“I don’t know whether I will live another year. But I give you my word, that as long as I breathe, I will be at the forefront of the fight against atrocities on women. No woman, mother or sister must be mistreated in Kerala.”
KR Gowri thundered into the microphone on a rainy Friday morning inside a jam-packed non air-conditioned auditorium in Alappuzha. Her resolve was greeted with an equally deafening applause from the crowd.
If not for the acute wavering in her voice, which almost makes the words difficult to comprehend, this could have easily been the KR Gowri in her 20s, 30s, 40s and so on, speaking at pulpits across villages in Kerala, batting for the rights of women. But this was the 100th birthday celebration of the Communist icon and age does strain her voice, if not her unwavering spirit.
On Friday, leaders from all ends of the political spectrum including chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan stood in attendance as KR Gowri, affectionately called ‘Gowri amma’ or ‘kunjamma’, cut a large cream cake, marking 100 years of her life. After all, this is an opportunity that they’d rather not pass on.
Gowri Amma has charted one of the most illustrious political graphs that most leaders would be envious of. Born into an OBC Ezhava family of a landlord in British-ruled Travancore in 1919, she was attracted by the Communist brand of activism and politics through the likes of AK Gopalan and P Krishna Pillai when she was studying law in Ernakulam. During a time when Communist leaders had to face the wrath of the British and their administrator in the form of Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer in Travancore, Gowri Amma was a rarity among women who engaged in mass agitations and consequently had to suffer torture in police custody. But her faith in the movement and the backing of the working class saw her getting elected twice to the Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly, in 1952 and 1954. She also broke the glass ceiling of the backward caste struggles by becoming the first law student, complete with a gold medal, from her community.
In 1957, when the state of Kerala held it’s first democratic elections, Gowri Amma stood under the banner of the Communist Party of India (CPI) from Sherthalai (now Cherthala) in Alappuzha district and defeated A Subramonian Pillai of the Congress by 3,332 votes. Her efforts were rewarded with a cabinet position in the EMS Namboodiripad government – the world’s first democratically-elected Communist regime where she served as revenue, excise and temple administration minister. Today, she is the sole surviving member of that historic cabinet.
That her allegiance to the cause of the party and it’s principles was consistent is perhaps best exemplified by her strained relationship with her husband and fellow Left leader TV Thomas after the CPI split along ideological lines to give birth to the CPI(M) in 1964. When she walked out of the parent party, her husband stayed with the CPI. When the two parties refused to see eye-to-eye, it cast deep differences in the lives of Gowri Amma and Thomas. Thomas passed away in 1977 after a prolonged battle with cancer.
Gowri Amma, for decades, remained a constant fixture of all Left-led governments until the early 90s, serving a diverse array of portfolios from revenue, agriculture, social welfare, industry, excise, food and public distribution to coir. But, her biggest contribution to the Kerala way of life is widely accepted as the implementation of the land reforms bill during the EMS government. Under her leadership, the government sought to protect the rights of tenants by transferring ownership land deeds to them and distributing excess pieces of land to the landless. The decision and the astute manner in which it was carried out continues to have reverberations even today, paving the way to remove income and caste-based inequalities.
But as the late 1980s came rolling, Gowri Amma’s soaring popularity, which had even commenced public calls for her to be named as chief minister, stirred deep divisions within the CPM. Her famously-adamant nature did not make things easier. When she refused to heed to party diktats and the then leadership of EK Nayanar and VS Achuthanandan, the CPM began responding in kind, downgrading her designations within the organisation with the not-so-subtle hints that she was expendable. In January, 1994, Gowri Amma was expelled from the CPM, bringing curtains down on her association with the Communist movement.
But the firebrand leader in her refused to die. She formed a new political front – Janathipadhya Samrakshana Samithi (JSS) – and aligned it with the Congress-led coalition. In 2001, after she was elected from Aroor for the fifth consecutive time, Gowri Amma was inducted into the then-AK Antony led government as the minister for agriculture. She continued till 2006 in the position even as the chief-ministership changed from Antony to Oommen Chandy. In 2014, after two-decades of association with the Congress, a faction of the JSS under Gowri Amma came back to ally with the CPM, her life turning a full circle.
On Friday, CM Vijayan lavished praise on the veteran leader.
“There’s no one in Kerala with the kind of political experience as Gowri Amma. Her life is extraordinary and has no comparisons. Her life is intertwined with the social life of modern Kerala,” said Vijayan at the event.
“Incomparable courage, sacrificing mentality, attitude to service, these are all the facets of her character.”
Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala called her an astute administrator who worked relentlessly keeping in mind the improvements she could make to the lives of the marginalised.
“When she became the first woman to sit on an agitation inside the Kerala Assembly in 1957, it became clear that male members of the ‘watch and ward’ security team cannot be used to handle her. Her agitation spurred the constitution of an all-new female watch and ward team in the Assmbly,” Chennithala underlined.
After many of the front-line leaders spoke at the birthday event, it was thought that Gowri Amma, due to her frail figure and occasional memory lapses, would pass on the opportunity to speak. But no. Rescinding the move to speak from sitting in her chair, Gowri Amma rose, walking to the microphone and then launching herself into an hour-long address.
In her deeply wavering voice, the centenarian, dressed in the trademark white sari, drew flashbacks to the landmark events of her life, including the shocking expulsion from the CPM and her sidelining within the party when the issue of chief-ministership came up. She also bluntly added that she was not in favour of such a grand birthday celebration, but that she caved in to her followers’ requests.
Midway into her speech, when a leader prodded her to conclude, she ignored and continued speaking. For someone who has often spoken of feeling lonely and companionless at her home near Cherthala, Gowri Amma’s resolve to speak out her mind, perhaps for the last time, was evident.
As the pitter-patter of the rain continued outside, she wound her way, slowly and gradually, towards speaking of the role of women, in society and in politics. But there couldn’t have been a starker picture of the stage at that moment. Just as in 1957, when she was the lone woman in the customary photograph of the first Kerala cabinet, she stood alone on stage on Friday, surrounded by a circle of men.