Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Farewell to EMS

E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the tallest Communist leader India has seen, passes into history.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

EVEN as it grieved, Kerala seemed proud. Elankulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad had lived in the midst of the people of the State - as one among them - till the other day. He was surely the tallest Communist leader India has seen - anti-imperialist and freedom fighter, social reformer, historian, writer, journalist, thinker and theoretician.

As dusk fell on Friday, March 20, as cries of "Lal Salaam, EMS", "EMS is immortal" and so on rent the air, as hundreds wept along with State Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar, as his Communist party colleagues raised their clenched fists, Kerala bid a tearful farewell to its beloved leader in the presence of his family members and national and State leaders. Bharatiya Janata Party president L.K. Advani, sworn in Union Home Minister only the previous day, flew in from New Delhi to pay homage on behalf of the BJP Government at the Centre.

A sea of humanity - men and women from all walks of life, a majority of them ordinary workers and peasants - surged at the make-shift barricades erected across the narrow roads leading to the crematorium, climbed nearby walls and trees, to have a last glimpse of their most popular political genius. From early morning, people from all parts of Kerala and even neighbouring Tamil Nadu, and vehicles flying black flags, flooded the city. Everyone had a black badge or a black-bordered picture of EMS pinned on them.

A subdued voice over the microphone repeatedly requesting the crowd not to break through the cordons was the only sound, as the State police presented the ceremonial gun salute to the first democratically-elected Chief Minister of Aikya Keralam, or unified Kerala.

As the party flag was pulled over his face, shrill voices rose again: "Lal Salaam, EMS." For a minute, the unseen image of a bespectacled, diminutive man shuffling his way to a microphone, seemed to pervade the air. A large majority of the people there, in their minds, would have even heard him say, with his famous stammer: "sahodaree-sahodaranmare..." (sisters and brothers...).

EMS, born on June 13, 1909 as a Namboodiri Brahmin at Elamkulam village in feudal, caste-ridden British Malabar, was consigned to the flames without rituals, but in emotional ceremony.
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM was numb with grief from the previous day, when news of his sudden illness and death at a private hospital broke. E.M.S. Namboodiripad died of an undetected lung infection (suspected to be pneumonia) at 3.40 p.m. on March 19, barely hours after he had dictated two articles for the Communist Party of India(Marxist) daily newspaper Desabhimani and replies to a few letters and complained of breathing difficulty, at his rented third-floor apartment at Kamaleswaram.

His constant companion and personal assistant Venu told Frontline:
"EM had complained of breathing difficulty even while dictating the first article. But when I informed him that Desabhimani needed a second one also before the deadline today, he readily dictated the second one. Later I helped him to the toilet, but he seemed to be in bad shape when he came back. So I called the AKG Centre and the doctor (personal physician Dr. P.P. Joseph) arrived soon. He prescribed some antibiotics.

"Later, when he was making some corrections in the articles, he could not hold his pen properly and the letters were illegible. He took only a handful of rice for lunch, then fell seriously ill. We took him to the hospital, but in the car he slumped forward unusually."

Dr. Joseph said: "He had only slight breathing difficulty when I examined him. Later, in the hospital, the ECG showed only a minor variation. But X-ray of the lungs showed shadows on both sides. His condition worsened and he was soon not responding to medicines. He was on a respirator. Cardiac arrest occurred at 3.40 p.m. Our preliminary conclusion was that he died of pneumonia. But there was no time to confirm."

At 89, EMS had no illness other than mild blood pressure and joint pain, occasional breathing trouble and vertigo, Dr. Joseph, who has been treating him for over two decades, said.

THE first of the long queues had formed outside the AKG Centre, the CPI(M)'s State headquarters - where EMS had attended the party's State Secretariat and State Committee meetings continuously for six days from March 9 - even as the body was lying in hospital. All over Kerala, shopkeepers downed shutters spontaneously, flags were lowered, and every street corner announced austerely, in bold black: "EMS is dead."

The State Assembly concluded its day's session and a special Cabinet meeting later decided to postpone the presentation of the State Budget, scheduled to be presented on March 20, and declare a seven-day State mourning.

Nayanar and Ministers Paloli Mohammed Kutty, T.K. Ramakrishnan and A.C. Shanmukhadas were among those who reached the hospital on hearing that EMS' condition was critical. Within half an hour of his death, the body was taken to the AKG Centre. There was not a dry eye there as Namboodiripad's immediate family members - wife Arya Antarjanam, daughters Malati Damodaran and Radha Guptan, sons E.M. Sreedharan and E.M. Sasi and daughter-in-law Girija - paid their respects and sat beside the body draped in the CPI(M) flag. The unending stream of people to the AKG Centre continued throughout the night, until the police blocked entry at 9 a.m. the next day.

A huge crowd had assembled outside AKG Centre as the body was taken out at 10.25 a.m. on a flower-bedecked open hearse, along a 1.5-km route to the Durbar Hall of the State Secretariat, there to lie in state.

THE most touching scenes were witnessed at the Durbar Hall. At no time in the recent history of Kerala has a political leader been honoured by such a huge and spontaneous congregation of mourners. The body lay in state under a huge chandelier. Armed policemen stood with their arms reversed. EMS' family members, State Ministers, party leaders and other dignitaries sat along the sides of the huge hall.

Tens of thousands of people from all sections of Kerala society filed past the departed leader, silently, and sometimes wailing or sobbing loudly. They touched his feet or offered flowers. Some came in wheelchairs. All of them had waited for hours in the hot sun to have a last glimpse of the leader.

Many of them knew EMS personally, one way or the other. A majority had only watched him from afar. There was Paachi, a sweeper who had attended all the meetings addressed by EMS in Thiruvananthapuram from 1957. A group of about 60 people had come from EMS' Elamkulam village. A group of flower merchants brought a huge decorated wreath, with the hammer and sickle symbol on top. All of them had the same expression of incredulity and sadness.

BY 1.30 p.m., the national leaders began to arrive. CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan, CPI(M) Polit Bureau members P. Ramachandran, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri, CPI(M) leaders from West Bengal Bimal Basu, Binoy Chowdhury and Anil Biswas, Tripura's Finance Minister Badal Chowdhuri, CPI(M) leaders from Tamil Nadu led by N. Sankaraiah, State secretary from Rajasthan Hariram Chauhan, Delhi State secretary Pushpinder Grewal, Karnataka State secretary P.Ramachandra Rao, and CPI(M) Central Committee member Brinda Karat paid emotional tributes to their comrade.

Tamil Nadu Governor M. Fathima Beevi and State leaders including Opposition Leader A.K. Antony and Speaker M. Vijaya Kumar placed wreaths. Wreaths were also laid on behalf of President K.R. Narayanan, Governor Sukhdev Sing Kang, who is away in New Delhi, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and West Bengal Governor K.V. Raghunatha Reddy. Frontline Editor N. Ram laid a wreath and represented The Hindu group of publications at the funeral.

AKG CENTRE and the Chief Minister's office were flooded with condolence messages. President Narayanan said that with Namboodiripad's death the country has lost a towering personality who made a monumental contribution to the freedom movement and national development. He said that as the architect of India's first land reform measures, Namboodiripad was a man of rare vision, acumen and determination. The President said: "A scholar, historian and journalist, he was above all an educator of the people as well as their leader. Unremittingly, for the last several decades, he analysed the socio-political scene from the firm-rootedness of his intellectual position and enriched Indian political thought to his very last days."

Prime Minister Vajpayee recalled that EMS had brought to politics a sense of commitment and purpose and that he was a champion of the cause of the working classes and the downtrodden.
At the State Secretariat, the queues seemed not to end, and when the doors of the Durbar Hall closed around 4.15 p.m. there were thousands outside who had failed to see their leader one last time. Family members paid their last respects once again.

AT 4.30 p.m., the last journey into history began. Outside, the decorated hearse was waiting, with an ocean of people surrounding it. A genuine emotional attachment was perceptible. As the pallbearers came out of the Durbar Hall, the huge lawns of the Secretariat and the main roads around it resounded with the slogan: "Upon time, upon history, we swear: No! No! EMS is not dead; He lives, he lives, he lives within us; He will live through us. Inquilab Zindabad!"

Surjeet, E. Balanandan, Nayanar, V.S. Achuthanandan, S. Ramachandran Pillai, P. Ramachandran, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechuri, Binoy Krishna Chowdhuri, Bardhan, CPI(M) State secretary Chadayan Govindan, E.M. Sreedharan and E.M. Sasi sat around the body. A picture of a young EMS smiled from behind the vehicle at the 89 volunteers bearing black and red flags, representing every year of the fruitful life their leader had spent. Ahead, all along the 3-km route to the crematorium, volunteers were showering flowers, inches thick on the road. The pilot vehicle announced to the hundreds who lined the streets, or had climbed buildings and trees to see EMS: "The mortal remains of Comrade EMS, the revolutionary leader of a momentous era, the one who made history and walked ahead of it, here, behind this vehicle..."

IMMEDIATELY after the funeral, at a condolence meeting held near the crematorium, Chief Minister Nayanar wept as he recalled the last moments of Namboodiripad. "He was deliberately a man of controversy. His statements were designed to create a flutter and trigger a debate. He did it deliberately, with an intent, not unknowingly. But once his purpose was achieved, EM would suddenly end the debate in a manner he thought best."

Nayanar reminded the huge gathering that EMS was also honest enough to admit his mistakes. "Although he hailed from a traditional Brahmin family of land owners and was tutored in the Vedas, it was his Marxist-Leninist convictions that made him so humane and endeared him as a leader of the toiling masses."

Earlier, recalling his long association with his favourite comrade, Nayanar said in a formal message: "I don't think that anybody has led such a committed and active life like him - a life that was never marred by selfishness."

CPI(M) general secretary Surjeet described EMS as a model for all revolutionaries and noted it was not Kerala alone that was mourning his death, but the entire country. "The Communist movement had produced many great leaders, but EMS is known in all homes of India as a true Communist and patriot... Our association at the top leadership of the party is over 44 years long. When the first breach on the Congress' monopoly on power was made in 1957 in Kerala, he showed a new path to the entire world through the introduction of land reforms. By this very act, he became a leader of national stature."

Advani said that though he differed with the ideology represented by Namboodiripad, he respected his idealism. "His was a total commitment to the cause he believed in and the ideals he subscribed to... Namboodirpad was one of the great personalities of the freedom movement. Although there was nothing much in common between the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel or Namboodiripad, who all fought for the country's freedom, there was a lot in common, when it came to their idealism."

Perhaps it was CPI general secretary Bardhan who spoke for all: "It was certainly Namboodiripad's ideology that shaped Kerala the way it is today... The thoughts and writings of EMS have influenced a generation of Communists. We all have read EMS. We have listened to EMS. We have fought against EMS. We have rallied behind EMS. We have stood for EMS and stood against him. But we could never ignore EMS."

EVERYTHING looks the same at the red-tiled, airy EMS study in the third floor rented apartment in Thiruvananthapuram. The shelves full of books, the long cane chair with the blue cushion, the small plywood-topped teapoy where he perched his feet, the table with a reading lamp and hearing aid, a smaller side table full of books and magazines, among them, a copy of the latest issue of Frontline, to which he contributed regularly. One almost expected to hear his usual salutation, as he looked up with his broad smile: "Ah! Frontline!"
Vol. 15 :: No. 07 :: Apr. 4 - 17, 1998

No comments: