Bengaluru: Kerala is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the state’s first government under chief minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad, which was also the first elected Communist government anywhere in the world. Coincidentally, the celebrations come at a time when the Left Democratic Front (LDF), a coalition of Communist parties, is ruling the state under CM Pinarayi Vijayan.
The state that EMS inherited in 1957 was roiled by caste and religious distinctions, and poor social economic indicators. Today, Kerala is a transformed state in terms of many metrics, including the 93.9% literacy rate, the highest in India (2011 census).
Though the Left governments then and now have to deal with completely different sets of problems, there are many parallels that can be drawn between the two personalities and the controversies around them.
Only last week, the arrest of a woman who was protesting to seek justice for her son Jishnu Prannoy, a young engineering graduate who killed himself allegedly due to harassment from the college management, raised eyebrows. While the government had arrested the main culprit, the woman wanted the government’s assurance that the rest of the culprits will be arrested too. The woman and her son were Left sympathisers.
The visuals of police action against the woman triggered an outrage, with the opposition parties unanimously boycotting the official celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the first government on 5 April and Vijayan being accused of being a fascist.
In response, the government issued an advertisement alleging the opposition was running a propoganda against him in all major newspapers on Saturday, which was condemned by the opposition and a section of the media. The opposition parties said that Vijayan could have personally visited the woman instead of resorting to the ad.
EMS too had a fair share of similar controversies to deal with during his first term as CM.
Even though one of the first decisions of EMS as home minister was to ask the police to be people friendly and to not intervene in labour disputes, things went sour. Throughout his first term as CM, a series of police actions were criticized.
On 18 November 1957, striking cashew industry workers were lathicharged. On 26 July 1958, police firing killed two striking cashew workers belonging to ruling CPM ally Revolutionary Socialist Party in Chandanathope, near Kollam district. On 20 October in the same year, police killed two striking tea estate workers associated with the party in Munnar, including a pregnant woman.
Things came to a head when protestors belonging to various caste and religious organisations, along with the Congress, locked horns with the police over the government’s moves to reform the education sector. In one particular incident, police opened fire on bystanders in a fishing hamlet, killing three people, including a pregnant woman. The fallout was widespread agitations, eventually leading to the dislodging the state government by the Centre in 1959 by imposing President’s Rule.
“The news of Chandanathope police firing came during a state council meeting of the party. The first reaction among the leaders was to immediately condemn the incident, compensate the victim families and order an enquiry against the police officers. But after long hours of discussion, the final verdict was completely different. They decided to justify the firing in order to arrest a decline in the morale of the police force," said A Jayashankar, a media critic and writer of books like Malayalam language Communistubharanavum Vimochanasamaravum (Communist rule and liberation struggle) on the EMS government.
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The state action in the Chandanathope firing was sort of repeated in the case of Jishnu Prannoy incident, said Jayashankar. “...we saw Vijayan applying the same logic his predecessors had with Chandanathope firing.
He has showed an unwillingness to condemn police arresting the mother, stating it would demoralise the force.
He also tried to invoke a propaganda angle and divert the anger towards ‘enemies of the party’. If anything, it shows a certain sectarian style of functioning continues to trouble the party," he said.
However, CPM leaders find Jayashankar’s views biased against the party.
“There was nothing to attain through an agitation and nothing for the government to do. We can say with courage that government has done everything in this case," Vijayan told reporters in his latest interaction on 11 April.
There are other parallels too between the two governments. While the EMS government invited the Birla group, India’s largest capitalist of that time, to set up a rayon factory in Mavoor, promising a subsidised supply of bamboo at a price much less than its market price, Vijayan made a U-turn after coming to power by dropping his previous objections to the Rs7,500 crore multi-purpose greenfield port in Vizhinjam developed by Adani group.
However, both EMS and Vijayan retain the image of leading a government with its soul in socialism. If the former made a decisive push to abolish feudal landholding patterns, the latter is giving a big push towards social sector spending.