The recent murder of an SFI activist, Abhimanyu, at the Maharajah’s College, Ernakulam, allegedly by activists of another student organization, the Campus Front, has once again triggered a series of intense campaigns against the Popular Front of India (PFI), which is accused of having terror links, even with the ISIS. This last claim has become commonsense almost impossible to contest.
The sense of triumph that many CPM cyber warriors displayed vulgarly was such that they even claimed to have been right about the Hadiya case too: that the CPM’s planned indifference to the plight of Hadiya detained forcefully by her father who cited the High Court’s order was morally defensible because it was the PFI which supported her; and therefore that the CPM’s implicit support for Hindutva positions on ‘love jihad’ in the Hadiya case are justified. Those of us who took her side and defended her right to choice of faith and partner were pilloried as irresponsible intellectuals who feed extremists in the name of fighting Islamophobia. Some leftist cyberwarriors even said that we were probably paid to do so, a claim that the Sangh has never stopped making.
I refrained from responding immediately to these. First, I no longer consider these elements to be leftist for the most. There are still individuals in the CPM who try to forge alliances against crony capital at the national level, but sadly enough, the larger share of the regional leadership does not display such commitment. Their commitment to democracy was never strong and now it has weakened even more. Indeed, in Kerala, the war is between Sanghis and Pracchanna Sanghis, and the latter is the smarter and the more powerful. I find it pointless to respond to either, since they share the common end, ultimately, of pleasing the majority and disciplining minorities. The CPM now fights on the cultural terrain laid out by the Sangh — and so now organizes Ramayana seminars during the month of Karkatakam, when high- and many middle-caste Hindus used to read the Ramayana. Secularizing the Ramayana can hardly address the range of critiques of it raised by non-Brahmin, Dalit, and women’s perspectives, and the CPM will inevitably be caught in the contradictions of celebrating the Ramayana month with critical discussions on the Ramayana. Besides, the cultural poverty of the CPM which cannot produce an alternate discourse of family, community, love, and loyalty that could challenge the exclusions and silences of the Ramayana is too apparent. And it appears that the CPM has no discourse at all to address the educated upper caste Hindu middle-class except a B-team version of Hindutva and Moditva’s cultivation of infinite growth-anticipation.
But watching the discussion on issues raised by this truly shocking murder from a distance, there are questions that I believe no one is asking — or no one wants to ask. The shrieking tone of the CPM participants probably disorients others or worse, creates some sort of psychological urgency to join the shrieking chorus, blend in, so to say. That is another reason why one may want to keep a distance, of course. I was watching a very specific conversation, between some of Kerala’s most prominent public intellectuals and activists, about the editorial of the journal Patabhedam, This is a group least likely to bow to the pressure to blend in and stop thinking, but what I saw, especially in the responses of CPM- supporters in it, looks especially worrying to me.
First, I am forced to raise a question I have been raising since the Hadiya Case overtook us in 2017: it may be true that the PFI is religiously and socially conservative — but where is the concrete evidence for all the claims that are being brandished in its face? Of association with the ISIS, of planning terrorist attacks and violently disrupting Hindu-Muslim marriages? I cannot see how many of the intellectuals in the aforementioned groups who normally call for evidence-based policy formulation, do not demand solid evidence for this? I am yet to read theological justifications of violent dissociation with others in the PFI’s writing and public statements. During the Hadiya Case when Brinda Karat, a person I deeply respect, made the allegation that the PFI was disrupting Hindu-Muslim unions in Malabar, I publicly demanded information on such cases — say, police complaints, at least the name of the police station, details of people who have been harassed thus etc. In these times in which the demonisation of young Muslim men has reached its crescendo, it is surely easy to file a complaint. Brinda Karat’s office apparently responded to the PFI’s own request that they were collecting information and that she would be writing about it soon. Till date, I have seen no such article. If we are all for rational thinking, surely we ought to condemn or condone organizations based on evidence? It galls me why the concern about the ISIS links of the PFI have not been thoroughly investigated by now by responsible authorities or the all-powerful CPM itself? Discussions published in their newspaper merely repeats a series of allegations and provides no proof that will stand in a court of law. And even more importantly, why does the CPM pause this hunt periodically and wait till the next round of CPM-SDPI conflict? If the latter is the greatest threat to Kerala, should it not be exposed thoroughly and pursued consistently?
Secondly, why do so many of us who otherwise are firmly on the side of rigorous scientific methodology in coming to conclusions about most matters of vital significance to society, ditch that attitude when it comes to dealing with so-called ‘ Islamic extremists’? If you take the data of violent conflicts between student organizations on college and university campuses (such conflict may be relatively rare on campuses where one organization dominates, and such domination is usually held through brutal means — that indicates not ‘peace’ as some claim, but a permanent, normalized, state of conflict), it is quite likely that the fights are much more over bids to control space and influence on campus, and less over theological and religious differences. There is further evidence for this if one considers the fact that the SFI and Campus Front have entered into opportunistic alliances during elections in colleges and it is common for students to move between the SFI and the Campus Front and ABVP as well. In the Abhimanyu murder case, the conflict was sparked by a dispute about mounting posters on the college walls. The high frequency of violent incidents between student organizations over space and resources on campuses should lead us to think that the incident at Maharaja’s was also most probably one such — and not about theological differences. In that case, it would fall into the history of the irresponsible and shoddy conduct of democracy on our campuses, and not be singled out as the eruption of religious fanaticism on a college campus. Yet many CPM commentators, themselves intellectuals with social science credentials do not place this incident within the data on student conflicts but connect it with the infamous hand-chopping case, in which religious fanatics attacked a professor in a Kerala college for blasphemy. I am sure that we do not connect the violence that the SFI inflicts on its political rivals in college campuses, however chilling it may be, with. say, the truly gruesome Jayakrishnan Master murder case in which a BJP leader was hacked to death mercilessly by CPM supporters in front of a class full of sixth standard students. Also, however similar the CPM’s violence may be, we rarely connect it to, say, the terrible forms of torture practiced under the Soviet regime or in China. Nor do we connect the moral policing that many SFI units routinely practice on their campuses (especially on women, their clothes) with control exercised by the Stalinist regime over women’s bodies in the Soviet Union.
Thirdly, I cannot fathom why so many of us who swear by class analysis as the ultimate tool for making sense of social change and political possibility, refuse to deploy it when it comes to the Muslims and the PFI. Secular Muslim intellectuals on the left, particularly, are often blind to their own histories and more commonly, to their middle and upper-class status. They seem to imagine the Muslim community as untouched by class differentiation, not to mention social hierarchies. Surely, one of the most apparent social processes in Kerala during the past three decades has been the intense social differentiation within the Muslim community which has left a large number of people outside the gains garnered through the Gulf migration. The young male activists of the PFI and Campus Front, like Abhimanyu himself, mostly hail from the disadvantaged social and economic circumstances. It is these young people who do not see any future for themselves in Hindutva India who are most likely to turn to desperate measures. Projecting them as merely lumpen is a way of rendering invisible their working-class status. To say that secular Muslims are in danger because of the so-called radicalized Muslims, then, in class terms, means the educated Muslim middle class is endangered because the working-class, socially disempowered Muslim poor are trying to obtain a voice in whichever way they can. Why is it that the CPM is unable to gain the trust of the Muslim poor? And instead of acknowledging this failure and acting on it, why are CPM intellectuals pushing them further towards the brink where they may actually get radicalized?
Fifthly, why are we not asking the question why the Campus Front is acting the way it should? If radicalization and the spread of conservative social ideologies are all that the PFI and Campus Front aim at, all they need to do is lie totally low, stay away from campus politics, aim for small prayer groups, and so on. Right now, if this is indeed their goal, they are playing the wrong strategy. There are many other religious student organizations on campus that actually choose to lie really low because their goals are truly long-term, since what they aim for is conservative social transformation outside the sphere of public politics. If radicalization of Muslim students is indeed the aim of the Campus Front, why are they exposing themselves to the public and the arms of the state so frequently?
Finally — and for me, this is the most troubling question of all — how is it that we, as a society, have become incapable of recognizing the insights that can emerge only from tragedy and mourning? Death — irrespective of whether it is physical death (in Abhimanyu’s case) or social death (in Hadiya’s case) — and mourning are occasions in which we turn back into our own selves, reflect on our lives, with a certain distance, detachment, and we see the ugliness we have allowed to grow till then. In the distance that allows us to set aside our vested interests, we are often able to discern what the world and life are truly all about. That did not happen in the Hadiya case, nor is it happening in the present tragedy. In each, the effort rather has been to project the CPM-SDPI difference as the core of the conflict with the CPM’s position upheld as the right, moral, secular response. In the Hadiya case, some of us did not let that succeed. Despite heavy attacks on our characters, professional competences, commitment to democracy, integrity, and threats of many sorts, we insisted that the core issue was not this but that of the destruction of a young woman’s citizenship, her social death. And despite the best combined efforts of the CPM’s cyber warriors, official CPM feminists, and the CPM-‘manned’ State Women’s Commission, as well as the Hindutva chorus, we prevailed when the Supreme Court agreed with us. Indeed, the Hadiya case has continued to reverberate, contributing to the progressive expansion of social democracy in the daunting darkness of our present: since then, several cases to do with young people’s rights to live with chosen partners, and the present hearing on Section 377 have cited it. The credit for that does not go to the CPM’s cyber brigade which claims the monopoly of progressive thinking in Kerala but to those who insisted that the core issue is not what the CPM made it out to be.
In the present incident too, if we were truly capable of mourning and perceiving loss, we would have seen that the core issue is not the CPM-SDPI conflict and the CPM’s moral superiority; rather it is about the ways in which young men are being used by various political and social organizations in Kerala at present. A participant in this debate reminded me that Abhimanyu was a very progressive young tribal man with an interest in protecting the environment and committed to the inclusion of the transgender community. Yes, I agree, but cannot help noticing that while such young men build ground support for the CPM on campuses, the senior leaders in power systematically break down environmental safeguards, disempower local governments, and continue to hang on to gender and sexual conservatisms of the worst sort – in other words, they use these young men while keeping them largely powerless. As for the PFI, it is clear that giving back to the SFI in the same coin is actually intensifying their younger activists’ experience of adversity, something that may well be expected in a situation in which both Hindutva and non-Hindutva political forces are essentially committed to the religious majority and the middle classes. That the leadership seems unable to plan a strategy that would empower this youth without exposing them to terrible risks even as more and more young activists pay a terrible price (and data on past conflicts confirms this), seems unforgivable to me. If what happened at Maharaja’s was an accident or self-defense, then those who were involved should have come out, whatever the consequences, and admitted guilt. Only that way would they have affirmed their moral superiority. By playing the dominant game of violent student politics on the terms of the dominant, these young people only stand to lose and it is unconscionable that the leadership should assert the difference between cadre and supporter and claim that the Campus Front was not under the SDPI, and so on. If we are to address the core issue that surfaces in this murder, then we must refuse to treat it as mainly a CPM-SDPI confrontation and insist on ending the unpardonable instrumentalization of young men by these forces in student politics.
But I am no longer sure that I am addressing even the Malayali public anymore. Since morning I have been sitting at my desk petrified by a piece of information given to me by an honest and concerned education activist: in the past one year, sixty teenagers, students of Classes Eleven and Twelve in Kerala’s schools, have attempted suicide mostly unable to suffer the moral policing and torture by teachers at school. Twenty nine of them died. Even more devastating was the fact that not a single case was registered in any of these deaths. I cannot see these deaths as suicides, they are murders, and that too, prompted by teachers and other authorities, even parents in some cases, who should have been their protectors and refuge,. They are every bit as searing as that of the murder of Abhimanyu. In a society in which young people are pushed over the brink by fanatic adherents of Victorian prudery and these murders are considered normal and swept under the carpet, the murder of a youngster by other youngsters alone evokes horror and shrill screaming. especially when it looks like a great chance to entrench the vested interests of the dominant left!! I do not know whether to cry or laugh.