Out of Development’s Waiting Room, Out of Democracy: The Continuing Agony of the DHRM
[with inputs from Baiju John]
Faced with the never-ending agony to which the members of the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) in Kerala seem to be subject to, it appears that that the more familiar ways of marginalizing of dalit people in Malayalee people do not work anymore. The past few days have seen horrendous attacks on these people near the town of Varkala in Thiruvanathapuram district. The DHRM has accused the Siva Sena and the BJP of violence, but it appears that both the authorities and the press are equally and irremediably deaf.
‘Deprivation’ was the dominant mode of marginalization, which gives rise to the picture of peoples trapped in the waiting room of social development, who however do not differ in other ways from those who have gained entry. Dalits were certainly conceived as inferior, but the reformers insisted that they were ‘reformable’, and hence the projects of ‘uplift’. In other words, they are the ‘acceptable’ outcasts, upon whom the elite constantly exercise their pastoral authority. Their oppression, rights, ‘voices’, and redemption are unendingly discussed in elite circles, though such discussion rarely moves beyond the terms of debate set by the state, elite intellectuals, or technocrats.
I’m however more inclined to think these days that this is being rapidly replaced by abjection — by which these people are rendered more or less invisible, their words are not just ignored, they are simply not heard. As Julia Kristeva put it, abjects are themselves deprived subjecthood, but they nevertheless circumscribe the domain of the subject.These socially stigmatised groups signify ‘dirt’ and ‘disorder’ to the dominant. If in the frame of ‘deprivation’, dalits were considered eminently reformable.The abject, however, remains beyond the pale of reformist efforts, and are thus deemed the ‘unacceptable’outcasts of the dominant order.Under post-Gulf migration conditions combined with the impact of globalisation in contemporary Kerala, abjection as a mode of marginalization seems to have acquired renewed strength.
The DHRM seems to be taking the full brunt of this assault since 2009, persistently demonized in the media as ‘black shirts’, ‘Dalit terror’, and so on [here is a relatively sympathetic report : http://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-dalit-evangelists/636003/0 ]. The Ambedkarite and Buddhist DHRM has spread in the dalit colonies, especially in and around the town of Varkala. It is interesting that they reach out to dalits who are trapped in these squalid spaces, and the only ‘opportunities’ that liberalization has opened to them seem to be largely of a criminal nature. There is credible research that reveals the enormous inequalities that mark this ‘Gulf pocket’, in which the dalits have been completely unable to make use of the opportunities for migration to West Asian countries [see the work of Ashley McClelland, on a village very near Varkala with comparable conditions, http://gradworks.umi.com/MR/57/MR57125.html ]. The DHRM’s work there has apparently succeeded in drawing the menfolk away from illicit hooch making and ganja peddling, and the consumption of these, as the women there have publicly testified [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejIt-VTXE2I ].
However, the DHRM’s refusal to accept both the liberal framework for Dalit politics and the attempted neo-liberal resolution of the caste question through welfare handouts,and their bid to shape a resistant dalit self through new knowledge and practices have made it easy to cast them as monstrous — and hence abject. This also is perhaps the reason why dalit intellectuals in Kerala seem rather reluctant to speak out powerfully — even for the right of these people to be heard, if not against such mindless violence against them, who are undoubtedly against the most marginalized of dalits in Kerala. Indeed, among the dalits of Kerala, it is the pulayas who have been able to challenge their marginalization to a certain degree at least; they are the stronger presence within the critical dalit intelligensia as well, who are able to draw upon the legacy of liberal dalit reformism of the early 20th century Kerala. The kuravas and parayas, in contrast, have remained mired in deep want, material and cultural, and the disconnect between the critical dalit intelligensia and the inhabitants of the dalit colonies of early 21st century has never been so conspicuous as now. No wonder, then, that the DHRM has chosen to both reject the legacy of the so-called ‘Kerala renaissance’ and embrace Ambedkarite and Buddhist consciousness. While a few prominent dalit intellectuals have indeed spoken against the earlier bouts of violence perpetrated by the police against the DHRM, there seems to be the unfortunate assumption of a certain non-commensurability between the strategies of politics and self-building of the DHRM and critical dalit intellectuals.
The reports of renewed tension in the Mathrubhumi (13 Sept, Thiruvananthapuram edition) and Hindu seem to exemplify this drive to render the DHRM mostrous and abject. The DHRM activists have been complaining of repeated attacks on their houses, with several injured, which have apparently gone completely unreported even in the local press.They say that the police not only refused to file complaints but also sought to arrest the aggrieved. A police station march organized in protest against this at Madavoor was depicted as ‘irrational violence’.Das K. Varkala, the Secretary of the DHRM State Committee, alleges in his statement that this violence was unleashed not by the DHRM, but against (the nearly 500-strong) activists by those elements who had suffered in the just-concluded bye-election to the panchayat due to the DHRM’s presence there, yet the police failed to act fairly. They intervened only when the violence against activists became severe, and loss of lives seemed imminent. He claims that such incidents have been happening in other parts of Kerala, in which the police’s effort to foist false cases has been exposed, and the officials punished, but the press has chosen to ignore them. Baiju John, who has been following the case, reports that the situation is still grim, with no one being able to step out of the colonies, and those who do are at the risk of police cases filed by the so-called ‘local people’.He also claims that the reports in Mathrubhumi that have appeared continue to be biased and the DHRM’s efforts to correct them have been persistently ignored.
Indeed, reports in the mainstream press have depicted the tension at Madavoor as one between the DHRM and naatukaar– ‘local people’. At one stroke, the DHRM protestors, who are all local people, are rendered aliens, non-naatukaar, and the alleged attackers are conferred a certain neutrality. In contrast, Das K varkala’s statement, which the press apparently did not care to carry, clearly pinpoints the DYFI and accuses them of being anti-social. What more evidence do we need, I want to ask, of abjection as the dominant mode of marginalization? Indeed, the outrage of naatukaar have been evoked in Kerala most frequently to justify the violence of moral policing — and this is not surprising, given the deep abjection of sexuality in Malayalee society. One is certainly not saying that the DHRM is the only group worth trusting — but it is certainly dismaying that they seem to be refused a ear completely, their attempts at correcting others’ representations of them have been totally ignored. In other words, they seem to have been shut out of democracy, to such an extent that no attempt is being made by the dominant to even counter their allegations! I do not claim to have full knowledge of the events — and I will be grateful for reporting from Madavoor that is less biased.
Looking around it appears that no help is forthcoming for the DHRM from any quarters, whatsover, left or non-left. One sees no ground, even, to hope that the congress Chief Minister of Kerala, who certainly has no love lost for the DYFI, will act decisively. It is strange indeed, that Oommen Chandy seems to be mortally scared of even the tiniest mouse in the political field, of even the minor lumpen brigade, the Siva Sena, once notorious for precisely anti-Malayalee violence in Maharashtra. He is of course busy with his agenda that justifies over-speeding on the growth-is-development highway and probably does not want to waste his time on such things as the democratic rights of citizens, and therefore would prefer to pander to such horrors as Rahul Easwar and his bunch of hindu right-wing loonies.
However, the DHRM are no strangers to strategies of abjection, nor have they been cowed down by it. In a spirited response against such moves earlier, they did protest visibly in public space and move spiritedly into politics. In the panchayat elections of 2010, the DHRM put up candidates; it also announced the formation of a Dalit movement that would work against the CPM in the Assembly elections of 2011. In the 2010 elections to Kerala’s local bodies, they fielded candidates.Their recent protests have been in space that would be deemed the most public, the most visible, in the whole of Kerala — for five months in 2011, DHRM activists camped in front of the Secretariat in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram in protest against the inaction of the police against violence perpetrated against them at a Dalit colony in Kollam. In March 2011, they resisted the government’s attempt to remove them, bringing in supporters in large numbers and laying siege to the main road.By keeping themselves in public gaze, the DHRM resisted the efforts to render them invisible; by insisting that their identity is a mobile one that responds actively to challenge, they seek to rebut allegations that render them monstrous.
I place my hope in this spirit to fight back, even as the powers of the dominant threaten to strike us blind and wordless.