Will the Left’s’Negative Hallucination’End in Kerala?

Today, perhaps for the first time after early August, the Chengara land struggle attained some front-page space in the newspapers. It was front-page news in the Thiruvananthapuram edition of The Hindu, which reported the ongoing efforts for negotiated settlement. The Revenue Minister, K.P.Rajendran, and the Minister for the Welfare of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, A.K. Balan, held talks with Laha Gopalan, and other solidarity council members, and “promised them that the government would do everything within its power to meet their demand for provision of land to the landless among the Scheduled Castes and other similarly placed sections and assured them that there was no question of the government resorting to repressive measures against the agitators”. However, the Ministers revealed that” the government could promise to give them only land that is already with it or that which could be taken over without the possibility of further litigations.”

 So far so good, and obviously we are in here for a long haul. The leaders of the agitation apparently made it cleared that they were not demanding the immediate assignment of the estate land but a more comprehensive package. The government has also announced that medical camps will be conducted in the struggle point and that the road bloackade will end. Relief, indeed, after so many tense days.It is clear that the real hard work begins now. Pressure will have to be kept up until the package is announced; it will have to debated, and adequate monitoring of its implementation will have to be assured through, perhaps, a national monitoring committee.

 But as a historian, I’d say that that this is indeed an opportunity to attain greater clarity on the political relevance of political decentralisation and local planning. In the mid-1990s, it was projected as a panacea to all possible ills — from Kerala’s fiscal crisis, to non-sovereign forms of power. The People’s Planning Campaign shifted the focus to local-level development, promising to transform welfare recipients into small producers. In itself this was an interesting proposition in some ways: one that focused on small capitalism rather than neoliberal extractive growth, and promised to make poor citizens independent of state welfare.

 More than ten years after it took off, it appears that Kerala’s own ‘Third Way’ social democracy failed to integrate citizens into the market on fair terms — due to several reasons. It, instead,  enabled the massive expansion of welfare and of the distributive culture in general. Indeed, the spending patterns of the local governments indicate that productive sector investments, and returns from such investments, are unacceptably poor. In contrast,spending on infrastructure and welfare sectors is high. Even in the productive sector, the number of projects that are of a distributive nature is high. Secondly,welfare remained all the more individualised — the share of individual-beneficiary projects in the total number of welfare projects remains quite high. Both these indicate that patronage structures may thrive, in spite of the Grama Sabhas.In other words, the dependence of welfare recipients on both the state and the political parties continues, and the liberal promise remains undelivered.And now, of course, we witness the rush to embrace neo-liberal extractive growth — the rush for the SEZs– in Kerala.

More crucially, however, local governance ushered in a new regime of state welfare in Kerala. Welfare, which was claimed as ‘people’s right’in Kerala since the 1950s — as citizenship, indeed — became subject to ‘responsibilization'(the idea that welfare recipients should be made responsible and productive and indeed, that, ultimately, they should be made responsible for their welfare). Also, the ‘informal sector woman worker/housewife’ was now recognised as the central subject of state welfare.The result was the proliferation of what are informally ‘work-for-welfare’schemes — the BPL women’s self-help groups, the major beneficiaries of welfare now, are often treated as the panchayats’ severely underpaid development workforce. The growth of micro enterprise among these groups, however, has been sluggish.In any case, Kerala’s development establishment hardly sees the difference between the woman who desires financial autonomy, and the mother who considers herself to be a ‘secondary earner’ for the family — and that all their plans to transform the poor woman into an independent producer thriving in the market may come to naught if the former ideal is not actively encouraged.

But the most visible failure of the experiment was its failure to address oppositional civil social movements that raised questions to non-sovereign forms of social power. As far as patriarchy was concerned,it seemed as though (a certain version of) liberal feminism had gained extraordinary ascendancy over all other streams of feminist critique through the thirty-three percent reservation in political decentralisation, and through the gender mainstreaming efforts in local level planning.The new message seemed to be: ‘Give women a share of the state’s institutional and developmental cake, and patriarchy will wither away [within an unspecified time period]’. Yet it was apparent that as long as [below poverty line] women, dalits, adivasis, and other government welfare categories remain at that level, even the utilisation of funds earmarked for these groups in local planning may remain poor.The demand that these funds be used effectively has to come from these groups, and this would be impossible without the radical politicisation of these groups. In other words,it was evident that political decentralisation and local level planning could not challenge non-sovereign forms of social power.From the mid-1990s, time and again,it has emerged that sexual violence against women and the denial of basic human rights to sexual minorities,or the stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS patients do not go away with minimum welfare entitlements. It was also clear that new political subjectivities, new claims to radical political citizenship by groups that were hitherto mere governmental categories — like widows — and even by hitherto abjected groups — the sex workers — will continue to come up.

And now, Chengara questions decisively the ‘welfarist resolution of the caste question’emergent in the mid-1990s.Also, it represents an effort, from the most deprived sections in Kerala, to redefine  minimum entitlements, to announce what it needs to be, in order to be meaningful to the poor.It reminds us that development cannot shie away from questions — and the questioning — of social power (as distinguished from forms of patronage fostered by political parties). I have always felt that the post-independence history of Kerala needs to be rewritten as the story of competition between different systems of welfare — mainaly between left-hegemonised public welfare and welfare instituted by religious and community organisations — the Christian Church, being the prominent one — and the subjectivities they enable. It seemed that this story was acquiring new twists, in the light of the Church’s interventions on behalf of the displaced at Moolampily against the LDF government’s eviction efforts.But it seems now that Chengara will cut a different path.

6 thoughts on “Will the Left’s’Negative Hallucination’End in Kerala?”

  1. Dear Devika,

    The Question leftout now is the role of Harrison. Now Harrison is simply escaped from the picture. Govt escaped from addressing the issue of lease expired land and addressing the question of exemption given to plantations in Land Reforms.


  2. Devika,
    I am in broad agreement with the way you frame Kerala’s decentralization and the Chengara struggle. But the connections between the two are not very clear to me yet. Processes very similar to kerala’s decentralization were launched in Andhra Pradesh in the mid 90s. Here it was called Janmabhoomi and it was about responsibilization, it was about heavy allocations through a variety of schemes to individual beneficiaries. It was heavily data driven and it radically altered political possibilities by producing a host of neoliberal subjectivities. This was also the time when governments have learnt a lot of new book keeping tricks – an area of investigation which has completely gone under the radars of social scientists. But that is a different story altogether. What is intriguing however, is how did something like Chengara emerge from this in Kerala while a completely different scenario developed in Andhra Pradesh ? In Andhra Pradesh, one of the earliest outcomes of these processes was fissures among Dalit groups. The Telugu Desam Party successfully split the traditional Scheduled Caste vote base of the Congress through tacit support to the Madiga subcaste groups to demand categorization of SCs. This then got entangled in a variety of governmental procedures and litigation. The MRPS which led this, at loggerheads with the Mala subcaste grouping, demonstrated some very creative cultural forms of protest, went through a variety of internal leadership struggles, and every now and then it continues to come up with some dramatic events that performatively underscore the social, political and economic crisis. It does occasionally win some ameliatory ‘schemes’ financed by ODA and implemented through a muted form of Public Private Partnership.
    With that history in mind, I am curious to know what exactly you mean by it seems Chengara will cut a different path. How is this difference being articulated in the demands? And what does Chengara enable for other struggles in future Kerala or elsewhere embedded as they are in a state/society that is both thoroughly globalized and neoliberalized.

  3. Dear Anant

    The difference is that the history of citizenship in Kerala is different, and it is not easy to wipe that off. Since the mid-90s the persistent effort of organised political parties (the distance between the left and right rapidly decreased in the period) has been to try and erase that history of radical welfarism,and pretend as if that agenda was over. However, ever since the 1970s, dalit organisations in Kerala have conducted ‘surplus land struggles’, and indeed claimed land that way. Chengara belongs to that political trajectory, which is the excess that the left has always tried to subjugate. It stands out precisely because such earlier struggles were always either repressed or absorbed into the fringes of the left (“political society?)”. Smallholdership is, indeed, one of the most prominent conditions of citizenship in Kerala, and even if does not herald any overturning of the neoliberal agenda, it certainly marks resistance to it.

    Chengara also looks different to me also because the protests are unconnected to the many welfare systems that populate Kerala’s social space (it has been privatised -witness the welfare-clout of Mata Amritanandamayi!). Right next to the Harrison Malayalam Estate lies the 10,000 acre rubber plantation of the Malankara Church. Dalit X’ians form a large chunk of the protestors. But to date one hasn’t heard appeals to the Church, again, though one of the earliest groups to publicly support the stir was the Christian group Dynamic Action.

    To many Chengara looks suspect because the protestors have sought to maintain a (friendly) distance with the radical left in Kerala. The radical left, which too offered support, has had absolutely no role in any of the planning or action at any stage of the struggle. Some radical groups have accused the struggle leadership of sell-out because they sought to negotiate with the state. That sort of accusation is to be expected, but to my mind, competely useless at the very specific crisis looming before us.

  4. Dear Devika,
    Thanks for highlighting those continuities. Would it be correct to say that the relationship between citizenship and small holdings has been maintained through constant narrativization and reiteration in the midst of these structural changes ? Through oral traditions and small printing presses ?
    On a related note – from what I could glean from the published material on trade unions in kerala — say KP Kannan’s work — it appears that the unions played an important role in articulating kerala’s radical welfarism. Also their organizational form seems to be more like guilds with the power to determine who can or cannot enter the labor markets.If that is the case, then perhaps the key to explaining the conflict at Harrison lies in figuring out how that particular trajectory comes into collision with the the dalit/adivasi land struggle trajectory. What are their stakes in the Harrison lease ? At the most basic level it appears that there is a fair amount of capital locked into those trees and the land that the unions want to stake a claim in.

  5. Dear Anant

    Yes, indeed, narrativization has been constant, through the structural changes, in fact all the more so, given the rise of consumer citizenship in Kerala’s socio-political horizon since the 1990s. Class analysis has to be seriously renewed now in the context of the ongoing process that are excluding people from the sort of citizenship promised by radical mobilizations and inviting them back into the expanding welfare-recepient citizenship. You are also correct about the unions — they were guild like and in the 1980s an average headload worker earned more than a lower division clerk in the government . However, this does not mean that the category ‘worker’ was honogenous.There is an interesting study , from the early 1990s, of the CITU headload workers which shows how caste inequality persisted especially in claiming welfare benefits from the Welfare Fund. They are indeed guild-like all the more and guild-bosses wield considerable financial clout. A single CITU headload worker card in the Chalai market in Trivandrum now costs over lakhs, according to party sources and is transferred from father to son and father-in-law to son-in-law (as dowry payment) like family property. However the returns from such work are declining (the situation of rubber-tappers is no different) and the left could do precious little to stem the tide. This is the time when workers should get together to stem the tide no doubt, but the sedimented sense of political and social power doesn’t go away in time, it seems. That they should be turned against the protestors like this is but a reminder of the times we live through.

    At Chengara, they are not claiming land in the Harrion estate — they claim that they want to protect their employment. There are but 80 workers there and the struggle committee was open to them joining in!

  6. Dear Anant

    I do agree; but I’d only suggest that retrieving the category of class for radical politics would involve much more. For instance, zooming urban processes and the unavailablity of Malayalee workers for certain forms of informal sector labour are bringing in large numbers of migrant workers, mostly from Bengal, Bangladesh, Assam and Bihar, who are absolutely devoid of any rights, and Kerala’s organised unions will have nothing to do with them. These groups are treated with hostility, as elements which may potentially depress wages. So there are many processes at work in the present: the ongoing exclusion through landgrab (for instance, at Moolampally), the disawoval of the left’s earlier agenda (Chengara and other places), the minimal and partial acceptance of demands for land (the aftermath of the tribal land struggles), plus the wipe out of the small capitalist (in my mind that is what VS Achutanandan’s misadventures at Munnar finally amounted to). All these, besides structural conditions of attrition and redundancy of many sections of workers (for instance, ongoing detrading in cities like Calicut, and changes in packaging and transport technologies).

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