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Savarna Terror Erupts In Kerala

By J Devika
(with inputs from Mythri Prasad Aleyamma)

14 December, 2009

I admit, this title sounds sensationalist. But one can hardly avoid resorting to it when confronted with utterly stupefying news of attacks on dalit colonies almost next door to Kerala’s capital city and nerve centre of Malayalee politics, and that too, by a minor anti-political force that has a legacy of anti-South Indian hatred — the Siva Sena. And of course when one is confronted with the hard, stony silence of almost all sections of the media about this. The mystery of the murder of an elderly, innocent morning-walker in Varkala, a town close to Thiruvananthapuram (of which I wrote in an earlier post) still remains a mystery; the police story is so full of holes that it looks like a sieve. But the Guardians of our Free Press are still lapping police versions and not conducting independent investigation. Activists who have dared to do so have been heckled and hounded, even senior and respected human rights activists like B.R.P.Bhaskar, by the Siva Sena, and their protests have been ignored. Meanwhile violence continues to be unleashed against the supporters of the group that has been accused of murder, the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM).

The title, then, is meant to shake up those (if any) who may be under the impression that the time of troubles is past now that the Chengara land struggle did win some concessions, and that peace reigns in this sweet season of Christmas and IFFK between the savarna gods and the people they have condemned to be sinners in God’s Own Country. In fact, the effort seems to be towards ensuring that the will of the dalits should be broken decisively — so that another Chengara may never threaten the savarna elite of Kerala.

Not that such repression is new. For some time now, we have seen the agents of new forms of urban crime take over the dalit colonies of Kerala and build close links with political forces, on the right and left, and this nexus has worked well to terrorise the inhabitants of these settlements, especially those who dare to question. This process was precisely what remained unseen when, a few years back, members of sex workers’ organisations were driven out of the Bangladesh Colony in Kozhikode city in northern Kerala. On the surface it appeared to be ‘moral cleansing’ but it was actually the eviction of those residents of the colony — sex workers who had gained a public identity through the sex workers’ organisation — who had dared to question the rise of dangerous crime and drug dealings there. There is also plenty of report (all this, strangely enough, is rarely converted into news) of violence against dalits in colonies all over Kerala where people have left the CPM fold to join the Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha or the BSP.

But the violence being unleashed against the DHRM by the Siva Sena and the police differs because it appears to be a direct attack on the dalit effort to construct the dalit subject afresh in Kerala, breaking away decisively from the available dominant models in Kerala’s history of social reformism and political mobilization. Activists who have been regularly visiting the colonies where the DHRM has been working reported that the Ambedkarite and Neo-Buddhist-inspired DHRM has been seeking not only to end alcoholism and drug-consumption in these settlements, but also working to create new models of community and family life radically at odds with the highly individualized and atomistic nuclear family unit-model dominant in Kerala. From these accounts, it appears that the DHRM aims at nothing less than the transformation of dalit subjectivity, through an array of new practices, including a new dress-code and this separatism has provoked much violence. Their practice of group singing, cooking for each others’ family, their introduction of a unisex dress code of jeans and black t-shirts with Ambedkar’s image have led to the circulation of horrendous stories about sexual excess. In fact, the opposition to the dress code is strongly reminiscent of the savarna anger against lower caste women’s appropriation of the savarna upper-cloth in early-mid 19th century South Travancore! They have broken from models of marriage, refusing to call it ‘vivaham’(which is a sacrament) and referring to it as ‘cheral’ (joining); they view it as an instrument of breaking down inter-caste differences among the dalits. They also destabilize given caste identities, referring to members of the pulaya or kurava caste not with the usual ‘pulayanmar’ (the pulayas) or ‘kuravanmar’ (the kuravas), but as ‘pulayaraakkappettavar’ (‘those who have been made pulayas’) and ‘kuravaraakkappettavar’(‘those who have been made kuravas’). They have refused the dominant mode in which the dalits have been inducted into the present neo-liberal welfarist regime in Kerala — as the passive recipient of welfare informed by the ideology of self-help by remaining sceptical of the virtues of State-sponsored microfinance. No wonder that the panchayat, the police, the Siva Sena, and other major political forces, have all ganged up to strangle the DHRM.

And the Siva Sena is not alone; just the other day, savarna terror has been unleashed at Kattappana in the Idukki district. Here, a memorial had been erected many years back to Ambedkar by a dalit on a small piece of land he had received. Recently, dalit youth in the locality gathered to renovate the memorial which had fallen into disrepair in preparation for celebrations on December 6. The panchayat, however, claimed that the land belongs to it — and erected a barbed wire fence around it. Dalit youth broke through the fence on December 6 and garlanded the Ambedkar statue. The retaliation was swift: cases were slapped on several dalits including the wife and college-going daughter of the owner of the land, apparently on the complaint that dalits were squatting on government land. The CPM-run panchayat then demolished the memorial with a JCB, and carted off the Ambedkar statue in a waste-collection van before a watching crowd! It appears beyond doubt that the murderous enmity towards the dalits stems directly from their efforts to create cultural capital for themselves — and of course the dominant media is yet to find anything significantly newsworthy in this.

I think there are important lessons to be learned from these experiences. On the one hand, any serious effort to shape resistant subjectivities in Kerala that work against the dominant individualising logic of neoliberal welfare and depoliticisation, which do garner some success are bound to face vehement attacks. Dalit identity politics and dalit public intellectuals have managed to carve for themselves some space, however limited, in Kerala’s political public. It is important for movements like the DHRM to build active links with these forces — strategically, the effort to start from the scratch, which the DHRM has undertaken, needs the support of the existing sources of strength in Kerala’s oppositional civil society.


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