KR Gouri Amma passes away: A look at the life of a fierce, ferocious woman

KR Gouri Amma was not chic. She was not stylish. She was a robust, down-to-earth woman, who belonged to the masses. Always, she held her head high. And she always had a mind of her own.
Kerala's Communist leader KR Gouri who passed away on May 11
Kerala's Communist leader KR Gouri who passed away on May 11
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Fierce. Ferocious. The two words that come to one’s mind whenever the name of KR Gouri Amma is mentioned. KR Gouri Amma was the most fierce and ferocious woman that Kerala's political scenario had ever seen.

However, in a predominantly patriarchal world, these words are not exactly complimentary when it comes to women. Women are not supposed to be fierce, or ferocious. Not even the few powerful women leaders are supposed to be so. Even Indira Gandhi, perhaps Independent India’s most ferocious political leader, had managed to hide her fire well under a façade of lady-like elegance and sophistication, topped with a most fragile-sounding feminine voice.

KR Gouri had none of that. She was not chic. She was not stylish. She was a robust, down-to-earth woman, who belonged to the masses, who loved to live among the people, her people. She bowed before no one, neither friends nor family. Always, she held her head high. And she always had a mind of her own.

Enough characteristics in a woman to be detrimental to her own self. Having a mind of her own is not an easily forgiven sin in a woman. Not in Kerala, not in India, not anywhere in the world.  Or, she should use enough ploys to trick the men into believing that she was just another harmless piece of decoration.

The beginnings were not tough for KR Gouri Amma.  Born in 1919 at Kalathiparambil House, an aristocratic Ezhava landlord family in Cherthala, as the seventh daughter of Kalathiparambil Raman and Arumuriparambil Parvathy Amma, Gouri was supported and nurtured by her caring father. After studying at Government Maharaja’s College and St Teresa’s College in Ernakulam, she became the first woman from the Ezhava community to obtain a degree in Law, from the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. After graduation, she started practicing as a lawyer at Cherthala. Her father encouraged her career.

The story would have ended there. Gouri could have continued her legal practice. With the support of her wealthy family, she could have had a very successful career, could have raised a family and in short, could have lived happily ever after.

But the path she chose was different, even for an ambitious, career-oriented young woman that she was. The path was shown by her elder brother KR Sukumaran, who was already a member of the Communist Party of India. Sukumaran, already in charge of several trade unions, introduced his sister to the ideology of Marxism and to the communist movement.

Her first foray into political activism was a student march led by AK Gopalan in 1938. That was before the formation of the first unit of the Communist Party of India in Kerala, in 1939.

She joined the Communist Party in 1948, the year of the famous Calcutta Thesis, the resolution adopted at the Second Congress of the Communist Party of India held at Calcutta, calling for taking up arms against the State. The party was banned, the party leaders went underground and those who were arrested, went through horrendous police torture.

Gouri Amma was imprisoned at the Cherthala Police Station for six months, and later, at the Central Prison, Poojappura. Later in life, Gouri Amma famously stated that had the police lathi sticks been capable of impregnating a woman, she would have given birth to numerous baby lathi sticks, hinting at the mode of torture she was subjected to. Many of her comrades were subjected to similar torture, and many were killed.

In 1952 and 1954, she was elected to the Travancore- Cochin Legislative Assembly. The breakthrough came in 1957, when she was elected as the Member of the first Ministry of Kerala, which was also the first elected communist government in the whole world. She was sworn in as the Minister for Revenue, the first woman minister of Kerala.

The same year saw another of the ‘firsts’ as KR Gowri Amma and TV Thomas, Minister for Labour and Transport, tied the knot. It was the first time in India when two Ministers married each other.

However, it was not a marriage made in heaven. Maybe Gowri Amma realised that the ‘compromises’ and ‘adjustments,’ expected of a woman while entering into a marital bond were not her cup of tea.

Then, the historic split in the Communist Party added to the marital strains, with Gouri Amma and TV Thomas choosing to stay with the CPI(M) and CPI, respectively. Both of them were members of the 1967 EMS Ministry. They were allocated adjacent official residences. The couple decided to put up a gate in between the two buildings, but Gouri Amma later alleged that the gate was closed at the behest of the CPI. TV Thomas and Gowri Amma were never officially separated, but they hardly lived together much afterwards. Thomas passed away in 1977 after a fight with cancer.

Gouri Amma was one of the most astute administrators that Kerala had ever seen. Her biggest achievement as an administrator was, of course, the historical Land Reforms Bill which she had piloted. She was also instrumental to the Anti Eviction Act of 1957 (The Kerala State of Eviction Proceedings Act); Travancore-Cochin Land Act of 1957; Kerala Land Conservancy Act of 1957; Kerala Compensation for Tenants Improvement Act of 1957; Kerala Land Relinquishment Act of 1958; Kerala Weights & Measures Act of 1958; Kerala Stamp Act of 1959; Kerala Janmikkaram Payment Abolition Act of 1960; Kerala Agrarian Relation Act of 1960; Kerala Revenue Recovery Act of 1968; Kerala Public Corruption (Investigation and Inquiries) Act of 1987; and Women’s Commission Act of 1991.

Perhaps, the most defining characteristic of Gouri Amma was her refusal to step down from the public arena after getting married, which was almost an accepted fact of life for many of the women communists of her generation. Take, for example, the lives of Devaki Panicker, daughter of Sardar KM Panicker, who was educated at Oxford University and got attracted to the ideals of communism during her life abroad. Devaki Panicker, who arrived in Kerala to work for the Communist Party, got married to MN Govindan Nair. After the wedding, she quit all political activities, playing the role of the supportive wife of a towering communist leader. Nothing was heard of Devaki Panicker, until her death when a few obituaries recalled who she was. There were many such women who surrendered their political careers for marital bliss after getting married to their fellow party workers. 

But not Gouri Amma. She held her head up, and upheld her identity, not as a wife, but as a political leader. And leader she remained, until the end of her life. 

There was a time in Kerala’s history, when KR Gouri Amma was celebrated as the next Chief Minister. The slogan, ‘Keram thingum Kerala Naadu KR Gouri Bharicheedum,’ (Kerala, the land of palm trees, will be ruled by KR Gowri) resounded throughout the State during the 1987 elections. But, the mantle fell not on Gowri Amma, but upon EK Nayanar. 

By the early 1990s, her feud with VS Achuthanandan started to reach boiling point. Finally, in 1994, Gouri Amma was expelled from CPI(M) for ‘anti-party activities.’ Again, the story would have ended there for anyone else. But not for Gouri Amma. The ever-ferocious Gouri Amma immediately launched her own political outfit, the Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi (JSS) and started her own personal political crusade. In 1995, the famed poet Balachandran Chullikkad wrote ‘Gouri ,’ a poem that celebrated the never dying spirit of the ‘Fierce Gouri .’  

Soon, she joined forces with the Congress, the party against which she had fought for the better part of her life. She became the Minister for Agriculture in the United Democratic Front (led by Congress) government from 2001 to 2006. In 2011, at the frail old age of 92, she contested her last electoral battle on a UDF ticket from Cherthala, and lost to CPI's P Thilothaman.

But finally, during the last lap of her life, she decided to return to the fold of CPI(M). In 2015, in July, she announced that JSS will merge with CPI(M) but that did not happen following some disputes over the party properties. However, Gouri Amma’s decision that JSS will continue to support the LDF prevailed. Interestingly, it was the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who was the then CPI(M) state secretary, who took the initiative to bring her back.

In 2019, Pinarayi Vijayan addressed a huge gathering held at Sakthi Auditorium, Alappuzha celebrating the 100th birthday of Gowri Amma. He quoted from the Chullikkad poem, which was incidentally written at the time of her expulsion from CPI(M). 

“Karayatha Gouri, Thalaratha Gouri

Kali kondu ninnal aval Bhadrakaali

Ithu kettu konde cherubalyamellam

Pathivaayi njangal bhayamaatti vannu….”

Gouri, the tearless, Gouri, the tireless,

She who turns into the fierce goddess Bhadrakali when angry

Hearing this, as children, we used to quell all our fears

In her 100th year, her life had come full circle. The Kerala Assembly had declared a holiday to mark her birthday, in a rarest of rare gesture, so that its members could participate in the celebrations. 

She would have turned 103 years old on June 14 this year, on the Thiruvonam star, in the Malayalam month of Mithunam. 

A rarest of the rare lives. 

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