CPI, CPM battle to take credit for Kerala's land reforms

CPI, CPM battle to take credit for land reforms
E M S Namboodirippad at a party function. File/Manorama

The Communist Party of India (CPI) has not taken kindly to what it perceives as a purposeful move by its senior ally Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) to edge out its leaders from the most glorious chapters of Kerala history.

An editorial in the CPI mouthpiece 'Janayugam' has given Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan a sharp rebuke for refusing to acknowledge C Achutha Menon's role in drafting and implementing the historic land reforms. While inaugurating the golden jubilee of the Land Reforms in Thiruvananthapuram the other day, the chief minister spoke of E M S Namboodirippad and K R Gouri, but there was no mention of Achutha Menon.

Though the Agrarian Relations Bill (the forerunner of the Land Reforms Bill) was passed in 1959 when EMS was the chief minister and Gouri was revenue minister, it was under Achutha Menon in 1970 that land reforms was implemented in Kerala.

The CPI editorial was unwilling to give the chief minister even the benefit of doubt for not having mentioned Achutha Menon. "No one believes that Chief Minister Pinaryi Vijayan had accidentally forgotten to name Achutha Menon during the golden jubilee celebrations of the Land Reforms (Amendment) Act. This was an intentional blackout of a historical truth," the CPI editorial said. "More than anything else this questions the Left's approach to history," it added.

It also warns the CPM that it was going the BJP way, and said its refusal to accept the truths of Kerala history would undermine the national resistance against the BJP. "After throwing out reputed historians, the Modi government is resolutely distorting history to serve its political interests. It is against this historical rejection that the country has now risen up as one. The Left parties are in the vanguard of this fight. It is the credibility of such a national resistance movement that half-truths of Left parties themselves question," it said.

CPI, CPM battle to take credit for land reforms
It was under Achutha Menon in 1970 that land reforms was implemented in Kerala.

Gouri's absence at golden jubilee

Top CPM sources said it was the CPI that first masked history. At the golden jubilee celebrations chaired by revenue minister and CPI leader E Chandrasekharan, there were blown up images of Achutha Menon but none of K R Gouri's. "It was Gouiamma as Kerala's first revenue minister who pushed through land reforms, and her pictures were missing at the venue. How can anyone blame the chief minister if he thought someone had to speak up for Gouriamma," a CPM source said. Pinarayi spoke only about EMS and K R Gouri.

The CPI editorial wants to make up for Pinarayi's silence. "It was the Achutha Menon government that came to power after the 'seven-party' EMS ministry fell that implemented the Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill with great determination and commitment. If the Act was included in the Ninth Schedule, to insulate it from unnecessary litigation, it is to Achutha Menon's vision the credit should go," CPI editorial said.

CPI, CPM battle to take credit for land reforms
K R Gouri

In fact, land reforms was thought of seriously even before the first Kerala ministry headed by EMS came to power. In 1954, the ministry headed by Praja Socialist Party in the Travancore-Kochi state introduced a bill limiting the extent of existing as well as future holdings. The bill was not enacted into law as the ministry had to resign on the issue.

Namboordiripad vs Achutha Menon

On April 5, 1957, the EMS Namboodirippad ministry assumed power and on June 10, 1959, the Agrarian Relations Bill was passed. It sought to give fixity of tenure to all tenants including hutment dwellers, 'varamdars' (share croppers) and even fugitive cultivators. Even tenants evicted after 1956 were entitled to have their position retained. Land boards were constituted for implementation.

Within 48 hours direct action was launched against the government, and on July 31, 1959, the EMS ministry was sacked.

The land reforms in the form we know today came into force on January 1, 1970, with the passing of the Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment) Act. Tenancy was abolished, agricultural labourers were given title deeds to their hutments, and a 15-acre ceiling was imposed on land holdings. However, plantations were left undisturbed. A reason given for exempting plantations was that they employed a huge labour force.

Anticipating the land reforms, the landed gentry had also done its home work. It had long before launched efforts to take control over the land in their possession. Evictions became the order of the day, even close relatives were forced out of land leased out to them. As a consequence, when land reforms actually came into force under Achutha Menon, only 25,000 hectares were distributed among the landless. This was just 3.2 per cent of the 7.82 lakh hectares of surplus land originally available for redistribution in 1959 when K R Gouri piloted the agrarian relations Bill.

Land Reforms: What went wrong

CPI, CPM battle to take credit for land reforms
E M S Namboodirippad

Noted economist M A Oommen pointed out four major drawbacks of Kerala's land reforms. One, the exemption of plantations endorsed the continuation of the colonial pattern of land holding in the high-ranges. "That two companies (Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company and Harrisons Malayalam Plantation Company) alone possessed nearly 49,000 hectares of unused land that could have been passed over to the landless even today is indicative of inequality in exemptions," Oommen said.

Two, even the surplus for redistribution from non-exempted land was significantly reduced through the legitimisation of mala fide transfers. When the Agrarian Relations Bill was introduced in 1957, it was announced that a surplus of about 7.82 lakh hectares would be available for redistribution. By the end of 1988, after several amendments to the Land Reform Act, the amount of land ordered for surrender was only 67,000 hectares. Eventually, only 25,000 hectares were redistributed.

Three, the original tillers, the scheduled castes, lost out. "The only provision in the legislation that benefited them was the conferring of ownership rights on their homesteads," Oommen said. But for future generations, their small dwellings made them more vulnerable. The creation of 'harijan colonies', Oommen said, worsened the marginalisation process.

Four, better roads, land development and transport facilities allowed non-tribals to trespass into forest areas and dispossess tribals of their land.

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