An Open Letter to Brinda Karat about Rehana Fathima: Why are we being hunted in Kerala?

Dear Comrade

Last year, around this time, I wrote you an open letter about the plight of Hadiya Asokan who was being hunted down by the Hindutva groups for her choice of faith and partner while the CPM and its cyber force was either actively abetting the violence or watching passively. I wrote in joy, because you had taken a firm stand and despite angry howls of protest against you from your own party. However, this time, I write in sheer despair at your silence; not just yours, but of the AIDWA in Kerala in general, in the wake of the twisted machinations of the Hindutva forces around the Supreme Court’s order permitting the entry of women of menstruating ages to the Sabarimala temple.

I know that the AIDWA was involved in securing the entry – just like it tried to intervene in the Hadiya case in the early days – and has issued statements and started a campaign. But then,  though the controversy has primarily been about women’s bodies and their rights: how come we are not countering it with increasing the number of women’s voices in the public sphere that argue powerfully for women’s rights? The women who tried to exercise the right of entry have been heckled, harassed, physically threatened, and their daily lives have been in peril even as the CPM-led government and its cadre stood by watching the show. The Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran actually fed the trolls with his declaration that the temple was not a playground for ‘activists’!  That is his interpretation, but Rehana had her own, which was buried under an impossible mountain of fake news. By this utterance he wiped out the right of women less burdened by patriarchy — who had thrown off that burden by sheer effort and grit — to be devotees! When these women were attacked, the police went slow, and the CPM activists as well as the AIDWA watched passively like they did with Hadiya!

It appears then that this government seems all game to use ‘activists’ as an ‘other’ to unify the conservatives and lead them back to the CPM fold. Is this justice, Comrade? Last time round, it was a woman who converted to Islam who was used thus. She was saved by the Supreme Court, and let me tell you, not one the CPM’s cyber gang who nearly destroyed her life, was even apologetic. The same evil seems to be afoot now: only that the target is a diverse group of women who tried to exercise rights granted to them by the highest court in the land – who are all dubbed ‘activists’.

I write to you now because this evil has surfaced today beyond any doubt. I refer to the atrocious arrest of Rehana Fatima, one of the women who attempted to visit Sabarimala and was turned away. After her return, Rehana has been hunted mercilessly — her home was attacked, she suffered unbelievable kinds of cyber bullying, defamation, hate speech, and open rape and murder threats. Many, including CPM activists, kept condemning her for being ‘immoral’ or ‘non-serious’ and making things difficult for the government! Rehana’s Muslim name, they claimed, was dangerous and she should have known. She has been widely accused of being a ‘publicity-seeker’.

Now, Sabarimala, as is well known, is open to men of all faiths, so I do not see why the CPM faithful should be so irked when a Muslim-named woman tries to go there! And while one understands their fear, that things may escalate to give the BJP a chance to topple the government, it is beyond my understanding why so much of distrust of Islam and hatred of women less constrained by Kerala’s unique kinds of patriarchy should be used to protect the government? The allegation of publicity-seeking is by far the saddest piece of evidence of continuing misogyny among CPM supporters. Rehana is a model — and it is not the first time models have supported the CPM, for example, Resmi Nair. One can use one’s publicity in many ways, and Rehana has had a history of using it against misogynist religious bigotry. But even if CPM supporters find that distasteful, how can they hint that publicity seekers should be punished by stripping them off the rights guaranteed to them by the Indian Constitution? Especially when there isn’t even a shred of evidence that she has incited any communal hatred?

Now she has been arrested with a non-bailable warrant issued to her by the Kerala police, and she has been remanded for two weeks. This is on a complaint made by a  Hindutva bigot who claimed that a selfie she had posted on Facebook, wearing a black shirt and wrap,  had offended the religious sentiments of Ayyappa devotees. The black costume is of course prescribed for the devotees; how she chooses to wear it is her right. If male devotees can make the trek with barely a loin cloth around their waists, I cannot see why a woman cannot wear in  a style that suits her, and why that alone should offend religious sentiment. Why are women’s thighs deemed so offensive, when men expose most of their bodies and get away with it?

Rehana’s very life is now being ploughed over by this senseless response of the Kerala police. Her constitutional rights as a citizen are being violated;  her home attacked; indeed, she is the victim here, of fake news, of utterly condemnable attacks on character and life. Her livelihood is threatened because after the arrest she has been suspended from BSNL where she works. All this, when the spokespersons of the BJP and a whole bunch of other Hindutva fanatics go around inciting the worst kinds of rebellion against the government, threatening the police, and endlessly bullying, offending, threatening women who might wish to exercise their right to visit Sabarimala. The way they get bail and are released is shocking — as though the government thought that they were not the threat to democracy, but those who fight to defend citizens’ rights in this country — now dubbed ‘activists’ and demonized.

Comrade, let me ask you, have not the struggles in Kerala in favour of free self-expression in public (for example the Kiss of Love protests, which shook the Hindutva forces here), a democratizing force? I have  evidence that they have been so, within the Kerala left itself. I have been interviewing young students from an SFI-led college in Kerala, one of the most prominent public institutions of higher education here. All of them agree that the SFI’s participation in such struggles, especially around demystifying menstruation and the female body, and transgender identities have led to a much-more peaceful and agreeable atmosphere in the college. They are sure that this has changed the way in which women students who are the majority there (and in higher education in Kerala in general) feel about the SFI. They also say that this has made the men in the SFI far more open to gender equality. They no longer feel intimidated, they claim, by the SFI in the college; this has also impacted the discussions that are now possible between people of different genders and sexes there. Is this not a positive change, one that all democratic movements including the AIDWA try to achieve? Rehana Fathima does not agree to the Minister’s dubbing her ‘activist’, but irrespective of her intentions, her act challenges outdated taboos about the female body. Why are we so passive towards her plight, then?

I am truly saddened, however, by the timidity of the woman intellectuals in the AIDWA and CPM in Kerala. It is clear that some of them see how dangerous a precedent this is: a woman being dragged off to jail because she allegedly offended a random Hindutva bigot’s ‘religious sentiments’. They know well that they could be next. But few of them seem to have the spine to stand up and tell their own government how wrong this is in strong, unambiguous terms. I just read a FB post by a CPM supporter, a woman I hold dear, saying that while the law should deal with Rehana, she should not be socially defamed and abused. What does that mean? That the police should be allowed to wreck her life, but she should not be trolled? If you ask me, Rehana Fatima is a woman who has survived many trolls, much defamation. But it is the police who cam well and truly destroy the very foundations of her life, especially her economic independence. Is this what the left should be allowing, Comrade, after all the progressive statements by the Chief Minister?

Sustaining the moral majority, as Kadakampally Surendran has been doing, is to play on turf that is by now fully occupied and controlled by the Hindutva. Is the CPM so impoverished that they have no other way to stabilize its support base by setting up an Other, be it the Muslim, be it the by-default feminist or the ‘activist’, around who all conservatives can rally together in hate? Why is this so? The CPM ‘s growth agenda in Kerala is by now almost indistinguishable from that of the Congress or the BJP indeed.  There was a chance to rebuild the left from the post-disaster civil society that had risen up forgetting caste-community and political boundaries, which seems, sadly, so distant now.

I appeal not to your influence as a prominent political leader in the CPM with a record of deep integrity but to the original moral and political impulse which led you, as a young woman, to choose women as the constituency to work within the left. That impulse will surely reveal to you how utterly immoral and opportunistic this indifference to Rehana’s plight is.

I appeal to you to intervene immediately. We need your voice of sanity now to once again pull the CPM from the brink. We are determined to fight this, Comrade, no matter how long and hard this is going to be.

Yours with hope, and love and respect, as always,

J Devika


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