Gouri Amma Embodied Reformist Zeal, Political Vigour and Administrative Acumen

Whether in the government or not, Gouri took on archaic social formations and called for reforms on many fronts. Her life demonstrated that female emancipation was not another domain for men to work, speak for and lead.

If Kerala’s fight for political freedom (from the British, the vassal kings and their Tamil Brahmin dominated machinery) was intertwined with social freedom, a major part of the credit should go to the Ezhava movement – spiritually led by Sree Narayana Guru, pragmatically and financially engineered by Dr. Palpu, and aesthetically powered by the poet Kumaran Asan.

Chitfunds, toddy business, managerial positions in plantations – an aspirational section of Ezhava entrepreneurship used the social energies of anti-colonial struggle and colonial ruptures in the earlier social dominance of caste Hindus smartly to formulate a community with a political outlook, financial capacity and social coherence.

Kalathil Parambil Raman was one of those rich Ezhava entrepreneurs deeply invested in the growth of his socially backward and economically deprived caste-community. After the Temple Entry proclamation of 1936, which allowed Avarna Hindus to enter temples, he was part of a team that burned down the board against the contamination of “Avarna bodies” in a nearby temple.

An anti-caste activist who worked for the social development of Ezhavas and a nationalist, Raman named one of his 10 children after “Gouri”, the first woman post-graduate from the Ezhava community.

This daughter made her political entry through student politics. When Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, the tyrant Diwan of Travancore, unleashed his rule of terror on political activists in Travancore, students from the Travancore area studying in colleges of Cochin formed an association. The first task of the association was to give a reception to the procession led by the then Congress leader A.K. Gopalan from Malabar on September 9, 1938 (He went on to become Communist and the Republic’s first opposition leader). When India became independent and Travancore had not only not decided to join the Indian Union but also criminalised hoisting of Indian flags, Gouri was also part of the team of students who hoisted the flag.

The Congress (nationalists) went on to become Congress socialists and later Communists, a pattern one observes in Kerala between the 1920s and 1940s. K.R. Gouri could be argued to belong to this category. A practicing lawyer then, her political involvement increased with male comrades going into hiding with intensified state repression. She was also made the in-charge of Alappuzha’s many a thriving trade union. This work among workers and especially female workers politicised her concern for the community and gave her the insight and energy to solving the issues identified.

Elected to the Travancore-Cochin legislative assembly twice in 1952 and 1954 before the formation of the Kerala state in 1956, Gouri took a position that demonstrates a sense of her societal understanding, political vigour and administrative ability. As one of the opposition members, she reminded the ruling party of the midwives who have to walk from house to house helping women deliver babies during pandemics; the need to announce everywhere that people shouldn’t come out of their houses, so as not to spread the disease and added that the government should give rice to those who are staying at home and the midwives.

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When the state was formed Gouri became its first revenue minister. She also married her fellow minister in the cabinet and comrade, T.V. Thomas – another first in India. The relationship went into rough weather due to Thomas’ ways, about which Gouri had been vocal complicating the private/public debate carefully maintained in Kerala. When the Community Party became CPI and CPI (M), the couple also separated publicly.

K.R. Gouri Amma in 1957 in the first E.M.S. Namboothiripad’s council of ministers. Photo: Twitter.

In the second E.M.S. Namboodiripad ministry which came to power in 1967, Gouri, as the revenue minister brought in a number of legislations that ended the lord-tenant relationship in the state, known loosely as land reforms – the land went to the tenant, effectively ending the system of feudalism. This was a certain breaking down of the available social contract, an upsetting of the givens in a society and a definitive rupture with the past making the human imagination of the state free – free enough to answer the call of opportunities in the newly formed petro-dollar industry of the Gulf and in the newly opened health sector of the United States.

Subramanya Das observed that Kerala’s history from the formation of a linguistic consciousness and anti-colonial movements of the 16th century was continued by the social reforms movements in the early 20th century. The communists and their social reforms were both a product and the concluding point of this journey. According to him, Kerala history’s, one whole section ends in the 1970s with the completion of the land reforms. Gouri then is one glorious embodiment of that process – of actualising history as a necessity limiting the power of archaic social formations.

Leading from the front

One of the crucial aspects to remember is that this person who anchored a judicio-political process that ended a socio-economic system was a woman. Women’s liberation was, of course, a part of the reforms of Kerala but it was largely men emancipating women from other men – female emancipation was another domain for men to work, speak for and lead.

In the middle of all this, aided by the regional roots, communitarian awareness and politicial possibilities of being a Communist, a woman was altering the very structure of male operations must read like fairy tale material. Her need to constantly correct the self-serving men who thought “masculinity” is a virtue in itself makes for curious read in the assembly documents of the 1960s.

In 1987, much to the disagreement of her own party people, Gouri (kinship suffix did enter at some point in the proper ‘Didi’ and ‘Behan’ ways of Indian politics, making her Gouri Amma by now), as minister of industries in the Nayanar ministry, brought in the first technology park in 1990 in India.

How and why the second most powerful person in Left governments, starting from the 1967 EMS ministry, didn’t end up being the chief minister of Kerala is a matter of political deliberations. The two possibilities that have come up are both identity-dependent: one, the upper caste leadership of the CPI(M) didn’t want a lower caste chief minister then (the party, of course, has had two Ezhava chief ministers, V.S. Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan after that).  The other, the male leadership of the CPI(M) didn’t want a woman as chief minister. Other than speculations, it is impossible to know but the situation got into conflicts and these conflicts grew into her being ousted from the party in 1994. Gouri could be read as the embodiment of the best possibilities and worst limitations of Kerala’s communist party.

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When she was dismissed from the party, the then state general secretary E. K. Nayanar said that Gouri wouldn’t get the support of 100 people. But he was proven wrong: she got elected from her Arur constituency in Alappuzha again and again, making her the second-longest legislative member of Kerala and two-time minister in the United Democratic Front, led by the Indian National Congress, which she joined hands with, after her expulsion.

There is a spectacular incident of how Gouri became the sole embodiment of ethics in the Niyamasabha of Kerala. A bill meant to help the farmers who have settled from elsewhere making the Adivasis lose their land was presented in the Assembly. The bill was passed for 139 against 1 and that one vote of dissent was by Gouri, who said the politicians of both sides were trying to get the votes of the powerful, settler-farmers and put Adivasis in trouble.

Age did catch up with Gouri later: she lost two elections, fought with the strong men on the UDF side and gave a sense that she might go back to the LDF but it was a story slowly getting forgotten. It felt like life was to end in ellipses in a political sphere that had moved on into things more exciting.

But then there are the 2021 election results: the biggest star on the Left’s side is a cherished woman health minister K. K. Sailaja. On the opposition side, K. K. Rama, the widow of  T. P. Chandrasekharan, murdered in the male culture of political violence, stands victorious questioning the whole Left establishment.

But for the support from women voters and the connection he managed with the female voters, Pinarayi Vijayan wouldn’t have got this second term – the state is now seeing a female vote bank. The efficiency of women, critique and collectivisation of women are defining features of Kerala politics today, making it a chemical transformation. It is important to remember that one beginning for this was 80 years ago and encircling all this, one name, most glorious, signs itself: Kalathilparambil Raman Gauri.

N.P. Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.