KR Gouri (1919-2021): Lifetime of firsts for Kerala’s Communist icon

SHE WAS the woman in Kerala’s Communist pantheon.

The first woman law graduate from the Ezhava community. A minister in the first democratically elected Communist government of 1957 led by E M S Namboodiripad. The force behind the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill, which paved the way for historic land reforms by fixing a ceiling for ownership. The rebel, still, at the age of 76 who broke away to start her own party.

K R Gouri, who passed away Tuesday in Thiruvananthapuram at the age of 102, was all of this. And yet, she was so much more.

She was one of Kerala’s longest serving politicians in a career arching over eight decades, starting with the freedom struggle. She was the wife whose sense of ideology led her to the newly formed CPI(M) after the split of 1964, leaving her husband and former Cabinet colleague T V Thomas, behind — politically first and then personally.

Gouri, or Gouri Amma as she was popularly known, was the woman who suffered unspeakable cruelty at the hands of the police in the early days of the Communist movement in the state. It was an experience that she once summed up in a sentence that still echoes in Kerala’s campuses: “If their lathis had the power to impregnate, I would have conceived several times.’’

But then, her legacy is also that of a temperamental politician who appeared to have lost her political moorings in the final decades.

She steered the Janathipathya Samrakshana Samithi (JSS), the outfit she had formed in 1994 after her ouster from CPI(M), to the Congress-led UDF government in 2001 when she became a minister. But after having won all assembly elections except one from 1957 to 2001, when she lost in 2006 and 2011 as an UDF ally, Gouri took JSS back to the LDF and reached a reconciliation of sorts with the CPI(M).

Gouri was born in 1919 to an aristocratic family at Pattanakkad village of Alappuzha district. She entered politics while in college in Kochi, inspired by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union — and her elder brother K R Sukumaran, a trade union leader. Later, she obtained a law degree in Thiruvananthapuram, and practiced for a while at Cherthala in Alappuzha.

By then, she had become active in the Quit India movement and went on to take part in peasant agitations, getting jailed several times. In 1947, she became a member of the Communist Party and contested for the Travancore-Kochi Assembly at the age of 22. She lost but won subsequent elections in 1952 and 1954.

In the years that followed, Gouri became popular as a firebrand Communist leader, staunch opponent of the feudal system, and an icon of women emancipation in the days when politics was completely male-dominated.

She was elected to Kerala Assembly 11 times, including nine terms from Aroor in Alappuzha. During this period, she completed four stints as a minister in Left Front governments, handling portfolios ranging from Revenue to Industries and Agriculture. But her fourth term, as Industries Minister from 1987 to 1991 in the government led by the affable E K Nayanar, turned out to be the last time she would be part of a Left Cabinet.

By then, her bond with the party had begun to melt, singed by a sense of betrayal after she was projected as the party’s chief minister candidate in the elections of 1987. So much so, that in 1994 she was sacked from the party, which was headed in the state at that time by V S Achuthanandan, who was also from the Ezhava community in Alappuzha, himself nursing ambitions to become the chief minister.

Gouri, however, did not do what many others aged 76 would have done. Instead, she formed the JSS, braved the Left backlash, and travelled across Kerala to build her party from scratch. And after her return to the Left fold in 2016, she still harboured dreams of returning to a prominent role until ill health intervened.

On Tuesday, CPI(M) leaders draped her body with the party flag in the state capital. The body was then taken to Alappuzha and cremated at the Valiya chudukadu burial ground, where several Communist legends, including her former husband, had been laid to rest.

Later, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan hailed Gouri as a “brave woman”, a “political warrior” and an “able administrator”. “An era has come to an end… Kerala will always respect her for her battles for labourers and farmers,” said Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala.

Summing up her life, Vijayan said: “The history of modern Kerala is also her biography.”