Un-Indianizing Kerala: How to defend K K Shahina
Like the unseasonal and tenebrous rain clouds that are hovering over Thiruvananthapuram in what should be a sunny, light-mist-adorned January, a pall of gloom, of impending danger, hangs around my everyday life in Kerala. This is not a general feeling. It is however shared by many of us who write and speak critically about the powers that be. The space to speak and write thus has been shrinking for a while now, but now there is a sense of dangerously teetering on the edge: the Indian state seems to be upon us, and with a vengeance.
Of course, Kerala has been subject to ‘Indianization’ quite intensely for almost more than a century and half now. It may be hard to imagine how ‘unindian’ Malanaadu –Kerala was not yet in existence — was in the early 20th century — how far away it was from the ‘Indian’ model of family, sexuality, community, faith, culture as imagined by Indian nationalists . Indeed, even the hierarchical caste system which Malanaadu shared with the rest of the subcontinent was striking different in its peculiar contortions. ‘Modernization’ in early 20th century was often synonymous with a certain ‘Indianization’ which offered new models that ostensibly harked back to an ‘Aryan’ past, and it often addressed the practical consciousness, striving to reform traditional practices that were not in line with ideas identified as ‘truly traditional’ (read ‘Aryan’ or Indian’). Yet, even in the 1940s, one could well argue that this part of India was culturally (and physically) closer to western Sri Lanka than to either the discursively-constructed ‘India’ of elite nationalism or even the other parts of the Indian subcontinent. If cultural contiguity is the criterion of national identity, then in the 1940s, Malayalees were closer to Sri Lanka than to India — and we ought to have belonged there. The resemblance continued though transformed through the 20th century — the high levels of social development in both regions, for example.
Yet, we have been good subjects of the Indian nation. We have kept mum.The cultural links that bound us to Sri Lanka (and continue to do, in many ways) are yet to be deeply explored in scholarship. Even the strong presence of Pali in Malayalam and the persistence of the vestiges of Buddhism in the Hindu temples have not received much sustained attention — and more importantly, such a discourse that considers the cultural connections of Kerala and Sri Lanka has simply not emerged in the Malayalee public domain at all. ‘Indianization’ has proceeded like a natural force, and over the 20th century, Malayalee society has come to be ‘Indian’ in a number of ways, ranging from the ubiquitous presence of dowry and dowry harassment, to the widespread practice of Hindu women rubbing their hair-parting line with sindoor.
Yet there were ways and domains in which we strove to be ‘un-Indian’. The passion with which we translate, consume, and discuss Latin American literature is such that I can imagine Lhosa, Amado, Marquez and others as equally part of the Malayalee legacy. But of the domains in which Malayalees sought to assert difference from ‘India’, politics has been the most important. Community competition over resources and the prominence of the left that leaned upon the legacy of community reformism were two features of this ‘un-Indian’ model of politics. We were chastised harshly enough for clinging stubbornly to it. Kerala was known by epithets that were strikingly uncomplimentary, until the ‘Kerala Model’ rose up in the 1970s: it was the ‘problem state’ because governments here were not stable, ‘backward’ because it was not industrializing rapidly, ‘madhouse of teeming millions’ because of the high density of population . In contemporary parlance, we were paragons of ‘bad governance’. Yet, as we would triumphantly declare in the 1970s, we had indeed achieved, to a very considerable extent, what other regions could not — through a uniquely regional, sub-national trajectory of ‘bad governance’! The critiques of the ‘Kerala Model’ notwithstanding, there was little disagreement that Kerala’s divergence from the rest of India had served us relatively well. The three discourses of social science in and through which Kerala re-emerged in global discourse — that of matriliny, politics, and development — all emphasized its difference from India, and this continued to be a key element in the popular perception of Malayalee national identity well into the early 20th century.
However, the era of liberalization did revive some of the earlier epithets: ‘problem state’, now understood as the region in which neoliberal capital found itself limited by labour, ‘backward’, now that ‘development’ and capitalist growth were lumped together. These have still not become hegemonic and feminist and dalit critics of the Kerala Model have largely resisted attempts to harness their insights to the interests of the emergent economic order. However, another sort of ‘Indianization’ characteristic of saffron politics did make huge inroads recently: we have been reeling in wave after wave of Islamophobia perpetuated in the name of an utterly dubious progressiveness. The Indian-Nation-is-in-danger-sort of frenzy has become all-pervasive and there is enough reason to think that Malayalam media has capitulated. The wave continues to ride high, in fact, so high that one starts believing in conspiracy theories. For example, the recent Mohanlal-starrer, Kandahar, a jingoistic paean to military rule that rubbishes the best aspects of Indian democracy, which almost looks as if it has been scripted by state agents, is only the last one of a series of ‘military films’ of the same boring sort. And it bombed at the box-office quite definitely; the audiences have been decidedly thin. However, it continues to be screened in a centrally-located theatre in Thiruvananthapuram even now. How come? Or maybe the current mood is making me paranoid! More baffling is the question why such a movie — that insults the progressive legacy of Indian democracy enshrined in the Constitution so outrageously — is not accused of being ‘seditious’. The maker of Kandahar has, on the contrary, been bestowed with ‘national integration’ prizes!
What is scarier is the fact that our ability to resist these by producing sub-national discourses is withering. Assertions of Malayalee identity are nowadays directed more often than not, against the lowest rungs of neoliberal ‘India Shining’ — for example, against the migrant labourers who have arrived in Kerala as construction workers etc in the wake of the real estate boom. The onset of liberalization has indeed seriously affected Kerala’s social welfarist policies and voices, including those from the mainstream left parties, have criticized the centre’s economic policy as anti-Kerala. However, there is a real need for us to seriously recognize that Islamophobia has engendered a particularly virulent form of ‘Indianization’ which undermines the uniquely vibrant public that Kerala’s specific historical trajectory has fostered. This is what the Malayalee media’s lack of energy regarding the unjust treatment suffered by K. K. Shahina of the Tehelka reveals. The facts of the case are in the public domain abundantly and it is clear that the attack on her is a violation of the freedom of the press, something that the Malayalee press, right from the days of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai and Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, has cherished. It is also clear that she is being targeted not by some neutral ‘Indian nation’, but by the police controlled by a Hindu fundamentalist government that uses the discourse of national security to its own sinister ends. However, the pervasiveness of fear generated by rampant Islamophobia whipped up around the Madani case ensures that we forget these facts. Indeed, we forget our own history — our own history of marginality in the ‘India’ of the brahmanized elites — and instead bow to the exigencies of ‘national security’ which moves in swiftly to curtail our freedoms.
Perhaps the campaign for Shahina will be occasion for us to think about how we may redeploy subnational discourses against the advancing power of ‘national security’. Perhaps this is also an occasion for the mainstream left to leave in the past its association with Islamophobia and redefine its political effort among the Muslims. There is now a crying need today to build alliances that recognize the significance of the historic juncture in which the Muslims of Kerala are in today and re-propose a dialogue on Muslim modernity. But most urgently, the mainstream left parties, if they wish to rebuild their depleted influence, should work to ensure adequate political space for Muslims to articulate their concerns in public and defend them against the onslaughts of ‘national security’. Indeed, such distance from the arms of the state is already part of the mainstream left’s historical legacy in Kerala. Remember the full recognition of the first Communist Ministry in Kerala in 1957 of the colonial legacy of the police. As Victor M. Fic noted of the first Communist Ministry in Kerala, it declared its commitment towards preventing the police from suppressing or impeding democratic activities of political parties as part of its policy. In other words, it made an explicit policy commitment to measures through which it could show agonistic respect to other political parties. This is of course part of our ‘un-Indian’ legacy of politics- and indeed, it may well be argued that ‘Indianization’ affects the mainstream left the worse — not the Congress or the BJP.
Perhaps we must now reclaim the legacy of ‘un-Indian’ politics and redeploy it against the undemocratic thrusts of ‘national security’ in regional space. That is perhaps the only way we can keep at bay what has become the nightmare of ‘national integration’: state security pervading all our worlds, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. And perhaps we must declare that we do have an ‘India’ too, one that is entirely unlike that of brahminized Hindu elite, one that is rooted in democracy and difference — — for instance through asking for legal action against films that disparage the progressive legacy of Indian democracy and thereby the Indian Constitution, on the grounds that they hurt our nationalist sentiments, perhaps?