KR Gouri, the chief minister Kerala deserved but never had

Gouri sacrificed her personal life for her party, but never received the legitimacy due to her.

WrittenBy:Anand Kochukudy
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In 1979, Deshabhimani weekly began to serialise KR Gouri’s autobiography coinciding with her sixtieth birthday. However, by the end of year, it was abruptly discontinued. The reason given was that Gouri Amma, as she would be known in the following decades, wanted to concentrate on the midterm assembly election in 1980 after losing an election for the first time in 1977 (not counting her loss in 1948 in her maiden contest to the Travancore legislative assembly).

But the 43 chapters already written of her autobiography covered her formative years until the early months of 1948, with a couple of chapters exclusively dedicated to TV Thomas whom she would marry in 1957. While Mathrubhumi Books published the chapters in 2010 as Aatmakadha, meaning autobiography, it remained grossly incomplete.

And so, it has been left to others to piece together the legendary communist leader’s life spanning more than a century, with many highs interspersed with tragedies and disappointments.

KR Gouri is the chief minister Kerala never had and the woman chief minister the state, with its high human development indices, definitely deserved. It is a travesty that someone who briefly held the chief minister’s charge as second in command to EMS Namboodiripad in the Left coalition government in 1967 was not made chief minister in 1980 or 1987, when the party headed governments.

Keram thingum Kerala nattil KR Gouri bharicheedum” – in the land of coconuts, Kerala, KR Gouri will rule – was the slogan that reverberated across south Kerala in 1987 when the party projected her as the chief ministerial candidate. According to Gouri, it was the then Communist Party of India state secretary (and former Kerala chief minister) PK Vasudevan Nair who made it official from a stage in Thuravoor when he declared that “the candidate you elect will be Kerala’s chief minister”. VS Achuthanandan, then Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary who followed PK Vasudevan Nair’s speech, went one step further and declared that Kerala was electing its first woman chief minister in the election.

Sadly, it was not to be.

The early days

Gouri was born in a well-to-do Ezhava family at Pattanakkad in Cherthala in 1919 during the heydays of the Kerala renaissance movement. Her father named her Gouri, taking inspiration from Gouri Sankunni, the first graduate from the same OBC community. He gave her a good education which saw her becoming financially independent as a lawyer in the mid-1940s.

Gouri’s politics and worldview were shaped by her elder brother KR Sukumaran and Comrade P Krishna Pillai, who would later nominate her to contest in the first election to the Travancore legislative assembly in 1948. The CPI contested all 40 seats in this election in alliance with the socialists but went on to lose all seats. Gouri was among four contestants to retain her deposit.

After the adoption of the Calcutta thesis, Gouri was arrested and put behind bars. She won the 1951-52 election to the unified Travancore-Cochin assembly while in jail – and was the only woman to win in that election – and followed it up again in 1954, making her mark in the house with her speeches.

Minister in the first Kerala government

When the CPI won the first election to the unified Kerala state in 1957, it was widely expected that Gouri’s fiancé TV Thomas would be chief minister, since he was the leader of the opposition in the outgoing Travancore-Cochin assembly. Instead, the mantle fell on a communist theoretician EMS Namboodiripad, who nominated both Thomas and Gouri in a cabinet filled with stalwarts. The minister couple – Gouri was 37 and Thomas 46 – would go on to marry the same year.

As the minister in charge of the revenue and excise departments, Gouri immediately brought in the Kerala Stay of Eviction Proceedings Act, which was promulgated through an ordinance, and followed it up with the far-reaching Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill, 1957. Although reactionary elements got together to bring down the EMS government, Kerala’s future was set in motion by this very government.

The 1960s and ‘70s

While Gouri won the next assembly election from Cherthala in 1960, Thomas lost. The couple’s marital life would soon come under a lot of pressure following the split in the CPI in 1964, as Gouri and Thomas found themselves in opposite camps.

The 1965 election threw up a hung verdict and the CPIM, which emerged stronger from the split, formed a seven-party umbrella coalition in 1967 with the CPI and others to win the election. And once again, Gouri and Thomas were back to being Cabinet colleagues under EMS Namboodiripad.

This was also the period that the couple grew apart, as there was a lot of distrust and suspicion between the two communist parties at the time. After 10 years of courtship and another 10 years of married life, Gouri and Thomas would live separately in the next decade until Thomas died in 1977.

Gouri went on to earn a name as a great administrator in yet another short-lived government which fell in 1969, when the CPIM and CPI could no longer do business with each other. Gouri briefly held charge as chief minister when EMS went abroad during this period and this was the closest she ever got to the chair.

The CPIM-led alliance lost the election in 1970 and also the post-Emergency election in 1977 to the Congress-CPI alliance. However, in the interest of Left unity, the CPI and CPIM got back together in 1980, having lost the previous poll. State secretary EK Nayanar eventually got the nod over TK Ramakrishnan and Gouri was back as a minister for the third time in a government that lasted barely two years.

How Gouri was eased out

In 1987, it was EMS Namboodiripad who played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in denying the chief ministership to KR Gouri; by then, she had earned a reputation for probity and not being amenable to compromises. EMS wanted someone who was more pliable to carry out party diktats. Although an unhappy Gouri was pacified and brought back into the EK Nayanar cabinet as industries and excise minister, this was the point where things began to sour between her and her party.

This was also when factionalism began to rear its head in the CPIM. Gouri and the powerful Centre for Indian Trade Unions, or CITU, led by politburo member E Balanandan, came face-to-face on a couple of issues. When it looked like Gouri would not toe the CITU line, her days in the CPIM were numbered.

In late 1989, Malayala Manorama’s senior correspondent VK Soman wrote an explosive story on alleged corruption in the Kerala State Cashew Department Corporation under Gouri. These stories had a lot of insider information apart from access to government files and it seemed like someone in the party wanted to finish Gouri off with plants and leaks.

While the CPIM would otherwise routinely dismiss stories of corruption published by Malayala Manorama as “concocted stories of bourgeois media”, this was taken seriously enough for the CPIM state secretariat to order an inquiry into the matter in 1990. On finding merit in the allegations, Gouri was subsequently downgraded from the state secretariat to the state committee of the CPIM. When asked by this writer about what happened, VK Soman, the journalist who broke the story and who now leads a retired life, did not want to comment on the matter.

Things did not end there. Gouri was beginning to feel stifled after coming under attack from multiple quarters, and she also began to speak out publicly against the likes of G Sudhakaran, then heading the Alappuzha district council, going against the party line by doing so. When she was later nominated to head a body for Alappuzha’s development by the K Karunakaran government as a goodwill gesture in 1993, it was the perfect opportunity for the party to strike. The CITU faction and EMS Namboodiripad used the chance to further downsize Gouri from the state committee to the district committee, and followed it up by expelling her – but not before she was thoroughly humiliated.

In late 1993, the CPIM state committee gave Gouri an opportunity to present her side. But among the 60-odd members of the body, none supported her. Worse still, EM Sreedharan, the son of EMS Namboodiripad, used a caste slur, calling her “chovathy”, as Gouri told Manorama News in an interview in 2006. Gouri’s 42-page rebuttal wasn’t deemed good enough and the party prepared an extensive chargesheet against her to expel her from the party on January 1, 1994.

A visibly upset but combative Gouri then dared the CPIM and floated the Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi, or JSS. But something stranger was to follow. In March 1994, the CPIM organ began publishing an investigative series into the allegations that had first cropped up in Malayala Manorama in 1989. The series carried the byline of an unnamed “special correspondent” – which seemed to further strengthen the theory that her expulsion was part of a larger conspiracy.

The factionalism in the CPIM took a turn for the worse after the defeat of VS Achuthanandan in the 1996 election from his stronghold of Mararikulam. The rift between the CITU faction, backed by EMS, on the one side and Achuthanandan and the Kannur faction on the other became uglier at the 16th state congress of the CPIM in Palakkad in early 1998, when a number of CITU faction leaders – including Left convenor MM Lawrence, KN Raveendranath, and Appukuttan Vallikkunnu – were defeated.

EMS, then 89 years old, also felt the humiliation and died a couple of months later.

Back from the dead and a rapprochement

As for KR Gouri, she was determined to float an alternative Left platform and initiated discussions to this end with the similarly-ousted MV Raghavan and former Naxalite leaders. However, the idea was junked at some point and she hitched onto the Congress-led United Democratic Front and served as minister under chief ministers AK Antony and Oommen Chandy. Gouri Amma lost the subsequent election in 2006 to a young AM Arif and again in 2011 from Cherthala. The grand old lady of Kerala then bowed out of active politics.

Around this time, she began to be courted by the Left and a rapprochement looked imminent. In 2014, Gouri announced that she was quitting the UDF in favour of an arrangement with the Left. Although her party was never disbanded, she was appropriated by the CPIM ever since, even in her death. Gouri was not a primary member of the CPIM when she died but she was still bestowed with all the party honours – possibly an attempt to restore the CPIM’s honour rather than a mark of respect to Gouri. On her part, she died at the age of 102, with her head held high.

In her final years, Gouri spoke out constantly against EMS, whom she identified as her single biggest detractor in the party. Yet, EMS had the backing of a lot of leaders who pretend to be on Gouri’s side today.

Cheriyan Kalpakavadi, a Left fellow traveller who wrote the iconic Lal Salam (1990), loosely based on the lives of Gouri and TV Thomas, reckons that the party inflicted a greater travesty on Gouri than denying her a chief ministership: it had done its bit in separating Gouri from Thomas.

“When I first entered the bedroom of Gouri Amma’s Chathanad house,” he told this writer, “I was stunned to see the whole room filled with TV Thomas’s pictures – a testament to how much she loved him.”

So, it would be fair to say that while Gouri sacrificed her personal life for her party, she never received what was legitimately due to her.


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