Before I start, a request: Friends who are reading this, if you are close to Noam Chomsky, Amartya Sen, or Soumya Swaminathan, or the other left-liberals who appear in the Kerala government-sponsored talk series from outside Kerala, please do forward this to them? I hope to reach them.
The Left government in Kerala is gathering its international intellectual-activist support base to cash on its commendable — ongoing — success in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not new — it has always been part of the dominant Left’s hegemony-bolstering exercises, especially after the 1990s, when its unquestionable hegemony in Kerala began to face a series of challenges. It has also been forced to pay attention to the oppositional civil society which relentlessly questions the dominant Left’s fundamental understanding of social justice and forces it to take seriously such ideas as freedom, autonomy, as well as identities not reducible to class.
The hegemonic political culture of the Left itself has been shaped by neoliberalism to different degrees since the 1990s. Now, in a different way, the Left’s hegemony is shaped by the pressures from Hindutva nationalism. The successes of the Left in the 21st century are the development emergencies we have faced — epidemics, floods, landslides, the pandemic now. Development emergencies have been points in which the hegemonic political culture could recoup itself — moments in which the neoliberal logic does not work, and so the Left looks like the left however momentarily. It is these moments that Chomsky et al seize.
Two points need to be stressed here: first, only development emergencies that swamp mainstream Malayali society matter. Coastal people in Kerala have been ravaged over and over again in this century by flooding, cyclones, the tsunami — each of it a massive, life-breaking development emergency. But because it affects a relatively powerless, smaller, already-vulnerable population, it does not become an opportunity for the Left to turn left. The present Minister for Fisheries has taken a greater interest, relatively speaking, in the well-being of the fisher community here, and it shows — but that does not present an opportunity for hegemony-bolstering. Secondly, the phase in which neoliberal logic is suspended is very small, indeed, the state seeks desperately to keep it alive even when circumstances are completely to the contrary. We have seen even more enthusiastic support to predatory capital rising even as people begin to breathe again. The CPM in Kerala like to call upon social scientists whose knowledge of Kerala is strictly limited, no matter how great their knowledge maybe otherwise. It has always been well-versed in making sure that no other version of Kerala reaches these figures; many of the latter do not seem to mind. This is probably because having lost the battle for the left in their respective societies, they try to compensate by glorifying Kerala.
Generally, these development emergencies have served the CPM well. And equally importantly, they have been served by the weak, effete, desiccated, bitterly-conservative Opposition, the Congress whose best strategy seems to be throwing petty misogyny at Kerala’s best-performing Minister, K K Shailaja. The development emergencies are breaks in which the oppositional civil society steps back, reins in critique, and even dreams of the Left staying the left (a delusion I keep stumbling into). However, it is a different matter with ‘societal emergencies’. By ‘societal emergency’ I mean a moment at which the social fabric takes so much strain that it threatens to break down – or change shape — depending on from where you see it. The ‘societal emergency’ is a 21st century phenomenon in Kerala — we have seen four till date. The first was the Kiss of Love struggle (2015); the struggle around Hadiya Asokan’s struggle to convert to Islam (2017-18); then the resistance to Hindutva violence around the opening of the Sabarimala temple to female devotees (2018-19); and now, the ongoing ruckus around Rehana Fathima’s body art video. In each of these moments, the Left has confronted members of the oppositional civil society who seek to redefine sociality itself through forcing a discussion on body politics. Each time, the mainstream left has been divided, with the senior leadership clinging to stubborn social conservatism bordering on the social conservatism of the religious and caste-community leadership and Hindutva itself, and supporters of the Left being more open to the arguments and positions of the oppositional civil society. Each time, the fatal weakness of the Left’s claim to be left have been exposed with unprecedented thoroughness. Each time, the Left has been forced to absorb some elements of the challenge even as it put down the recalcitrant elements, however minimally. Left supporters seem to think that without entering into a competition around doggedness in conservatism with Hindtuva, they cannot hold their ground.
And so activists like Rehana Fathima who push the boundaries of morality and decency, not to say bodily autonomy and freedom are punished and reviled mercilessly even as Hindutva elements are forgiven every crime (their crimes are mounting and increasingly brazen). This time her crime is a video in which her two children, male and female, carefully, with almost professional concentration, paint the image of a phoenix on her exposed torso. The children are not naked; not only are they farthest from passive, they are ones engaged in creative work. They do not look at anything else but the figure they paint. Rehana herself does not gaze outside. There is nothing in the video that could be called pornographic. Yet the government has chosen to punish her by slapping a POCSO case on her — alleging that she abused her children sexually by including them in the video.
Why are truly leftist responses to ‘societal emergencies’ necessary? At the very outset it is evident that left politics cannot be understood as confined merely to the sphere of the politics and the public; at least after the mid-20th century, left politics has been certainly more than the seizure of power, periodic or otherwise. Ideas like ‘adventurism’ are certainly outdated to characterize revolutionary acts of individuals in societies where political democracy is in constant peril and societal democracy is a distant and dim dream. There is something profoundly wrong now in the idea that you can have a left that is (at least partially) left in the political sphere of a society that remains bitterly conservative and hostile of all expressions of freedom — not many adore Stalinism wholesale anymore. Kerala’s social fabric is heaving under the broader social changes that have occurred over the past fifty years or so: bodies that were strictly subject to the control of the modernized caste-communities and religious institutions (that insisted on binary gender, that strictly policed sexuality, that enforced the subordination of women and children to men) have acquired the capability to speak and think and act. Putting them down brutally is in the interest of these patriarchal authorities; that is to try and obstruct democratization itself. If the Left thinks it can build its hegemony on this brutal social regime, then it does not deserve to be called left, and the support of these scholars. Indeed, the determination of many young people to defy the life-defeating structures of marriage and sexuality, their struggles to turn this into a politics that does not feed Islamophobia and collapse into Eurocentrism, is the very stuff of left social politics around the world. I know for a fact that a substantial share of the supporters of the Left in Kerala do desire such a politics. Of course such a politics of the Left would be probably subject to the ground-level competitive electoral calculations; but the amazing tolerance of right-wing excesses on those who embrace body politics and the appalling hostility towards the victims in the leadership of the Kerala Left is surely not necessary at all.
Scholars who participate in the Kerala government’s talk series, I beg you, please do not ignore Kerala’s ‘societal emergencies’ even as you celebrate the Left’s victories in handling development emergencies. Of course the Left does need your support and encouragement, especially at this dark moment in which Hindutva would literally give anything to overwhelm it. Those of us who are in Kerala’s oppositional civil society are not anti-left. We would like the Left in Kerala to really turn itself left. It is support for such a turn that the Left needs.