Leftist Babel in Kerala
There is still the eerie silence here about the land struggle at Chengara, but we are nearly deaf from listening to talk, talk, and more talk about the redistribution of surplus land to landless dalit people. Everyone, from Karat to Pinarayi Vijayan to VS, to even that undaunted champion of liberal ‘minimum entitlements’ welfarism, T.M. Thomas Isaac, is talking of redistributing surplus land to landless dalits (adivasis, according to some,or landless ‘poor’ according to others, ‘poor’ according to yet others…).
That seems rather odd.Talking with some minor CPM intellectual-bhikshaamdehis the other day (who are of course still patiently waiting for ‘more and accurate information’) I could see a sense of wounded innocence. “Don’t forget,” one of them told me,”it is the CPM that campaigned for redistribution of surplus land.” What they do not want to acknowledge — in the very specific present, of course — was that this promise was never fulfilled. Indeed, the so-called ‘class agenda’of the dominant left was more or less treated as over in the early 1970s;the left’s achievements after this did not touch upon redistribution of productive resources to the agricultural working classes. Indeed, we have seen the expansion of mass welfare — mass housing, fixing minimum wages, making available welfare pensions through welfare funds for unorganised sector workers, and so on.We have also seen the welfare system’s indirect acknowledgement of the rise of the consumer-citizen in Kerala — for instance, in the state-run Maveli stores.
The early 1990s saw the first moves towards ‘engaged citizenship’a la Robert Putnam, the first glimmerings of ‘state-centric civil society’ in the mass literacy campaigns when the ‘people’s science movement’, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat, mobilsed a large number of volunteer-teachers.The People’s Planning Campaign of the mid-1990s was the culmination of this gradual shift towards Kerala’s own version of the ‘Third Way’, which however pretended — or hoped and prayed — that the question of the redistribution of productive land to landless dalit people was buried and forgotten.The PPC introduced the liberal promise by which the poor were to be integrated into the market as small entreprenuers with plenty of state support through the new institutions of local self-government– in training, credit, subsidies, infrastructure, and markets.This was to be matched with an expansion of ‘minimum entitlements’ — especially housing and water supply.
The trick didn’t work. The demand for productive resources continued to be raised from outside the domain of formal politics, from within oppositional civil society, by adivasi and dalit people — and not as a ‘class issue’. Since the new millenium, Kerala has seen powerful land struggles by adivasis and dalits for land, and indeed, the CPM had to deal with this reality.The CPM’s strategy against the Adivasi Gotra Sabha, for instance, has been to acknowledge the demand minimally, and then see it to it that only tribal people who support the CPM gain the minimal access to land.Similarly, when widows’ associations began to form outside the political parties, the CPM created its own organisation for widows — who are indeed a sizeable number in Kerala — and again, the demands were significantly reduced, minimised. The CPM makes sure that the tribals and widows do not ever grow out of their status as governmental categories into full-fledged, vocal interest groups.Chengara, however, presents a tougher task.The CPM does not want another Nandigram, whatever the Pathanamthitta District Secretary may claim.How the CPM tackles this issue is worth watching, though — they have opened the gambit by talking again of redistributing surplus land.
I, however, call the present round of statements by leading CPM leaders ‘noise’ because there are too many notes and tones clashing, in fact nothing can be heard at all. On the one hand, there is the the desperate reaffirmation of the promise to redistribute surplus land — is clearly an effort to reclaim it as a ‘class issue’ and hence legitimately owned by the CPM. On the other hand, there are statements which seem to say that the class issue is after all a caste issue and vice-versa and in any case, ‘poor people’ are at the centre.There is another set of statements which mix up the demand for land by the protestors from Chengara with the debate around the desirability of’second [round]land reforms’–as if the first was ever completed.Here no one is sure whether the ‘second land reforms’ is pro-Chengara land struggle or anti-land mafia, or both.Or whether the demand for productive land is the same as the presently available sure-fire medicine for poverty alleviation, the minimum entitlement, or whether productive land should be made into the new minimum entitlement.
A regular political babel, is all I can say, with everyone from Ambedkar to Amartya Sen dragged in. As old-timers say in Malayalam, ‘all the world and all of change is Maaya’! True for the present in Kerala, at least.