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The Fragility of Oppositional Civil Social Ecology and the Impact of V S

May 3, 2011

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

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Paps permalink
    May 6, 2011 12:20 AM

    How did I miss this “oppositional civil society” bus. Looks like it is the latest rage in town. Quite low floor though. First of all the author of this piece has constructed both “oppositional civil society”(oops for short) and CPI(M) in a rather harsh monolith. Even Michaelangelo wouldn’t have dreamt of such a faultless stone. Oops sounds almost like the ghost that prince Hamlet saw. It is obviously not visible to everybody. But if you have this special vision that helps you to see CPM as the agent of all evil then the ghost talks to you.
    Why don’t people give a bit of berth to CPM at least to help it to show its natural cracks. It looks like the tormentors of CPM are double bent of retaining it as a tight structure by tightly and even unfairly crowding around it. Is this some sublimated intellectual version of agoraphobia?
    I guess the ban on endosulfan was good. Not merely because endosulfan is bad. There are worst pesticides doing the rounds. But the fight against endosulfan saw the people rallying together with some kind of determination. I am happy to see V S in the fold. None of us who are not endowed with ghost vision goggles saw him supplanting oops. And why does oops have to run when V S makes an entry. Is this some kind of Mario Puzo theme? Oops with it glorified muticultural and multipronged and everything multi attitude should welcome VS. This kind of narrow sectarianism doesn’t sound like oops at all. Or is it becaue he is the CM and represents the state and would demolish “oppositional” from oops if he is invited in? But shouldn’t the apologists of oops welcome these nimble footed pole vaults as attestations of oops ideology. Or the lack of an ideology.(spare that word pleae- the guilt is mine)
    Let me conclude alluding to the beginning of everything.
    In the beginning there was oops. And oops was oops. And then came the serpent in the form of “left politics”. Not sure who ate the apple first. But when stagelights come back oops has already been evicted from the garden of eden and is serving penitent time on earth. Let us all stand up and pray for an all oops socity. ( I am sure those grim looking CPM men won’t stand up and we would still be able to relish our “oppositional” status.

  2. Shaji Krishnan permalink
    May 7, 2011 9:48 AM

    Devika, an excellent article when it comes to emphasising the role and responsibilities of oppositional civil society groups in carrying on the struggle against Endosulfan to counter the degradation in Kerala’s ecosystem’s. If, in the encounter between oppositional civil society and V.S, the latter has marched off with all that you think should go to the former, the answer, I feel, lies in the values and sacrifice VS exemplified in almost 70 years of public service. In the Silent Valley struggle, K.V.Surendranath, a political leader made significant contributions. He was also a part of many other campaigns to save the ‘unique and fragile ecology’ of Kerala. I don’t know how many people and groups acknowledge this today.
    We live in times when political leaders of all parties in our country are at the receiving end.

  3. jdevika permalink
    May 7, 2011 2:24 PM

    Hi Paps, sorry to hear of your visual impairment which leaves you unable to see the Malayalee oppositional civil society. It is a common ailment among those who consider the CPM to be the sole relevant force in Kerala’s politics, for many reasons. However, without suggesting that it somehow makes up for your sad inability, let me take relief in the fact that the top-level leaders of the CPM do indeed see it and try to deal with it either by partial and strategic appeasement, or by attack. I can’t blame you, since your vision is so poor, that you don’t see that it is this unhelpful zig-zag policy of evasion that has led to the left’s failure to renew its social agenda and thereby its hegemony in kerala.

    However, your weak attempts at lampooning are quite unnecessary — for this is a post that critiques the oppositional civil society rather than supports it! The trouble with lampooning is that it does not constitute a sufficient critique. For example, while it is possible to lampoon CPI-M by expanding the alphabets to read ‘Casteist Patriarchy of India – Malicious’ or in some other awful way, it certainly doesn’t constitute a critique or even criticism.

    And i don’t think you should despair much about your poor vision, since you are one of the few cpm admirers who do see the cracks in the CPM, while for the rest of us, they are too obvious to merit any special comment! But you have a point — actually an interesting post can be possible about these cracks, but the point of this post are simply not those. In this case, one lovely crack, i think, was Benoy Viswam’s planting a tree in celebration — which can also be interpreted as hinting that the struggle is a much larger one.

  4. jdevika permalink
    May 7, 2011 2:32 PM

    Shaji — what worries me is not VS’s gain — rather, i’m worried about what this does to the political possibilities of these issues themselves. After each appropriation, they become smaller, reduced to the point that they have no radical, oppositional charge, to the point that they merely pander to the whatever fears of the neo-bourgeiosie. I wish there were a more equal engagement between the oppositional civil and political societies — it was not unknown in Kerala, as you rightly point out with Asan’s example. Certainly VS is not him — and I do feel that we need others to carry forward his political legacy

  5. Paps permalink
    May 8, 2011 12:53 AM

    Obviously, weak lampooning has failed miserably. The verdict seems to be that “lampooning does not constitute a sufficient critique.” apparently there might be other ways of saying things. Attempts at humour are either looked down upon or banned. High seriousness seems to be the prescribed norm. But I would like to enter a humble plea that lampooning failed in this instance because of the terrible misreading that it received. My apologies here are to the great genre of lampoon.

    Let me unlampoon. First of all the author begins by placing himself in opposition to an idle basking society. The claims of vigil and the resultant bagging of the prize for unpopularity are very tall claims indeed. The urge to stand apart is understandable as a trope for an intellectual quest. But there is a lot of “assuming” and assertion of authority. I wonder if this is the new tone of Oppositional Civil Society. Does it work by reviving dead authors of the ancient times?

    And that brief spell of “unity” was well constructed. But it was done ignoring the fact that the CITU lead plantation corporation labour union was against the ban on endosulfan. I sincerely wonder why the ever vigilant author chose to ignore the fact. This blindness cannot be compared to my lampuny visual impairment. It is a very vital blindness indeed without the help of which some of the top heavy constructions in this piece- like the writer’s version of the blown up image of VS – would easily self dismantle. The artistry with which the writer dumps down the multifaceted election scenario into one huge “pooram” is deplorable. May be that is how the media represented it. But to call it a totally depoliticised event –and a ritual- is totally irresponsible. Leave VS out of the picture and just listen to what the huge crowds gathered at his meetings were saying. Evidently the crowds are denied a microphone in large public meetings. But social scientists often get the cue. I don’t think the entire people of Kerala were deceived by media tactics. But observably some overbearing intellectuals were.

    It is not an accident that one step ahead for suffering humanity is one step in the opposite direction for oppositional civil society. It is very symptomatic of what the civil society ultimately represents. Nothing else can better describe the dubious status of an invisible entity that basks in the glory of substitutions and diversions. The ultimate aim is to stifle people’s struggles by distorting the borders where the fight is taking place. And what is the choice of weaponry in this struggle? Again any weapon would do- even VS.

    Is the author arguing that VS has snatched away the agenda from Oppositional Civil Society? What is the real issue here? Are we concerned more about the agency than the agenda? Is the writer arguing that Oppositional Civil Society( I am consciously suppressing the strong temptation to regress into lampooning) should be let alone with their blundering agendas or lack of agendas. Is this some kind of agenda copyright issue? And again the writer says that some kind of leadership has emerged in the LDF towards the fag end of the pooram. Isn’t this a contradiction. And isn’t the word “pooram” another instance of lampooning.

    What is this cause that oppositional civil society had worked very hard to bring to public view? Was it Oppositional Civil Society who earned for R.B. Pillai his jail term? Was VS hijacking the ice cream parlour issue from someone? Or was he involved in it even before? The people who were actively involved in bringing the issue to public view have already acknowledged the contributions of VS in this regard. This argument put forward by the writer looks like some narrow minded copyright litigation here.

    There is also an exhortation for people to carry forward some political legacy. I hope the writer is not talking about the political legacy of the long drawn out temple ritual or the pooram. If some of my arguments are contradictory I would like to enter a plea that to oppose a highly contradictory and self dismantling argument one might have to resort to some minimalist contradictions. As long as there are pests we need pesticides of some sort.

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    • devika permalink
      May 9, 2011 11:21 AM

      Thanks for this Paps, much better than the weak lampoon. BTW, don’t think I’m anti-humour, I only said it doesn’t often a sufficient critique, not that it can never be part of a critique at all. I like your comments because we seem to share some common anxieties and hopes as well.

      But your visual impairment does persist a bit — it looks a bit Mallu-male, though — in that you don’t notice that I’m female, at least my name is. That’s ok, I’m quite used by now generally-challenged Malayalee men (you don’t seem to be that bad, I must say) conferring on me honorary male status just because I talk about politics. You are on the dot on the first point. Unsuccessful or not, my attempt has been to try and gain as much distance as I can, both from Kerala’s political society and the oppositional civil society. While I do position myself within the latter, I certainly do not exempt it from critique. The cynicism about the viability of such a position that you express is quite common and I face it all the time. I do think I have every right to keep trying, exploring, anyway. I do not think any pure separation is possible from either of these, but one can always try to be as self-reflexive as possible, at least.

      Now, about ‘oppositional civil society’. I specify it this way not to mark some unassailable critical quality in it, but to mark it as distinct from non-oppositional civil social forms such as religion etc. Therefore one need not assume that it will be either pure or above critique. In this piece, I was asking the question how critical oppositional civil society is.

      Secondly, about the appropriation of issues raised in this domain by politicians. Now, your point about the moment of unity actually begs the question why it was possible only now, when the issue had been festering since many years and this champion had indeed taken interest early on. I’m sure there are many who are grateful that this has happened at least now. I have been through such a feeling in the ice-cream parlous case, and I am sceptic of the present take-over, simple because I have seen how feminists missed the bus to widen their sphere of influence through active civil social campaigning for bodily self-determination and respect for the integrity of the body, and instead got latched on to the never-ending fights between individual politicians (which I think denotes a depoliticized state of affairs, for political parties themselves have remained ambiguous on these issues). The huge crowds at VS’ meetings themselves need not necessarily indicate an expansion of democratic or political space — a fact that Marxist theorists of mass society have reflected upon long back. But I would share your optimism — I do think that if VS becomes a more contemporary version of K V Surendranath in environmental activism, then his popularity would soar even more. But I’m not so sure that he is open to being shaped by the somewhat different political culture of oppositional civil social activism. I also agree with you that the cracks can also represent a host of political opportunities, which could potentially renew the social agenda of the left in Kerala genuinely, something I look forward to, ardently. But I will still retain the pooram metaphor — this is an awfully media-ted society and I do not see many fresh spaces of political education outside the mass media springing up; indeed, many existing ones are struggling to survive. As long as that remains the state of affairs, how the media represents the elections will continue to wield powerful influence.

      Whether ‘suffering humanity’ will benefit or not through the present effort is something that remains to be seen; whether the present interest will grow into a sustained campaign for a safe environment is something we need to watch and see. Unlike many comrades, my worry is not whether VS will gain through this; it is about whether the larger questions that the environmental movement has tried to raise through the endosulfan issue can endure when it is pegged on to neo-bourgeois panic. As for Balakrishna Pillai’s jail term, I’d think that this is the one genuine achievement that VS secured; but I don’t have to mention it here because my concern here is about the weaknesses of the oppositional civil society. As a shrewd politician, one would only expect VS to look around for chances — it is up to those who raise issues in the oppositional civil society to secure a reciprocal relation.

      Is this about who ‘owns’ as issue? No, it is rather about what happens to an issue, how its implications and its possibilities change when different forces in the political field deploy it.

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