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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 45 New Delhi October 27, 2018

Kerala’s Stabbed Modernity

Sunday 28 October 2018

by V. Bijukumar

The ‘public’ outrage in favour of protecting tradition after the historic verdict of the Supreme Court on September 28 allowing women of all age-groups into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala shows the advent of creeping irrationality in a progressive society and thereby puncturing Kerala’s much-acclaimed modernity. While the cohorts of tradition argue that women’s entry into the temple would be detrimental to the tradition and belief system related to the deity, the enthusiasts of the verdict argue that it is a radical step towards achieving gender equality in the State and another milestone in the social history of Kerala. The public flare-up of some social groups on the streets and the conglomeration of caste and communal forces in the name of defending tradition and to protect the sanctity of the temple not only reinforces irrationality but also unveils the under-currents of Kerala’s modernity. In fact, the current mobilisation of upper-caste Hindus and the venom of the Hindu nationalist forces are the outcome of growing tension within Kerala’s modernity for quite some time. Though outwardly projected as ‘progressive’ in its essence, Kerala’s modernity has always had a tilt towards patriarchal values, the interest of the upper-caste Hindus and, to a certain extent, the interest of the economically and politically endowed minority communities.

Kerala’s Modernity — A State of Exception

Kerala is often described as the most progressive State in India having high social development, protracted civil society and solid social capital, and deep-rooted public rationality which percolates to the civil society and everyday life of the people. In fact, it set an alternative vision of modernity for the postcolonial societies which intended to come out of social autarky, religious orthodoxy and spiritual obscurantism. Kerala is often described as a “non-conformist’ State though it is often captured in the tourist lexicon as “God’s own country”. For Kerala’s advances in internationally acclaimed social development, public reason and scientific temperament played important roles. The social reforms movements both in the upper and lower castes, the communist engagements in the society, the people’s literary movements and the people’s science movements contributed immensely to the development of rational values in the State. The development and spread of reason not only socially uplifted various communities but also enlightened the political discourses and thereby strengthened democracy itself. It may be remembered that the progressive social and political movements through consistent political action reversed the centuries-old irrationality that was crippled in the State.

Kerala is, in fact, the first State in India, which, through the people’s science movement, popularised non-mystical scientific thinking and technological knowledge among the common people, especially the rural poor and socially marginalised sections. By championing the slogan of ‘science for social revolution’, it gave a clarion call to the people that science should become a weapon in the hands of the poor and oppressed in their struggle against feudalism, casteism and the exploitation by the rich minority. The Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), through its social and political actions, developed an alternative conception of society imbibed by scientific ethos. In this effort it not only demystified knowledge and practices, but also succeeded, to a certain extent, in transforming abstract and technical rationality of scientific knowledge into public reasoning.

Two Manifestations of Irrationality

Contemporary Kerala’s modernity witnessed two perturbing trends in the erosion of rationality and the construction of irrationality. The most important manifestation of the retreat of rationality and the penetration of irrationality is the recent floods in the State. In fact, natural calamities often provide opportunities for the construction of irrationality as people are forced to live in abject suffering and desperation. Such construction give leverage for the obscurantist forces to spit venom and thereby serve their political goals in the most indecent manner. The construction of natural disasters as the wrath of deity not only dilutes public reason but also weakens democracy itself. Perhaps, the most disquieting social media spell was that the devastating floods were the result of God’s anger with the people of Kerala. The fury of Mother Nature was the result of the wrath of Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala against the favourable observation of the Supreme Court for the entry of women into the hill shrine. According to tradition, Lord Ayyappa is considered to be a Naishtika Brahmachari (eternal celibate) and entry of women would pollute the temple. The eight-hundred-year-old temple tradition bans the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age (menstruating age), though there is no such restriction in other Ayyappa temples. Perhaps, the most perturbing tweet was made by S. Gurmurthy, former associate of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and recently appointed part-time Director of the Reserve Bank of India. According to him, “Supreme Court judges may like to see if there is any connection between the case and what is happening in Sabarimala. Even if there is one in a million chance of a link people would not like the case decided against the Ayyappan.”

The second interpretation of the cause of floods being retribution of God was constructed in relation to the cuisine of the Malayalee people. Accordingly, flood is the result of God’s wrath for killing cows and eating beef. However, relating calamity with food habits is not a new phenomenon. In May 2018, for instance, when the Nipah virus gripped the northern part of Kerala and claimed half-a-dozen people while creating panic among many, an attempt was made to interpret this as the result of God’s anger against Malayalees eating beef. It has to be reminded that in Kerala 80 per cent of people, including the Hindus, eat beef and it is a delicious and staple food for the everyday life of the people. However, the eating habit has become a part of the condescending political campaign in recent years associated with the Hindu nationalist politics.

To conclude, the current street protest of the upper-caste Hindus and erstwhile royal families under the leadership of the BJP-RSS against the verdict of the Supreme Court of India for opening up the Sabarimala temple for all age-groups of women is due to the deep malaise of creeping irrationality in the globally acclaimed project of Kerala’s modernity. In fact, such an outburst is not only unveiling the longstanding contradictions of Kerala’s modernity and the inadequacies of its developmental model but has also serious implications for the multicultural ethos and radical politics of the State.

Dr Biju Kumar is an Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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