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Seeking the Apadhasanchaarini/ The Malayalee Flâneuse

June 27, 2011

So, the moral police has struck again. The papers in Kerala have been full of news about how a young IT sector employee, Thasni Banu, was confronted by a group of goons while she was being dropped to work at night by a male friend, insulted, slapped several times, and warned that they will not allow Kerala to “become Bangalore”. She did not take it mildly and complained to the police, who rolled their eyes, hummed, and hawed, and as to be expected, went slower than usual. One of the goons who was apprehended was let off. The papers have indeed taken the issue very seriously — and so have the state government, which suspended the policeman who handled the affair shoddily.

Everybody — political society, civil society, Facebook society — has demanded justice for Thasni, in, of course, their own quirky ways. Prominent MP (moral policewoman, not just Member of Parliament) T N Seema, leader of the fabled ‘purification ritual’ staged by the AIDWA after the ever-inquisitive Kairali Channel smelt vice and moral decay at a night-vigil organized in 2008 in support of the Chengara land struggle when they saw men and women sit together in non-segregated space, a young woman smoke, and a couple hug, was at the head of a ‘freedom walk’ organized against moral policing! I’m sure the lady thought that her misdeed would be forgiven as time flowed, but unfortunately no. Her performance has been preserved, engraved in time through Malayalam poetry, specifically in a  stunning poem by one of Kerala’s best contemporary poets,  Anitha Thampi . As for the Congress, one doesn’t know what they are until election time. But because I have read too much history for my own good, I can’t help remembering the intense moral policing through which the Congress, in its ‘best’days when it still had some ontological fixity, got rid of the best women among them, for example, Akkamma Cheriyan. And of course, there are many kinds of ‘civil society’, and this is a fact, it appears, that everybody except those who swear by ‘civil society’ alone can see. Precisely because of this,some civil society has blundered magnificently. The only group that offers hope to hapless the Malayalee flâneuse is Facebook society, and we will have to see how much of that gets translated into the street.

But the moral police on Kerala’s streets is certainly not news; it dates right back to the early decades of the 20th century when new elite women began to go out seeking higher education and, increasingly, under pressure from greater economic distress in the 1930s,for paid employment.The panic that upper and even middle caste women may be ‘contaminated’by their traversal of spaces in which the traditional dress-codes that signified difference and deference of the traditional caste order were increasingly abandoned, started right then. No doubt, many viewed this contamination as primarily sexual, which threated to upset precisely the system of alliances which was an important route through which caste would be transformed and secularized,  rendered invisible among the upper castes and projected on the lower castes. A female dress-code that would match with this imperative soon became dominant among women who stepped out of the house regularly: the modern ‘Indian’ sari-blouse combination. Not that access to this new dressing option was universal and easy: lower caste women, especially Dalit women, who tried to access this new dress-code, found it not easily available. The panic did not cease then (it would never, really) as is clear from the anxiety-ridden discussions how the sari was liable to be wrongly worn, in ways that sexualise the female body.

In the mid-20th century decades, working-class assertions in public spaces joyously retook the roads, and women workers constituted, very often, the single-largest group of people there. So also, in the anti-communist ‘Liberation Struggle’ of the late 50s, women of the heavily-deprived fishing communities thronged the streets, provoking horror among even many new elite supporters of this agitation, who found the sight of women parading the streets joyously, caring not a whit for propriety in their slogan-shouting against senior communist leaders.The lines had hardened by then. Women who lingered too long on the streets could not be but ‘low’. Except for women leaders who managed to reach the upper-most echelons of their parties whose numbers however could be counted on your fingers,no new elite woman could risk participating too much in street agitation, traveling alone with men,or being out late at night.But even they could not risk wearing clothes considered too ‘modern (read ‘sexy’), they would have to be found in a sari, modestly draped. The order of secularized caste has been secured for survival under the globalized-liberalized sociopolitical regime as well and this is evident in how the ‘churidar’ has become the standard decent dress of the women workers under flexibilised labour regimes that fuel Kerala’s service sector driven growth, displacing the more cumbersome and time-consuming sari. Moral policing continues to remain the necessary instrument of keeping watch on these women as they start to require more mobility and flexibility in working hours in times of flexibilised accumulation. In short, it was package-deal: secularized caste came with moral policing and vice-versa, simply because the latter was necessary to bolster the former by keeping men and women of the new elite and the lower castes firmly on their different caste-tracks.

Which is why I found the uncomplimentary use of the word ‘apadhasanchaarini’in a statement ostenibly in support of Thasni issued by a civil society group so utterly offensive. The word certainly has  a negative connotation in Malayalam, translated as ‘a woman who moves off the right path, and travels on the wrong one’. But this is why, for me, the term must be revalued and redeployed against the secularized caste order. The beaten caste track is what moral policing always tries to defend,and what we need, certainly, are more ‘apadhasanchaarinikal’ and ‘apadhasanchaarikal’– women and men who will get off the beaten tracks of secularised casteism. It is they, not the ‘increased security’ promised by the state, that will solve the problem of moral policing. Security may actually make it worse.

Indeed, the promise of security by the state and the outpourings of sympathy by the dominant media are clearly driven by the fact that it is an employee of the IT sector, on which the devotees of growth have pinned much of their hope, who has been hurt — that means that the IT sector would have been a bit hurt too. The promise of security and the deluge of sympathy doesn’t cover the hurt produced by the ever-growing malicious whisper among the Malayalee middle-classes and the working class men of cities like Thiruvananthapuram that “IT girls” who earn a lot are loose and disobedient. Just watch the recent Malayalam film Rithu which is supposed to be hip, cool, and urban besides being “serious”!This actually relates to the panic around the fact that the high earnings of young new elite women in Kerala’s IT sector may upset what is arguably a ‘pillar’ that shaped and holds up the Malayalee new elite middle-classes: the steady transfer of economic resources from women to men across the 20th century in the form of dowry transfers and the greater access of husbands to their wives’ property in those communities that shifted from matriliny to patriliny. “IT girls” are now a source of new elite panic because they possess the economic clout to challenge this bleeding of resources and to also demand full membership in the new elite middle-classes, the same privileges that property-owning male members of these classes possess. This, of course, includes full mobility over the spaces of not just production but also those of consumption and leisure. Moral policing, then, becomes a means by which these women can be disciplined back into the margins of the middle-classes, and threatened working-class men could well be precisely the instruments through which this may be achieved. The state or the dominant media would not try to counter this; rather, since their concern about inclusion in global capitalism is nearly close to  their concern about maintaining the ‘gender balance’ central to the secularized caste regime,  they would plead for ‘balance’. That is, a further limited mutation of the secularized caste order, according to which women who appear ‘responsible’ (especially if they are heading for work that contributes to flexible accumulation) may be exempted from the night-curfew, in a bid to keep everyone — the BPOs, panicky middle-classes, and threatened working class men, and to a lesser extent, the IT women — happy. This is not, I repeat not, support for the Malayalee flanuese.

And it is crucial to see that it is not just IT women who are disciplined this way. Just a few weeks back, young men in Chavakkad in central Kerala faced a police ‘crackdown’– fines and caning besides, according to some reports — for wearing low-waist jeans. Apparently, their underwear which showed offended some ‘senior citizens’ of this town who complained to the police of ‘obscenity’! Reports also quote the police saying that these young men were of ‘low education’ and ‘low families’. Now, this speaks something! The service-sector boom in Kerala as well as the expansion of higher education has indeed brought new opportunties for young lower caste men in Kerala too in the past twenty years or so. Ritty Lukose in her interesting book on youth in Kerala in times of liberalisation and consumer citizenship (Liberalization’s Children, Hyderbad: Orient Blackswan, 2010) speaks of a new lower caste masculinity, that of chethu, taking shape in the 1990s. She discusses in detail the features of chethu — a consumption-oriented masculine, highly mobile over city-spaces of consumption, indulging in romance and relaxation, which is clearly lower caste and with no political commitments. I do feel that it is necessary to read this new masculintity within a longer history of the century-long denial of consumption, relaxation, and romance to the lower caste, lower class (which is largely Dalit) male, and the foisting of the burden of public protest on lower caste lower class people in general. Viewed thus, chethu represents a certain refusal of earlier caste burdens . Viewed this way, the unique form of ‘policing obscenity’ in Chavakkad reveals its ugly secularized- caste moorings: had these boys been wearing the coloured mundus typically worn by poor working-class men, which, by the way, can be equally low-waist (and we Malayalees are certainly very used to seeing men wear it this way), and perhaps making their way to the fields with agricultural implements and not roaming around town having fun like the children of the better-off,the ‘senior citizens’ of Chavakkad may have been highly gratified!

Therefore let me keep insisting on ‘apadhasanchaaram’.It may even trigger off a never-ending, ever-shaped community. One may never be sure who all will be identified with it and when. For the moral police can never really rest: but the good thing is that they may produce a ‘negative community’ of sorts — created when different kinds of victims of the system are thrown together by accident. So we may be seeing women teachers who wore short-sleeve blouses thrown in with men whose articulation sounds campy with women panchayat members who dared to sit between two male members in the panchayat jeep with owners of shops that sell Valentine Day cards with male-nurses who care too well for their wards with …!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Sadman29 permalink
    June 27, 2011 4:27 PM

    When the state allows individual to judge ones individual choices, it shows things are moving in a wrong direction.

  2. Harsha permalink
    June 27, 2011 4:37 PM

    Chavakkad reveals its ugly secularized- caste moorings. I’m a bit puzzled over the ‘secular’ emphasis here. Interms of Indian defenition of seccularism it holds good otherwise its a locality with highest per house expatriate population witnessing a neo – flamboyant – conservatism

  3. June 27, 2011 4:50 PM

    J.Devika’s observations on the malayali society are absolutely true, clear and direct. Apathasanchaarini should be seen in the light of classical literary and visual traditions (especially in the Rajasthani and Pahari miniature traditions) where the woman who dares darkness, danger from beasts and nature (represented respectively by black backdrop, lighting and a snake) to reach her ‘mate’ is referred as Vyabhicharini. And in our classical tradition of abhinaya (Natyasastra), consistent/constant and changing/temporary expressions/characters of a character are referred as ‘Sthayi’ and ‘Vyabhichari’ bhavas. Vyabhichari also is referred as ‘Sanchari’ bhava. It is interesting to notice this etymological derivation of ‘vyabhichari/ni’ and its forced positioning as ‘prostitute’ only because she has to dare the ‘dangers’ to eke out a living. Also we should see the linguistic coding where ‘flaneuse’ is translated as ‘street walker’ (who is a professional call girl) or did it happen the other way round? Anyway, this linguistic transitions and translations have helped a lot in formulating the ‘idea’ of a prostitute, how she should look and behave and even think!

    Seen against this backdrop (I liked the way Devika refers Chethu as a linguistic code that shows the claiming of space by the low class/caste men in the public space) it would be really necessary to re-define the meaning of ‘Apathasancharini’ or Vyabhicharini. A Vyabhicharini should be a person who deviates from the stringent laws put up by someone else keeping suppression of expressions/identity as a major motive. The forthcoming Slutwalk must be addressing this issue, which would eventually re-articulate the meaning of slut.

    As usual J.Devika’s writing is good, compelling, thought provoking and persuading.



    • jdevika permalink
      June 28, 2011 11:27 AM

      Thanks for these wonderfully illuminating reflections, Johny. I was taken aback, truly, to know that a feminist magazine in kerala, the content of which isn’t bad really, could be named ‘Sanghadita’.

  4. Inasu Thalak permalink
    June 27, 2011 5:47 PM

    Interesting and incisive analysis by JDevika of the moral policing being practised in Kerala
    at all levels. The ‘chethu’ style is resented even by the seniors of the upper classes if their
    own wards indulged in it. the exception to it is made perhaps only in the cases of NRI’s
    children. and the ‘responsibility’ is thrown on to the Western civilization and very often on
    Xtianity. in the protracted and painfully long debate that followed in the Kerala media (TV
    channels as well as almost all printed news) in the wake of Rajmohan Unnithan’s “apadha-
    sacharam” and the threat Sacharia has had to face when he publicly expressed his dismay
    and disapproval of such reaction from the ‘so called progressive’ elements, the public
    figures who are supposed to inform and shape the the opinion, for the most part, kept an
    opportunistic silence. Those who spoke out, Dr Azhikkode, Rajesh, Dr Pokker, K.E.N, etc ,
    they all chided ‘the out of the norm’ behaviour of Unnithan and Pinarayi even warned that
    ‘one should speak taking into account the tastes/prejudices/ignorances, etc of the audience!’ As Devika has so well analysed, the question is not merely that of gender discri-
    mination, this paranoia ia so intricately woven into the fabric of caste consciousness and
    the notion of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, Even those stalwarts of modernity and post-
    modernity in Kerala (be it in the realm of arts,literature,politics, etc.) seem reluctant to let
    their womenfolks enough freedom to live their life as they deem fit! The notion of “Kula-
    stree” has been elevated to the paradigm of feminine self-conduct as against that of the
    “chanthappennu”. I wonder if the resented ‘chethu ‘ style young men will approve of their
    own spouses, sisters, mothers, cousins or esteemed girl friends go round late in the night,
    dress up off the accepted norms and choose their husbands from a stratum lower than
    their own. So the caste system, the overt and covert adherence to it (even among the so
    called die-hard leftists, even among the non-Hindu communities) is the villain! Who is really
    ready to challenge it concretely, vociferously, at the risk of being branded a renegat?
    The supposedly enlightened young men of Kerala is a band of cowards, I would say. Alas!

  5. shama zaidi permalink
    June 28, 2011 11:55 AM

    as a young girl indira gandhi was admonished by mrs. km munshi for playing badminton wearing a sleeveless blouse, so what is new?

  6. Rajesh permalink
    June 29, 2011 11:48 AM

    See for a story on how the CPI(M) local committee turned moral police and declared one of its followers an apadhasanchaarini, only to backtrack after the victim refused to toe the party line but argued that she was not such an apadhasanchaarini after all.

  7. Joe permalink
    July 2, 2011 1:36 AM

    article gives many brilliant insights.Tasnima was subjected to harassment for progressive marriage, a decade back, by orthodox forces. Though , the patriarchal casteist harassment on low waste hip hop generation is condemnible , one has to relook at the question of capitalism and its sustainablity, in the light of the understanding and experience of the likes of Manning marable on black bourgeoisie

  8. Geeta Charusivam, Activist, Chennai permalink
    July 4, 2011 12:16 PM

    Excellent article. The issue of moral policing, sexual code of conduct for women and marginalized castes haven been well articulated and analysed. Thank you Devika.

  9. jdevika permalink
    July 4, 2011 3:27 PM

    Hi, I’m posting here a comment that appeared in Facebook on this post. It’s one I partly agree with — the argument that the connections and differences between the responses of political, civil, and other societies in this issue must be mapped carefully. But the rest is settling cheap scores, and so I don’t want to respond. I’ve been dismissed a while back from the Kerala Back-Scratching Intellectuals Pvt Ltd and I’m glad to be relieved.

    In any case my post was not intended to pay tribute to activists who protested — that is important, but there are many who can do it. And I have stopped looked at protest in the short-run; honestly, I’ve stopped taking street protests that follow such outrageous events immediately as sufficient evidence of a stirring of outrage. They are necessary of course, but they don’t tell you how long the issue is going to be on the political burner. I’d want to wait for a while before I say something. And I’m sure there are a hundred bloggers who’ve saluting the people who protested. That’s a great relief — and that’s why I think the FB society has been somewhat different. But I want to say something that my intellectual training allows me to. Here is the comment, anyway:

    Author = Chitragupta /moral judge?*

    The Malayalee/cyber public intellectual

    *Provocation*: “Seeking the Apadhasanchaarini/ The Malayalee Flâneuse’’ (
    In fact what provoked us is the part dealing with happenings around the
    event in the present than allusions to history , though we are also
    troubled by the connections drawn between the contemporary and history.

    “Everybody — political society, civil society, Facebook society — has
    demanded justice for Thasni”.

    Can the actions and resistances happening around us be neatly classified under different sections as above? How do we capture the dialogues,
    differences and interconnections between them around any particular form of

    “The only group that offers hope to hapless the Malayalee flâneuse is
    Facebook society, and we will have to see how much of that gets
    translated into the street.’’

    In this particular event as we go into the details of what happened, we can
    see that such simplistic dichotomies don’t help much. Perhaps the
    friendship and activist networks of Thasni overlap ‘political’, ‘civil’ and
    ‘facebook’ societies. In the guise of criticism , T.N.Seema and the action
    by ‘political society’ is accorded chronological supremacy. As usual,
    immediate responses –in the street– are relegated to secondary roles if
    not obliterated completely. Here, one crucial detail missed in the narrative
    (or diluted in wishy washy generalizations) is the vibrant and effective
    resistance staged at the spot, Kakkanad, Kochi by a small group comprising
    of individuals from different locations and having differing personal and
    political histories.

    “Prominent MP (moral policewoman, not just Member of Parliament) T N
    Seema, leader of the fabled ‘purification ritual’ staged by the
    AIDWA after the ever-inquisitive Kairali Channel smelt vice and moral decay
    at a night-vigil organized in 2008 in support of the Chengara land struggle
    when they saw men and women sit together in non-segregated space, a young
    woman smoke, and a couple hug, was at the head of a ‘freedom walk’ organized
    against moral policing! I’m sure the lady thought that her misdeed would be
    forgiven as time flowed but unfortunately no. Her performance has been

    We wonder whether author/Chitragupthan has in custody such a book accounting
    the ‘moral’ credits and debits of each and every body living in present day
    Keralam. A related philosophical connundrum will be : Does Chitraguptan
    figure as an entry in the account book or is s/he excluded from it?

    From where does history gain such fatal force over present actions and
    agents? Sometimes present presents challenging and creative moments which
    inspires people to act in ways which may not have historical precedence in
    the ‘local’, ‘regional’ or ‘national’ histories.

    For instance, take a look at the shifts in the repertoire of political
    agitation of the social movements. It is not fortuitous that most of the
    public protests supporting Thasni were organized at night. In the very
    recent history (last decade) of Keralam, women had came out on the streets
    in night as a form of protest. That this form of protest is being used by
    some of its adversaries in the past shows the extend of efficacy such
    interventions and some of other happenings outside Keralam have on the
    political imagination of Keralam.

    Will we have to wait until the avtar of fully formed and ‘pure’ agents to
    make interventions? Isn’t agents formed in and through actions ever evolving
    and ever changing?

    Night Vigil in response to Chengara land struggle was a result of
    spontaneous cyber call which brought differing persons with differing
    political standpoints together and subsequently resist together. To the
    best of our knowledge, dynamics enabling responses supporting Thasni are

    Understanding the uncomfortable alliances in contemporary agitations in
    political or civil society, as against the notions of pure, stable and
    uncontaminated groups , calls for less aggression and much patience.

    — Reshma Bharadwaj, Dileep Raj

  10. Yojimbo permalink
    July 11, 2011 4:06 PM

    Im highly sceptical of the inferences made from this particular incident. As the victim’s name indicates – ‘Thasni Banu’ is in all probability a lady from the Muslim community which would further indicate that these incidents are more due to an extreme Muslim fringe within Kerala. Its misdeeds are well-known towards the northern side but this incident might show a rise towards the south of Kerala as well.
    This, of course, is a completely different line from the tangential caste-transgressions that the discourse seems to launch into but, I think, worth checking.

  11. July 11, 2011 5:43 PM

    Yojimbo, the Hindu fanatics here have already raised this ‘possibility’, which has been proved false. You could not hope for more communal amity on this — the three men arrested are from the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian communities.It is sheer prejudice that underlies the inference that Muslim men are out to attack Muslim women who travel to work at night, or stay out otherwise. I don’t know where your information is from, about the depradations in north Kerala, it is most probably from Janmabhoomi, which tried its best to label Thasni a ‘loose woman’.

  12. August 31, 2011 10:07 AM

    Let us not forget that the ‘aggressive’ guardians of morality in Kerala belong to the Left.

    The contempt of the conservatives towards the ones who don’t fit their social norms – arranged marriages, kulasthree, downcast eyes – are implemented physically by the warriors of left student unions. These guys are the sri rama sene of Kerala since 1990s.

    I clearly remember how the local SFI youths cut down a tree in Kariayavattom campus in Kerala University because couples would sit under it and have tea regularly. I was an SFI member then. “This is not done” is a pronouncement I have heard from these people – and most of the time, it was their own inability to get a girlfriend or sex that was the reason.

    Leftists guarding the social hierarchy – that is a laugh.

  13. sreejith permalink
    October 7, 2011 1:03 AM

    I happened to see this article, and had to spend quite some time to digest it, reading between the lines. It’s a typical problem with such writers, they make sure what they write is least understood to a commoner like me, and hence remain, and hold on to the status of ‘elite intellectual’ themselves. Hence first i wish to apologize to the author, that my comments below on this article may be purely because of my lack of understanding and may most probably due to my low IQ!

    Moral policing is a major problem that our transforming society is facing. It’s nothing special to kerala alone, but also to any upcoming towns/cities were work style demands breaking of existing rules (both good and bad) of the local society. We have heard of much more incidents of moral policing from nearby states than in kerala.

    Though it’s the women who suffers the most in such changing society, but i don’t think moral policing is woman specific. Remember in almost all cases, including the recent thasni banu case or Rajmohan unnithan case, the men were equally crucified/mishandled by moral policing force.

    Author’s attempt to bring in casteism to this particular issue seems to be bogus to me. I’m sure, and hope all readers will agree that even if an uppercaste girl and boy walk on kerala (or even in other states) roads at night, the possibility of getting mishandled by morality guardians are equally likely!! Wonder who look/ask caste in such cases. I don’t know how the word ‘chethu’ got any lowercaste taste. Those who live in kerala knows that it’s used for everyone, irrespective of any caste and creed. As some one suggested in earlier comments, the word is more used while talking about the rich and elite boys roaming around!!

    I agree with the author only on one point, that the empowerment of woman, or woman earning more than men, is indeed creating a inferiority complex among men in society. Hence we see them ridiculing woman walking in modern dress, driving cars, etc.

    The fundamental and a grave issue affecting kerala society is rather alcoholism. Being a person who travels through roads of kerala at odd timings very often, i know personally that most of these ‘gangs’ involved in such acts, including moral policing, harassing of woman, etc are alcoholic at those times. It’s a fact that every one knows, but prefer not to talk or to take it head on while such issues pop up. I don’t understand why no one raise this issue of over-alcoholism as a prime reason for increase in such incidents. May be because most of you ‘intellectuals’ consider alcoholism as another path of ‘liberalism’ from the clutches of orthodoxy !! Oh! poor commoner me, who don’t understand the language of thee, but lives in and as a part of this society strongly feels, it’s the growing alcoholism which stops me, my mother and sisters to walk on the roads of kerala with out fear!

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