India: Kerala


An Overview: The Land, Culture, History, & Politics
By Titus George
The Land 
Kerala has a myth about its origin. Parasuraman, one of the ten forms of the god Vishnu threw an axe across the sea and the coastal lands emerged which later came to be known as Keralam. Keralam, as it is known in the native language of Malayalam means 'the land of coconut". The people of Kerala prefer to call themselves Malayalee, meaning the one who speaks Malayalam. Kerala was known to the world over the centuries through spice trade.
Kerala is a narrow strip of land along India's southwest coast, covering 38,863 sq. km and comprising approximately 1 percent of India's total land. The land strip is sandwiched between the Western Ghats in the east -- the hill ranges with spice and tea plantations, wildlife reserves, and small settlements—and the Arabian Sea in the west. It is one of the smallest and most densely populated states in India
The geographical location of being sandwiched between the sea and hill ranges played a major role in shaping Kerala's history and culture. The cardamom hills in the east isolated Kerala from the rest of the peninsula, while the Arabian Sea in the west opened up Kerala to traders from the Middle East and Europe. Hence, Kerala did not experience some of the invasions and dominations that the rest of India did, but over the centures accepted and accommodated different cultural and religious communities from overseas. When religious minorities in the Middle East faced religious persecution during the early decade of this era, the rulers of the principalities of the Malabar Coast, now known as Kerala, patronized them and provided them with social status, protection and the most significant of all -- the land. The settlers in turn contributed towards the trade and economy of Kerala. Today Kerala has a long tradition of religious and cultural co-existence. Unfortunately, during recent years this tradition is becoming fragile.
Kerala is one of the most densely populated states in India with 819 people per square kilometers. According to 2001 census Kerala's population is approximately 4 million. Kerala is also one of the few Indian states with the highest literacy rate, but also with a high unemployment rate. As a result Kerala became one of the states which exports immigrant workers all around the globe. There is a saying that when the Americans went to the moon, they were surprised to see a restaurant run by a Malayalee.
The climate in Kerala is moderate, compared to the other parts of India, ranging between 220c to 370c. The coastal area is hot and humid during April-May while cool during December-January. Kerala is unique that it has two monsoon seasons. The South West Monsoon begins towards the end of May or in early June and lasts until September. The North East Monsoon starts in October, and lasts until December. Kerala has almost six months of monsoon and receives up to 200 inches of rain. 
The Culture
Onam is the festival of Kerala which marks the end of monsoon and the beginning of Spring. By the end of August and early September, the paddy (rice crop) would be ready for harvest and the landscapes would be budding with new leaves and flowers. During the ten day celebrations, there would be folk dances, boat races and of course, exotic traditional foods.
Onam commemorates an ancient king and his golden reign. The folk songs sung during Onam narrate the time when king Mahabali ruled Kerala, when there was equal justice and no poverty. He was the favorite of his people. Soon the god Indra felt that he was loosing his popularity and decided to bring Malabali's golden rule to an end. He disguised himself as a Brahmin boy and went to Mahabali for alms and gifts. It was costumery for the rulers to give Brahmins whatever they asked for as alms. The Brahmin boy asked for three feet of land and Mahabali asked the boy to measure the land for himself and take it. Suddenly the boy grew to a gigantic size and measured the earth and heaven in two feet. Then the god turned around for Mahabali to show where to measure the third foot. Mahabali, being honest to his promise, bowed before the god and asked him to measure the third foot on his head. The god put his foot on the king's head and pushed him to the world under. Before sending the king to the world under Indra gave him permission to visit his people once in a year. Onam is the celebration to receive Mahabali.
Political History
Kerala is a very politically sensitive state, to the extent that you will find heated political discussions even in remote village teashops. Kerala is one of the states in the world, if not the only one where right wing political alliance and the leftists are democratically elected to power. The political sensibility of Kerala is the result of decades of political movements, people is participation and, historically, the nobility who were committed to reforms and changes in society.
Present day
Kerala consists of three former principalities, Travencore, Cochin and Malabar. The modern history of politics in the region started in the late 17th century when the principalities had to deal with multiple forces, both foreign and domestic. Over the following centuries, there were military invasions both from overseas by the Portugeese, the Dutch and the English, and from neighboring forces, Hider Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore. There were also domestic people's movements for political changes and against foreign governance. 
In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut, and the King, Samuthiri received his with all the honor a state guest could receive. However, on Dec. 25, 1500, with the arrival of another Portuguese, Pedro Alvares Cabral, the Malabar Coast witnessed a period of bloodshed and violence. The Portuguese wanted to dominate the spice trade and monopolize Christianity. They could not tolerate that there was a Christian community that did not pledge their allegiance to the Pope. The Christians of Kerala claimed that they received their tradition directly from St. Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus. In retaliation the Portuguese traveled from church to church destroying the traditional history written on palm leaves.
By the 17th century, the Dutch came onto the scene and confronted the Portuguese. In 1741 Malayalee King Martanda Varma successfully confronted the invaders while annexing the small principalities around Tranvecore. After the death of King Varma, between 1766 and 1790 the principality was shattered by the military expedition of Hider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan of Mysore. 
The next phase of Kerala's political history starts with the British East India Company annexing Malabar in the late 18th century and gaining dominance over Cochin and Travencore through treaties. British dominance in Malabar instigated rebellions and guerilla warfare against them. Pazhassi Raja of Malabar led a five-year revolt against British rule which ended with his death in 1805. Velu Thampi led another uprising in Travencore, ending with his suicide in 1809. The Muslims rebelled against the British between 1849 and 1855 and again in 1921. This rebellion is popularly known as the Mopila Rebellion. By the early 19th century the British started ruling the principalities directly through advisors to the Malayalee queens and kings and implementers of new systems and infrastucture. 
The move toward democracy and social change started in Kerala towards the end of the 19th century. By the early 20th century, leaders like E.M.Sankaran Namboodiripad, A. K. Gopalan and T. M. Varghese, used Communist ideologies to organize political mass movements both against British rule and the Travancore state. This was also a period when a lot of lower castes rose against caste subjugation and gained their right to enter temples and the women to cover their breasts.
The Travencore State opened to include elected representatives in the political administration of the state. There were proposals to bring Travencore, Cochin and Malabar under one political administration. However, the political confrontations continued until 1947 when Travencore became free from the British and the Divan of the King. In 1949, the two separate states of Tranancore and Cochin were united.
On November 1, 1956 the boundaries of the newly-united states were revised to include neighboring Malayalam-speaking areas, and the whole territory was officially named Kerala. In the first elections that followed the Communists gained a majority and the first Kerala ministry was sworn in under the leadership of Mr. E.M.Sankaran Namputhiripad (knowsn as EMS), head of the Communist Party of India-Marxist.
The First Legislative Assembly 
On 16th March 1957 for the first time in the history of the world, the Communists had come to power through democratic means with the first legislative Assembly of Kerala, with E.M.Sankaran Nampoothiripad as the chief minister would last only until July 1959. The ministry was dismissed because the opposition parties launched an agitation called "Vimochana Samaram" (Liberation Struggle) which led to clashes between the police and mass protesters. The state came under presidential rule. During their brief period in power, the Communist ministry passed two significant bills, the education bill and agrarian reform bill.
The Second Legislative Assembly 
In February 1960 the second Assembly was formed with the coalition of the Congress Party and the Praja Socialist Party, with Pattom Thanu Pillai as Chief Minister. For the first time the Muslim League joined the ministry, contributing a speaker to the Assembly. The ministry lasted until September 1964.
The Third Legislative Assembly 
On 6th March 1967 E. M. S. Namboothiripad became the chief minister again with the Indian Communist Party (Marxist) getting an absolute majority. In October 1969 EMS resigned and C. Achutha Menon became the Chief Minister. For the first time the Congress Party and the Muslim League supported the ministry along with a few other parties. However, in June 1970 the Chief Minister advised the Governor to dissolve the Assembly, paving the way for new general election.
The Fourth Legislative Assembly 
In October 1970 the fourth legislative assembly was formed with Achutha Menon as the Chief Minister. This was the first ministry in the history of Kerala which not only lasted five years, the full term, but also extended its term thrice.
The Fifth Legislative Assembly 
K. Karunakaran of the Congress Party, simply known as Congress, became the chief minister March 1977 with Chakkiri Ahmmed Kutty of the Muslim League as the Assembly speaker. Later Karunakaran had to resign following a court verdict connecting Congress with the torture and murder of a student, named Rajan, under police custody. The incident is widely known in Kerala as 'Rajan Case'. On 27th April A.K. Antony formed a coalition ministry but he had to resign in October 1978. P.K. Vasudevan Nair of the Communist Party of India formed another coalition but it lasted only until October 1979. In November the Governor dissolved the assembly and scheduled a general election.
The Sixth Legislative Assembly 
In January 1980 seven political parties formed a coalition, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) under the leadership of the Communist Party of India-Marxist and won the election. The LDF formed the executive ministry with E.K. Nayanar as the Chief Minister. After twenty two months, the ministry lost its support and Nayanar resigned. A new ministry with K. Karunakaran of the Congress Party as the chief minister came to power in December 1981 and lasted until March 1982.
The Seventh Legislative Assembly 
In May 1982, an election was held and a political coalition, the United Democratic Front (UDF), under the leadership of Congress got the majority. Again K.Karunakaran became the chief minister.
The Eighth Legislative Assembly 
In the election conducted in March 1987 the Left Democratic Front again came to power and E.K. Nayanar again became Chief Minister. During this ministry in April 1991 Kerala was declared as a totally literate state.
The Ninth Legislative Assembly 
In 1991 the ruling LDF decided to dissolve the assembly and conduct fresh elections, expecting to come to power again. But contrary to their expectations, the U D F won the election and K. Karunakaran again became the chief minister in June 1991. In 1995 A.K. Antony became the Chief Minister, after resigning from the Central Cabinet and K. Karunakaran resigned from the Legislative Assembly and got elected to the Rajyasabha, the Cental Cabinet.
The Tenth Legislative Assembly 
In 1996 E.K. Nayanar of the LDF yet again came to power, taking advantage of the rift in Congress and the allegations of corruptions against the former ministry. During this period the Kerala Government introduced the People's Plan and campaigned for the planning and implementation of development programs at the grass root level. The People's Plan became a model for development and attracted interest worldwide.
The Eleventh Legislative Assembly 
In June of 2001, in spite of the People Plan Programs, the LDF was voted out and the UDF came to power, with A K Antony again as Chief Minister. who leads a Rightist Government. Only two of the former ministers were re-elected to the Legislative Assembly this time.
Kerala is unique in many ways. It is the state in India with the highest rate of literacy, where the quality of health care available is competent with many European countries and, more significantly it is one of the few states in India where people's movements and empowering initiatives at the grassroots level are part of day to day life. There will not be a day in Kerala without a public demonstration of some kind. The demonstrations could be for the right of the workers and peasants, against multi-national corporations, or lately for the land rights of indigenous people.
Useful Resources: 
"Time Wraps: Silent and Evasive Pasts in Indian Politics and Religion." Nandy, Asish. Hurst & Company, London. 2002 
"Cast Me Out If You Will." Antherjanam, Lalithambika. New York: The Feminist Press, 1997.


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