Don’t let the Magic Fade: Thoughts on Kudumbashree’s Sixteenth Anniversary

I do not write on Kafila as frequently as I used to because I don’t want to be writing stories of impending doom all the time. These are times in which we appear doomed, but it does not help to get obsessed with it; in fact, the obsession may actually hasten the downfall.

But these days, we also hear stories which may be told either way. For example, I can tell the story of the mining going on at Mookunnimala in Trivandrum as yet another episode in the continuing story of the destruction of our natural environment and its impending collapse. But I can also tell it another way, foregrounding the resistance that has shaped up there despite the formation of a deadly nexus of Kerala’s political parties, bureaucracy, predatory capitalists and other criminals against local people. Or, I can tell the story of the ‘development’ of the government school at Attakkulangara in the heart of Trivandrum city as another incident that proves the unrelenting march of ‘urban development’ which is nothing but shorthand for the steady takeover of prime urban space by corrupt officials and venal politicians. But it is also a David-and-Goliath tale of how a few dedicated members of the school’s old students’ association, and nature-lovers and environmental activists who go by the name Tree Walk  managed to draw the attention of others, alert authorities, and arrest the steady pace of these forces.

I can say the same about Kudumbashree’s 16th anniversary celebration which was held in Trivandrum this week — it is a story that can be told either way. Kudumbashree is now a Kerala government network of over 40 lakhs of women in self-help groups, which has been steadily growing all over the state since the late 1990s. It is not simply a poverty alleviation drive anymore; in the present it constitutes the most important platform through which  Kerala’s lower middle class women learn the ropes of local governance and public life. Not surprisingly, political parties in Kerala have been keen to gain influence in it and we have seen much mutual accusation between LDF and UDF on how the other ‘politicized’ Kudumbashree. That is, both parties seem to harbor the silly idea that Kudumbashree, a public programme also committed to women’s empowerment, can and should function as an extended domestic realm in which women stay insulated from the hurly-burly of the public,  sustain the labour power of other family members on a daily basis, and reproduce it generationally. The AIDWA in Kerala wielded plenty of influence in the network during the last LDF government; the Mahila Congress has never been able to match it, probably because they do not enjoy the kind of prominence the AIDWA does within the CPM. However, the women who enter public life and politics through Kudumbashree (often via the AIDWA) are not blindly-committed party cadre. From my earlier research on Kudumbashree, I am convinced that this is indeed the case after the Kudumbashree Bye-law of 2008 which gave the panchayat-level federation of Kudumbashree groups, the Community Development Society, the possibility of working with, rather than under, the panchayat committee and the village- and block-level development bureaucracy. My more recent research in two of the most underprivileged sites in Kerala (one in urban Trivandrum and the other on the coast of the Trivandrum District) also convinces me that while this is generally true,  this possibility is better explored in the coastal hamlet rather than in the urban slum. Like most development projects, Kudumbashree’s record is mixed, but I have always felt that its unintended consequences will be of greater import than the achievement of its stated ends.

The sixteenth anniversary, celebrated grandly in Trivandrum, had already been declared controversial for many reasons. I, however, was overjoyed. The Congress appeared to be staking out a role in the programme which it had generally condemned as infested with CPM supporters, and even claiming ownership to some extent. It appeared to me that the Congress was responding much better to its national rout than the CPM — it was reaching into whatever sources of strength it could now! While the grunting and groaning over the perceived assertiveness of Kudumbashree CDS leaders in Congress-run panchayats is not likely to be affected by this, but at least the state-level leadership would move away from foolish animosity? So I didn’t mind Sonia Gandhi becoming the Chief Guest. The former Finance Minister, T M Thomas Isaac, of the last LDF government, would be absent because he was abroad and had informed the organizers of his inability to attend the meeting, I was told; so also the far-seeing femocrat, Sarada Muralidharan, under whose able leadership Kudumbashree metamorphosed into a ‘movement’ from being just a ‘programme’,  because the Parliament Session was on. There were many complaints that the Kerala AIDWA leadership was not invited ‘enough’. Well, I am not sure if that was so wrong — with few exceptions, the AIDWA leadership — or its star-cast — in Kerala is composed of very middle class women whose actions reek of elitism and poor self-respect. Alas, about them, I cannot tell a story other than that of impending doom — like the leftist oldsters in Kerala once thundered from the podium once about their political enemies, it is ‘the dustbin of History’ that awaits them. And in any case, their representatives who were invited never turned up. No effort was made at all from their side to ensure a positive presence — even if far away, Isaac could have sent a message to read out in the sessions, for instance. If he wasn’t sure that it would be treated with the respect it deserves, he could have published an open message. But no. Instead, the silly complaint about ‘politicization’, once a Congress refrain, was blandly repeated from the CPM side this time. Brinda Karat, whose fate is surely not that of her Kerala AIDWA sisters, was apparently invited; she could not come but I am told that the organizers received a very dignified response from her. Anyway, it is either that the CPM in Kerala has not learned any lessons from its pathetic show in the last elections, or that it rests smug in its not-so-new-but-recently-dignified avatar — of a party that prefers short-term electoral calculation to long-term ideological committment to social justice.

But, oh, I must now stop myself from going down this familiar road — of telling the tale of Kudumbashree’s — and Kerala’s — looming demise. Simply because in my visit to the anniversary celebrations I saw much more than this. Not that tensions did not manifest. There was indeed much anger, expressed openly and vociferously by many CDS chairpersons . They had various complaints — that they were not being offered enough opportunities to speak from the dais in most sessions, the usual practice of letting the local CDS organize the event was not followed, the invited speakers often did not speak Malayalam. There also seems to have been an active effort to be alert to discrimination — to see if CPM supporters were being treated equally with others or not. It did not alarm me, and indeed actually gladdened me, because the women leaders were obviously asserting their right to be critical, and the officials there — many of who were once development activists outside Kerala also — were not always hostile. It seemed to me that the familiar scene in development work, of experts speaking all the time and others remaining passive recipients, was not the rule there. Nor were all women — of who the simple majority are CPM supporters — dour and alienated, and the festive air was unmistakable.

But nothing prepared me for the plenary session. I call it magical because d a world completely distant from misogynist everyday Kerala  was conjured up there — wonder, playfulness,and generosity pervaded the air. When it began, it was like any other meeting — speakers on the dais, audience on the floor, speakers speaking, audience listening. And the speakers, as usual, were mostly Ministers, bureaucrats, and a lone researcher, myself. But running under this external ordinariness was a sense of wonder as a ‘passion’, somewhat in the way Luce Irigaray describes it, as surprise in the face of the extraordinary, mesmerized by its singularity, its uniqueness. Women and men, Kudumbashree Mission staff and CDS chairpersons, seemed wonder-struck by this truly unique collectivity that had emerged through their work as individuals, but which exceeded the mere sum of their individual labours. This moment of wonder seemed to suspend their judgment of Kudumbashree as a empirical object and also the ambition of the self to possess the other (in this case, Kudumbashree). Moreover this sense of wonder seemed to enable a certain generosity between women and men, staff and leaders. Possibly, it was the mood of celebration that produced this magic.

The ordinariness of the evening began to fall off when the Minister for Panchayat Affairs, M K Muneer, known for holding firm against his own colleagues’ attempts to undermine Kudumbashree, made his way towards the dais. Other speakers, Ministers, had already arrived and had been greeted with polite applause. But when Muneer and his entourage arrived, they were greeted the way a bridal party would be, with rhythmic clapping that started from the corner of the floor from where he was first visible, and which steadily spread and continued till he took his seat on the dais. The meeting started in the usual ways and as speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of Kudumbashree, the audience responded gracefully with respectful applause. But when Muneer’s speech was due, no sooner had he risen from his seat, than the audience began to send written requests to the Kudumbashree Executive Director, K B Valsalakumari, also seated on the dais. The chits all had the same request, that “Kudumbashree’s own Minister”(who enjoys fame as also a good singer) should not speak, but sing a song! The Minister was about half-way through his speech, and by that time, the Executive Director had received more chits with the written message and she conveyed the request to him. Not one of those chits was unsigned; they were all from a specific CDS or a group of CDSs. Without batting an eyelid or bothering to conclude his observations, Muneer announced right then that he would sing a song extolling the wonderful diversity of cooking in Malabar, and with great aplomb, sang a song that praised the loving labours and the wonderful culinary genius of mothers-in-law in Malabar who created marvelous food for the bridegroom! With showers of applause and much happy laughter from the audience in the middle. After the speeches were over, the members of the audience took over. One of the chairpersons performed a fantastic impromptu Ottanthullal mocking the terrific hurry in which the CDS chairpersons lived their lives. It ended with the harried ladies singing together, ‘Why this Thalavidhi (fate) di?’, a parody of the hit Tamil song ‘Why this Kolaveri di?’She was rewarded not only with laughter and applause; by the time it reached a crescendo, some of her peers had stepped into the aisle and were dancing. Next came a senior CDS chairperson who clearly belonged to an earlier generation of the militant working class, who sang a song on Kudumbashree that she wrote and tuned by herself. Her voice was stunningly fresh, reminding one of Janamma David, and its composition appeared to be inspired by the old communist theatre songs. Yet other ladies  appeared who sang songs about Kudumbashree that they had penned and composed on their own.Then came a young  Muslim lady from Malabar, who belted out a brilliant mappilappatu number in the new style to karaoke, danced like a rock star and got all the ladies on the floor dancing with her. Not to be outdone, a senior Kudumbashree officer,seized the mike now and rendered impromptu his version of an old Malayalam hit film song altered appropriately for the 16th anniversary of Kudumbashree ! There were a few ladies (from his district) who thought that he was Cacophonix Incarnate and did not hesitate to state it clearly and loudly, but he was undeterred and  not offended too. More than once, hierarchies were revealed to have become fluid — after the Executive Director offered warm compliments on behalf of Kudumbashree to the members of the Cheshire Home’s theatre group that had performed for the audience, a member of the audience got up and made a little speech of thanks.She did not shy away from declaring that she spoke on behalf of all of Kudumbashree. Clearly, she did not think that the Executive Director had a greater right to represent Kudumbashree, and her statement or claim did not clash with the ED’s.

No wonder I was saddened when I got to know that the magic faded the very next day. We were back to our bickering. At the concluding session, a few of the CDS chairpersons who are CPM supporters staged a particularly tasteless protest against the ‘politicization’ of the Kudumbashree and apparently because a few of them were refused entry to the venue for coming late. The rumblings of the preceding days had apparently concretized — against Sonia Gandhi’s late arrival, her reference to both Kudumbashree and the Congress-sponsored Janashree in her speech, the alleged presence of Janashree workers in the venue, and so on. Now, I find it strange that much of the protest which could have been made earlier (and I am totally convinced that the women there are perfectly capable of speaking their minds) were stored up for the last day.But of course, no one can question their right to protest, and there is also no doubt that much of their irritation is completely legitimate — like, for instance, the rather short duration of the media interaction — and the organizers have to much to answer.

But I hope that these protestors will display the same critical inclination when confronted with misogyny and exclusion within their own party structures. I also hope they will place the interests of Kudumbashree above short-term individual interests and short-sighted politics. I cannot help pointing out to them that acting in ways that hurt the programme as a whole is like cutting the branch on which they are sitting. I also urge them to be self-critical of the exclusions that are rampant in their own ranks. As someone who has closely observed the workings of Kudumbashree in the Trivandrum City Corporation over the past two years, I want to emphasize this. Over this period I have been increasingly convinced that many Kudumbashree leaders in the city are far more subservient to local male leaders and do not mind taking orders from them uncritically as long as they feel that this helps their ambitions for upward mobility. This apparently straightforward path to power actually affects women adversely, for they are unable to build their own independent support-base; and it is a fact that given the high levels of male dominance in politics here, it is only women who have their own base can survive in it in the long run.

Some of the most painful life-stories that I became familiar with are of women who have played this game, and failed. And which women fail? Dalit women, most frequently. The tragedy of local governance, and Kudumbashree specifically, in urban Kerala is that the urban poor at whom these interventions were aimed at have been systematically pushed into the margins, reduced to passive recipients of welfare benefits with little opportunity for upward mobility, while the meatiest parts are all claimed by middle class upper caste party functionaries.

I want to recount here one such story. This is of a forty-six-year-old woman, a resident of a slum in Trivandrum, who was a prominent figure in the Kudumbashree in the 1990s. My first meeting was her was when we were both barely out of our teens: I interviewed her when she gained public attention as a brave young woman spearheading literacy activism in the slum in which she lived. She hailed from a dalit working class family and her parents were part of the militant working class politics of the 20th century. She continued to rise in public work in the UBSP through the 1990s, braving much criticism, and even physical attacks from criminal elements there. She later rose to the leadership of the first Kudumbashree CDS and soon became indispensable to the City Corporation and Kudumbashree authorities. She was always a committed worker of the CPM, working in committees and willingly subject to party discipline and directions at a time when ‘women’s empowerment’ was a key element in the CPM’s Blair-ite moment. She became the face of the Kudumbashree at the slum and was closely identified with the interests of the CPM there. She was indeed an empowered woman, capable of using her knowledge and contacts to maintain her dignity in the face of stereotypes about poor women. Paradoxically, this does not seem to have brought her much approbation within the party, while it seems to have undermined her chance to build an independent base. Unused to women wielding power, her leadership was always valued but neither loved nor respected. While older party members and local male cadre resented her assertiveness, non-CPM people harbored very strong feelings against her. When the City Corporation decided to provide the residents of the slum with housing through the JNNURM, she was deployed there and ended up as everybody’s whipping-girl,gradually losing even childhood friendships in her place of birth. The commitment to public life also took a toll on her personal life; now she raises her two children on her own. She sacrificed her means of livelihood and whatever meagre assets she had built up, all to defend CPM’s interests, but was offered little upward mobility within the CPM; indeed, things were so badly off for her that she finally accepted a temporary job, offered to Kudumbashree women, as a cleaner in a government hospital in Trivandrum. This job has recently been terminated. Like many dalit working class women who I know, she now takes refuge in the prayer sessions conducted by a Pentecostal Church. And in sharp contrast to her is her sister who chose studies over a public life and who now has a ‘respectable’ job yielding sizable income. She has joined the ranks of the Malayali middle-class.

I seethe with silent rage when I recount this story. The mother of this Kudumbashree leader was a sanitation worker with the City Corporation who was empowered by unionization which won for this much-reviled group of workers the dignity of labour and security of work. She retired as an employee of the Corporation with benefits and a pension. Her daughter who looked as if she was availing of the opportunities opened up to poor women in the late 1990s and rising high in local governance and politics, is nowhere now; indeed, she is worse off than her mother. And in her place in Kudumbashree, middle class, upper caste women! Kudumbashree’s latest published compilation of the experiences of its leaders does not include the story of this woman who may be counted among its founding figures, but it includes the story of the upper-caste, better-off women who lead that CDS, whose struggles are surely nothing compared to their dalit sister who was rudely sidelined to make way for them. Indeed, everyone responsible for this woman’s plight,including the CPM and the Kudumbashree Mission, cannot abandon their responsibility to make amends for the massive losses she has suffered in her life.

This is not to say that the complaints voiced by the protestors at the meeting are invalid if they are unwilling to fight these exclusions — that is not a good argument even. I do hope that the organizers take the concrete issues they raise seriously and resolve them democratically. But it seems to me that the demand for democracy has to be made everywhere, and not just in places that are convenient. I also find that it is not a coincidence that while the CPM supporters were probably the majority in the audience and did not take part in the protest,  leaders from the city corporations were prominent in the graceless show against the Chief Minister. From whatever I have observed in the course of my research, this is not a good sign. But seriously, my worry is that the magic of Kudumbashree will vanish forever when such venality eats into its core. For it is such moments, however fleeting, that allow us to dream of a future of gender peace, something that we desperately need.

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