Molehills from mountains and other stories from kerala

Recently, on fieldwork in a peri-urban panchayat in Kerala devastated by illegal large-scale granite quarrying, a local resident pointed us to what looked like a hillock. It was covered with vegetation — and flowers of a pleasant lilac — which made a very pretty sight — and to the naked eye, looked as solid as any other hillock in the peripheries of the Western Ghats. “This hillock,” he clarified, “is actually just a heap. It is the earth loosened by quarrying, heaped up here over a long time. Because it is overgrown by weeds, we think it is a verdant hill.” Far from being the latter, he said, it poses a serious danger to the neighborhood. “A spell of really heavy rain can bring it down and just imagine what will happen to the houses below?”

Maybe not too inexplicably, it reminded me of the progressiveness that many powerful agents claim these days. The mountain of the left has been quarried bare; all that remains is a heap of debris which may readily turn into suffocating muck in inclement weather. But we do not see it as it is covered with greenery. I went close up to take a look at the lush vegetation on the hillock: mostly mikania mikrantha (it has a wonderful samskari name in Malayalam: Dhritharashtra paccha, the connotation of which is evident to anyone who knows about the effect of the old man’s embrace in the Mahabharatha!), and pueraria phaseioloids (thottappayar, or Plantation-Legume, brought here to serve rubber; it has now been cut loose). Ah, I thought, how apt. The illusion of lushness is produced not exactly parasites, but invasive characters that thrive on the destruction of the ecosystem. To the eyes of those unconnected with ecology and the naive (which include first-world radical academics, even) it will be a pleasing sight for sure.

[But I do agree that the comparison is wrong, and indeed wrongful to the plants.]

This memory came back to me recently with two news reports. One was about Hadiya Asokan, who was in the eye of the storm a few years back about her conversion and marriage to a Muslim. Hadiya’s fight for her fundamental rights as an Indian citizen — in which her own family and kin, almost the whole of Kerala’s dominant left including their intellectual hanger-ons, the so-called ‘good Muslims’, the right-wing in Kerala and India, dominant community organizations, the middle-classes, and almost everyone with an eye on goodies that come from being yes-people of the government were arrayed against her — made headline news in India until her rights to faith and choice of life-partner were affirmed by the Indian Supreme Court in 2018. On her side were people as demonised as her — the universally-misrepresented whipping child of both the Indian right and left, the Muslim organization called Popular Front and the party called SDPI, some brave young people like Mridula Bhavani and others, and a few powerless voices from civil society including my own. At that time we took the full brunt of the attack by both the left and the right — branded, labelled, demonized, trivialized. Yet in the end, we were vindicated, not the akshauhini assembled by the politically-powerful left parties and the socially-dominant right forces. Not surprisingly, precisely because introspection and self-criticism are ‘cheap talk’ to these completely Rational Agents, Hadiya and her struggle descended into obscurity.

Some three or four days back, a small news item appeared in the Malayalam press: about Hadiya Asokan’s parents visiting her home, where she now lives and works with her husband. It has been largely ignored by the mainstream media and politics. After the case, Hadiya completed her training in homeopathy and is now Dr Hadiya who runs a clinic in Othukkungal. After some years of separation — it was her father who accused the Popular Front of kidnapping and manipulating her into converting — her parents and she seem to have mended their relations. Just like, indeed, in many cases of inter-faith marriages in Kerala these days. I could not pull away my welling eyes from that photo with the three smiling faces . Not because something unexpected happened, rather, the exact opposite — because it was utterly expected, it was something that all of us who stood with her, and she herself, had expected. In 2018, in an interview to the NDTV, she had made this clear:

My parents are very dear to me. I am very dear to them too. Can’t everyone choose their freedom? Some anti national forces misguided my parents. My parents and I have a blood relation. So more than anyone else, I know my parents… My parents also need some time to come to terms with all that has happened. I am not going to meet them this time. They need some time to accept that I am a Muslim.

What can be more redeeming than the fact that bonds between human beings, their mutual love, have survived and sprouted again, despite the strenuous efforts made by an entire army of malice and evil intention to pull them up from the very roots? An army that looked so intimidating not because it was full of foes, but because it was led by people who were friends? When people ask me what I ‘get’ from siding often with elements deemed troublemakers by authorities, I struggle to express myself. This news gives me chance to answer them. I ‘get’ nothing substantial, except this vindication of love among human beings. Of course, to this bunch of Rational Agents which we today call Malayali society, who have totally dumped or forgotten the legacy of Sree Narayana Guru, this appears to be just ‘cheap talk’, like the Game Theorists would say.

The second news item that brought before my eyes the memory of the pseudo-hillock was about how the RSS favoured women’s entry into Sabarimala. This is not news really of course — because they had favoured it long back. But surely the reiteration threw interesting light on the Left’s desperation to clamber back somehow on the chariot of aachaaram. Back when the dark clouds of the sudra rebellion were gathering in Kerala in 2018 September, I had remarked to an online magazine that Kerala should not bother too much about the SC judgment. The Great Flood was barely passed and it was the moment for us to introspect on what we had peddled to the people as ‘development’. Implementing the SC judgment was going to be clearly arduous. I had suggested that the government should maybe remain frank about the challenge and indeed, since it was mainly the RSS who supported this demand (and surely, it was not the top item on any kind of feminist agenda in Kerala at that point), the CPM should demand that the RSS mobilize a group of women, who the government would help reach the temple. And maybe ask for central forces to maintain law and order at Sabarimala, freeing the state police to attend to the more vital processes of recovery.

When I shared this with a group of pro-CPM intellectuals, there was a howl of protest. How could I so direly underestimate the progressive potential of the left in Kerala? How could I think that the Left could not implement this judgment on its own? I bowed out — there was such a wave of progressive confidence, it misted my eyes. We all know what happened afterwards. Eventually, the blame fell on ‘feminists’ who were committing sacrilege though the poor government did everything to stop them. In time, the government dumped its own heroines — notably the feisty dalit feminist Bindu Ammini, abandoning her when she was attacked in public by Hindutva elements. And now, it runs behind the chariot, pathetically.

I knew this would happen, though. For too long, the left in Kerala has thrived on a form of ‘selective Islamophobia’ (which is becoming more and more universal, judging from the left’s attack on the Muslim League, recently) in which some organizations, like the PFI and SDPI were singled out for attack, using the familiar strategy of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ Muslim. It has indeed yielded rewards to the dominant left parties. It is an easy strategy, and demonising Hadiya and her supporters went a long way in making the dominant left acceptable to Kerala’s social right wing.

But the task of healing, rebuilding, that was necessary to take a principled position in the interests of democracy, on the side of women’s full humanity, is much more difficult. It needs genuine introspection and the ability to reach out. I knew the neoliberalized left lacks the moral -the internal – resources to undertake anything of that scale and so suggested a way to bypass the issue by putting the ball into the court of the RSS. Also, I thought it important to protect the left from the full force of the social right-wing — because of the conviction that a left public, however flawed, must remain if we are to even dream about democracy in the future.

The pro-CPM intellectuals did not anticipate the fragility of the left’s response: they must reconsider, at least now. The easiest route to power now is to indulge in selective Islamophobia — even in the wake of the CAA — and to intensify the technocratic ‘infrastructural imagination’ of development. That promises undisturbed slumber for some time, sure. Only that we will wake up to find out that we have been wiped out, as a society and as an ecologically-viable living world.

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