KR Gouri: First leader to demand lockdown to control epidemic in 1950s

When plague and cholera were wreaking havoc in Kerala, the fiery leader urged the then chief minister to go for a total shutdown

KR Gouri, the longest serving woman MLA in Kerala, passed away on May 11

If it were not for the lockdown, the last journey of KR Gouri, who passed away in Kerala on Tuesday (May 11), would have been a grand affair, particularly a visual spectacle for the state’s vibrant media channels. Like the veritable road-show accorded for former chief minister EK Nayanar, for instance.

The media would have trailed the ambulance, carrying the mortal remains all the way from the capital Thiruvananthapuram to Alappuzha, around 150 km, by airing minute-by-minute, km-by-km updates. The crowd, lining up both sides of NH-66, to pay their last respects or to have a last glimpse of the fiery, rebellious leader, would have added to the frenzy.

Also read: KR Gouri, the best chief minister Kerala never had

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It was all not to be, thanks to the COVID-induced lockdown. There is an uncanny lockdown angle to KR Gouri’s last journey as well. In a way, history could possibly record KR Gouri as the “mother of the idea of lockdowns” as well.

Her strong, intense speech in Thiru-Kochi Assembly (before the formation of the State) — asking the then Chief Minister of Travancore-Cochin demanding action to have people confined at their homes when deadly epidemics such as cholera, smallpox, plague, and Elephantiasis were wreaking havoc — must be (arguably) the first instance to impose a lockdown to curb the spread of the epidemic.

KR Gouri’s speech, as recorded in the Assembly files, is a pointer to her unbeatable commitment to the underprivileged, especially women. Her audacious poser to Panampilly Govinda Menon was: “Mr Menon, do you have any idea about midwives who risk their lives visiting houses of people with Elephantiasis?  Or do you know how they manage to go to houses that have people infected with cholera or smallpox?  Are you aware that plague, smallpox, and cholera are taking a toll on the life of the people? Who else will have the guts to visit each and every house, barring our midwives? They will not hesitate like you the ruling class, but when we ask you to give them rice; you keep your treasury locked. Cholera and smallpox are spreading everywhere in Kuttanad  (Alappuzha). Can you restrict the movement of people in these areas? Can you kindly use the police to make announcements asking people to stay at home and venture out? When people are asked to sit at home, they will not have the means to eat, and then it is your responsibility to feed them. As a member of the Opposition, I request you to act urgently. I repeat, please impose these restrictions and make people sit at home. Please provide them food, and send food to midwives too.”

Also read: How Gouri Amma’s vision and tenacity led to creation of India’s first IT park

This stirring speech is just another proof to show how strong a leader KR Gouri was, and how empathetic to was for the underprivileged, and what a visionary she was.

There was more to come.

Her role in transforming Kerala into a more just, equitable and politically charged society is phenomenal which goes beyond the framework set by the traditional Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front. KR Gouri was the lone member who voiced dissent to the Tribal land Act (Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands to Scheduled Tribes Act) that eclipsed the rights of Adivasis to restore their lost land.

This is what KR Gouri said on September 9, 1996, in Kerala Assembly.

“Is this Act brought to save tribes? No. KM Mani (the then revenue minister) is at least honest to say that this Act was brought to protect the interest of farmers. This Act says that the tribal rights are preserved, but what is the fact? Shifting them to some other location is nothing less than a massive genocide. Where is the land you promise? On the hills? Or in cities? The tribal land was taken over by the powerful, influential and the rich. Tribals were displaced. Can you show me a single tribal family having farmland (other than the land where they live)? Recently I had a harrowing experience. A newly married tribal girl committed suicide. The house is crowded, three generations had been living there. The girl was forced to remove her clothes in the same room shared by other family members.  Unable to bear the insult, she killed herself. Where have gone all the schemes for tribals? If this bill is passed in this form, it will cause the genocide of tribals, nothing less. The government should provide alternative land to farmers and let tribals live in their own places. Shifting them from their land is just like taking a fish out of water. It is vote but not social justice that is important for you all.”

The Bill was rejected by the President but brought back again in 1999 with some changes. KR Gouri was there in the Assembly and did not budge an inch back from her earlier position. Despite her dissent, the Act came into existence.

All through her life, R Gouri remained a fighter and a warrior for the oppressed. These two episodes are just another indication.

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