Kerala Crisis (1957-1959): First Litmus Test of Indian Democracy

EMS (left) with Nehru in 1957

The political crisis that unfolded in Kerala exactly a decade after independence was probably (one of the) first true litmus test for the Indian democracy- a test that the country certainly did not pass. It was a political clash involving violence, ideologies, populism, religion and ethnicities in which no actor was blameless, a political theatre that has been repeated innumerable times since. It is also a personal story, one of leaders – all of whom with the best of intentions – struggling with forces bigger than themselves.

In 1957, the Communist Party of India won Kerala’s assembly elections by a slim majority, forming the first communist state government in the country. At the height of Cold War (five years to Cuban Missile Crisis), this generated tremendous interest from around the world as one of the first democratically-elected communist governments. There were concerns within India as well including New Delhi.

However, Jawaharlal Nehru, having just returned as Prime Minister in the second national elections, had no qualms. While he saw Indian communists as out of step with contemporary India, he was willing to give the new democratically-elected state government a chance. He was further reassured by the communist party’s promise to act within the constitutional bounds.

The CPI Chief Minister became EMS Namboodiripad, a highly intelligent and dedicated leader, author of several books including a definitive history of Kerala and well-known for his commitment to the communist cause.

The trouble began with an education bill introduced by EMS soon after assuming his post. The bill pushed for better wages and working conditions for the teachers in private schools and colleges. The Catholic Church in the state, which ran many such educational institutions, saw the bill as an encroachment of their power. So did the Nair community, which had charitable schools of its own. For the church, especially, schools played a crucial role in their religious agenda.

The local Congress party members, who had just lost the election to the communists, saw this as an opportunity. They galvanized the aggrieved parties into state-wide agitations which were termed as the “Liberation Struggle”. To further complicate the matters, leadership of this struggle was taken up by a Nair leader named Mannath Padmanabha Pillai. Pillai was crucial to the movement because of his unimpeachable reputation for honesty, which gave him a political aura similar (although much less in degree) to that of Mahatma Gandhi. The agitators now had a “saint” leading them, a fact that brought support from all corners of the state.

The state was plagued by agitations, strikes and protests. While the protesters employed mob violence and rioting, the government resorted to lathi charge and firing. Around 150,000 protesters were jailed and there were some 248 lathi-charges and many protesters were killed.

Mannath Pillai

Nehru, too, bemoaned the violence. In principle, he had had little objection to the education bill. Publicly, he maintained neutrality, refusing to intervene. Privately, he admonished EMS for his government’s excesses and tried to rein in Congress party workers. But he failed to change minds on either side. Communists saw this as a conspiracy by the Congress (something that is still maintained in the communist folklore). Local Congress workers, on the other hand, were encouraged by sympathies of other national leaders including Indira Gandhi.

However, parallel to this crisis, Nehru was also undergoing a personal transformation. Until recently, Nehru had seen some merit in the economic theories of communism. He was certainly not known to harbour the bitter antagonism against communism that many democrats of his time had. But recent developments in China and Soviet Union had left him disappointed, pushing him to change his views and political philosophy to a great extent. Consequence was a growing dislike for communism, and especially as it was practiced in India.

Crisis reached its peak in Kerala when police accidentally killed a pregnant fisherwoman, whose death came to symbolize the movement. Under pressure from within the party and without, Nehru finally relented. EMS Government was dismissed and President Rule imposed on the state in July 1959. In the consequent elections, Congress campaigned with posters of the killed pregnant fisherwoman, handily winning the majority.

EMS Government had been one of the first usurpers of Congress’s established political predominance. And the resultant events belied India’s democratic values. For the first time a democratically elected state government with a clear majority had been dismissed using Emergency Powers. The blame for the crisis goes to everyone and no one. It was a clash of ideologies that had an ugly end. Long-term, it fueled the paranoia among communists even further. And it tarnished Nehru’s reputation as an honest broker. But worst of all, it gave a handy trick to the future politicians. While in 1947-1959 period,  President Rule had been used only 5 times, in 1975-1979 it will be used 21 times and in 1980-1987 18 times.

Equally tragic was the story of three leaders – Nehru, EMS and Pillai – all three with a credible reputation for integrity and good intentions, but forced into actions that led to such a mess. That’s politics for you.

Sources: Guha, Ramchandra, India after Gandhi, MacMillan, London, 2007; Gopal, Sarvepalli, Jawharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol 3, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1984; Sakaria Commission Report, Government of India, 1988

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9 thoughts on “Kerala Crisis (1957-1959): First Litmus Test of Indian Democracy

  1. Hey,
    is there a reason that you have posts broken with “Continue Reading –>” on the homepage?

    If there isn’t then I personally would prefer that I can just hit the homepage and read all the contents of a post and the next post and so on.

  2. @Dark: Problem is that some of these posts are pretty long, and not everyone wants to read every post. So by putting the entire on the homepage, I would be forcing readers to wade through several posts to get to the one they want. It’s a design choice, one that I stand by.

  3. Very well written. Have a doubt here. Considering that democracy is a way of administration of a country aimed towards development of the nation and solely based on the facts provided here. What other options in hand did the leaders(Nehru, EMS and Pillai) have?

  4. Sandeep, I enjoy your posts. These are brief but gives enough light on the subject. And, there’s variety too. m s mathew

  5. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around
    your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to
    your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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