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Being a Brahmin the Marxist Way: E.M.S.

Namburipad and the Pasts of


Kerala

the indigenous bourgeoisie denies the active role played by Brahmins in the further development of
Keralathe theory of Brahmin domination just an accident, [is] a theory which denies the very scientific
character of history.
E.M.S. Nambudiripad, The National Question in Kerala
In 1910, K.Ramakrishna Pillai, the editor of Svadesabhimani, was exiled from the princely
state of Travancore, on account of his intemperate and unmitigated opposition to the
monarchy and the corruption of the court. Accompanied by his beloved wife, he settled in
northern Kerala and, in 1912, wrote a biography of Karl Marx: the first in any Indian
language. In itself, this was a remarkable and prescient intellectual foray. The Russian
Revolution was five years in the future and Marxism had not assumed the aura of millenarian
hope. However, what is equally significant is the question of how Ramakrishna Pillai
understood Marxism. He saw two tenets as being central to Marxism: the collective
ownership of land and the abolition of private capital. This would create equality in the
world by destroying the gulf between the rich and the poor.1 There is not much critical
comment in the brief exposition of these ideas. Much of the book is devoted to a
biographical sketch highlighting Marxs unyielding opposition to the Prussian monarchy, his
exile and the travails of a peripatetic dissident life with his devoted wife. One is struck by the
remarkable parallel with Ramakrishna Pillais own life and concerns. Communism, he states,
is incompatible with the rule of the king and his laws, allying Marxism to his own antimonarchist sentiments. At another point, writing of Jenny, Marxs wife, Pillai wrote: Let all
mothers sing in the glory of that great women who shared her husbands joys and
sorrows. In a subtle way, Ramakrishna Pillais own biography recasts the life of Marxs
life in terms of his own autobiography.
Such individual understanding of Marxism may not be unusual. Lala Hardayal, in his
biography of Marx, written in the same year, called him a great European rishi and saw his

P.C. Joshi and K. Damodaran (eds), Marx comes to India,Delhi,1978, p.108.

central aim as being the solution of the problem of poverty.2 The first biography of Marx in
Chinese, written in 1919 by Yuan Quan (probably the pseudonym of Li Dazhao), described
in detail Marxs poverty, the suffering of his family and Marxs ill-health. The basic point as
Arif Dirlik points out was moral: Marxs tenacity in the face of adversity.3 Just as in the case
of Marxs life, so possibly in the historical engagement with Marxist theory. All reading
happens within a matrix of ideological and cultural determination. This is not, of course, to
argue that one must privilege the idiosyncrasies of individual engagement with a text over
the possible meanings within the text itself. It is, rather, to emphasize that
misunderstanding of a text, or a body of theory, are a window to an individuals mode of
thinking as it grapples with a structured ideology. We can then focus on a notion of ideology
as a dynamic, interactive and on-going activity rather than as a finished intellectual system.
More important, we can begin to look at how individuals make meaning through the
translation of ideas in terms of their own concerns, rather than become transmitters of a
system that has a coherence independent of individual understanding. 4 Once we bear this in
mind, then a study of Marxist thought in India becomes less obsessed with a scholastic
evaluation of the correct interpretation of Marx, or, indeed, with the question of the
relevance of Marxism in an Indian context(which would involve seeing Marxism as nothing
more than a closed body of thought originating from European minds). Texts which actually
mange to stretch Marxism onto Indian reality in a Procrustean manner become less
interesting, largely because of the overwhelming sense of unreality they mange to convey.
For example, M.N.Roys India in Transition (1922), treated Marxism as set of conclusions
which could be transposed on to any society and processed on the assumption that India
was largely a capitalist society.5 This is a case in point of an individual acting a transmitter
rather than a translator of an ideology. Marxist writing should rather be seen as exposes to
what Raphael Samuel calls a promiscuous variety of intellectual currents. He points to the
seemingly curious phenomenon of British Marxist historians producing their most insightful

Ibid.,pp.47-8.
Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism, New York, 1989, p.105.
4
Ibid., pp.7-10.
5
Sudipta Kaviraj, The Heteronomous Radicalism in M.N.Roy. in Thomas Pantham and Kenneth l.
Deutsch, (eds), Political Thought in Modern India. New Delhi, 1986.
3

work on Puritanism and religious sectarianism, and speculates on the possible implications
of the Methodist upbringing of some leading Marxist historians.6
So what did Marxism mean to a generation of Malayalis who became communists? For a
large number, this transition was located in the history of local politics and the move from
the Kerala Congress, through Congress socialism to Communism. It was more an
organizational move than an ideological one. 7 The discipline that Marxist/socialist ideology
provided allowed the communists to take over the political organisation of the Congress by
1939. They became communists first and then discovered Marxism. To use Dirliks
evocative phrase they had walk[ed] backwards into Marxism.8 It is also possible that a
widespread unawareness of Marxism was encouraged by the very organisation of the party
which maintained a strict division between those that engaged with theory and those
involved in mass mobilization.9 K.P. Gopalan, trade union organizer, encapsulated the mood
of his generation when he stated that, we had socialist aims without knowing anything about
socialism. 10
Early perceptions of Marxism arose from an amalgam of a heightened ethical awareness and
the existence of Soviet Union as a utopian exemplar of equality and achievement. When the
nationalist newspaper, Mathrubhumi, first began carrying articles on socialism in the early
1930s, its pieces were more remarkable for their polemical value. Ignorance is the
fundament of capitalism. Anger is its armour. Cruelty is its weapon. The synonyms of
capitalism are treachery, oppression, deception, selfishness and contempt towards others.11
In a society, like Kerala, riven by caste inequality, the egalitarianism had resonances which
allowed its absorption into a local idiom. Krishna Pillai, one of the founders of the
Communist Party in Kerala, wrote in 1934, that communism believes that the whole world
belongs to one caste i.e. the human caste. At times, it seemed as if communism was the
R.Samuel,British Marxist Historians, 1880-1980, New Left Review, 120, (1980), pp. 42-4.
Dilip Menon, Caste, Nationalism and Communism in South India, Malabar 1900-1948, Cambridge, 1994,
ch.5.
8
Dirlik,Origin, p.98.
9
K.P.R. Gopalan in an interview with K.K.N. Kurup, 10 March 1985 and with author,12 March 1987.K
Madhavan in interview with author, 17 March 1987.
10
N.E. Balaram, Keralathile Communiste Prasthanam(The Communist Movement in Kerala), Trivandrum,
1973.
11
Mathrubhumi, 18 April 1934.
6
7

highest stage of Gandhism: The capitalist would be destroyed and the rule of the country
will pass in to the hands of the daridranarayan.

12

This ethical, egalitarian and emotive

understanding reflected more the aspirations of individuals than the theoretical complexities
of Marxism. For others, the experience of the Russian revolution was the most profound
argument in favour of Marxism. As K. Damodaran was to write, [they] identified themselves
completely with the Soviet Union.13 The introduction of the Five Year Plans had created an
utopian space: within four years, all hoarders vanished, there was no conflict between
classes and the number of small peasants who owned land was countless.14 In a special
number of the socialist newspaper Prabhatham, E.M.S. Nambudiripad (henceforth EMS) was
moved to write, if the world does not copy the Soviet model, it will mean the destruction of
civilisation. The same issue contained an exposition of the basic ideas of Marxism which
stated that with the aid of this science (dialectical materialism), we can forecast the future of
man and society and thus control it.15
The Marxism that we are dealing with here bears a close resemblance to British Marxism at
the beginning of this century as described by Stuart Macintyre: millenarian in character and
unaware of central categories or historical trajectories.16 The transition from this kind of
Marxism to a more serious engagement was both sharper as well as mediated by a particular
brand of Soviet Marxism presided over by Stalin. Most Malayalis theoreticians, K.
Damodaran and EMS in particular, were influenced in their understanding of Marxism by
the literature coming from the Soviet Union. The main texts were the documents of the
Comintern edited by Kuusinen and Dimitrov, and the Short History of the CPSU(B) published
in 1938 and available in translation in Malayalam in 1941.17 It was the Short Course which
became the textbook on Marxism. As Damodaran wrote later, we identified Stalinism with

P. Krishna Pillai, Fascisavum kammyunisavum (Fascism and Communism) Mathrubhumi 1934.


K. Damodaran, the tragedy of Indian Communism, in Tariq Ali(ed), The Stalinist Legacy,
Harmindsworth, 1984, p. 349.
14
P. Krishna Pillai, Rashyayile Randaam Panchavalsara Paddhati (The Second Five Year Plan in Russia),
Mathrubhumi, 1934.
15
E.M.S. Nambudirpad, Basic Principles of Marxist Economy, in Public (General) Dept. G.O. 1351
(Confdl.) 17 August 1939; K.Damodaran, Science of Marxism, Public (General) Dept. G.O. 1351
(Confdl) 17 August 1939.
16
S. Macintyre, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain, 1917-1933, London, 1986, p. 35.
17
T.V. Krishnan, Keralas First Communist, Delhi, 1971, p. 73
12
13

Marxism-Leninism.18 This was also to mean that Marxism came to be less with revolutionary
dreams and utopian imaginings and more with a self-contained and rigid science of the
history of society. The clearest statement of this came in 1938 when Stalin wrote that
[s]ocialism is converted from a dream of a better future fro humanity into a science.19
What were the features of the science of history of society as laid down in the Short
Course? Stalinist Marxism, was in Walickis description, a Marxism for the masses (in this
lay its appeal) and was characterized by a combination of blind faith with quasi-scientism.
No freedom of interpretation was allowed to the reader and chapters ended with a set of
correct and binding conclusions. What is important for the present discussion are two
related features. First, the crucial role allotted to productive forces as the most mobile and
revolutionary element of production and the necessary adjustment of relations of production
to the rise of new productive forces. Second, five types of relations of productions, each
higher than the previous one and inevitably superseding it were spelt out: from primitive
communism to socialism.20 The idea that dialectics pointed only in one way- forwards; a
progressivism that saw civilization as advance from lower stage to higher stages meant that
survivals from one stage into a presumably higher stage were to prove difficult to explain.
This was to be true of both caste and matriliny in the case of Kerala. The persistence of such
traits complicated the deployment of the category of progressive since progressive societies
were the ones in which the political and ideological superstructures were in harmony with
the potential forces of economic development.
The Communist Party of Indias line between 1939 and 1948 saw bewildering shifts from
opposition to war in 1939; through support fro Great Britain during the anti-fascist war
from 1942 which invoked notions of class harmony to keep up production; to a turn to
agrarian radicalism in 1946; followed by inauguration of a short-lived programme of agrarian
revolution in 1948. Most of EMSs work in this period had been programmatic and in
response to the immediate political situation. The quick-silver shifts in party positions had to
Damodaran, Tragedy of Indian Communism, p. 349; E.M.S. Nambudiripad, Deshabhimani (Patriot),
Calicut, 1943.
19
J.V.Stalin, Problems in Leninism, Peking, 1976, pp. 849, 851; Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams:
Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, New York, 1989.
20
A. Walicki, Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of Communist Utopia,
Stanford, 1995, pp. 426-53. ; L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Oxford, 1978, Vol., 3.
18

be clarified for the cadres and Onnekkalkodi Malayalikal (1946), a summary account of the
consequences of British rule for Kerala and future prospects, was the only book to engage in
a historical excursus.21 Keralam, Mayalalikalude Mathrubhumi (Kerala, the Motherland of the
Malayalis, 1948, henceforth KMM), was the first attempt to stand back from the exigencies
of programmatic writing and engage with the problems of the history of Kerala. The central
problematic as EMS wrote later was to find a clue to the crucial problem of the history of
Kerala- how and why the matriarchal [sic] family has continued to exist in Kerala down to
the twentieth century while it was superseded in all civilized countries.22 The framing of the
question is in itself significant: the idea of inevitable progress and transcendence is explicit. It
assumes that with the changes in the modes of production, vestigial social forms like the
matrilineal family would softly and silently vanish away. The attempt tot explain the
empirical- the intransigent persistence of social forms- in terms of the theoretical- their
inevitable supersession and disappearance, provides the underlying tension in the book.
In this book we look at two texts, KMM and The National Question In Kerala (1952, henceforth
NQK) written by EMS. I would argue provisionally and tentatively that these theoretically
informed histories of Kerala can also be read as attempts at negotiating EMSs Nambudiri
identity at a time when Brahmins were under siege in south India as malevolent parasites.
Marxist method, informed by what Samuel had termed a promiscuous variety of intellectual
currents, allowed fro the relocation of the Brahmin in the past as one of the key elements in
the social and economic transformation of the region. These issues predominate in EMSs
reconstruction of the history of ancient Kerala. First, there is an engagement with the
Dravidianist critique of the Brahmin as an immigrant into the egalitarian, civilized space of
south India who introduced caste hierarchy and subordinated the indigenous culture.
Second, the institution of caste is reevaluated as a necessary stage in the transition from a
primitive form of society to a more advanced one through a more efficient organisation of
production. Finally, al a time when the ideology of language politics and of the linguistic
organisation of states was gaining prominence, it was claimed that regional identity was
premised on a unifying culture created by the brahmins. EMS had come out of an
21

See E.M.S. Nambudiripad , Aikyathinulla Tadasthangal (Hindrances toUnity), Calicut, 1943;


Deshabhimani; Party Sanghadakan, (Party Organiser), Calicut, 1944; Onnekkalkodi Malayalikal (One and
a Half Crore Malayalis), Calicut, 1946.
22
E.M.S. Nambudiripad, The National Question in Kerala, Bomabay, 1952, pp. i-ii.

involvement with the reform movements within the Nambudiri community before his
encounter with Marxism. These texts stand at the end of a personal trajectory: of his
engagement with what is meant to be a Nambudiri; and at the beginning of a political one: of
a role of a Nambudiri, now an unmarked citizen, in the modern world. The past is where the
genealogy of a progressive identity is constructed, and history is deployed as the arena in
which transformation is wrought.
Contra Dravidian Ideology
At the time of the linguistic reorganization of states in south India, the major contender in
terms of a fully formed regional ideology was the Dravidian movement in the Tamil
speaking areas of the Madras Presidency. Having originated in the anti-brahmin movements
of the early twentieth-century, it articulated both a positive sense of region- Tamil speaking
Dravidanadu- as well as the negative definition of who did not belong to the region; the
brahmins. The official demand for Dravidanadu, first articulated in 1944, included, apart
from the Tamil region, parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and the Malabar district
as well. As late as 1954, C.N.Annadurai saw Kerala and Karnataka as autonomous states in
the federal political unit of Dravidanadu. The motto was Divide on the basis of language,
unite on the basis of race.23 For Malayalam speakers in Travancore, Cochin and Malabar,
trying to define their own identity through the Aikya Kerala (United Kerala) movement, this
appeared to be an obstructive ideology bordering on regional imperialism. An added edge
was provided by the demand raised in 1946, of the Tamil speaking districts of Travancore
for freedom from the Malayalis. This was utilized by the Maharaja of Travancore to buttress
his own demand for an independent state, separate from Kerala. As EMS was writing his
text, the Dravidian ideology was a palpable political challenge in its attempt to subsume
linguistic identity within a putative racial unity.
While the cultural ideology of the Dravidian movement was inclusive and saw Kerala as
having sprung from the Tamil civilization forged in the Sangam period, its political ideology
was premised on a sharp divide between the brahmin and the non-brahmin. In 1938, when
E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker analysed the meaning of the word nation, he stressed the vitality
23

P.Ramamurti, The Freedom Struggle and the Dravidian Movement, Madras, 1987, p.82.

of centrifugal forces in India, there by justifying Dravindanadu. At the same time, he made
clear that the central opposition was between Tamilians and brahmins. The Dravidian
federation would include all Hindus except brahmins who call themselves Aryans.24 This
anti-Brahaminism expressed itslf in various ways. As cultural exclusivism it claimed that the
Dravidian civilisation had always been untainted by the brahmins and that the two races
had always lived separately. This was explicitly argued in Annadurais Arya Maya (1943) that
saw the river Narmada as the impermeable barrier separating the Tamil culture from
Aryanadu. As an argument for original Tamil glory, it saw the Tamil civilization as
originating independently of Aryan/brahmin infusion. Indeed, the classical nature of Tamil
was evaluated by the absence of Sanskrit influence. Finally, the Aryan invasion represented
the foisting of a hierarchical, radicalist division of a hitherto egalitarian society. The concrete
manifestation of this was the caste system which put the brahmin at the apex. The Dravidian
critique constituted a rejection of the brahmin as an unnecessary irritant in the Dravidian
space.
Though the attack on the brahmin/Nambudiri in Kerala was neither as sustained nor
vituperative as the Tamil region, the brahmin identity was under siege. An added and more
profound dimension here was that there was considerable soul-searching within the brahmin
community itself both for internal reform as well as for restructuring its relation with other
castes, particularly the Nairs. The upper echelons of Nambudiris and Nairs were bound by
an intimate and fraught affiliation. Only the eldest son within a Nambudiri household could
marry, the younger ones entered into alliances with Nair women of the established
tharavadus(matrilineal households). From the late nineteenth century, a movement emerged
among the Nairs which was at the same time a move for internal reform- of marriage,
inheritance and division of property- as well as one that was deeply resented the Nambudiri
liaisons with Nair women.25

24

K.Nambi Arooran, Taml Renaissance and Dravidian Nationalism, 1905-1944, MAdurai, 1980, pp.23941; E.F.Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in South India: The Non-Brahmin Movement and Tamil
Separatism, Berkeley, 1969; M.R.Barnett, The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India, Princeton,
1976.
25
G. Arunima, Colonialism and the Transformation of Matriliny in Malabar, 1850-1940, Cambridge PhD.
Thesis, 1992.

The critique of the Nambudiri as an effect, lecherous drone battening over Nair tharavadus
was best expressed in O. Chandu Menons novel Indulekha(1889) which immortalized these
concerns. This critique also emerged from the impetus within the Nair community to move
out of matriliny, which they saw as a relic of a barbaric past. Among the Nambudiris, there
was considerable rethinking fuelled by the emerging Nair critique as also by an
overwhelming sense of being caught in a time warp while other castes and groups engaged
with the challenge of colonial modernity. Three issues were prominent in this intellectual
ferment: endogamous marriages- that Nambudiri men should marry within the community
rather than enter into liaisons with Nair; partition of family property- freeing the younger
generation from the coils of the joint family household; and western education- so that
Nambudiris could compete with other castes in the modern world instead of being
confined to an arcane and irrelevant scholarship of Sanskrit ritual. As an article put it in a
language characteristic of the times, the degenerate state of the Nambudiri community is
worse that any other in the world.26 Another element was added to the critique with the
emergence of the tenants associations and the demand for fairer rent and more secure
tenure which targeted the Nambudiri community as landlord, particularly in central Kerala.
EMSs life encapsulates many of these dilemmas of brahmin identity in Kerala. He was born
in one of the eight most exalted Adhyan Nambudiri families, the only ones with the privilege
of becoming Vedic hymnologists. His household, Elamkulam, was one of the largest
landowners in south Malabar and had connections with the royal family of Walluvanad
through marriage. He grew up surrounded by temples, prayers and benevolent and
malevolent gods and had an education in Sanskrit, being initiated early into the chanting of
Vedic hymns.27 It was only because of the presence of progressive relatives with a favourable
attitude towards English education that he got to go to elementary school and subsequently
became one of the few Nambudiris of his class and generation to attend college. Young
widows, polygamy and the large numbers of unmarried women on account of the practice of
Nambudiri liaisons with Nair women were a palpable presence in his childhood and youth
and these experiences drew him towards Nambudiri reform movements emerging in the
beginning of the century. At the age of fourteen, he became the secretary of the reform
26
27

Mathrubhumu,18 December, 1923.


E.M.S. Nambudiripad, How I Became a Communist, Trivandrum, 1976, pp. 2-5.

organisation, the Yogashema Sabha, which even while it was concerned with modernizing
the community conducted proceedings in a very Nambudiri atmosphere with breaks for the
performance of rituals. Inspired by the Ezhava movement and the anti-brahmin propaganda
of EVR, he increasingly became disenchanted with religion and ritual, cropped his tuft and
stopped wearing the sacred thread. It was out of the crucible of caste reform that EMS
moved to an involvement with the Congress and became a believer in full independence.
However, in 1927, enough of his older identity remained within him as he voted on the side
of the landlords against tenancy reforms at the Payannur Congress conference. But by the
mid-thirties, EMS had moved towards socialism and was responsible for setting up a subcommittee within the regional Congress committee to enquire in to the conditions of
agricultural labour. Within the pages of the nationalist newspaper Mathrubhumi(founded in
1923) and the short-lived socialist newspaper Prabhatam(1938) he contributed articles on the
priciples of socialism and the differences with the Congress. In 1939, when the communists
finally broke away from the socialists, EMS was one amongst the core group.
With KMM, EMS stepped back from immediate political concerns to articulate the twin
concerns of Marxism and the trajectory of Keralas history. As a young radical Nambudiri
involved in social reform movements within the community in the beginning of the century,
there had been a sense of revulsion towards an archaic and backward-looking lifestyle. The
task of making a human of the Nambudiri, as one of the watchwords of the movement had
phrased it, created a profoundly divided self. In this work we see the engagement with the
history of Kerala which recovers a role for the Nambudiri as the prime mover in the
economic and social transformation of the region. This chapter argues tentatively that the
language and method of Marxism seemed to allow for such a recasting. The second
trajectory derives from the first but addresses itself more to the political perception of the
brahmin, particularly in the polemic of the Dravidian movement. In the enterprise of
imagining a united Kerala based on a community of Malayalam speakers, EMS argued in the
text that the regional culture is one produced by compromise and synthesis between the
Aryan/brahmin and Dravidian elements, rather than a displacement of Dravidian
civilization. Throughout the test there is the presence of the Other- the Dravidian ideology
that sought to delegitimise the status of the brahmin in south India. EMS attempted to
rehabilitate the brahmin in two strategies. First, through a frontal engagement with the

10

theory of a pristine Dravidian culture supplanted by an Aryan one, EMS built an argument
for a benign synthesis of civilizations. That is to say, he argued that the constant interaction
of Aryan brahmins and Dravidians within regions brought about a unity within regional
cultures which took precedence over racial differences. Second, he recast the role of the
Aryan/brahmin in the history of Kerala (and by extension, south India) not as the advent of
a superior civilization, but in the more neutral terms of bringing about an advance at two
levels: first, economic i.e. in the mode of production; and second, social i.e. the shift from
matriarchal to patriarchal family forms. These reconstructions created interesting
tensions within the text. While there is an acceptance of the fact that an earlier civilization
existed, the relation to its putative glory is ambivalent. It is seen only as a stage to be
transcended an era of lower forms of culture i.e. that which is associated with less complex
modes of production, of organisation of labour and of family forms. Thus, while the idea of
a compromise and synthesis between civilizations is being worked out, there is
simultaneously the conception of the inevitable triumph of a gently civilizing brahmin
ideology.
The question of how the brahmins came to Kerala was the primary one: was this
process the southern equivalent of the Aryan invasion supplanting the Dravidian cultures in
the north? EMS distanced himself unequivocally from the brahmin founding myth of Kerala
in the Keralolpatti: that Parasurama had flung his axe into the sea and reclaimed land which he
settled with immigrant brahmins.28 He went along with the Dravidian position that the
existence of an indigenous civilization in Kerala preceded the coming of the brahmins. In
speaking of the conflict between the two cultures the persistence of the earlier cultures was
recognized: Neither the axe of Parasurama nor the advaita of Sankaracharya, or even 2000
years of continuous brahmin power have been able to destroy the non-brahmin way of
life.29 He argued that forms of culture, marriage and inheritance had continued without
substantial change and neither culture had been wholly victorious or wholly defeated.
However, the question of numerical and cultural strength of the brahmins in particular
regions complicated the picture somewhat. Where the brahmins were strong, as in south
Malabar there had been changes: the lower caste Tiyyas followed patriliny unlike their

28

E.M.S. Nambudiripad, Keralam Malayalikalude Mathrubhumi [Kerala, the Motherland of the Malayalis]
(Trichur: Deshabhimani Pulications, 1965) First published 1948, p.47. Henceforth KMM.
29
Ibid., p.48.

11

northern counterparts and shrines had been converted to temples through a cleansing of
their ritual. But, on the whole, despite brahmin influence, practices like equal rights for men
and women in property and the freedom to marry and separate at will had been retained.
While marriage had been considerably ritualized among the brahmins and made a life-long
covenant, for others it is a relation entered into for the ease of life and to satisfy a physical
need. Of course, the brahmins themselves had not been immune to local influences and
had adopted customs peculiar to the region, later codified by Sankara, as well as allowing for
some compromises with local religion such as the setting up of non-brahmin shrines within
temples.30 There is a seemingly celebratory statement that the Nairs, Pulayas and Tiyyas were
able to strongly resist the dominance of men within families which came in the name of
brahminism and culture.31 How are we to understand this reconstruction of Keralas history
which on the surface seems to display similarities with the Dravidianist position? What value
does EMS place on this persistence of the indigenous way of life?
As we go on we realize that the stage is being set for the next step in the argument
which is about the growth of civilization and the transition from one family form to another.
The persistence particularly of matriarchal (sic) forms of geneaology and inheritance
marks the Nairs, Pulayas and other inhabitants as part of a primitive civilization which is
then provided an ideal by the patriarchal brahmin household. But we anticipate the
working out of the argument here. First, there is the question: Who did the brahmins
supplant within the regions of Kerala? Comparing the different theories about the origins
of the Nairs which locate their original home in places as far apart as Nepal, Chotanagpur
and southern India, EMS comes down in favour of their being a Dravidian people. They
were part of the civilization of the south proved by Tamil scholars to have been no less
advanced than that of the Aryans.32 One of the indicators of their level of advancement was
the fact that they managed to retain the distinctive features of their social organisation i.e.
matriliny even after clash with the people like the Aryans who possessed a superior
civilization and culture.33 Throughout the text there is a constant movement between the
term Aryan implying a northern origin fro the Nambudiris and being consonant with

30

KMM, pp.47-52.
Ibid., p.51
32
Ibid., p. 58
33
Ibid., p. 57,emphasis added
31

12

Dravidian position, and the more neutral term of brahmin locating the Nambudiri as one
among the brahmins originating in the southern peninsula. Immediately undercutting the
idea of Nair advancement, EMS went on to add, Today the vestiges of matriliny only
survive among the Negro race; and in our region among the Pulayas, Parayas and other races
who are more backward socially and culturally.34

Even as the Nairs were seen as part of the developed Dravidian peoples, their practices were
seen as belonging to an earlier stage of civilization. In the Introduction to the second
impression of KMM in 1965, this evaluation of the Nairs was elaborated with a creative
misreading of Engelss hierarchy of family forms from group marriage to patriarchal family.
EMS read Engels as arguing that the move away from mother-right represented an
unqualified advance, though Engels saw in it the world-historical defeat of the female sex.35
EMS adopted the trajectory of Engelss argument: Marxian point of view of development
from group marriage to monogamy,

36

but not the critique. What made possible, even

necessary, such a misreading? Beginning in the late-twentieth century, there had been much
debate about matriliny and marriage among the Nairs. In 1881, the Malabar Marriage
Commission had been set up to enquire into the question of whether the institution of
marriage existed among the matrilineal communities and amidst the dust raised by the debate
it became clear that there was a deep belief in the inevitable progress towards the patrilineal
family and monogamous marriage. The works of John McLennan, John Lubbock and Lewis
Morgan were already current in Kerala at the beginning of the century as reforming elites
gathered intellectual ammunition to engage with these problems of family, marriage and the
division of property.

37

In 1908, K.P Padmanabha Menon who wrote the pioneering history

of Kerala, citing McLennan, had stated with the confidence of the modernizer that, the
promiscuity of savagery had passed into the polyandry of barbarism and the polyandry of
barbarism into the monogamy of civilization.38 For the Marxist thinker, Engels had
complicated the picture of the transition to the patriarchal family. This was evident in K.
34

Ibid., p. 57
F. Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, London, 1972, p. 20
36
E.M.S. Nambudiripad, Kerala, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Bombay, 1964, p. 20
37
G. Arunima, Colonialism and Matriliny, ch. 5.
38
K.P. Padmanabha Menon, Memorandum on the Report of the Travncore Marumakkathayam
Commission, 1908, p.9
35

13

Damodarans work Manushayan [Human] (1947). He began his discussion of the family by
mentioning the work of McLennan, Lubbock and Morgan, stating that the last named had
made the most important contribution in establishing the historicity of the family as a social
institution. He then went on to cite Engels on the origin of marriage, patriarchy and the
subordination of women. However, since his concern was with the move out of matriliny, he
observed that the survival of the freedom of women as in the case of Kerala was
characteristic of the lower stages of savagery and barbarism.39 If Damodaran side-stepped
Engels even as he acknowledged the difference in his position, EMS absorbed Engels into
the trajectory posited by Morgan et al. It is interesting to note that Dange, coming from
Maharashtra had little problem in accepting, atleast theoretically, Engelss critique, when he
wrote that the monogamy of class-ridden societybecomes a mockery for the woman.40
EMS made an interesting and unsubstantiated connection between matriliny and the caste
regime. Since the Nambudiris were able to make the sharpest break from mother-right to
father-right they became the highest caste while those who retained the maximum amount of
freedom in marriage and preserved the mother-right became the lowest of the caste
Hindus.41 So here again the argument of the superiority of the brahmin civilization was the
phrased in the language of Marxism: as representing the teleological end which the inferior
family forms strive towards. EMS stated sharply in 1964 that give time and with the
transference of descent from mother to father, the Nair family will become the
Nambudiri.42 The family was central to many of the debates among Marxists in Asia, since it
was seen as impeding the development of the individual. A move from the extended family
to the nuclear family was necessarily progressive inasmuch as it freed the individual
simultaneously from the trammels of tradition and a collective identity.43 The dilemma in
EMSs case was two-fold. Before the issue of the individual relation to the family was the
more important one of the move from an inferior to a superior family form.
By the time he came to writing the NQK he had more fully worked out the place of the scale
of the family forms in his evaluation of the role of the brahmin within the indigenous
39

K.Damodaran, Manushyan, Trichur, 1947, pp. 60-3.


S.A.Dange, From Primitive Communism to Slavery, Bombay, 1949, p. 131.
41
KMM , pp. xvi-xvii.
42
Nambudiripad, Kerala, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, p.20.
43
D.G. Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945, Berkeley, 1981, pp. 131-2.
40

14

civilisation. The critique of the Dravidian ideology was much sharper as well: the new
bourgeois theory of Dravidian superiority seeks to attribute all the characteristics of modern
civilized society to a people whose family life was dominated by matriarchal relationships.

44

The other dimension to the argument was the evaluation of the political structures which
had attempted to rule over Kerala, particularly the Chera Empire. Later in the paper we shall
look at how EMS denied the role played by kings and empires in the construction of the
region of Kerala and made an argument for the brahmins as having provided the political
and cultural cement within a fragmented, primitive society. Here the Chera empire was
evaluated and found wanting for its inability to transform family organisation from one
based on mother-right to that based on father-right.45 It was argued that this was inevitable
since there had been no central imperialized government which in turn could have been
possible only with a shift to field cultivation on the basis of irrigation such as in the Kaveri
and Godavari delta. Since there had not been an advance in the mode of production and
consequently no increase in wealth, empires were an artificial superstructure on the material
foundations of Kerala.46 The Tamils could deal a crushing blow to family life based on
mother-right because the necessity for the organisation of such a mode of production
[based on artificial irrigation]compelled [them] to develop their Chera, Chola and Pandya
empires.47 In Kerala, these sets of imperatives did not obtain and the persistence of the
indigenous way of life was both cause and effect of a lower form of social organisation,
production and political development.
As to when the brahmins actually entered Kerala, EMS preferred the date suggested by
R.C.Dutt 4th century B.C.E. for the immigration of brahmins into south India, rather
than 8th century C.E. as suggested by William Logan. However, he disagreed with both on
the question of origins. The migration was presented as the result of an internal movement
from within the southern peninsula of India i.e. from Maharashtra, Karnataka and the banks
of the Krishna and the Godavari rather than an invasion from the north. By arguing this he
was mapping onto the territory delineated by Dravidian ideologues and locating the brahmin
firmly within it, rather than as an outsider. Moreover, the idea that the brahmins were

44

NQK, p. 7.
Ibid., p. 18.
46
Ibid., p. 19.
47
Ibid., p. 19.
45

15

conquering Aryans was subtly undermined at the same time; he was careful to avoid the use
of the word Aryan and Aryan culture at this juncture, except for occasional slippages
throughout the text: It is more logical to assume that the brahmins came to Kerala in
different groups, from different regions at different times than to suppose that there was a
single immigration of one body of people from one region.48 There was no originary
migration attended by disastrous consequences as in the Dravidian representations. EMSs
alternative history was presented as a surmise (abhyuham) for which he offered no evidence.
The regional differences between Nambudiris in Kerala were seen as arising from their
migration from different parts of southern India e.g. the observances of the Nambudiris
from northern Kerala reflected their Maharashtrian past. However, here again there was a
tension. EMS stated that the Nambudiris of central Kerala had had the most influence on
the history and culture of the region. He traced their origin to the banks of the Krishna and
Godavari because after the coming of the Aryan culture, the foremost civilisation in India
was in the Andhra region.49 Therefore, even as the idea of northern Aryan origin for the
Nabudiris was rejected, it was argued that the advanced sections among them were only one
remove away from the superior Aryan civilisation.
In the Introduction to the second impression of KMM in 1965, EMS returned to an
argument about the Brahmins having come from north India, but the ramifications of this
reversal served radical purposes. He hypothesized that the brahmins came to Kerala at a time
when changes were coming about within marriage practices and family organisation. A
section from the caste Hindus (this is curious as EMS argued later that it was the brahmins
who brought caste to Kerala; although as in the use of the word Aryan, there was a decided
inconsistency throughout the text) had gone some way towards imposing monogamy on
their women while allowing the men to cohabit with women of other caste Hindu families
and marry within their own caste. This group also accepted the study of the Vedas and along
with those who came from the north became the class known as Nambudiris. This surmise
(abhyuham) regarding the origin of the Nambudiris was given a radical edge by the statement
that they were the result of jati samkara (mixture of castes). The brahmin was moved from
originating within the Dravidian space, albeit of a different race, to becoming one among the

48
49

KMM, p.53.
Ibid., p.54.

16

Dravidians.: After several generations it became impossible to tell who the immigrants and
who the natives were.50 Throughout the text, Marxism and its notion of historical
development the motor of the mode of production- was deployed against the Dravidian
rhetoric of the brahmins as aggressive immigrants. As EMS puts it, the development of a
region is not determined by forces which enter the region from outside. It is rather
influenced by the existing social forces which are growing within it.51

The caste system and landlordism


Here we come to the next stage in the argument: what allowed the brahmins to establish
themselves in Kerala in the midst of a people at a high level of civilization? EMS puts it thus:
the Nambudiri possessed an advantage that Nair society lacked. What was that advantage?
The answer is- the caste system.52 The caste system was the marker of the superior
economic organisation which the brahmins instituted allowing the shift from one mode of
production to another. Just as slavery helped human society to progress towards a more
civilized state in Europe, the caste system played a similar role in its time. In a context of
agitations against caste both in Kerala as well as in the rest of the Madras Presidency, the
characterization of caste provided is benevolent, as a means of organizing production alone.
The son follows the profession of the father; in every boy is implanted the desire to
gain training and then expertise in his family profession; this expertise in the family
profession becomes the basis of creating the means to live a happy life: this is the
essence of the caste system. As a result men and women of different castes had the
opportunity to develop their professional skills; each generation learned from the
experiences of the previous generation53
The brahmin was seen as the prime mover in this system, the one who organized
production by allocating to each caste a profession. Political overlords were unable to
systematize an advanced mode of organisation of labour or of production, stultifying society
in the matriarchal mode. The organisation of caste as a superior form of the division of
labour allowed for two possibilities which were expanded upon in NQK. The development
50

KMM, p.xix.
Ibid. p.xiii.
52
Ibid. p. 59.
53
Ibid. p.60.
51

17

of productive forces was given an impetus by the new social division which led to the
accumulation of wealth, division of labour and the division of society into classes. This
finally paved the way for transition to father-right among the more advanced groups.54 While
KMM had argued for caste as a division of labour with people allotted professions which
they then developed over generations, in NQK, the argument was expressed in terms of
differential ranking in terms of movement towards father right. However, there was
another major shift in NQK. Earlier he had argued that the Nambudiris had instituted the
caste system (where he shared ground with the Dravidianists, though they ascribed different
meanings to the founding of caste). He now argued that the process of division into castes
had been facilitated or even stimulated by the Chera Empire and contacts with ther ets of
India. He continued that whether these contacts did also include the immigration of of a
whole caste (Nambudiris)is an open question.55 Caste existed before the coming of the
Nambudiris, prior to which the soil of Kerala was prepared for the sowing of the seed of
brahminism.56 On the same page he referred to the brahmanical scheme of division of
labour i.e. caste which left unresolved the links between the advent of the brahmins and the
institution of caste: the difference between one caste and another is a difference in the stage
reached by them in the evolution of society.57
EMS was not alone at this time in characterizing caste as if it were devoid of all connotations
of ritual and social lowliness. It was only as late as 1948, at the Second Party Congress that
opposition to discrimination based on caste was officially made a part of the Programme of
the Democratic Revolution. Even then discrimination against the untouchables was
denounced instrumentally as a bourgeois attempt to keep the masses disunited rather than
as possessing a deeper resonance at the experiential level as well.58 Moreover, in 1946,
following the consolidation of the Communist Party in northern Kerala through a pragmatic
political line during the war, the issue of caste had been summarily shelved. This arose from
the successful attack on certain forms of caste discrimination as an effect of the class
hierarchy through peasant mobilization during 1938-40 which then relegated the issue of
caste to the reforming influence of the rival Congress through the largely ineffective Harijan
54

NQK, p.29.
Ibid. pp.34-5.
56
Ibid. p.29.
57
Ibid. p.32.
58
M.B.Rao ed. Documents of the History of the Communist Party, New Delhi, 1976, pp.85, 111-2.
55

18

Sevak Sanghs.59 In 1944, this issue blew up in the face of the party when, following the
dismissal of C.H.Kanaran and Raju, Tiyya labour organizers from the provincial committee,
there was considerable discontent within both the ranks and the leadership about the caste
systemt within the party. EMS rode the storm by arguing that the party should not become
the display case of the religions and castes of India. 60 Kanaran and others within the party
continued to press for an engagement with the issue of caste, arguing for associating the
communist party with caste associations and stating that caste was a reality in contemporary
society which could not be ignored.
If the rational organisation of production through the caste system was one of the
innovations imported by the Brahmins, the other one the special contribution of the
Aryans to Kerala (emphasis added) was the landlord system. It helped institute the system
of private property in Kerala and here EMS moves towards a curious blend of traditional
Nambudiri myth and Marxist method. Observing that there is a direct relation between
brahmin dominance and the prevalence of landlordism least in north Malabar, most in
central Kerala he goes on to ask, Does this show that the tradition of Parasurama having
granted land to the brahmins is correct?61
The details of the origins of landlordism were equally curiously worked out. Once the
Nambudiris had instituted the caste system it became necessary to compensate those who
provided services either in terms of land or grain from lands. The Nambudiris generated
ways of making an income by playing an entrepreneurial role and in return for this they took
a portion of the harvest. Te local rulers (naduvazhis and desavazhis) were given a portion of the
harvest in return for protection. As the status of the Nambudiris and rulers increased, the
importance of the share they received also went up. Over a period of time, it became
absolutely necessary for the cultivator to relinquish a portion of the harvest and it came to be
established that the Nambudiris and rulers had rights of overlordship on the land. In EMSs
narration, this was represented as an inevitable, painless and uncontested transition which
was accompanied by an increase in the devotion of the cultivators towards the Nambudiris
and the gods they had brought with them. The belief became entrenched that the produce

59

Menon, Caste, Nationalism and Communsim, ch. 5 and 6.


E.M.S.Nambudiripad, Party Sanghadakan, pp.3-6.
61
KMM, pp.65-6.
60

19

of the land belonged by rights to the Nambudiris or particular deities. If on the one hand it
was the rationale of the superior organisation of production by the Nambudiri that gave
them status, on the other it was a growing and unexplained devotion to them which lay at
the bottom of the creation of private property.62
The greatest advantage of the caste system was that it paved the way for a major
economic revolution. What the transfer of the rights over land from the hands of
those who cleared the forests and cultivated the lands to those who lived off a
portion of the produce without engaging in cultivation actually meant was the
emergence of a new sense of private property.63
In Kerala, private property was instituted with the coming of the Nambudiris while in the
rest of India it had to wait till the coming of the British. A form of absolute rights over
private property which extended not only over the land but the vegetation ad natural
formations on it was prevalent here to the great astonishment of the British. By the time
NQK came to be written, EMS had moved to the position that there was no intrinsic
connection between the coming of the Nambudiris and the origin of private property.
Indeed, where the Nambudiris came from (the geographical location was unspecified), they
had been used to communal ownership by village communities rather than the idea of
individual ownership. Therefore, even before their coming, land had already gone far
towards being turned into private property.64 We are not told how he arrived at this reversal
of the earlier assumption. However, this can be explained if we see that the argument had
shifted from seeing the Nambudiris as the harbingers of a new economic order, which would
associate them also with the deeply ambivalent heritage of caste and landlordism. Rather, it
was argued that they were the catalysts for a social transformation from matriliny to
patriliny which was part of the ascendant ideology within Kerala and therefore had more
unequivocal support.
It was in another context that EMS took up what was lying beneath the surface of his benign
delineation of the caste system: the question of inequality. In an attempt to locate the history
of Buddhism in ancient Kerala he argued for a clash between those who espoused Buddhism
and those who welcomed the newer immigrant groups. Buddhism was seen as having arisen

62

Ibid. pp.67-70.
Ibid. p.72.
64
NQK, pp.32-3.
63

20

in response to the subordination of the majority of the people to a tiny minority despite the
social advancement brought about by the division of labour through caste.
Those who believed that the earlier Kerala without the caste system and janmi
overlordship [Nair lordship] should be restored espoused Buddhism, and those who
wanted the destruction of the old order and the institution of a new one [Nambudirijanmi overslordship] took recourse to the brahmin religion.65
The victory over Buddhism of Sankaracharya and the advaita philosophy represented not
only the triumph of an ideology but a shift in the relations of production. For EMS, this was
a crucial watershed in the history of Kerala an he went along with the tradition held by the
Nambudiris in the Keralolpatti that the Malayalam era which begins in 825 C.E.
commemorated this event. His preference for this Nambudiri myth is interesting considering
the other options available to him.66 Buddhism perished because it had to; it represented an
older order which may have had greater equality between people as a premise but was tied to
a stagnant mode of production. It is curious how the triumph of advaita and the caste
ideology are presented as two sides of the same coin when the contemporary radical critiques
of caste whether by Narayana Guru or by Swami Vaghbhatananda drew upon advaita for
arguing against caste inequality.67

Aikya Keralam: Kerala as a Linguistic Region


It was in the laying out of an argument for Kerala as a cohesive regional unit bound by a
common history, language and culture that there was a more detailed and direct engagement
with the Dravidian position. EMS argued against the idea of a pristine Dravidian civilization
invaded by an Aryan one and put forward the gentler suggestion of a compromise and
exchange between the brahmin and the Dravidian. Just as in Kerala the brahmin became a
player in the matrilineal system of the Nairs, similarly, in Tamil Nadu, they had to adopt the
prevalent alphabet and content themselves with the fact that they could influence the local
literature but little. Nevertheless the culture that emerged in South India was a composite
one formed by the conflict between Dravidians and Aryans, in which the different strands
65

KMM, p.74.
For a discussion of the various theories regarding the origin of the Kollam era in 825 A.D., see A.
Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History, Kottayam, 1967, pp. 114-22.
67
V.T.Samuel, One Caste, One Relgion, One God for Man: a Study of Sree Narayana Gru (1854-1928)
of Kerala, India, Hartford Seminary, 1973; Swami Brahmavratan , Maharshi Vaghbhatananda Gurudevar,
Thottapally, 1971.
66

21

had become inseparable. Even Tamil literature, which prides itself on being the most
independent of Sanskrit influence, had had its rules of grammar codified by the sage
Agastya.68 From an argument establishing the synthesis of cultures, the next step was a leap
forward to state that over the centuries, there had been a shift away from a pan-Dravidian
culture to regional ones in which there is a greater similarity between the brahmins and nonbrahmins within a region than between brahmins, or Dravidians across regions.69 The
brahmin had been naturalized and attained a unity with the Dravidians in linguistic regions,
while there are differences and contradictions between the Dravidians themselves.70 In
Kerala, moreover, Dravidianised Aryans, i.e. Nambudiris and Aryanised Dravidians, i.e.
Nairs had created a distinct new culture. The rug was pulled out from under the Dravidianist
position by arguing that the Dravidians had less in common with each other and mre of an
affinity with the brahmins. The argument of racial difference was undermined by positing an
emergent unity.
The next step brought together the important components of the enw society caste and a
distinctive culture which integrated regions and gave them their unique character. The
origins of regional identity lay in the possibility of the creation of a high culture premised
upon a division of labour.
In fact, it was on the basis of the caste system which subordinated the majority of
the people socially and culturally to the brahmin, and the janmi system which
subordinated them economically to the landlord, that Kerala developed its own
culture and form of government and the Malayalis grew as an independent people.71
And again,
If these two arrangments [caste and the landlord system] had not existed, the
Nambudiris would have been unable to engage in cultural activities and develop the
sciences and literature and the Nairs could not have improved agricultural practices
and developed their martial and physical prowess.72
The cultural argument is made with greater specificity in NQK. Developing upon the earlier
critique of the Chera Empire, he argued pace Stalin that like the empires of the slave and

68

KMM, pp.83-4.
Ibid. p.85.
70
Ibid. p.86.
71
Ibid. p.71.
72
Ibid. p.105.
69

22

medieval periods, it had managed only to maintain Kerala as a conglomeration of tribes and
nationalities, each of which lived its own life and had its own language.73 Thus, Kerala was
moving from clan languages to tribal languages at a time when Tamilnadu was moving from
tribal languages to the languages of nationalities.74 Under the system of feudal landlordism
that developed after the coming of the brahmins there was a division of labour between the
manual and the intellectual workers and the allotment of a definite share of the produce to
the latter. The brahmins were then able to devote themselves to the unification of several
dialects into a national language.75 It became possible for Kerala to shear off from the Chera
Empire of which it had been a part and for Malayalam to develop as a language independent
of Chentamizh only under the umbrella of the brahmin. Moreover, in a Kerala which was
populated by different communities across its length and breadth, a uniform government,
society and culture came into being.
Here again the contrast with the Dravidian movement is striking. EMS argued that the
geographical region of Kerala was unified by the cultural production of the brahmins. This is
despite his critique of existing historiography as being largely about the rulers of Kerala and
the higher classes associated with them and excluding the lives of Cherumas, Parayas and
Nayadis who were slaves under the sway of these ruling classes. He stated that, in
Padmanabha Menons history 176 pages are devoted to the Nairs, 109 to the Nambudiris
and only 22 to the Tiyyas.76 The Dravidian movement drew upon a geneaology, built
assiduously from the late 19th century, of a unified and glorious Tamil civilisation which was
given a concrete definition by the anti-brahmin movement. The trajectory of regional
identity in the Malayalam speaking area was different. Starting from the early 20th century,
the spate of caste reform movements had undermined the notion of a coherent regional
culture. In Travancore, the introduction of community based politics has fragmented the
political as well as cultural realm into mutually opposed and infrequently united spaces of the
In the Introduction to NQK, EMS states that it was Stalins On Linguistics [Concerning Marxism in
Linguistics (1950)] that allowed him to rethink the crucial problem of the history of Kerala, i.e. the
continued existence of the matriarchal family, with is suggestion that the superstructure does often act
independently of the basis. Of course, Stalin remains obfuscatory on the nature of the relation. He says
both that the superstructure is not passive and indifferent but actively assists the base to take shape as also
that the superstructure is created by [the] base to serve it, J.V.Stalin, Selected Works, II, Calcutta, 1976,
p.251.
74
NQK, pp.24-5.
75
Ibid. p.55.
76
KMM, p.43.
73

23

Nair, Ezhava, Syrian Christian and so on.77 In Malabar, the attack on the janmi sampradayam
(the culture of landlordism often loosely translated as feudalism) from the late thirties
ranged from a critique of excessive exactions of rent to a rejection of forms like Kathakali as
being subsidized by peasants but culturally restricted to the landlord. The emergent socialist
critique had undermined the possibility of appealing to the canonical literature of the region,
by characterizing it as a product of a feudal culture in a language removed from the
experiences of the masses- Sanskrit and a highly Sanskritised Malayalam. The progressive
writers movement of the forties attempted to create a new demotic, populist culture which
drew upon the lives of the subordinate and to a lesser degree from the folk culture- popular
ballads, ritual performances and so on.78 However this was as yet in its infancy.

A high culture was being attacked for it feudal overtones while the relation with a popular
culture was fraught with contradictions. Beginning with the Ezhava reform movement of Sri
Narayana Guru, the route for social mobility involved a jettisoning of barbaric and
primitive customs and practices. The roots of caste inequality were seen as lying in the
unclean professions and uncivilized culture of the lower castes.79 Popular religion cme in fro
censure from the upper castes as well as lower caste reformers, and by extension so did
popular culture which had largely religious connotations. The brief attempt by The
Communist Party at an instrumental deployment of popular cultural forms in the forties had
not been serious enough to make a break from this civilizing impulse. Explainign this shift to
the cadre, EMS had written in 1944,
There is a common assumption that expressing an interest in the fine arts or developing a taste fro it, is not
suited for a communist. Those communists who have an interest in kathakali, festivals and temple festivals
often are embarrassed about admitting it. Today the circumstances are such that we have the opportunity to
lead the renaissance in literature, music and the other arts.80

Robin Jeffrey, Travancore: Status, Class and the Growth of Radical Politics, 1860-1940, in R.Jeffrey ed.
Peoples, Princes and Paramount Power: Society and Politics in Indian Princely States, Delhi, 1978.
78
E. Sardarkutty, Purogamana Sahitya Nirupanam (Criticism of Progressive Literature), Trichur, 1985;
P.K. Gopalakrishnan, Purogamana Sahitya Prasthanam: Nizhalum Velichhavum (The Progressive
WritersMovement: Light and Shadow), Trichur, 1987.
79
Menon, Caste, Nationalism and Communism, chs. 3 and 4.
80
E.M.S. Nambudiripad, Party Sanghadakam, p. 6.
77

24

Once the movement for regional identity- Aikya Keralam- began to gain mass following,
cultural fissures across caste and community were subsumed at least momentarily ina an
exaltation of Malayalam and its literature; an unequivocal return to the older classical
tradition as in Tamilnadu.81 Of course, though the trajectory was similar to that in
Tmailnadu, for EMS, the ideological underpinning came also from Stalins cocept of
nationality, in which language was one of the major constituents of a peoples identity. In
September 1942, in a resolution at a plenary meeting of the central committee, sixteen Indian
nations were classified, Keralas being one of them. However, the turn to language as an
unifier of a region remained a deeply ambivalent solution; coming at the end of a
redefinition of politics in Kerala establishing the rightful place of the working classes, the
new Kerala and the definition in terms of culture of the janmis.
So was there a sense of region, or any form of political unity prior to the cultural unification
wrought by the Nambudiris? Had Kerala been politically united under the rule of the
Perumals (9th to 11th centuries C.E.)? Here the central traditional account is the Keralolpatti.
Parasurama, who founded Kerala, divided the land into sixty-four brahmin villages and
prescribed an oligarchical government in which all the villages were represented. Over a
period of time, dissensions arose and under these circumstances representative authority was
conferred on select villages to act on behalf of the community. When this too failed to
prevent disputes, protectors were appointed to hold office for three years and four advisory
boards, each under an officer, were set up. Finally, the brahmins assembled at Tirunavayi
and resolved to bring in alien kings (Perumals) to rule over the country. Each Perumal was
to rule for twelve years and then retire from public life. The Keralolpatti gives a list of twentyfour such Perumals who ruled over Kerala and the last of them is reputed to have converted
to Islam and left for Mecca, after partitioning the country among his relatives. The mythical
account points to a political unity of Kerala under the Perumals which was fragmented after
the last Perumal renounced his rule.
EMS went along with the then existing historical consensus that even under the ruleof the
Perumals there had been no unity; under their overlordship there had been several kings

81

S. Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970, Berkeley, 1997.

25

who owed allegiance to them.82 It had been a form of feudal rule with the Perumals
exercising a fragile control and their empire disintegrated after their departure. However, he
made a significant departure from the consensus in two respects. First, he disagreed with
Padmanabha Menons assertion that the Perumals rather than being invited by the brahmins
were sent to rule here by the Chola-Chera-Pandya kings i.e. they were the appointed
governors following the incorporation of Kerala into the southern empires. He prefers the
account in the Keralolpatti which ash the brahmins inviting the Perumals, thus casting them
squarely as the movers in the political realm as his account of caste had made them the
lynchpins of the economic realm. Second, and more important, he argues that rather than
rule by a brahmin oligarchy prior to the coming of the Perumals, there had been a
democratic framework (janadhpatya vyavastha) which was supplanted by the despotism of the
Perumals. The establishment of feudal rule meant the destruction of ancient democracy.83
This characterization is derived from a reading of the Nambudiri tradition which he
preferred to Padmanabaha Menons own historical reconstruction from a variety of sources.
Here he attempted a reconciliation with the Dravidian ideologists by recasting the AryanDravidian conflict as that between two forms of democracy: the ancient Aryan democracy
brought from North India by the brahmins and the existing Nair system of local and village
assemblies (tarakoottam and naatukoottami).
The Nmabudiris are seen as having provided the only unifying government within Kerala,
and that too, a democratic one, just as earlier they were shown to have provided the
bonding cultural cement for the region. In NQK, another evaluation of the empires of the
south was provided, arguing against the theorists of Dravidian superiority that the racial
origin of the founders of the two types of empires the Indo-Iranian in the north and the
Turanian in the south is irrelevant in a study of the respective roles they played in the
development of human society in India.84 There had been considerable interaction between
the north and south wars of conquest, attacks and counter attacks which meant a
considerable diffusion of ideas and peoples. He went on to argue that the brahminical
civilisation may have been the common product of the Indo-Aryans and the Turanians

82

K.P.Padmanabha Menon, A History of Kerala, Cochin, 1924, vol.I, pp.420-67.


KMM, p.93.
84
NQK, p.26.
83

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(note the conscious avoidance of the term Dravidian). Conditional on this the hypothesis
being accepted, EMS took the next breathtaking step:
We are led to the very interesting conclusion that the Dravidian empires of the south
were not (as is generally supposed) bastions against brahminism which were
ultimately broken down, but the agency through which brahminism was reared on
Dravidian soil.85
The final step in the argument against Dravidian ideology had been made: the Dravidian
civilisation, if such existed, was necessary only in as much as it allowed for the inevitable
establishment of the brahmin and brahminism in south India.
A Usable Past
What did Marxism allow EMS to do? First, it facilitated a reconceptualisation of the idea of
caste as having played a historical role in organizing production in such a way that it
promoted the development of both individual skills as well as a regional culture. The latter
was developed by the brahmins at the apex of the caste hierarchy who were freed from
labour to devote themselves to intellectual and cultural activity. Second, and following from
this, amidst the general condemnation of the brahmin in south India, Marxism allowed the
reinstatement of a role for the brahmins by putting them at the heart of crucial changes in
the organisation of the family, a theme with major resonances for a society engaged in an
attack on the legacy of matriliny. Contradictions remained: the use of Nambudiri myths
along with a scientific approach to history; the putting of the working classes at the heart of
the theoretical exercise but in practice, exalting the high culture produced by the brahmins.
D.D.Kosambi, in one of the earliest reviews of Nehrus The Discovery of India, observed that it
reflected the bourgeoisie coming of age in India. EMSs work is a powerful example of the
brahmin coming of age in south India, emerging out of the critiques of the Dravidian
movement as well as the soul searching within the Nambudiri community to forge a history
that restored the brahmins to their rightful place.
On the face of it, EMSs use of Marxism and its concepts is idiosyncratic at best and
instrumental at worst. As we have seen, Engels argument about the transition to a
patrilineal, monogamous family was taken on board to serve EMSs own concern with the
85

NQK, p.28.

27

persistence within Kerala of a barbaric form like matriliny. Engels critique of this transition
was ignored. Morover, the historical location of institutions like caste remained unclear: was
its origin at the juncture of primitive communism, slavery or feudalism? Was the period of
the ancient democracy of the Nambudiris the era of primitive communism? If the
Nambudiris introduced caste into Kerala (as argued in KMM), how does this square with the
idea of primitive communism? There are curious formulations of the nature of Malayali
society. EMS argued that in medieval Kerala, the basis was European feudal while the
superstructure was brahmin i.e. Asiatic, and it was this brahminical superstructure that was
responsible for the further development of productive forces.86 However, we would be off
on a tangent if we read this text as an exposition of Marxist historical method. EMSs was a
purposive history which misunderstood Marxism for the political programme of the
Malayali region of Kerala. It was necessary to counter the Dravidian critique to imagine a
unity within the region of individuals constructed as Malayalis rather than as Brahmin or
non-brahmin. And, in this parallels with the nationalist discourse are evident.
The question really is: what did Marxism allow EMS to do; why was Marxism good to think?
To answer this, one has to understand the particular nature of Marxisms relationship with
the past. The version of historical materialism that EMS, Damodaran and other Malayali
Marxists espoused advocated evolutionism and progress as the watchwords of history. The
past was merely a stage that would be transcended in the inexorable forward movement of
change. Caste and other phenomenon were embarrassments located in a particular stage of
society that had had its day.
As Damodran listed at random; caste pollution, purdah, magic, superstition and matrilineal
households and the privilege of power were now matters of the past.87Marxism expounded a
linear conception of progress and of inevitable modernization which at times could pose a
problem for the anti-colonial sentiments of the Malayali communists. EMS, writing his
descending Minute in the Malabar Tenancy Committee Reportof 1940 observed of the role
of the British, that, here is a higher and more advanced form of society and its perfected
machinery and state culture acting as the tool of history in destroying the decadent social

86
87

NQK, pp. 30-1.


K.Damodaran, Charitraparamaya Bhoutikavadam (Historical Materialism), Trichur, 1948, pp. 13-14.

28

system and a dying culture.88 This desire to jettison the past and embrace the blandishments
of progress generated conflicts within Marxists in the colonies and elsewhere in Asia. As
Dirlik shows, Chinese Communist Party writers offered tortuous arguments in accepting
capitalism and imperialism as historically progressive, while trying to reconcile this with their
resentment of the effects of these forces.89
The evolutionist paradigm had more insidious effects in the attitude towards the past.
Historical materialism consigned traditional values and institutions to the superstructure of
society and predicted their natural extinction. Therefore, at one level, there was no need to
struggle against an old and dying culture. As David Marr observes, remarking on the work of
the Vietnamese Marxist Tran Huu Do, the dialectic could be used to explain the progressive
demise of the extended family system, superseding of kings and popes of oil magnates and
the victory of revolution.

90

Determinism allowed detachment. The idea of the inevitable

supersession of traditional moribund forms released EMS and other Marxists from what
Levinson calls, in his classic work on the fate of Confucian ideology in China, the
compulsion to denounce. They could move away from indictment to explanation.91 The
past could truly become a foreign country to be examined dispassionately. Ultimately, it was
this neutering of the past which vitiated much Marxist history and EMSs own Marxixante
foray. For, in not looking back in anger, EMS and others denied the long shadow of the past
in the present. Dravidian rhetoric about Brahmin immigration and the origins of caste was as
such about the past as inequality in the present. EMSs attempt to leap away from history y
asserting the pastness of caste and matriliny denied their tangibility in the present and their
continuing legacy.
The classics, traditions, and the usages could now be scrutinized from the vantage point of a
world which had consigned them to the past. As Dange wrote,

88

Malabar Tenancy Committee Report, 1940, p.73.


A. Dirlik, Revolution and History: Origins of Marxist Historiography in China, 1919-1937, Berkeley,
1978, pp.80-81.
90
Marr, Vietnamese Tradition, p. 274.
91
J. R. Levinson, Confucian China and its Modern Fate: the Problem of Historical Significance, Vol. 3,
London, 1965, p. 70.
89

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It is my firm opinion of the vast storehouse of Hindu mythology and religion, social
laws and practices, if read and sifted on the basis of Historical Materialism would
yield a consistent and rational picture of Indias ancient history.92

The past could be used once it has been transcended and the Marxist method allowed for
the creation of a usable past.

92

Dange, From Primitive Communism, p. 21

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