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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 48 New Delhi November 17, 2018

Political Churning of Castes in Kerala

Sunday 18 November 2018

by V. Bijukumar

The Supreme Court verdict on opening of the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala for women of all ages created political gutter in a State which is known for its progressive and everyday political activism. Though initially most of the mainstream political formations and caste associations welcomed the verdict, the social compulsions and political astuteness forced them to adopt a more strategic and often pliable stand on the issue. While the central leaderships of the RSS and BJP welcomed the verdict, the State leaderships of these two organisations took an opposite stand describing the women’s entry as a ploy of the Communist- led government to destroy the hill shrine.

Interestingly, the RSS headship earlier took a positive stand on this issue stating that both men and women have been permitted entry into the temples without any discrimination and even women have been learning the Vedas and officiating as priests in temples in the natural course. Moving away from its past position, the RSS backed women’s entry in temples arguing that unfair traditions should be discarded. In its annual meeting of the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha in Nagaur near Jodhpur, Rajasthan in March 2016, it asserted that over the years women also have been learning the Vedas and officiating as priests in temples in the natural course. Significantly, the RSS also dissociated itself from the July 2018 hartal in Kerala over women’s entry into Sabarimala called by little known fringe organi-sations such as the Ayyappa Sena and the Hanuman Sena. Earlier, favouring the women’s entry, P. Parameswaran, Director of the Bharatiya Vichar Kendram, an RSS think-tank, said that “if women are demanding they should be permitted to visit the temple, there is no reason why it should not be allowed”.

Resurgent BJP?

The verdict gave a new lease of life for the BJP and other Hindu outfits in the State. It has to be reminded that the public image of the BJP has considerably dwindled in the wake of the recent devastating floods when the BJP-led NDA Government not only allotted meagre Central assistance to the State but also blocked the humanitarian foreign aid for the State. Even after the appointment of P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, an upper-caste Nair Hindu, as the President of its State unit, the BJP could not emerge from its dwindling image in the aftermath of the floods. For the BJP and other Hindu organisations Kerala is an impossible political terrain not only in the bipolarised politics of the Left and Congress but also complex demographic composition of sizeable minorities and deep- rooted reformation values.

In the past, many of its campaigns and mobilisations failed to yield impressive political returns. The party’s strategies of consolidating Hindu unity (often called Hindu unity from the Namboodiris to the Nayadis) of Barhamins, Nairs, Ezhavas, Dalits and Tribals and a section of the Christians, raking up of political violence and murder of RSS workers by the Communists in the State, did not bring expected political dividends for the party. Though it was instrumental in forming the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BJDS), the political outfit of the backward-caste Ezhavas who are considered to be the backbone of the Communist Party, and stitching its alliance with the NDA, it could not penetrate remarkably into the Ezhavas. By raking up the emotional issue of women’s entry into Sabarimala the BJP thinks that it can mobilise the Hindu sentiment in its favour and re-emerge as a potent force in the State. In fact, such political realisation forced the State BJP leadership’s deviation from the stand of its central leadership and the RSS.

Congress’ Dilemma

Though the central leadership of the Congress too described the verdict as historic, the State leadership took a pliable position on the issue and was belligerent towards the ruling Communist Party. The pliable stand of the Congress was its practical understanding of the emerging political chemistry in the State. In the recent past, the Congress leadership in the State was astounded by the emerging presence of the BJP and its pungent influence among the upper castes which were considered to be the former’s unflinching political constituency for a long time. Moreover, it was alleged that a sizeable section of its rank and file and some leaders showed more inclination towards the BJP. The Supreme Court verdict gave an opportunity to the Congress to reassert its pre-eminence among the upper castes and strengthen its mass base which was eroded due to the challenges posed by the emergence of the BJP in the State.

Sensing the dissenting voice of the Nair Service Society, which opposed the move to open up the temple for women of all age-groups as it violates the customs, the Congress projected itself as the self-made custodian of the believers. Proclaiming that the party stood with the believers and for protecting the traditions and customs related to the deity, the Congress came out as the strong competitor to the BJP in attacking the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government and the Communist Party. However, in course of time, the BJP, through its pugnacious political action and mobilisation, went ahead of the Congress and emerged as the real custodian of the Hindu faith surpassing the Congress. Moreover, the Chief Minister’s loud-mouthed stand against the BJP and RSS for unleashing violence in the State on the Sabari-mala issue worried the Congress as it was in panic that the RSS would wean away sizeable sections of the minority communities, especially Muslims, from the party to the ruling LDF.

Win-Win Situation for the LDF

The CPI-M, which leads the ruling coalition in the State and which recently took the radical step of recruiting Dalit priests in the government owned temples in the State, adopted a sympathetic approach to women’s entry. In November 2016 the Left Front Government favoured the entry of women of all age-groups filing an affidavit to the effect. When violence broke out in the aftermath of the entry of teen- aged women into the temple, a section of political pundits initially forecast that the firm and unflinching stand of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on the issue may lead to the Left losing its support-base among the upper-caste Hindus.

The ruling LDF critically depends on the Chief Minister for consolidating the shaky government as Pinararyi Vijyayan’s public meetings in selected destinations in the southern and central parts of the State attracted large numbers of people. Raking up the legacy of the reform movement and ideals of reformists such as Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali, the Chief Minister spoke to the crowd and explained the need for rejecting certain beliefs which are against the path towards Kerala’s modernity. Condemning the violence unleashed by the BJP and other Hindu organisations, the Chief Minister asserted that it was an assault on the secular culture of the State and appealed to all secular and progressive minded people to take the vanguard position for the State.

Moreover, through such appeals the Chief Minister was able to reach out to the minority communities in the State such as the Muslims and Christians. The Chief Minister’s belligerent attitude towards the RSS and Hindu organi-sations can fetch political dividends to him from the minority communities in the State, especially the Muslims.

Further, the LDF went ahead in making inroads into the so-called Hindu unity in the State. Breaking the alleged Hindu consolidation by highlighting Kerala’s reformation legacy and linking it to the reformation politics in the State, the LDF is mobilising the lower-caste sections like the Ezhavas, Dalits and tribals. While the BJP and other Hindu organisations use the tribal communities and youths of the lower castes to perpetuate violence, the Communist Party goes a step ahead in seeking to split the tribal communities. In fact, many lower caste and tribal women were in the forefront of the agitation and prevented women devotees in their forest enroute to the temple. For instance, the Malayarayan, a tribal community, staked its claim on the temple and its traditional rights to worship the deity which, according to it, was captured by the Brahmin Thantries. The Malayarayans claimed to be the original stakeholders in the temple and demanded that their rights be restored so that they could perform the rituals again.

It may be recalled that the community had enjoyed privileges of rituals, including Thenab-hishekam (honey bath), rights for Velichappad (oracle) and lighting the Makara Vilakku till 1950 when the Travancore Devaswom Board was formed under the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act. The Communist Party was able to gain political mileage by moving closer to the Dalits and tribals on the issue. Also a sizeable section of the Dalits and tribals moving closer to the BJP and Hindu nationalist forces in the State was a source of worry for the Left parties. However, the formal exit of C.K. Janu, the Advasi woman leader, and her Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha from the NDA in the State is claimed to be a moral victory of the LDF. She not only dissociated from the BJP’s public agitations against the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple, but also raised the tribal community’s claim over the temple.

Moreover, in a jolt to the BJP’s so-called Hindu unity, the LDF was able to bring the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) in its favour as its General Secretary, Vellappalli Natesan, categorically dissociated from the BJP’s public agitation on the Sabarimala issue, though Thushar Vellappalli, his son and BJDS leader, publically endorsed the BJP line in the State. It may be pointed out that the SNDP and NSS during the previous Congress-led United Front Government had come together for larger Hindu unity against the alleged influence of minority communities in the government and dispropor-tionate resources allotted to them. However, in course of time, such unity collapsed as both the community-based organisations indulged in accusations and counter-accusations. Since then, the BJP’s central leadership has been striving hard to bring these two irritant community organisations for the cause of Hindu unity in the State and thereby reaping political dividends in the straitjacket politics of Kerala but without success.

Unfazed Caste Consciousness

Though caste as a “system” collapsed and casteism disappeared from the everyday life of the people, there is a deep-rooted caste consciousness in the Kerala society. Even if outwardly projected as ‘progressive’ in essence, the Kerala society has always had a tilt towards patriarchal values, the interests of the upper-caste Hindus and to a certain extent the interests of the economically and politically endowed minority communities. Such caste consciousness is perhaps attributed to the growing realisation among the upper castes that the social and political transformation in Kerala brought about worsening conditions for them with the upliftment of other communities in the State. The benefits of the developmental state and newly emerging market in the State deprived these sections. While radical reforms such as land reforms not only stripped the upper-caste Hindus’ possession over landed property, the entry of the lower castes in performing religious practices as priests led to the loss of their religious role in society forcing some sections of the upper caste to live in abject poverty. They are thus compelled to demand 10 per cent reservation for the poor among the upper-caste Hindus and creation of a separate Kerala State Welfare Corporation for the forward comm-unities for their welfare. The mobilisation against the verdict of the Supreme Court and the subsequent protest by the upper-caste Hindus are outwardly seen as spontaneous but behind it is the manifestation of caste consciousness hiding behind the veil of ‘progressive’ modernity in the State.

To sum up, when the society and politics in Kerala are agitated over the Supreme Court’s verdict and the firm commitment of the Left Government to implement such a verdict, the protagonists of tradition and beliefs are seeking to reinforce social orthodoxy and religious obscurantism over modern values based on public reason. Because tradition and faith set by the dominant sections in the society are for their own material advantage at the cost of the subordinate sections. The lower sections of the society, who often became the victim of such traditions and belief, are resorting to steps to transform them to achieve social mobility and empowerment in society. In fact, when the upper castes reinvent and reassert tradition in modernity for their material survival, the lower castes reject and rebel against them for their social dignity and empowerment. In this critical juncture, the onus is on the part of the Left and other progressive forces to reassert the radical politics and values of the social reform movement. The political churning of the castes cannot be allowed to deteriorate into mere caste conflicts where one caste assertion can be tackled by another. On the other hand, the need of the hour is to reclaim Kerala’s progressive culture and rebuild the society based on more egalitarian and social justice.

The author is an Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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