It was a chance reference to Joseph Stalin by her economics teacher that fired the imagination of 20-year-old KR Gowri, studying history, economics and political science in St. Theresa’s College, Ernakulam way back in 1939 that made her the most celebrated communist cult figure in Kerala.
A rare breed of female politician at a time when women were expected to cook and run household chores, Gowri Amma, hailing from the backward Ezhava community, busted conventional gender stereotypes and became a living legend. The doughty, feisty, firebrand Gowri, affectionately called Gowri Amma by all, broke yet another record on June 21, becoming a centurion, the last surviving member of the first elected communist government led by late EMS Namboodiripad in 1957.
In a befitting tribute to her for her dogged fight against injustice, casteism and rights of the landless and peasants, her 100th birthday was celebrated at a joined function chaired by top Congress and CPM leaders last week.
At the age of 22 as a law graduate, she first contested the election in 1948, lost but was elected to the Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly in 1952 as nominee of the undivided Communist Party of India CPI) even before the state of Kerala was born.
In the early days of her political career, she was imprisoned several times and tortured mercilessly. Recounting the horror stories in police lock up she once told an interviewer inter alia that if lathis had the power to impregnate, she would have conceived several times.
It was 1939 and World War I had broken out when the 1919 born Gowri Amma was in the classroom; the teacher was discussing Soviet model of economy and referred to Stalin fleetingly and went back to her core subject.
A curious Gowri Amma called out to the teacher requesting her to tell more about Stalin; there was a meaningful silence and anxious grins in the classroom. The teacher did not oblige as Stalin was not her subject. But the incident reached the ears of the Mother Superior (MS), definitely not a fan of the Soviet dictator and who summoned Gowri for her audacity. MS admonished Gowri, saying: “My child, what shall I do for you? You are doomed forever. Why do you want to know about Stalin? He is just a devil. Do you want to know what goes on in Russia? The MS then gave her book titled something like, “Nowhere” to read and perhaps to detest Stalin. The result apparently was the opposite. “Understand what communism is really like,” Mother Superior commanded, says an English translation of Gowri Amma’s biography by Jayasree Ramakrishnan Nair and Hema Nair R.
Gowri Amma read the anti-communist book and when the MS wanted to know her reaction, the intrepid girl retorted: “This is a one-sided book. Shouldn’t we know the other side too?” The Mother Superior swiftly gave up her idea of weaning the young girl away from communism. The rest is history.
The tumultuous life and times of Gowri Amma can be the stuff of a Bollywood flick. Revolution, firebrand communism, jail terms, unspeakable torture in police custody, power politics, love and ideology building a wall between her and her husband, caste politics in the CPM scuttling her chances of becoming the first female chief minister Kerala and her criticism of the leadership leading to her expulsion from the party in 1994, a stung Gowri Amma ending her 45 years of association with the communists and floating a fringe party called Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS –meaning Organisation for the protection of democracy) and subsequently joining the Congress-led United Democratic Front and becoming a minister and quitting the UDF in 2014 and chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan nudging her to return to the LDF.
In 2015, her life turned a full circle as she participated in a Hindu ritual called “Naari Pooja” at the Rajeshwari Mahadevi temple in her hometown of Cherthala. The erstwhile comrade was seated ritualistically and worshipped as goddess and amid prayers and chants in the traditional temple style.
However, last year the liberal leftist in her returned as she took part in the historical 50-lakh women’s wall in Kerala spearheaded by CPM and other anti-BJP organisations, demanding gender justice in the wake of Sabarimala temple controversy.
Gowri Amma was elected 11 times and was a minister for several terms in the Left Front government. As the revenue minister, she piloted the revolutionary land reform bill that made the marxists a darling of landless peasants and the working class. Ironically, the very casteism she fought against seeped into the psyche of the patriarchal CPM, and in 1987, even after being projected as the chief ministerial candidate she was shortchanged and an EK Nayanar, an upper caste leader who was never a minister until then nor contested the election, was selected as the CM overlooking her impeccable credentials.
She accused late EMS of maneuvering the appointment of Nayanar. While Gowri Amma feels she lost out because of being a backward caste and a woman, CPM leaders claimed she was ignored because of her famed short temper. Some party men had called her “Bhadra Kali”.
She fell in love with her cabinet colleague TV Thomas and the couple married but a split in the undivided CPI giving birth to CPM in 1964 destroyed her marriage. Thomas remained with the parent party, while Gowri Amma joined the newly-formed CPM. The ideological split in the CPI divided the young couple forcing them to live separately.
However, she was by Thomas’ side when he breathed his last in 1977 fighting cancer. The Kerala government has announced a year-long celebration in the state to honour Gowri Amma. A recognition too late and too little.
(The author is a senior journalist and political commentator. Views are personal)