It is fusion music in Kerala

Tensions coexist with tranquillity in the state. Combative postures alternate with social pleasantries. Agitations as well as art events struggle for public attention.

ByK Jayakumar

Published Dec 22, 2022 | 12:10 PMUpdatedDec 22, 2022 | 12:23 PM

Coastal erosion near Anjengo has become worse since a fishing harbour was built at the Muthalapozhi estuary in Thiruvananthapuram district

The public sphere of Kerala has been listening to contradictory tunes but eventually, there is fusion and harmony.

Drums and bugles alternate with the notes of the violin and flute. Tensions coexist with tranquillity. Combative postures alternate with social pleasantries. Agitations as well as art events struggle for public attention.

In fact, this simultaneous presence of the turbulent and the creative has been a special felicity of Kerala’s psyche.

An agitation on the seashore

Families engaged in fishing for generations were on an indefinite and rather boisterous agitation for more than 130 days in Thiruvananthapuram.

The agitation, patronised and marshalled by the Latin Catholic diocese of Thiruvananthapuram, was primarily aimed at highlighting the indifference of the state government towards their livelihood issues that have been exacerbated by the Adani Port under construction at Vizhinjam.

Anti-Adani port protestors at Vizhinjam construction site

Anti-Adani port protestors at Vizhinjam construction site (South First)

Unconnected with the port were the unfulfilled earlier rehabilitation promises the government made soon after Cyclone Ockhi in 2017.

Erosion of beaches

Once the construction of the port by the Adani group began to pick up momentum with new breakwater construction and dredging, there have been several instances of adjoining beaches getting aggressively eroded.

Though no scientific study has established the cause-and-effect relation between port construction and aggravating sea erosion, in the native wisdom among the fisherfolk, this direct correlation is a foregone conclusion. They demanded that the construction be stopped till a study is completed and said that their representative should be a member of the study team.

Clergymen were at the forefront of the agitation. Several cases were booked against the agitators as they continued to block the roads and brought the Adani port construction to a standstill at Vizhinjam.

Several people including policemen were injured in violent incidents. The Kerala High Court too intervened but sadly it had no direct impact on the stir.

It was portrayed in the media that the modern port when ready would spell doom for traditional fishers. Political parties took nuanced stands. Many were cautious not to be seen as batting for Adani. Others did not want to be branded as part of the anti-development lobby.

Also read: Why are villages near Kerala capital losing beaches, homes?

Why did Vizhinjam compromise take so long?

Finally, the government stepped in with determination. The long agitation was withdrawn on 6 December on the basis of assurances. And the day following the agreement, the company resumed construction in a bid to catch up with lost time.

What is intriguing is the question of why it took more than 130 days to put across a compromise formula.

The aftermath of the violence at the Vizhinjam Police Station in Kerala on Sunday, 27 November, 2022. (Supplied)

The aftermath of the violence at the Vizhinjam Police Station in Kerala on Sunday, 27 November, 2022 (Supplied)

Any agitation that is allowed to escalate and go on for several weeks takes away the sheen off the final agreement. With every succeeding day, the parties involved harden their attitude towards each other.

Besides, the optics of a long-drawn-out agitation has bad payoffs in our highly networked times. It seems the mechanisms in the government to address such situations are still pre-modern. Governments are yet to discover any state-of-the-art means to deal with agitations. Certainly, it might be possible to develop an app by the name ‘solutions for agitations’ or more trendy ‘agitution’.

Also read: Despondency in Vizhinjam as Latin Catholic Church backs down

Frost between Governor and ‘his government’

Although Kerala never experiences extreme winter, of late there is a chill between Governor Arif Mohammed Khan and the state government.

It all escalated with the action of the Governor (in his capacity as Chancellor) asking all the vice-chancellors to put in their papers following the Supreme Court ruling that selection from a ‘list’ having only one name is against the law. And that is how several vice-chancellors have been ‘selected.’

File photo of Governor Arif Mohammed Khan with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan at the Kerala Raj Bhavan

File photo of Governor Arif Mohammed Khan with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan at the Kerala Raj Bhavan (Supplied)

So logically those appointments are also void ab initio. And it was argued that the Governor’s action was only a logical extension of the apex court’s order.

However, the course of action did not proceed as envisaged by the Governor. The High Court gave more time to the vice-chancellors to decide.

In the meanwhile, the state government initially promulgated an Ordinance and eventually passed an Act in the Assembly removing the Governor as Chancellor from the universities in Kerala. Two University Laws Amendment Bills were passed by the Kerala Legislative Assembly on 13 December that enable the state government to appoint academicians or ‘persons of eminence’ as Chancellors in state universities.

Ironically the Bills that seek to literally remove the Governor from the position of Chancellor will have to get his assent. Uncertainty looms large over the fate of these Bills.

Speculation is rife about what Governor Khan would choose to do. He could, with disarming simplicity and dramatic flourish, give his assent. Alternatively, he could send it back for reconsideration. It is also speculated that he would refer the bills to the President of India.

Whatever be the course of events and their outcome, the traditional notion that the Governor is the Chancellor of universities has been jolted.

Also read: VCs, a letter, and more, an intellectual winter in Kerala

Governor and neutrality

There was a time when Governors never dabbled in the details of governance and they commanded the respect as elder statesmen who, though beholden to the government in the Centre, tried to maintain neutrality.

India in its 75th year of Independence has been witnessing the wilting of such glory. While bemoaning the plummeting standards of university administration and academics across the states, there was a vague hope that with Governors as Chancellors things might not worsen beyond a point.

With the profile and conduct of several Governors mutating for the worse, perhaps universities may have to be salvaged by the Kerala model of legislation.

That said, it needs to be admitted that Arif Mohammed Khan has always maintained the decorum of the high office he holds, unlike many of his gubernatorial colleagues.

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammmad Khan Christmas

Kerala Governor Arif Mohammmad Khan’s Christmas party in 2021 (KB Jayachandran/South First)

Credit must be given for organising a Christmas Eve get-together at the Raj Bhavan amidst these developments, though the absentees were prominent. It was his way of saying that differences need not always create distances. A heartening and hugely relevant message indeed.

As if to balance such high-voltage events, Kerala witnessed two major cultural spectacles in December.

The 27th edition of the International film Festival of Kerala (IFFK 2022) at Thiruvananthapuram featured 184 films from 70 countries and attracted over 13,000 registered film enthusiasts. The other event is the 5th edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that opened on the 12th of this month and will go on till 10 April 2023.

There is not a dull day in Kerala. The trumpets of combat are alternated by the flute of creativity.

Also read: IFFK 2022, celebrating the right to dissent… and cracking down on it

Also read: Kerala film school strike, Adoor’s South First interview stirs hornet’s nest

(K Jayakumar is former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University. These are the personal views of the author)