When Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad, or just ‘EMS’, was sworn in as the head of a communist government in Kerala on 5th April 1957, alarm bells began ringing in Washington, DC.
It was the first time ever that a communist party anywhere in the world had come to power in a democratic election. The United States was worried that the Kerala experiment might herald a Red menace, which would sweep across India and South Asia.
The communists seizing power through parliamentary means and not the barrel of a gun, evoked a greater buzz outside the country than in India. In Moscow, the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) victory was enthusiastically welcomed.
In Delhi, it alarmed the rightists and conservatives in the Congress. But Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wasn’t unduly concerned. As a democrat, he conceded space to Opposition parties in a federal structure.
His daughter Indira Gandhi thought differently. In a curious turn of history, she was appointed Congress President on 2nd February 1959, two years after Namboodiripad formed the government. Nehru wasn’t enthusiastic about her appointment but he didn’t actively dissuade her or party leaders not to take up the leadership.
On 31st July 1959, six months after she became party chief, the Namboodiripad government was sacked on the insistence of Gandhi. The dismissal followed large-scale law and order disturbances over the government’s attempt at land and educational reforms in Kerala, which became a battleground between the entrenched casteist, religious organisations on one side and the communists on the other.
Taking advantage of the worsening situation, Gandhi saw this as an opportunity for the Congress to regain lost ground in Kerala. She mounted pressure on Nehru to dismiss the government, arguing that the failure of the state machinery had created anarchy. Nehru resisted for some time but in due course succumbed to pressure from her and the party's right-wing leaders. Interestingly, it was the first of many such undemocratic dismissals of non-Congress state governments that became Gandhi’s controversial legacy.
The Centre invoked Article 356 of the Constitution, which empowers the President of India to order the dismissal of any state government in the event of a breakdown of the law and order machinery.
Until the Kerala government was dismissed in 1959, the Centre had invoked Article 356 on only four earlier occasions. On each of these occasions, the state government had lost its majority, necessitating dissolution of the Assembly and the imposition of the President’s rule. None had been sacked on grounds of a law and order failure.
Why did Nehru succumb to pressure from Gandhi? Why did Nehru compromise with the party’s right-wingers and conservatives who were clamouring for dismissal of the Kerala government?
Also, why was the US so exercised over it? Did the Eisenhower administration play a role in the ouster of Namboodiripad, as has been revealed in recent years? Let’s look at possible scenarios.
Many experts have noted that by the late 1950s, Nehru was showing signs of fatigue and political weakness. His initial zest for steadfastly standing for his commitment to the ethical conduct of politics and his ideological beliefs was waning. In 1958, he had spoken of his desire to retire from the “burden” he carried on his shoulders.
Even so, the patently undemocratic decision to dismiss a duly elected government is a blot on Nehru’s democratic credentials. Dr Sarvepalli Gopal, rated as the finest and most authoritative biographer of Nehru, had this to say of him:
The decision to dismiss the Kerala government “tarnished Nehru’s reputation for ethical behaviour in politics and, from a long-term view, weakened his position.”
The Rise of the Communism in Kerala
Kerala became a state on 1st November 1956, following the State Reorganisation Commission’s recommendations. It went to the polls in February 1957 when the second General Elections were held.
The results of the Assembly elections were surprising. The CPI won 60 of the total 126 seats. With the help of Independents, Namboodiripad formed the government on 5th April 1957.
– Kerala had been ripe for the rise of communism by the mid-1950s. The CPI was formed in the state in 1936, with Namboodiripad, A K Gopalan and P Krishna Pillai as leading figures.
The social, cultural and economic situation in the state offered a fertile ground for communist leaders to lay the foundation of the party.
Kerala was a society riven by rigid caste divisions, where low castes and untouchables were treated, perhaps, more inhumanly than anywhere else in the country. At the same time, beginning with the 19th century, Kerala went through powerful social and cultural reform movements against the deeply entrenched exploitative and discriminatory system. The communists exploited the reform movements to their advantage.
The communists’ victory in the state Assembly elections in the newly formed state wasn’t surprising.
Born in a wealthy, landowning, Namboodiri Brahmin family, Namboodiripad was a freedom fighter who started his political career in the Congress. He was a member of the Congress Socialist Party, a group within the Congress, along with Jayaprakash Narayan and Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, and later joined the undivided CPI. After the split in the CPI in 1964, Namboodiripad sided with the CPI (M).
He was actively involved in the anti-caste movement in Kerala, was erudite and a prolific writer, who excelled in both political treatise and literary works. Barely five feet tall, he had a stammer but that didn’t come in the way of his oratorical skills, which were liberally embellished with a great sense of humour.
Without losing time after taking over, Namboodiripad set about implementing the promises made in the party manifesto. Thousands of fair price shops were opened and the food distribution system was streamlined. His government introduced the Agrarian Relations Bill, which sought to prevent the eviction of peasants, redistribution of surplus land, fix a ceiling on land ownership and increase the wages of labourers.
None of the above measures were radically different from what the Nehru government at the Centre had been promising and had been even partly implemented by some Congress state governments. However, with the communists in charge, the modest reform measures looked ultra-radical.
A Political Hot Potato
The crunch came when the government introduced a Bill for education reforms. The Kerala Education Bill sought to improve the condition of teachers in private schools, raise salaries, regularise their services and protect them from whimsical management. The Bill also had provisions for taking over private schools found guilty of mismanagement.
In Kerala, private education was a big business. Schools and colleges were run by caste and religious organisations. The Nair Service Society, the Church and organisations like the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), an organisation of the numerically large backward caste Ezhavas, owned vast lands and managed a large number of schools and colleges.
The communist government’s Education Minister was Joseph Mundaserry, who was previously a college teacher and had inside knowledge of the functioning of educational institutions and their management. He led the government’s reform plans.
– The Kerala government also tried to reform the curriculum, which was nothing short of a hot potato. In Kerala then, and till today in the country, the writing of textbooks, especially of history, has often resulted in a political war between parties, between conservatives and liberals and leftists and rightists.
The Church led the campaign against the reforms. Soon it was joined by the Nair Service Society, and later also by the Indian Union Muslim League. With a broad spectrum of support from Christians, an influential section of Hindus and Muslims- reflecting the composition of Kerala society – the three groups formed a powerful opposition to the communists.
As the movement gained momentum, the Congress jumped into the fray, leading to the formation of a joint front of opposing groups to launch a state-wide agitation. Thus began a series of street protests, demonstrations and marches all over Kerala.
In some places, the protests turned violent, resulting in police firing that killed several people. The matter reached the Supreme Court, which rejected the petition against the Kerala Education Bill, leading to the President of India giving assent to the Bill and, sealing a victory for the Namboodiripad government.
On the other hand, Gandhi’s leadership of the Congress provided a shot in the arm to the Opposition. Interestingly, some senior party leaders who had played an important role in her becoming party President were among those most vocal in opposing the government. Home Minister G B Pant led the pack. Kerala Governor K Ramakrishna Rao, a former right-wing Congress leader, also belonged to the same group.
Gandhi visited Kerala in April 1959 in her capacity as Congress President. There she launched a scathing attack on the communists, even branding them as “agents of the Chinese”. After her return, she declared, “I intend to fight the communists and throw them out.”
On 1st May 1959, a Vimochana Samara Samiti (Liberation Committee) was formed under the leadership of Mannath Padmanabhan, an octogenarian leader of the Nair Society, to intensify the agitation. Gandhi instructed the Congress to fully support the movement.
Protests, rallies, closure of schools and colleges, and clashes between agitators and the police became the order of the day. At least 20 people were killed in police firing, hundreds injured in lathi charge and thousands were sent to jail.
On 22nd June, Nehru visited Kerala to take stock of the situation. Driving through Trivandrum, Nehru saw an atmosphere of “near hysteria with thick walls of group hatred”. He felt Gandhi’s account of the Kerala situation was understated.
In a letter she wrote to Nehru on 20th June, Gandhi had said, “There is no point calling the agitation communal. It is communal only insofar as everything in Kerala is communal, including the communists. The communists very cleverly played the Nairs against the Catholics and now are trying to play the Ezhavas against the both.”
This was her reading of the situation and it met the strongest opposition from none other than firebrand party leader and her husband, Feroze Gandhi. He accused the Congress and Indira of colluding with the “casteists and communal” forces to attack the democratically-elected communist government.
At a party meeting, he said, “Where are the principles of the Congress? Has the Congress fallen so low that we are going to be dictated by the communal elements, by leaders of caste? In Kerala you have forged the instrument of your destruction.”
Nehru was still hesitant to allow the Centre’s intervention. Treading a middle ground, he advised Namboodiripad to resign and call for fresh elections, which would test the Opposition’s claim that the government had lost the popular mandate. Nehru’s logic was that the resignation would obviate the need for invoking Article 356. Namboodiripad refused.
According to V R Krishna Iyer, an eminent jurist and Supreme Court judge, who was then a minister in the Namboodiripad government, Nehru had reservations about the Congress support to the ‘Liberation Committee’. In an interview to Doordarshan, Justice Iyer revealed that Namboodiripad had sent him to meet Nehru to apprise him of the Congress’s role.
"Is this what the Congress is doing in Kerala?" asked Nehru, and called Indira Gandhi to hear what Iyer had to say. She heard him out but to no avail. Nehru invited Namboodiripad for a meeting at Mashobra, a summer getaway near Shimla, where he was holidaying, to press for him to resign. Again, Namboodiripad declined. After the meeting, Namboodiripad drove down to Delhi. According to journalist and author Inder Malhotra, a reporter asked him what the Prime Minister had served him for lunch during their discussions. “Exactly what a good Kashmiri Brahmin should offer a good Namboodiri Brahmin from Kerala: fish, meat and chicken,” Namboodiripad quipped, indicating that there was no substantive outcome of the meeting.
Namboodiripad Takes The Fall
The time for negotiations was over, and the government called for the Governor’s report on the situation, a legal requirement for Central intervention. The Governor had the report ready and it had to be delivered without a moment’s delay (In those days, there was no direct flight from Trivandrum to Delhi and flights went via Madras, which would mean a day’s delay). According to various accounts, the Home Ministry was in such a hurry that it asked the Intelligence Bureau to read out the Governor’s report over the phone, to enable the Centre’s intervention.
Finally, Nehru made up his mind and wrote to Namboodiripad on 30th July that it was “no longer possible to allow the matters to deteriorate, leading to continuing conflicts and human suffering. We have felt that even from the point of view of your government, it’s better for Central intervention to take place now”.
The next day, on 31st July, the Namboodiripad government was sacked and the state was placed under President’s rule.
The curious interest of the Eisenhower administration in the dismissal of the Namboodiripad government has come to light from various accounts. Eminent commentators and CPI (M) leaders have put on record the dubious role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in supporting the anti-communist movement in Kerala.
Ellsworth Bunker, US Ambassador to India from 1956-61, in an interview, had said that the Americans supported Indira Gandhi’s attempt to overthrow Kerala's communist government. He said the Americans did it because the Russians (then the USSR) were helping the communist government.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, US Ambassador to India from 1973-75, in his memoir A Dangerous Place (1978), alleged that the CIA contributed money to Indira Gandhi to help defeat Kerala's communist government. Gandhi dismissed the allegations as “malicious, motivated and absolutely baseless” when the matter created a furore in Parliament in May 1979.
The formation of the Namboodiripad government, the movement against it and its dismissal is a saga that had both domestic and international dimensions of immense historical significance.
– It was a dark chapter in Nehru’s political life, and a controversial start for Indira Gandhi’s leadership. Many commentators have cited this as a bit of a turning point for Gandhi - it also showed an early glimpse into her authoritarian tendencies.
Feroze was so upset with Indira and the overthrow of the Namboodiripad government that he once called his wife a “fascist” in front of Nehru. A Swedish journalist Bertil Falk has described the heated exchanges that took place between Indira and Feroze at a breakfast table in Teen Murti House, the Prime Minister’s residence.
In his book Feroze: The Forgotten Gandhi (2016 ), Falk says Feroze lost his cool when the dismissal of the communist government came up for discussion. “It’s just not right. You are bullying people. You are a fascist,” he shouted, as Nehru looked aghast. Indira stormed out, protesting, “You are calling me a fascist? I can’t take that.”
Indira and Feroze were estranged from each other and her presidency of the Congress widened the gap between them. Feroze’s attack on her and her father had sharply increased after Indira assumed the Congress presidency.
Barely ten months into her presidency, Indira declared her intention to resign as Congress President. She continued until her term ended in February. She confided to her friends that the responsibility of the office had taken a toll on her mentally and physically.
When elections were held in Kerala six months later, the Congress won 60 seats with allies, the Indian Union Muslim League and some other parties, and formed the government. The CPI’s tally was 26.
There were many lessons to be drawn from the historic Kerala events of 1957-59. It showed that caste- and religion-based interests were too powerful to allow ‘godless’ communists to implement social and economic reforms. It also showed that Nehru was unable to stand by his democratic convictions and socialistic idealism - either because he was lacking in willpower or because he succumbed to pressure from his daughter.
The developments also exposed Nehru to the criticism of promoting his dynasty. Indira Gandhi’s critics say her dogged determination in seeing the undemocratic dismissal of the Namboodiripad government was an early sign of her authoritarianism.
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.