Wednesday, December 10, 2008

EMS as a historian

Namboodiripad's engagement with history was not academic but an inevitable part of his involvement with politics.


HISTORY had a central place among the intellectual and scholarly interests of E.M.S. Namboodiripad. A substantial part of his voluminous writings - books, pamphlets and articles in both English and Malayalam - deal with history. They mainly cover two areas: the history of Kerala and the history of the national liberation movement. To the study of both he brought an analytical mode to bear that was refreshingly original.

As EMS has often stated, his engagement with history was not academic but an inevitable part of his involvement with politics. Concerned with the transformation of society on democratic and egalitarian lines, he could not but be interested in the way the present was historically constituted. But his scholarship did not remain confined to this political purpose; it scaled heights and reached out to areas which became the envy of many a scholar. His works generated intense debate, within both popular and academic circles.

EMS' ability to deal with historical subjects was evident even during the freedom struggle. His dissent note to the Report of the Tenancy Commission is generally reckoned as an expression of his radical commitment, but it was equally a clear indication of his historical insights. However, his first important work on history, Keralam: Malayalikalude Mathrubhumi (Kerala: The Motherland of Malayalis), was published in 1948. A revised version in English, The National Question in Kerala, was published in 1952. A further expanded and revised edition, entitled Kerala Yesterday Today and Tomorrow, was brought out in 1967.

EMS achieved two objectives through these works. First, he outlined the course of social and political transformation from ancient times through feudalism and colonialism towards a united peoples' democratic Kerala. Secondly, he traced the formation of the identity and personality of Kerala as embodied in the democratic struggles of the labouring castes and classes. While doing so, he focussed on the material imperatives which made social transformation possible and the role and intervention of different social classes which either facilitated or retarded this process. Understandably, his analytical mode, informed by Marxist method, aroused criticism and debate, more so among scholars in Kerala. He was dubbed by some as a "feudal socialist" and as a Namboodiri who was not able to overcome his caste prejudices. For a person who, even when young was part of a movement which sought to change "Namboodiris into human beings", the accusation must have been more amusing than hurtful.

EMS attracted criticism principally because of his characterisation of pre-Aryan society and his description of the process of caste formation in Kerala. His critics were of the view that EMS did not give due recognition to the achievements of pre-Aryan culture. They held that his sympathies lay with Aryan culture, because of which he tended to lionise it at the expense of the pre-Aryan. They also attributed this to his upbringing and identity as a Namboodiri.

Responding to this criticism, EMS argued that he did not agree with the view either of pre-Aryan inferiority or Aryan superiority. Both, according to him, were untrue and unscientific. He questioned the wisdom of counterposing Aryan against pre-Aryan and suggested that such attempts were part of the process of legitimation of vested interests:
"This new theory of Dravidian superiority is as unscientific as the theory of Aryan superiority. For, it goes against all the accepted conclusions of historical research, which have conclusively proved the indivisible links between social and family institutions on the one hand and the stage of civilisation on the other."

The second issue related to the process of caste formation in Kerala. In contrast to the then existing view that migration was the main cause of caste differentiation, EMS focussed on social changes internal to society. Migration and invasion, he held, were only catalysts which facilitated and hastened the process of differentiation. He advanced this opinion more in the nature of a hypothesis, rather than as a conclusion. He thereby suggested a line of further enquiry and validation, which still remains influential in historical scholarship.

A major part of the writings of EMS on Kerala deals with the nature of colonial subjection and the character of popular struggles against it. His main interest was to identify the forces which enabled the realisation of a united Kerala. He saw in this political project the expression of the democratic aspirations of the people, which were expressed in a variety of struggles, oriented around both caste and class. His analyses of the Malabar rebellion of 1921 and the reform movement inspired by Sree Narayana Guru are rooted in this perspective.

EMS was the first to highlight the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal character of the Malabar rebellion, and at the same time to point to the dangers inherent in a rebel consciousness circumscribed by religion. He pointed out that the rebellion was both a call for action and a warning. About its alleged communal character, he stated:
"It is far from the truth to say that the rebellion was a communal riot, that the objective of the rebels was the destruction of Hindu religion and that the six months of rebellion were six months of anti-Hindu atrocities... All this, however, does not mean that religious fanaticism was totally absent in the rebellion. The numbers of forced conversions which did take place cannot by any stretch of imagination be explained by any other motive than religious fanaticism... One can and should, however, state explicitly that the main force behind the rebellion was not fanaticism which was simply a by-product..."

AMONG the writings of EMS on the national movement, two works deserve special mention: The Mahatma and his Ism and A History of the Indian Freedom Struggle. The first was initially written as a series of articles in 1955-56 offering a review of D.G. Tendulkar's eight-volume biography of Gandhi. The second, originally written in Malayalam in 1977, is a comprehensive account of the history of the freedom struggle. Jointly, these two works represent EMS's uncanny ability to apply the materialist understanding to historical events and to undertake class analysis without missing the ideological dimensions.

The essays on Gandhi are an attempt to evaluate the character and significance of the Mahatma's ideas and movement. Carefully selecting events from the freedom struggle, EMS located them in the context of the evolving class society under imperialism. Such an approach admitted of a multi-dimensional analysis which enabled him to comprehend the complexities of the Gandhian movement. Gandhi's tactics, he held, were "perfectly suited to the requirements of a class that was daily growing in Indian society and was increasingly asserting itself in its national-political life."

At the same time, EMS did not characterise Gandhi as the representative of a particular class alone. Unlike many of his contemporaries, said EMS, Gandhi "associated himself with the masses, their lives, their problems, sentiments and aspirations." Quite clearly, EMS was sensitive to the contradictions and complexities of the Gandhian movement and was conscious of the need to understand it in a non-mechanical manner:
"Like several other historical personages, Gandhi had a highly complex personality, his teachings, too, are incapable of over-simplified assessments on the lines of his being 'the inspirer of the national movement who roused the masses to anti-imperialist action', 'the counter-revolutionary who did all he could to prevent the development of our national movement on revolutionary lines', etc."

EMS had recently suggested the need to explore the areas of identity between Gandhism and Marxism. This was obviously no flash in the pan. A Gandhian during his younger days, EMS was sensitive to the positive dimensions of Gandhism even when he was critical of some of its elements. His analysis of Gandhi and the national movement reflects a creative Marxist mind, an outstanding one of this generation.

EMS was always open to new ideas. It was only at the last stages of his life that he read the Prison Note Books of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He was fascinated by Gramsci's ideas, which he thought deserved wider dissemination and discussion. The result was a book that he authored in collaboration with P. Govinda Pillai.

Always ready to learn, ever ready to imbibe, EMS was a Marxist par excellence, both as theoretician and practitioner.

K.N. Panikkar is Professor of Modern History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Vol. 15 :: No. 07 :: Apr. 4 - 17, 1998

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