Requiem for the Undead: On Kerala’s Sixtieth Birthday

[The title is a tribute to Johnny Miranda’s exquisite Malayalam novel, Requiem for the Living (Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Opees in Malayalam)

As Kerala’s sixtieth birthday – a year which was inevitably one of celebration for many Malayalis as the culmination of life, until the increasing life expectancy here rendered it redundant – approaches, evaluations on the health and well-being of the region (and not just the people, or individual Malayalis) are being offered. They do not bode well. There is a sense in which we feel that the magic that has somehow protected the region, placed a shining cloak around its shoulders once, has departed. This magic is none other than that which is captured by the term ‘Kerala Model’ – which, in our popular imagination, always exceeded being just social science shorthand for the complex array of historical factors that led to high social indicators in a society characterized by low economic growth once associated with us. The idea of the Kerala Model somehow represented the fairy godmother who had transformed Kerala from being the Cinderella in India, to a shining princess fit to be raised to the heights of the UN’s international development-circles in the 1970s.

There are many reasons to think that Kerala’s magical uniqueness may be declining. For
example, the transformation of welfare in Kerala from a collective politics and a strongly-claimed right (even when it was formally not so) to highly-individualizing, gendered, forms of dole from above has been a steady one in recent times. Many achievements of the Kerala Model have been undoubtedly hollowed out and indeed, have acquired a strangely unreal quality, quite akin to the fading of something magically conjured up . For instance, in literacy – if earlier generations who gained literacy but did not complete schooling were able to sharpen their letters simply because there was a stronger atmosphere of critical political action among the poor, the children of the disadvantaged in present-day Kerala do complete schooling but seem incapable of fully-functional literacy even. The aspirations for upward mobility ignited among the poorest – which could be characterized as unseen yet powerfully-driving forces – seem to drive many of them into the abyss of poverty. I am thinking of the not-unsubstantial numbers of the extremely-poor (and often female-headed) families that received panchayat subsidies for building a pucca home, but due to the sheer insufficiency of the support, were driven to obtain loans which they are now unable to repay and thus face the terrible prospect of losing even the few cents of land that they owned. Precisely because the Kerala Model was never just social science, these developments, even when they are fully explicable in the language and logic of the social science, give out a sense of fading magic, a withdrawal of blessing, not fully accountable in social science language.

Sitting in a public meeting yesterday, listening to the voices of the victims of the Endosulphan tragedy in north Kerala and thinking of the ways in which the instruments of governmental welfare, typically identified with the Kerala Model, have been turned against popular movements demanding support and welfare from the state, I marveled at the presence of the fading, yet present magic of the idea of the Kerala Model in all our deliberations. The activists of the movement to secure justice and welfare for the victims of the state’s indiscriminate spraying of Endosulphan in the northern district of Kasaragod were in Thiruvananthapuram to meet the Chief Minister and place their demands before him. Despite the visible sadness that earlier meetings had yielded nothing, they continued to be hopeful that the political party that had won on the slogan ‘Everything will be made alright’ will concede their demands and take concrete steps. Just a couple of weeks back, I had similarly listened to activists of the Sickle Anaemia Patients’ Association of Wayanad – brave people who weathered terrible fatigue and potential illness – to travel to the capital city in the hope of meeting the Chief Minister and presenting their demands. They too complained of how nothing really substantial had happened since the new government had taken over, but remained entirely hopeful.

The magic, then, still survives somewhat in the space of radical civil social politics here: since it is not the welfarist state, but the immense pressure that the militant masses have put, ever since the nineteenth century, on the state in this part of the world, that constituted the heart of the Kerala Model. This heart, it appears, has not given way – it continues to beat in and through the struggles we have seen for land, welfare, and dignity waged by the many marginalized people of Kerala, by groups who are recognized officially as historically-deprived, and others which were formed in newer circumstances – adivasis, dalits, sickle-cell anaemia patients, fisher communities, victims of Endosulphan spraying, transpeople, widows, and others. The great difference, however, is that they now face not a welfare state, but one that has been steadily securitized and Indianized as well. A state that now abides by the global neoliberal-conservative imperatives to hunt down environmental activists and critical students as ‘Maoists’ and encourages a latent atmosphere of Islamophobia at all times. A state that works hard to create ideological space and justification for big capital – most visibly for Adani at Vizhinjam, for a container terminal port – while shoving the question of the livelihoods of the poor who face dispossession as big capital prepares to usurp their land and sea to secondary status. A state that uses governmental categories now to break civil social movements by selectively awarding welfare. The victims of the Endosulphan tragedy are being divided through selective distribution of welfare – those who live on the other side of the new panchayat boundaries have been excluded. This could potentially divide the movement, but the activists who are now somewhat familiar with this tactic, have resisted it strongly. But other movements do succumb. In Wayanad, only the tribal people suffering from Sickle-Cell Anaemia have received a pension; members of the Chetty community which too is poor, are denied support.

Of course, this kind of response is not all new. Rarely has the state in Kerala responded to the cries of marginal people against the destruction of their collective lives by restoring the conditions adequate to them. This is apparent from the experience of the fisher community which struggled to protect its livelihood and ecological wealth in the 1980s. The responses have always been partial or individualizing, or both. Nor is the tactic of pushing back marginalized groups into depoliticized categories of governmental welfare precisely as a way of rendering invisible their self-assertion as a politicized groups unfamiliar. How else may one understand the recent vulgar laughter, that emanated from MLAs of all political colour, that rang in the Kerala Legislative Assembly in response to the Minister A K Balan’s lewd remarks about the plight of tribal women and children in poverty-stricken tribal hamlets of the state?

But what worried me most was something a leading activist of the anti-Endosulphan movement told me yesterday. He was telling me of how their hopes were raised by the government which is building special schools for the children affected by Endosulphan victims to provide them with daily care. This of course is desperately needed to bring huge relief to their caregivers, mostly mothers (and even teen-aged sisters who have been withdrawn from school). Many of those who were affected years back suffer because their normal development into adulthood has been very severely distorted – and so until now, the special schools accepted them too for daily care. The activist who spoke to me remarked, with great disappointment, that they were appalled when they came to know that the new schools would not accept anyone above the age of eighteen. This was shocking, he noted, and the mothers of the victims decided to resist, agreeing that no one would use the schools unless this atrocious limitation was removed.

They went to meet the highest official in the district in an attempt at convincing him about how counter-productive this rule would be. His response, as reported by the activist who met him, was that they had to ‘showcase’ these state-of-the-art special schools (probably as a ‘model’ to the rest of the world) and therefore needed the ‘right children’ to be there! Goodness alone knows what he meant by the ‘right children’ – but it seems that generating new kind of welfare in Kerala has become a hollow practice which cares little about whether they help those who need it most or not. A year ago, we felt the same about the Kerala government’s much-publicized transgender policy – it is still a set of reassurances, a model to the rest of the country, but hardly real. These schemes hover above those who need them most, keep them transfixed, divide them even.

In other words, it looks like the Kerala Model is not a fairy godmother who comes to the aid of the truly humble, the truly deserving. Rather, it is a genie controlled by the possessor of the magic lamp. The lamp is now well and truly in the hands of the agents of the state who may use it as they please! And perhaps the people struggling now, however swayed by the magic of the Kerala Model, know only too well that it bypassed them too long. Maybe it is time that we get over the strange sense of powerlessness and vulnerability that the fading of magic leaves one with.

Instead, maybe we should stop idealizing the vanished magic and rather become more critically mindful towards it. This is already characteristic of contemporary political struggles, which seek to transform and redeploy the politics of the Kerala Model while staying closely critical of its exclusions. But maybe now we should weave our own mystique, drawing upon many strengths of our past that were rendered either invisible or minor earlier.

For example, emerging historical scholarship indicates that this region was by no means peripheral to early Islam and early Orthodox Christianity – and that surely indicates the possibility of imagining the region away from the present dominant idea of it being a sub-culture of ‘India’. There seems to be evidence, which we need to explore in detail, for the intense mixing of cultures between Kerala and South East Asian societies since the late medieval period at least – intense movements of people, goods, technology, everyday objects, and cultural artifacts. I do believe that in order to study the emergence of the region now, scholars will have to master a number of languages – not just Portuguese and Dutch, but also Sinhala, Bahasa Indonesia perhaps, and Arabic, at least – and acquire familiarity with these cultural registers as well.

Secondly, we may have to practice critical mindfulness of the impacts of Malayali migration and migrants abroad on the region – we need to be honest about this. For example, we need to be willing to unmask exploitative global capital which wears the sheep’s clothing of the NRI Malayali when it flows in with predatory intent; at the same time, we must be willing to listen with patience and good humour to second- or third-generation Malayalis abroad who may be wholly critical of our shared legacies, and build spaces of conviviality with them. In fact, we need to be critically mindful of how we connect between us and with others. We need to be wakeful enough to identify the sites where the exploitative interests of the global capitalist labour market (which now forms the aspirational destination for almost all Malayali youth) intersect with the entrenched conservatisms of the powerful caste-community organizations and the dominant form of the family in Kerala (which now turn them out as skilled labour power), so that critical alternatives may indeed be thought about.

Thirdly, and most importantly perhaps, we need a wholly-new generation of ‘organic intellectuals’ who will be careful and responsible translators in the very best and broadest sense. I mean, intellectuals capable of being ‘local cosmopolitans’, to borrow from Dilip M Menon – those who will be able to brave the ignominy of being ‘fence-sitters’, who will not succumb to the temptations of being comfortably housed in one side or the other, who will straddle multiple boundaries without losing their sense of being rooted here. And so I cannot but remember Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai – and end this essay by calling attention his intellectual and political legacy which reminded us to move on from asking whether Kerala was a chapter in the history of Rome, to the question whether Rome was a chapter in the history of Kerala.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s