The Fragility of Oppositional Civil Social Ecology and the Impact of V S
Now that most of us Malayalees are basking in the warmth of the global ban on Endosulfan,even enjoying a brief spell of ‘unity’ (yes, even the UDF folk have joined, if more warily), what I’m about to write will probably make me quite unpopular. Well, here goes – I have been watching the unfolding of events since last month’s elections to the Kerala State Assembly right up to the gathering of protest and the CPM-led charge against Endosulfan and it all looked like the ultimate festival of depoliticized mediatized dramatics. The dramatics during candidate-selection, the emotional performances of candidates, pretenders, leaders etc etc of various sorts for TV, the weepy complaints combined with nimble hopping across the LDF-UDF boundary by seekers of candidature, the lack of attention to manifestoes and the general attrition of discussion, all of this seemed to taper endlessly — exactly like the long-drawn-out daytime temple rituals during the Pooram at Thrissur. It was indeed a festival, consumed heavily and enjoyed immensely by the people — perhaps not in the sense of being a ‘festival of the people’.
However, this year, it seems to me, the culmination of this festival — which would have corresponded to the spectacular night-time Pooram fireworks — wasn’t the TV- generated excitement around counting and results. Rather,the stunning display of light and sound came in the CPM’s sudden burst of committment to the health and longevity of Malayalees. I can already see many eyes, both of CPM supporters and critics, turn red with anger reading this. In fact, I myself am rather shaken when one part of me refuses to join the celebration without my critical lenses on.However, there is nothing unexpected about that part of me which rejoices with the people of Kasaragod and many, many activists and groups, who have braved the worst kinds of neglect, violence, misrepresentation, and insult to take the battle to these levels. This is simply because of the fact that as someone who has been writing consistently about the relevance of the oppositional civil society to contemporary politics in Malayalee society and the need to preserve and extend its space, this is a battle I has been implicitly part of. The wary and sceptic part of me, however, warns that while the suffering people may have indeed made one step more towards justice, oppositional civil society may not have gained anything substantial. Indeed,it seems to me that the political space that environment activism in Kerala and the entire oppositional civil society have opened up through their courageous struggle may have already been snatched away and garnered to purposes deemed correct by who appears to be Kerala CPM’s sole source of political sustenance in the present, V S Achuthanandan. To be fair to him, VS’s present ascendancy has a longer history; it was already apparent in the election campaign. It was as if workers of the LDF realized that as long as they drew upon whatever radical charge that the sign of the ‘left’ possessed, they needed someone who could represent a difference from the UDF (in everything else, the two are more or less the same).As the campaign drew to an end, VS had emerged as the most, or even, the only credible leader in the LDF.
This does not worry me, or is no surprise; however, what is worrying is the manner in which this politician seems to have bounced back occupying almost all of the high moral ground that he occupied on the eve of the last electoral triumph of the CPM, five years back, mainly through appropriating a cause that the oppositional civil society had worked very hard to bring into public view. Many commentators, many bloggers, have pointed out by now the insincerity and shallow realism of the CPM in the Endosulfan issue, that fail to disappear despite the present histrionics.Achuthanandan’s own investment in the issue has also been questioned.Yet the manner in which the media has set up the entire show lets everything flow back towards him, even the global ban. It may not be that the civil society activists who have even been beaten up for raising an ‘anti-worker’ cause (which would affect the workers of the Plantation Corportation), or who had pinned their hopes on VS as their champion only to discover that this was merely peripheral interest, have forgotten this — strangely so, for it was an issue on which he could have actually pursued justice, for the likelihood of stark opposition to it within the CPM was anyway relatively low when compared with others like the Kiliroor sex-racket case. And whenever the CPM did raise the issue, it looked too starkly opportunistic, something that seemed apparent in the CPM’s failure to build a long, sustained campaign. In one such occassion, it was as the Malayalam author K L Mohana Varma (if I remember right) said something to this effect: [The CPM protest discourse on] ‘Endosulfan is a pesticide meant to destroy a special pest called Lavalin.’ Environment activists have also probably not forgotten the fact that just a few months back, they had been collectively labelled by local CPM leaders as wooly-headed lunatic tree-lovers because they had opposed mindless tree-felling in Thiruvananthapuram as part of urban growth. It may be that they found it unwise to break the ranks at an opportune moment.The Malayalam print and visual media have chosen to largely ignore such silences; many journalists probably fear such accusation.
Not many have asked why the Endosulfan issue was chosen by the CPM. Certainly VS had displayed an interest in many other oppositional civil society-generated issues? No doubt, this has been for the easiness with which it can be sentimentalized into tales of suffering to which all of us well-appointed neo-bourgeois elites can offer tributes of sighs and suppressed sobs. It is in this sense that it is perceived to be a ‘unifying’ cause: it brings in the Malayalee neo-bourgeoisie, at least their sympathies. This is because it evokes fear in the neo-bourgeoisie in many ways, for example, about the fancy fruit they can’t do without and the curry leaves from Spencer Plaza (since they don’t grow curry leaf shrubs any more in their backyards; though Kerala is still lush and verdant, ‘social status’ demands fancy plants) being contaminated with Endosulfan, through the activation of the NIMBY attitude, and so on. I doubt, however, whether this will do oppositional civil society any good. For the Endosufan issue, to environment activists, is indeed part of a larger political issue, that of predatory growth and the mindless depradation of Kerala’s unique and fragile ecology. The neo-bourgeoisie is not likely to respond sentimentally, favourably or otherwise, on that! Nor can the environment movement afford to share too easily the gains at the global level with VS or the CPM, for which they have worked hard weathering tremendous opposition, almost all by themselves.
And let us not forget what VS has been towards the oppositional civil society in the past five years. I’m amazed when I hear sensible people keep saying that VS is the hope for the future of the left, repeating it as if it were a mantra that would actually produce that reality. I used to share some of their enthusiasm, but not any more.However they may try to paint him in angelic hues (or strategic-realist hues), I cannot help seeing the political implications of the his order to the dalit protestors at Chengara, that they return to their villages and apply for three cents of housing land; I can never forget the intensely savarna elite force of his threat that they would have to face police with ‘horns and thorns’ if they did not go back; I can’t forgive his contributions to the tsunami of Islamophobia that swept Kerala in the past two years; I can’t get over the way in which the insult he hurled publicly at Latika Subhash took us right back to E K Nayanar’s days, when public expression of misogyny through innuendo was a simple excusable thing, a laugh sometimes. Those days looked as if they were far back in the past; they were pushed that back in at least our minds precisely through the feminist battle against sexual violence by mighty politicians — that he used found useful once. VS’ shamelessly unapologetic stance took us right back to those dark times. Anyone in the oppositional civil society who thinks VS is a saviour or even an ally also better be aware that he extracts so large a price that the cause may be sapped out of existence. And the only person to gain will probably be him. VS may have a symbolic value in such struggles,but beyond that, proceed at your own risk!
Here I think is a lesson to learn from the feminist experience with the sexual exploitation cases, especially the’Ice-cream parlour’ case, which began as a feminist struggle against sexual exploitation but which has ended up as a tussle between groups of politicians trying to shove each other out of party politics. But this was not the only way in which these struggles could have developed. The way in which the ‘ice-cream parlour case’ was posed, as a political-moral, rather than as political-economic, question, had enjoyed no consensus within the broad spectrum of gender activism in Kerala. Some, including myself, had feared that it would deteriorate into a moral controversy that would serve only rightwing social conservatives. Nor were we convinced that feminists needed the help of ‘sympathetic’ male left politicians or that the only way to gain in the struggle was through a legal fight-to-death in which we conquer the foe. How I wish we had used them as opportunities not just to fight for legal justice for the victims, but also to deploy the non-moralistic and radical insights of socialist feminism to redo our own narrow conceptions of sexual exploitation, gendered labour, morality and women’s agency; to campaign wider and harder for women’s right to their bodies, sexual self-determination, contraceptive choice, and against structures of sexual exploitation within and outside the family! That way, we would have made good use of the central insight about power that the new social movements have granted us: that power is not centralized in the state or political society, but infiltrates everyday life in capilliary form, and therefore the urgent task is to reclaim politics as a constituent of social life, enabling a continuous transformation of the subject. Instead, we have been left distraught. On the one hand, when the ‘ice-cream parlour’ issue was recently revived, everything except perhaps the original question of justice for women in the face of sexual exploitation, was debated. On the other hand, we have been almost ticked off, told to stay content with waiting until it becomes either possible or convenient for our saviour, VS, to deliver justice to our doorstep, or get lost. And that’s all there was to the feminist struggle, it seems!
I do hope environmental activists in Kerala continue the struggle against Endosulfan by insisting on the larger ramifications of their struggle, which is for ways of living that respect the unique,fragile, gloriously complex ecology of this land. And perhaps all of us outside electoral politics may find it useful to remember that the oppositional civil society, too, has a complex, fragile, and uniquely evolving ecology, which may actually wither under ‘quick-growth’ solutions proposed by high profile defenders whose interests are certainly not the fostering of that ecology. Those of us who do not heed this insight, I fear, will certainly pay a heavy price.
(cross-posted on http://www.countermedia.in)