By Priya Mullassaril
The sickle and the hammer, while fumbled by Vietnam, North Korea, Russia, and China, has sketched much promise in the rural state of Kerala, India. Governed by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and headed by the Marxist Communist Party of India, CPI(M), Kerala finds harmony between placing power in the hands of the people and the hands of government to combat class struggles, religious intolerance, casteism and numerous other issues which gripe India.
The CPI’s anti-caste beliefs can be traced back to resistance of British rule during the Colonial era. The crown maintained great class immiscibility in Kerala, and privilege pooled among upper-class Namboodiri Brahmin families who controlled the means of production. Upper class, literate Keralites questioned this disparity of power, and began to spread Marxist ideology within social spaces such as tea shops, libraries, trade unions, and even individual residences of Kerala’s uneducated population. Following Kerala’s emancipation from Britain and designation of statehood in 1957, the Communist Party won by a decisive victory in congressional elections, claiming 55 of the 114 total seats in Kerala’s Legislative Assembly. Soon after, the people elected E.M.S Namboodiripad--a Brahmin who spoke passionately about peasant rights and the skewed wealth distribution in his state--to be Kerala’s first Chief Minister.
Once appointed, Namboodiripad enacted the Land Reform Ordinance, which imposed limits on the amount of land a family could own and protected poorer families from eviction. He then worked to decentralize power in government and grant more authority to the people, a task brought to fruition only after his death through the establishment of Kerala’s communally-run health care system. The network of over 1,356 public health care facilities in the state fall under the individual governance of Kerala’s 900 villages, instead of the state’s government. The sweeping motions taken by government that often overlook the needs of minority groups are dissolved in this system, as Keralite villages now control the framework of their regional hospitals.
Kerala’s modern-day success may be largely attributed to the CPI’s efforts. The region boasts a 96% literacy rate, making it the most literate state in India. From the 1950s to the 70s, P. N. Panicker, a member of the CPI, traveled extensively to rural areas of Kerala to establish public libraries with the aid of government funding. Panicker, acclaimed as the father of the Library Movement in Kerala which strove to educate the state’s illiterate population, is largely responsible for Kerala´s extensive public library system which contains 8,417 libraries. As for the present day, the CPI has expanded on Panicker’s efforts by passing reforms that allow equal access to education for women and other groups previously barred from schooling, due to caste laws.
Not only has the CPI’s intervention helped to educate the masses, but its federalist approach has greatly benefited the state in the midst of crises such as the COVID-19 outbreak.
Kerala’s first introduction to an epidemic in 2018 caught the state off-guard, and unprepared. Nipah, a bat-borne virus, tore through the region with a 50-75% mortality rate, and K. K. Shailaja, the state’s health minister, vowed to improve her response to future epidemics through the use of disease-monitoring surveillance, contact tracing, and stronger isolation measures. This pledge was invaluable two years later when the first case of Covid was reported in Kerala. Immediately, the afflicted patient was put in quarantine, and Shailaja’s team rigorously used contact tracing to smother the spread of the disease. By delivering food and water to at-risk locations in Kerala, lengthening quarantine duration to 28 days, and screening incoming travelers at airports, the state shone in its emergency response. Considering that a large part of Kerala’s population commutes out of the state for work, the virus’ 0.36% mortality rate in the state speaks volumes to the efficacy of the government’s aid.
Of course, Kerala still has areas which need improvement. It severely lacks the funds needed to redistribute wealth, and consequently is unable to fully satisfy its poorer population. While the state has increased social security and built homes for the homeless, it has made little progress in truly eradicating poverty. Additionally, younger generations are leaving Kerala after college, seeking lucrative employment in the Gulf, meaning the states’ workforce is aged and dwindling. Thomas Isaac, Kerala’s former Chief Financial Minister, remarks despairingly upon the fact that mass-subsidizations in certain sectors are inevitable, due to the flight of Kerala’s able-bodied workforce. In order for Kerala to make better on its promises to end the class struggle, it must strengthen itself economically by keeping younger generations looking inward for opportunity, instead of outward.
While one could argue that Kerala is not truly a Communist state and does not truly abandon Marx’s detested items of class and property, it seems unfair to altogether wrest this label from a state which has so proudly worked to establish itself as being Communist. While the state has diluted the ideology to make it palatable for its diverse and far-ranging population, the alteration has simultaneously allowed Kerala’s global profile to thrive. Kerala’s economic policy strays far enough from free-market capitalism to be considered an extension of socialism, and yet it abstains from the exceptional requirements dictated by Marx in order to be applauded internationally as a tastefully unconventional state.
Named “God’s Own Country” by passing tourists for its greenery, Kerala is wistful of a future where its picturesque geographic landscape equals its favorable socioeconomic one. Kerala’s founders have already created the bones of a society centered around fairness, equality, and benevolence. It is ultimately up to the future generations of Kerala to complete this construction, or move on to less demanding destinations elsewhere. The power rests entirely in their hands.