Ever since the evil of majoritarian far-right rule hit us at full-blast in India, a common refrain that we Malayalis have heard is about what a refuge Kerala is. In the North, our liberal friends tell us, a liberal existence is increasingly risky as the state grows more and more thuggish, society is simply not civil anymore, and unbridled market forces increasingly take over everything that was shared as common resource.
Kerala, for them, is the tolerant society in which people live together in peace, nurtured by a welfarist state brimming over with paternal concern, protected against the depredations of the market by the state which is devoted solely to the prosperity of Malayali families.
In sharp contrast is the Kerala-bashing led by vulgar cultural hoodlums posing as filmmakers, or writers who reel in frustration about the lack of their electoral success here.
Those of us who neither wish to put on the rose-tinted glasses of North Indian liberals nor join the Indo-Gangetic brutish assault on Kerala are really stuck, because nuanced criticism is harder and harder to voice.
Indeed, for some of us, putting on the rose-tinted glasses is tough.
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Unlike Mallika Sarabhai who is the CPI(M) government’s preferred cultural guest and ambassador, or Arundhati Roy and others, who make the occasional visit to DYFI-organised gatherings, those of us who actually live here and participate in the daily struggle for democratic freedom are thoroughly confounded.
The present CPM(I)-led government of Pinarayi Vijayan may look like the very haven of democracy to liberals outside, but those of us who fight against the denial of democratic freedoms find out each day that they are not our allies. Indeed, there are countless instances in which the CPI(M) leadership has behaved in ways that would make the Hindutva right-wing envious.
Indeed, if history-writing is returned to the people someday, the history of Pinarayi Vijayan’s stint in power will be remembered for his success in turning the Kerala CPI(M) into a skilled shape-shifter: A presence that seems like a tolerant Hindu-majority party, but can at will look and behave like a Hindu-majoritarian one. So when some of us try to fight against the denial of liberal freedoms, we find that the biggest hurdle in our path is our liberal-Left friends.
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Going back in time
I have lived through this several times. In 2017, for example, I stood with a young Hindu, Ezhava-born woman who chose her faith, converted to it, and then sought a life-partner who shared that faith. She was only claiming the freedoms guaranteed to her by the Indian Constitution. However, when her Hindutva-influenced family decided to act invasively, way beyond what would be expected from worried parents, her rights were curtailed.
Time seemed to have rolled back to a situation in which an adult woman could be sent into family (and community) custody and her father’s sovereign power over her body and choices were reaffirmed. This brave young woman fought alone. Some of us who stood with her soon noticed a curious paradox — we found that support for her cause came not from the Left.
Her house was in a ward represented by a CPI member; the panchayat there was controlled by the CPI; the MLA and MP of her constituency were also CPI leaders. But not only did they cravenly comply with this violation of rights, Left-supporters and CPI(M) intellectuals seemed utterly keen to throw her and her partners into the jaws of the National Investigative Agency (NIA). All because the faith that this woman chose was Islam.
Indeed, those of us who saw the great danger of the violation of women’s constitutionally-guaranteed rights in this case found that we were fighting alongside those who were demonised as “illiberal and dangerous” — Islamicist voices and organisations. The young woman in question had sought refuge with several liberal Muslim organisations, but was pushed away until one of the non-liberal Islamic organisations had to take her in and protect her from the threat of Hindutva violence.
I could not help seeing the CPI(M) would not protect her because it was a Hindu-majority party that could any moment be the Hindu-majoritarian one.
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Liberalism and Left claims
Yes, it is true that Malayali society has a legacy of peaceful co-existence between communities, but the reasons for this are eminently historical and cannot be attributed to any single political force, liberal or illiberal. However, the Left in Kerala would love to claim it as solely theirs in the interest of image-building that so seduces liberal Left intellectuals still — and allows them to overlook even such blatant overtures to predatory capital, such as the romance of the present LDF government with Adani Ports in Vizhinjam that threatens to impoverish, displace, and scatter the fisher community from their ancestral lands and sea.
This insight, which all of us who want desperately to trust the Left would like to push away as much as we can, forced its way back into my life again during the anti-Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) struggles. It seemed to me that the CAA was such a fundamental threat to the very stability of our democracy that I felt myself bound to join any group that rejected it.
So I went to all the lawful public protests, irrespective of whether they were organised by the CPI(M), CPI, the Congress, or the Islamicist groups. However, I have always opposed harthals, especially on issues to do with the Muslims, simply because Malayali Muslims are highly reliant on migration and remittances, and harthals being strictly opposed by the High Court of Kerala provide a very convenient legal excuse to harass young Muslims who wish to migrate in search of jobs.
So when I was asked for permission to add my name to a poster supporting a harthal organised by Muslim organizations against the CAA, I refused, telling them that my name should be added only if it was just a protest, and sharing with them my fears of police harassment against young Muslim protestors. The activist who asked me seemed confused herself, as she claimed that the high court had asked only for a seven-day notice, and that they were hopeful of getting police permission because the CPI(M) itself had taken an unequivocal stance against the CAA. I remained sceptical.
However, my name ended up in the poster. I received a call from a policeman who sounded utterly vindictive towards the organisers; I told him what had happened but confirmed that I would join if it was protest, not a harthal. Then, after the harthal, which also saw some violence, the police began to act. I was informed that FIRs were lodged against me at several police stations in Kerala along with many other members of Kerala’s oppositional civil society whose names had also appeared in the poster.
I repeated my stance to the officers; some of those FIRs were dropped. So it appeared that what looked like Hindu-majority party tolerant towards the Muslims had, for us, become the Hindu-majoritarian one. That is, we did not have to move to the north to face the brunt of Hindu-majoritarian vindictiveness.
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Then, just before the Kerala state elections, there was news that the Kerala government would be dropping all cases against political protestors. The tolerant Hindu-majority party was back.
But that was illusive, as I discovered recently when I applied for passport renewal. Three cases popped up. In one of those I appear among some 500 “identifiable” people who had disrupted the law! In the other two, I am accused of civil contempt of court. The Hindu-majoritarian state was apparently acting against us, all the while.
The announcement about dropping political cases was for the Hindutva supporters who had engaged in naked violence on the streets and the premises of the Sabarimala temple during their agitation against the Supreme Cour judgement opening up the Sabarimala temple to women of menstruating ages. Curiously enough, some prominent people who had been named in the FIRs were apparently excused. Their names are not present in the charge sheets.
I was of course irritated, but strangely enough, deep down, I felt a curious sense of relief. The times are such, we all know, that it is not easy for those of us who stand up for democracy and decency in public life. But because many of us still live lives of upper-middle-class privilege, the full extent of nastiness may not have reached us yet. I felt a burden of guilt within myself lift when I saw that I too have not been spared — something within me had been poking me all the time, reminding me of the privilege that I thought was protecting me. To see that I shared a tiny bit of the repression that falls heavily on those who arouse the insecurities of power was actually a reprieve, however brief.
But I notice that the shape-shifting of the CPI(M)-led regime in Kerala is actually more expansive. On 1 December, 2020, the All-India Kisan Sabha organised a national rasta-roko protest against the arbitrary and anti-farmer farm laws. The Kerala Karshaka Sangham’s response was lukewarm but the independent farmers’ organisations responded to the call. Cases have been slapped on peaceful protesters, these farmers who were actually joining the struggle announced by the Kisan Sabha!
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Response of ‘Left liberals’
But what really intrigued me was the response of the Left-liberals. When I wrote about this on social media, a well-known liberal feminist, a journalist with a Muslim name who has flashed her “secular credentials” so loutishly that it looks obscene, left a sneer-emoji under my post. The same woman journalist had once made a career of playing the victimised Muslim woman journalist, even declaring before an audience that gave her an award that “I am XXX, but I am not a terrorist”!
But this is the Era of the Shape-shifter. Displaying a formidable capacity for shape-shifting that would put even the present leadership of the Kerala CPI(M) to shame, she has become one of the most prominent peddlers of Islamophobia in Kerala today. So the sneering did not surprise me, but it gave me an insight which I will treasure forever.
In my career as a researcher, I have met and interviewed many, many elected women leaders of Kerala’s robust local self-governments. Each time, I have marvelled at how even the least-accomplished among them shone inwardly with the radiance of Indian democracy: It was as if a small drop of the sovereign power of the people enshrined in the Indian Constitution had transformed them into forces of democracy. This sneering woman, however, seemed to be animated by exactly what has been so obvious about the power of Hindutva majoritarianism: The sordid capacity to delight in the pain of their victims.
Yes, it is the kind of power that matters, not your political affiliations. It is the power of democracy that makes you a public being; it is fascist power that makes you sneer at the victims of that power. And it is true, harrowing experiences, if they don’t break you, leave you that priceless gift: Clarity.
(A member the faculty at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, J Devika is an activist and academic. A bilingual writer, she translated several Malayalam novels into English apart from regularly writing in national media on contemporary Kerala. A powerful orator, Devika also focuses on empowering women, Dalits, and tribals. She is also a strong champion of environmental causes and minority rights. Views expressed are personal)