The Communist Party itself attested the failures of its government in many respects making the liberation struggle unavoidable. The Fifth State Conference of the Communist Party held in Trissur in November 1959 held the view that if the Communist Government paid attention to certain issues the volume of the liberation struggle would have been reduced. The conference observed that the government failed to bring to its side even the beneficiaries of the administration of Communist ministry, particularly, the teachers, small holders and the common man and it could be gauged from Education Bill agitation (1957), students’ boat strike agitation (1958) and liberation struggle (1959). It stated that in all these struggles, the primary attention of the government was the adoption of same methods the opposition used-suppression of struggle and the government failed to adopt reconciliation to bring the opponents to their sides and its strong attitude was somewhat changed only when the liberation struggle reached its zenith. The conference added that that is why the government could not differentiate between the Christian Church and the Christians interested in the protection of the rights of the teachers.

The Fifth Kerala State Conference further expressed that delay in the distribution of excess land, formation of fisheries cooperative societies, the passage of the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Industrial Relations Bill, improper administration of forests, lack of government support to middle and small holders to start small scale industries and the maladministration of the department of education distanced people from the government. The conference expressed the hope that if all these maladies were addressed properly, a large section of people would have sided with the government. The meeting concluded that the government failed to check agitations and struggles correctly.

Conclusion

The liberation struggle was mainly organized by the Catholic Church and the Nair Service Society. These two dominant communities forged a united front against the Communist Government not because of their theoretical or dogmatic opposition to Marxism but more because of the practical difficulties to which these two communities were subjected to the Communist regime. The leadership of the liberation struggle was provided by Mannath Padmnabhan with which he emerged as the hero of the struggle and got the title Bharata Kesari. The necessary money and men for the agitation were given by the Catholic Church. Thus the agitation brought for the first time the Catholic Church in cooperation with the Nair Service Society. The opposition political parties saw the Catholic Church and NSS alliance as an opportunity to oust the Communist Government and joined with them. The end of the Communist rule was the only one thing on which the NSS, Catholic Church and the opposition political parties unanimously agreed while on other matters, they remained indifferent. Mannath Padmanabhan voiced for the scrapping of the reservation policy and the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill. While the Muslim League opposed the first slogan, the Congress Party divided on it. About the second slogan, all the political parties sympathized with the agrarian reforms. So mere amendments alone in controversial legislations would not pacify all the conflicting interests. The Catholic Church used religion to mobilize faithful against the government. The Nair Service Society also followed suit. The opposition political parties mustered the support of the top brass of the national leadership and Union Government. On the part of the Communist Government, it committed the political blunder of offending the two most powerful interest groups same time in Kerala- the Catholic Church and the Nair Service Society. The non-compromising attitude of the Communist Government and its failure to suppress the opponents only intensified the agitation. The liberation struggle was succeeded with the dismissal of the ministry by the Union Government. The dismissal of the ministry was discriminatory in the sense that no action was taken against the Congress-ruled States facing similar agitation. The liberation struggle amply demonstrated that no progressive socio-economic program could be implemented in Kerala without due regard to the interests of the dominant social groups especially the Nairs and Christians.

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