An Open Letter to the Kerala Governor Sri Arif Mohammad Khan About Our Fight Against the Virus, But Also About Our Resistance to CAA-NRC

Dear Sir

First of all, thank you for acknowledging, even praising,the efforts of the government of Kerala and the people to protect ourselves and humanity against the threat of the corona virus. It is true that Kerala’s efforts and achievements are being lauded the world over, but those voices are never going to make any impact on the supporters of the Sangh parivar in Kerala. But your views cannot be dismissed so easily as ‘Western’ or ‘leftist’ (though they may still murmur about your Muslim name). What has really riled me in the recent past is their systematic effort at downplaying Kerala’s achievements, heaping abuse on our effort to help migrant workers, and raising baseless allegations against those who are working to mitigate the crisis. So as a historian of modern Kerala, I am writing this to offer some insights into why we have been able to do this, in the hope that you may be able to see what they will never tell you — simply because they are so sadly blinded by hate.

I am not saying even for a moment that the Kerala government and the Chief Minister of Kerala are above criticism. Indeed, I am known to be a strident critic of the CPM, its government, and its leaders. I have pointed out, over the past many years, how the mainstream left in Kerala has come to adopt much of what used to be identified with the right wing, especially the Sangh. In the past years, the CPM  has deployed Islamophobia many times to its own end; it has evoked the spectre of Maoism to quell dissent within its own ranks; it is laid out the red carpet to predatory capital and sought to slake capital’s unquenchable thirst even at the cost of its own followers. In fact, many of the criticisms of the Sangh supporters of the CPM have rung hollow because the CPM seems to share so much with the Sangh’s own leadership.

But what your fellow-supporters of the BJP in Kerala are unable to realize, most probably because of the blindness that caste pride had wrought, and their desire for upward mobility at any cost, is that, despite all its failings, the left in Kerala has a debt to the teachings of Sreenarayana Guru that it cannot completely ignore all the time. That is, even as the CPM tries to build its bases on the Hindu majority of the state, even when it indulges in casteism and Islamophobia, in a moment of crisis, this debt — the very historical condition that enabled it to come into strength in this society — rises into view. And it is not the RSS’ vision of the nationalist Hindu, nor is it the caste-Hindu paradise of  temple custom and practice — aachaaram  — desired by the supporters of the Ready to Wait movement which opposed the SC view on women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple. It is, rather, the vision of a compassionate and caring society that Sreenarayanadharma propounded, one capable of seeing beyond the divisions of caste and religion. The difference of this vision of society from the Hindutva and the aachaaram-centred imaginations is that it is rooted in care and the recognition of common humanity, unlike the other two, which feed on hubris, hatred, and fear of the other.  The humanisation of Malayali Hinduism in the early 20th century was also accompanied by an opening of our world to receive messages of social equality and justice from all over the world — from south-east Asia, Europe, the US, and other parts of South Asia. The neo-brahminized social reform discourse from North India was only one of those. It is true that oppression and discrimination based on caste and gender was never eradicated and continues to structure the politics of left and right in different ways and in different degrees. But there was indeed a certain expansion of the heart, a certain cultural generosity that shaped our culture, which became possible then — something that the traditional elite that lost its power  could never come to terms with.

It has been our most precious cultural resource. Indeed, that is why, in this hour of crisis, Pinarayi Vijayan, an avowed communist, seems to be a better Hindu than Yogi Adityanath who has made a political career for himself out of Hinduism. In short, we have the legacy of humanised Hinduism, which, though incomplete and insufficient, poorly renewed, and severely weakened, depleted, is still a reservoir from which the springs of compassion arise in times of dire need at least.

I am hoping that all Sangh supporters in Kerala will take this insight seriously and stop spewing so much hatred. This will ultimately exhaust them, make them ill at heart and deficient in the soul. But one fears that this may have already happened, from their unbelievably immoral defense of Karnataka’s refusal to open state borders to patients from Kerala.

But if this humanized Hinduism still protects us against the moral virus that is mowing down social peace and human decency in north India, even prior to Sreenarayanadharma, there were certain conditions that protected us from the blatant loathing of minorities that has become so normal among Sangh supporters here and elsewhere in the country. The Hindu princely states of Travancore and Kochi defended the worst kind of everyday caste violence, but did not always and necessarily treat people of other religions as irreconcilable enemies. Indeed, the Syrian Christians, Jews, and Muslims filled up the varna order as Vaishyas. That gesture of inclusion has been key —  even though practicing Muslims have been demonized by the left and the right unrelentingly in the recent past, communal hatred has not overtaken us completely and minorities do not perceive themselves as second-class citizens still, or actively refuse to do so. Indeed, the Hindu state in Travancore failed precisely when an overambitious Dewan tried to play off caste and religious communities against each other.

I am no admirer of that caste order or the princely states that defended it.  I am relieved that it was swept off and sorry that it still exists transformed . But there were graces in even those egregious regimes of the past, that do not exist in the equally caste-infected and venomous present-day Hindutva imagination.

Thirdly and lastly, the Sangh supporters in Kerala try their best to minimize the value of existent public health infrastructure in Kerala which defends us from the corona virus itself. They spread ridiculous pseudo-scientific claims about the Prime Minister’s calls for collective sound- and light-making on specific days and times as protective measures against the virus, downplaying the immense effort made by the entire network that includes social workers and volunteers to senior health professionals . Would it be possible for you to educate them on the history of public health here? It is true that like elsewhere in colonial India, epidemic prevention here too was at times violent and unmindful of the losses to the poor. But this was not always true, and especially of diseases that were likely to affect the elite and non-elite, like small pox.In Kerala, when the small pox vaccine was introduced in the late 19th century, it is the highest elite — the royalty, which subjected itself first of all to vaccination. Then the administrative elite — the authorities — were asked to comply. Only much later were people approached.  It is well-known in the history of public health everywhere, not just here, that the degree to which people comply depend on the degree of trust they have in the state. Public health was one of the major demands that people made to the post-independent egalitarian-developmentalist state in Kerala, and it had to be expanded on public demand, even in the post-1990 liberalisation period, though with much wanting. Yes, recently, with the welfare state waning in Kerala and Islamophobia getting normalised, some groups have started resisting public health measures, but the most difficult task, as you know, has been managing that group which has always considered itself ‘self-made’ and above all kinds of governance — the Malayalis who work abroad and are not really dependent on Kerala’s economy for their livelihoods, people who have forgotten their own debt to Kerala’s public provisioning of healthcare and education. But there we have been firm and quite successful in disciplining them.

Indeed, the history of public health in Kerala is the exact opposite of what is happening in north India — where the poor are subjected to all kinds of public health interventions that are aggressive if not outright violent, where the rich manage to evade surveillance, and public health is still poorly provisioned. Something, I hope, the Sangh supporters here will learn and educate their peers in the north about.

Once again, I thank you for your honesty And besides, I really hope that this help you think about Kerala anew — and understand why we, as a society, reject wholeheartedly the evil scheme of the CAA-NRC from the very bottom of our hearts, and will continue to do so, no matter what Hindutva threatens us with.

With warmest regards

J Devika.

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