Obituary: E. M. S. Namboodiripad

E. M. S. NAMBOODIRIPAD was the last of India's firebrand Marxist revolutionaries and theoreticians. As head of the world's first elected Communist government in his southern home state of Kerala in the 1950s, "EMS" pioneered radical land and educational reforms that are today being duplicated by other states.

It is largely due to his commitment and guidance that the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, of which he was Politburo member and general secretary for 14 years, has become such a domineering political force, playing a vital role in India's new era of coalition politics. CPM governments are in power in Kerala and in the eastern states of Bengal and Tripura.

Apart from being an astute politician who led the workers' struggle for over six decades, EMS was an author, historian, social commentator and theorist who astutely adopted Marxist and Leninist ideals to Indian conditions. He never repudiated the fundamentals of Marxism, convinced the world would embrace it once again.

His regimen was Spartan. He lived in a small house rented for him by the party in Kerala's capital, Thiruvanthapuram, and, before retiring from active politics in 1991, daily woke at 4.30am to write articles, dictate pamphlets or a speech. All earnings from his voluminous writings went to the party chest.

He was born in 1909 into an aristocratic upper-caste Brahmin family. A precocious child, at 13 he joined a local society devoted to fighting orthodoxy and the welfare of the untouchables. He organised campaigns for the abolition of bigamy, for inter-caste marriage and remarriage for widows.

As an undergraduate at St Thomas College at Trichur he joined the Congress Party's struggle for freedom from colonial rule, and a few years later was imprisoned for a year for participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement. He used his imprisonment to educate himself politically and in 1936 was appointed secretary of the Malabar Congress Committee.

In 1939 he joined the Communist Party of India after differences with the Congress over its co-operation with the colonial government for the Second World War. He gave away his valuable inherited properties to the party, whose Central Committee he joined in 1941. After independence in 1947, he went underground for three years, the federal government having banned the Communist Party, which had called for an armed uprising. He carried a reward of 5,000 rupees on his head, an enormous sum at the time.

EMS became the Communist party's Politburo member in 1948 and nine years later, soon after the formation of Kerala state, its chief minister, the world's first Communist ever to be elected to a legislative post. He headed the state for two years before the federal government, terrified of the "Red Scourge", toppled him. But during his short span in office he introduced wide-ranging social, agrarian, economic and educational reforms that eventually turned Kerala into the model state it is today with an impressive per capita income and an enviable literacy rate of 98 per cent - the highest in India.

In 1964 EMS was largely responsible for splitting the Communist party into the hard-line Marxist group, the CPM that was ideologically untainted by "right-wing deviancy". Three years later he once again became Kerala's chief minister, heading a coalition government which fell apart in 1969. As a veteran Commissar he continued to combat bourgeois democracy through weekly columns, pamphlets and erudite, well-argued booklets. He became CPM general secretary in 1977, a post he held for 14 years.

Elamkulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad, politician: born Kerala, India 1909; Chief Minister of Kerala 1957-59, 1967-69; General Secretary, Communist Party (Marxist), India 1977-91; married (two sons, two daughters); died Thiruvanthapuram, India 19 March 1998.

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