A rare kind of protest wave lashed the length and breadth of Kerala during my boyhood. A socio-political tsunami of sorts that still continues to be controversial, though half a century has passed by: the so-called Liberation Struggle.
The stage and the plot, like the action, were quite unusual – the advent of a communist government in Kerala, the first one in human history to come to power through ballot rather than the barrel. Marxist stalwart E. M.S. Namboothiripad was the chief minister. C. Achyutha Menon, T.V. Thomas, V.R. Krishna Iyer, Joseph Mundasseri, Dr. A.R. Menon, K.R. Gouri, K.P. Gopalan, K.C. George, T.A. Majeed and P.K. Chathan formed his formidable council of ministers. With such eminent and ebullient personalities at the helm and a historic and popular mandate behind, the new dispensation by the native revolutionaries was expected to usher in some radical changes.
Discussions on politics naturally hot up at the local level, with youngsters in and around my village leaning towards an anti-left psyche that prevailed across the state. Sort of a dooms-day mind set had crept in. Many could not just digest the predicament of having the communists ruling them. Accusations of party goons taking up the cudgels of governance were put across. They termed it, the ‘cell-rule’. The rulers were to replace rice, the traditional staple food, with macaroni, it was alleged. At stake was safety and security to life and property; anarchy loomed large on the horizon, it was widely rumoured. Radio was the chief news outlet. Exaggerating what was heard and repeating those blown up news became the order of the day. Teachers, priests and community elders pondered over ways to tackle the ‘communist menace’ that had reached their door-step. Newspapers on their part added oil to the fire.
Protests were organised throughout the state, picketing being the chief weapon. Roads, waterways, schools, offices and what not, it was picketing all the way, as if people woke up in the mornings just to know where the day’s picketing would be. Speeches, songs and other programmes on the state of anarchy captured the centre-stage. Amusing was the sight of erstwhile snakes and mongooses joining hands against the common foe. Mannathu Padmanabhan, the Nair supremo turned out to be the leading figure in the battle, which the Christian priests and nuns found as a holy war.
My little mind tried to sketch a picture of clarity out of the mess and melee around. I noticed one man swimming against the tide—my own dad. As one who usually align with youth movements, his disinclination this time was quite surprising. His argument was simple. Since E.M.S. was a good man, Achyutha Menon, a dignified person and Prof. Mundasseri, a sensible and knowledgeable figure, move to dislodge them was stupid. Hence the liberation struggle was unwarranted. Such a viewpoint was apparently out of tune with the prevailing mood of our locality. However, dad not only stuck to his view but was outspoken about it as well. It was at this juncture that I, for the first time, took note of his characteristic feature of having an independent outlook and upholding it, come what may. Later, I could test the authenticity of this character-streak on several occasions in my civil service career. It was self-revelatory to me that, we, the children had inherited from him a life-style that erased the dichotomy of saying one thing and doing another. The question whether this style of functioning proved to be a hindrance in climbing up the ladder did come up in mind many times. Yes, it did, on several occasions. But today, in hindsight, I feel relieved and happy that I could follow my dad’s footsteps. There is nothing unusual about it. Everything is in the genes, you know.
The agitators had their own rationale and justifications. Two significant actions of the communist government had enraged them- the agricultural reform bill and the education bill. The left ministry’s first step itself was on the agricultural front, promulgating an ordinance banning eviction of existing farm-doers and tenants. Travancore, Cochin and Malabar had different land laws. Converging and coordinating them all, revenue minister K.R. Gouri introduced the agricultural relations bill in the legislative assembly. She brought in the purview of the bill such progressive measures as permanent right to tenants, exemption from lease dues, government takeover of excess land, distribution of 10 cents of land each to tenants in panchayaths, 5 cents each in towns and 3 cents each in cities. These proposals led not just to tug of war in the Assembly but to real time clashes on the street. In Kasaragod, three people namely, Sundar Shetty, Mahabala Shetty and Chinnappa Shetty were shot dead. In Pambavalley, labour leader Pampoorikkal Pappachan was killed in goonda attack. The revolutionary parties put the blame squarely on the land lords. Pandemonium broke out in the state. It was quite natural that the agricultural reform bill which uproots the existing social order conditioned upon feudalism and landlordism invited opposition. Anti-Marxists could successfully flare this up as an emotional issue rather than a political one.
Prof. Mundasseri introduced the education bill. The vision inherent in the move was that education under government-control would benefit the society as a whole. That the government would be providing salary to private school teachers directly was the important reform measure enlisted in the bill. 177652 teachers across the state and their dependents were to be the immediate beneficiaries. Further, the bill proposed to empower the government in deciding the criteria for appointment of teachers and to entrust the recruitment with the Public Service Commission. It also proposed to bring about parity in service& wage conditions among private and government school teachers. And to entitle the government to take up those private schools that violate these conditions.
Christian church leaders joined together and decided to oppose the bill with all their might. They viewed the bill as a government ploy to take over their schools. NSS, the representative organization of the Nairs, a formidable caste in the state too found the bill to be suspicious. Its leader Mannathu Padmanabhan described the bill as pejorative to private school managers. Pattom Thanu Pilla, another regional stalwart found it as a step towards dictatorship, while Muslim league leader C.H. Mohammad Koya termed it, ’Nazi-model.’ In Delhi too the bill did not get a whole-hearted welcome. The President sent it to the Supreme Court for its learned opinion. The court on its part directed to remove those parts that could hamper minority rights. Though the bill was passed with amendments, it could not still satisfy the concerned quarters.
Along with or even more than the controversial bills what enraged the opposition was the political style described by them as ‘cell rule’. Later assessments point out that the communist leadership had failed to demarcate the party from the government. However one cannot over look a major step that historians point out in favour of the leftist government: decentralisation of power. The Balwanth Rai Committee appointed by the union government had emphasized the urgency of decentralised administration and had submitted its recommendations as well. But the governments that came to power in many states chose to ignore these recommendations. The communist government in Kerala was a marked exception, putting forward two bills in this direction: The Panchayath bill and the District Council bill
Nevertheless, the prevailing situation was able to polarise socio-political powers against the government and form a united front vis-à-vis communism. Big and small political parties like the Indian National Congress, Muslim League, Praja Socialist Party, Revolutionary Socialist Party, Kerala Socialist Party etc joined hands with community forces like the NSS and the Catholic Church. They declared ‘war’ against the government with Mannathu Padmanabhan, Kumbalathu Sankuppila, Mathai Manjooran, P.T. Chacko, N. Sreekantan Nair, R. Sankar, C.H. Mohammad Koya and Bafakki Thangal as their chieftains. Amidst these warriors, a new star that cornered attention with remarkable eloquence and communist antipathy also could be seen, rising: alighting from the altar to take up the mantle of social revolt, Fr. Vadakkan.
Panampilly Govinda Menon’s speech in a public meet at Cherthala was reported to be instrumental in the coinage of the term,’ liberation struggle’. He said ‘’people needs a liberation from this government. For that they have to unite and wage a struggle.’’ Mannathu Padmanabhan sounded the war whoop: ‘’I declare that my head will not calm down until these traitors are packed off from not only Kerala, but the whole of Indian soil to Russia, their father land.’’ Someone advised the government that the popular revolt could be dealt with the state machinery. And the result? Use of force and fire became the order of the day. Law and order situation nosedived to the abyss. In Angamaly, seven people were killed when police resorted to firing to disperse a mob that stoned at them. In Trivandrum, police action resulted in the killing of three fishermen. Two more succumbed to the state guns in Pulluvila. When two labourers got killed in the Chandanathoppu firing, the Revolutionary Socialists too turned against the left government. Next venue was Munnar and the death toll three. With the killing of Flory, a pregnant woman in the Cheriyathura firing, the issue caught emotional fire as well. Jails got jam-packed as scores of thousands were taken in, 175000 men and 745 women, to be precise.
Democratic institutions started deserting the communist government, en-block. Of the 894 panchayaths in the state, 700 submitted their resolutions to the Governor demanding the government’s dismissal. All municipalities except just three followed suit. Students also entering the fray, liberation struggle became the reflection of popular mutiny at its peak.
Meanwhile, a delegation under R. Sankar, the then KPCC chief, went to Delhi and submitted the’ charge-sheet’ against the state government to the President of India. Another mass petition was submitted before the state governor by Mannathu Padmanabhan and co. Thereon, the tide took a faster pace. The union government called for the governor’s report. B. Ramakrishna Rao, the then governor reported that the law and order in the state had broken down. Prime minster Nehru was initially of the opinion that it was not proper to oust a democratically elected government. He had even deplored the tendency to use work-strike as a political weapon. However when people’s rage flared up, Nehru became unable to wield the defensive shield of democratic principles, any more. On 31 July 1959, invoking article 356 of the constitution, the President dismissed the Government of Kerala. Thus, the liberation struggle hailed as people’s victory by one section and as crucifixion of democracy by others, ended up precipitating a host of questions.
When I grew up to maturity, I came across some of the back-stage activities pertaining to the liberation hullabaloo. Many dubious forces had stepped in to flare up the anti-communist fervour in the society that was lying low since the electoral victory of the left. The principal one being the CIA (the official spy network of the US). Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former U.S ambassador to India, in his book ‘A Dangerous Place’ has revealed these facts. Ellsworth Bunker was the U.S. envoy to India during the period, 1956-‘61. He had confessed to funding the liberation struggle. And the motive? Not to have further Keralas in India! In West Bengal too, Uncle Sam had tried similar gambits to stop communists from coming to power, it was revealed later.
The liberation struggle gives us two lessons. One, people will not bear with you, if the government they elected is ousted through political chicanery. Two, people are not willing to recognize cell-rule as good governance. There was this story of 1959 doing the rounds in Lutyen’s Delhi. Sometime after the debacle, Nehru invited EMS to Theenmurthi Bhavan (his Delhi residence) for break-fast. During the chitchat, EMS asked ‘’we had done the right things, you know. Still why did you dismiss us? ’’ Nehru said ‘’what you did was right, alright. But the way you did was not right.’’ Theenmurthi’s pussy was passing by. Nehru asked EMS, ‘’how would you make her take some pepper?’’ EMS replied ‘’either by force-feed or by putting a fish piece in it’’ Nehru said, ‘’neither is right. One is domination. The other is cheating. Both are undemocratic.’’ Then EMS asked, ‘’ what’d you have done?’’ to which Nehru replied: ’’ Slowly put pepper onto its tail. As it begins to ache, the cat will suck it. Inference is that not only the goal but its means should also be right.’’