One of the tallest figures in the history of Kerala politics, K. R. Gouriamma passed away on May 11 at the age of 102. The longest-surviving member of the first elected communist government in Kerala and one of the last surviving politicians who fought in the freedom struggle, Gouriamma’s life is one of many pathbreaking firsts. She was the first revenue minister of Kerala, the first woman minister of Kerala, the first woman of the Ezhava community to complete a degree in law, among several other achievements. A steadfast, firebrand feminist and communist, Gouriamma’s life was monumental.
Early life and foray into politics
Gouriamma’s early life was quite easy-going. Born into a wealthy family that owned acres and acres of land, she always had great support growing up. Her father, a strong supporter of the Congress party, encouraged her education and hoped to see her become a lawyer. Gouriamma did finish a law degree and became the first woman from the Ezhava community to do so. But instead of following her father’s wishes, Gouriamma listened to her heart’s desire and joined the Communist Party, giving up a prestigious offer to be appointed as a magistrate. This headstrong quality of Gouriamma’s was one she never gave up on in her life. She had a mind of her own and the will to follow through with what she believed in.
Gouriamma was a prominent student activist during the Quit India Movement and one of the earliest leaders advocating for Travancore to join the Indian Union. She fought her first election in 1948 in what then was known as Travancore. Like most other communist candidates in that election, she lost. Further, during that period, a witch hunt of communists was conducted by both the Travancore and British governments and as a result Gouriamma was imprisoned and subjected to violent police brutality. Despite this, she held her campaign for the next election in 1952 from her prison cell. She won. Two years later, she won another election. In the 16 elections she has fought over the course of her life, Gouriamma has won 13.
Gouriamma was a founding member and minister in the first elected Communist Party-led government. She held the office of the Revenue Ministry. She played an instrumental role in piloting the revolutionary land reform bills of the EMS government. In accordance with the interest of the working class that Gouriamma fought for throughout her life, these laws set an absolute ceiling on the amount of land a family could own. Further, they provided for the tenants and hut dwellers to receive a claim in the excess land, on which they had worked for centuries under the feudal system. In addition, the law ensured fixity of tenure and protection from eviction.
To add to her list of firsts, Gouriamma and her husband K. V. Thomas were the first couple to hold office together. Contrary to what is largely expected of women to this day, Gouriamma did not end her political career after getting married. She did not let herself be defined by her marital status and continued to make her own decisions. During the historic split of the Communist Party in 1964, Gouriamma chose to remain with the CPI(M) government while her husband went away with the CPI. The couple went on to represent offices of competing parties in the coalition Cabinet of 1967.
She later served as the industry minister in the EK Nayanar government and was instrumental in setting up the country’s first Information Technology Park (Tehnopark). Around this time, owing to internal rifts with the party, Gouriamma was expelled from the CPI(M) in 1994. Without losing heart, the steadfast, determined Gouriamma then launched her own party – Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi (JSS). Following this, Gouriamma, who spent most of her life fighting the Congress, joined forces with the Congress-led UDF and became their Agriculture Minister.
A red heart
Despite her bitter rift with the CPI(M), Gouriamma remained a communist at heart. As a result of this, towards the end of her life, she warmed up to the CPI(M) and was even slated to rejoin the party. In 2016, her party JSS split with the UDF and Gouriamma announced that they would now be joining the CPI(M). While that never happened, Gouriamma made her support for the communist struggle and a communist leadership amply clear by announcing that JSS would continue to support the CPI(M).
In 2019, on Gouriamma’s 100th birthday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the CPI(M) held a massive event to celebrate her. In the rarest of rare gestures, the Kerala Assembly announced a holiday on her birthday that year.
On news of her death, the Chief Minister of Kerala had tweeted, “She made seminal contributions in building the Communist movement & as an administrator. Let’s show respect, by pledging to build a more progressive society. Red Salute!”
Recognition and Legacy
The 1990 Malayalam-language film Lal Salam revolves around the lives of three comrades, one of whom is inspired by Gouri Amma. The film was a major blockbuster in India, running in seven centres for more than 150 days.
In 1994, the Malayalam-language film Chief Minister K. R. Gowthami based on the life of KR Gouri Amma was released.
In 2011, she won the Kerala Sahitya Academy Award for her autobiography titled Atmakatha.
Gouriamma’s life was a revolution by itself. Her contributions to the feminist and communist struggles continue to echo through history.