The Angry Young Woman and the Malayali (Progressive) Acchan -2 : The Second Season

I should be forgiven for this flippant-sounding title. But it is a living reality in Kerala that gender politics is increasingly reduced to soppy sentimental drama. Honestly, if there are CPM supporters out there, especially the Delhi-elite breed who call this title mere click-bait, I don’t give a flying fuck about what you think. You are not living this nightmare, we are.

The first season of this drama, which seems to be the flavour of the new century in Kerala, was played out in 2017, when a young OBC woman, the only child of her parents, decided to convert to Islam and find a husband who shared her faith, to incur instantly the wrath of almost everyone around her — her parents and family, all major political parties, caste/community movements, religious authorities of all sorts, atheists, secularists adept at fence-sitting, the police, the judiciary, left intellectual pretenders online and offline, and of course leeches who thrived on the CPI (M)-led government of that time. The very institutions that ought to have defended her rights as an Indian citizen turned a blind eye to her. Instead, even the better minds veered, however momentarily, to the idea that her father, much in the news for his loud protestations of paternal concern about the possibility of his daughter being kidnapped and used as cannon-fodder by the ISIS, had ‘rights’ which her choice might have infringed. Anyway, the Supreme Court finally settled the issue by restoring her rights and weakening the many investigations into the precedents of her husband. The couple lead a peaceful life away from the harsh media lights now and yes, the ‘wronged’ achan has apparently now become friendly and accepting of his daughter’s choices. Hadiya Asokan’s battle, in the end, became a landmark in the history of the struggle for individual freedoms in India. However, the propaganda against her has endured in bits and parts — such the bogey of ‘love jihad’ as well as the abused directed against her supporters, all accused of being radical Islamists and jihadists.

It would have indeed settled down earlier had not the odious forces in our society that are hell-bent on using Islamophobia as their weapon of choice chosen to exacerbate the father’s insecurities. But without their interference, it would not have been the high-voltage sentimental drama that entertained so many Malayalis, especially on social media, for such a long time. And aren’t we addicted to them?

Now it is ‘Season 2’ — this time ‘Acchan’ is a lower-level leader of the CPM in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, a member of the local committee in a newly-affluent area. He himself is of true-blue descent within the CPM, the son of a powerful local leader of former times. His wife too is a member of the CPM. The daughter in the eye of the storm, Anupama Jayachandran, was an activist of the SFI and presently of the DYFI. Unlike in ‘Season 1’, however, the defiant daughter has not really left the ‘community’ of the left — she just chose a partner below of her class, ‘culturing’, and ignoring the norms of respectability, she chose a live-in relationship and got pregnant in it. The miffed family persuaded her to give them the child, promising to safely return it after a few months, then manipulated the child welfare machinery and gave away the baby boy for adoption as an orphan. According to her complaint, the woman was promised that the child would be returned after her older sister’s wedding. The aggrieved parents ran from pillar to post looking for their stolen child — they approached not just the police and child welfare authorities but also high-level leaders in the CPM seeking succor. Some of them promised redress, but nothing worked on the ground. Finally, Anupama and her partner (who had, by then, got a divorce from his wife) went public about the issue.

If it was the shocking depths of islamophobia among CPM supporters that were revealed in Hadiya’s struggle, Anupama’s struggle brought into the open the festering sores of their casteism and sexual conservatism. Attacks on dalit dissenters have certainly not been rare under the CPM’s dispensation, but the obsession with caste/class endogamy leading to the shocking violation of an infant’s rights did reveal the rot much more than earlier incidents. Ajith, Anupama’s partner, is a dalit man and a local leader of the DYFI. On social media, his character was mercilessly lynched — even the so-called ‘progressives’ fulminated on his lack of ‘character’ (as a divorcee) and apparent philandering. His ex-wife was dragged in to provide a sob-story about how Anupama had stolen him from her. On display in full view was the ‘secularised casteism’ so common among the CPM (‘No, it isn’t caste/class that bothers the father; he’s just worried about man’s lack of character’/education/culture etc. etc.’). References were made to an ‘illegal baby’ (whatever that means) and how the family had every right to (safely)remove it.

The effects of Anupama’s struggle will perhaps come back to haunt the CPM for much longer. I say this for two very important reasons. First, it is perhaps the first time that we see the stark and sad reality of the unbelievable rot within the party’s hierarchical structure. The top-level leaders, including Brinda Karat and P K Srimathi who claimed to be sympathetic to Anupama expressed remorse that nothing could be done to help Anupama, admitting that her father, their lower-level colleague, was plain wrong in this matter. The CPM has, subsequently, initiated disciplinary action against the father and the Kerala State Child Welfare Council Chairman, a DYFI leader called Shiju Khan. What the whole sordid mess revealed was, however, the feet of clay upon which tall leaders like Brinda Karat and P K Srimathi stand – their efforts to restore the child to Anupama, which would have spared the CPM this great embarrassment, were by and large ignored by their lower-level colleagues and the police and child welfare authorities.

Interestingly, this defiance may not be casual. It is well-known that in Kerala, capital, which is now a major presence all over the state, often takes the form of natural-resource predators, and this predatory extraction is directly facilitated through gaining influence on the lower-level functionaries of all parties, the CPM being no exception. In other words, while the top leaders make fine and politically-correct pronouncements and declare lofty goals from high above, the lower-level functionaries toil at the local level to strike deals with capital to secure material and other support to natural resource predation (and other semi- or even fully-criminal economic activities). In other words, though separated into fairly watertight compartments, the high-sounding talk of the former, which goes into the image-building necessary for elections and carving out a position of respect in the national scene, rests on the not-so-respectable work of the latter. They can, then, defy the leadership in ‘dire situations’ as this one. This alone explains the ease with which the Acchan in this story was so easily able to twist the local police around his fingertips, and of course, even the state’s welfare machinery for child rights. Peroorkkada, the city area in which this Acchan wields influence, is one of those areas in which the coming of capital has indeed shaped lower-level party culture: the police are under their beck and call, clearly.

Secondly, Acchan in this case, for all his progressive credentials (his was an inter-religious marriage) — indeed, blue-blood — turned out to be exactly the average upwardly-mobile Malayali father seeking to maximize social mobility through controlling their children’s life-paths. It is hard to side-step the big questions — they stand in a long row, begging. It is also well-known that the legwork for the party — the actual work of activism — is done now less by elite-born youth, as by the newly-upwardly-mobile young men and women from the OBC and dalit communities. So it is not at all surprising that the children of the leadership may come into contact with these young men. And indeed, they may ignore their parents’ craving for social respectability and upward mobility. Just as the top-level leaders play the ostrich as lower-level functionaries secure capital’s support, the latter hope to play ostrich while using as political labour the under-privileged youth who are now foot-soldiers. That, however, is much harder, as the actual social and physical gap between the lower-level leadership and the young men they use is — and cannot – be too wide.

A shadow has been cast, unmistakably, on the claims of the left to have built a moral community strong enough to resist misogynist and caste-elitist cultural nationalism. Instead, it appears clear that it may indeed render much of the social politics of Hindutva irrelevant — as it seems to be thriving anyway in fact, if not in that name. The social media’s arrival makes it more and more difficult for party leaders to cover up the rot within — unlike in former times, when the voice of the party was solely perceived through its leaders’ positions. But now the deep-rootedness of patriarchal and casteist hubris, despite decades of ‘women’s empowerment’, among the rank and file, is too evident.

That the show of rank conservatism and elitism was no flash in the pan was evident today with the Kerala State Minister for Culture, Saji Cherian, launching a veiled attack on Anupama and her partner, reiterating the vile slander the couple face, in an address at the Kerala University Campus at Kariavattom as part of a campaign for gender equality of the government of Kerala (called Samam — equality). The irony was not lost on many, but the silence of CPM’s women leaders, otherwise vocal on similar occasions, is deafening indeed.

The only silver lining is that it appears that young women are in the forefront of the resistance to throw off the rotten social baggage of the twentieth century. These women are not professed feminists, just young women exercising their individuated minds, insisting on finding their own space. Hadiya’s and Anupama’s names are known — but there are many others, some of who have even lost their lives resisting paternal authority. Their fight is unbelievably courageous for they face the combined might of institutions and structures from the twentieth century, all rotting from within but still very powerful. We are saddled with political parties that lack all imagination adequate to the new century, whether about development or society. They believe that lip-service alone, whether to women’s empowerment or climate change mitigation, will do the trick,

After decades of patience, Nature in Kerala is beginning to give way, showing the face of its fury like never before. It cannot be becalmed by band-aid-level measures, as our foolish authorities still think. Likewise, your brainless, selfish, and cruel social maneuvers can hardly hold back a determined generation. For Kerala, this is the century of the Angry Young Woman, perhaps. Do not be surprised if the domestic comfort on which you rest your bum suddenly bunches up and throws you off.

PS : to all the CPM’s female ‘women’s empowerment’ experts whose backsides are so comfortably cushioned with cushy positions, and who so tragically lost their tongue during Saji Cherian’s outburst : never mind — your daughters, hopefully, have better sense, if Anupama is any evidence.

3 thoughts on “The Angry Young Woman and the Malayali (Progressive) Acchan -2 : The Second Season”

  1. While one cannot absolve the left, this is an issue that plagues an entire society that’s steeped in patriarchy. The disappointment with the left is possibly because as we hold them to higher standards.

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    1. Dear Saboo Paul, I don’t think it’s just a matter of the CPM falling short of the “higher standards” we hold the Left to. What Devika is pointing to is a far more serious structural issue: the CPM and its functionaries have now become the biggest impediment to social transformation in Kerala. Always quick to cover itself in glory for ushering in Kerala’s “Navodhanam” during a more heroic age, the party is now inevitably “caught on the back foot” (as the media always likes to put it) every time it is called upon to take a progressive-ethical stance and defend a young woman’s “unorthodox” lifestyle choices.

      What Devika is arguing is that the import of this is far greater than what the expression “individual choice” suggests: the next “Navodhanam” (if we should be so lucky) would have to come through a breakdown of caste/religious endogamy and a flowering of sexual, gender, and inter-community freedoms and a social reconfiguration that would look very different from the historical Navodhanam. And it is brave young women like Hadiya and Anupama who are showing us the way.

      So, what seems to be the obstacle? Devika directs our attention to the precise locus of the obscurantism that stands in the way: the famed Mallu “acchan” always ready to spring to the defense of “social and family respectability”, even going to the extent of kidnapping his own grand-daughter and giving it up for adoption. In this case, the “acchan” in question is a well-connected CPM functionary who was able to mobilize the entire machinery of the party, the state welfare agencies, and law enforcement to try and sweep the whole sordid matter under the rug. It is only Anupama’s singular act of bravery by going public about her father’s criminal act that finally brought the CPM to its knees and forced it to reverse course.

      Should one be surprised? Hardly. The CPM is now little more than a corporate entity with investments in real estate, hospitals and theme parks, and its leaders can frequently be found hobnobbing with the real-estate mafia, the quarry mafia, the sand mafia, Gulf-based Mallu business tycoons and a whole host of other unsavory characters. The legendary V.S. Achuthananadan is of course the sole exception among the current crop of CPM leaders, but he is aging and in any case sidelined by this generation’s hardboiled apparatchiks — except when they need his “charisma” at pre-election rallies.

      Is it any wonder then that starting with the family unit, up through the existing caste and community formations, all the way to its new-found nationalism, the party leadership’s interests are perfectly in sync with the upholders of the status quo. The CPM is now little more than a party of “acchans”. But Devika is also sounding the alarm bell: you are well past your expiration dates, she’s telling the acchans, and if you don’t make a quiet exit while there’s still time, your executioners will be your own young daughters.

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      1. I couldn’t agree more, Roby. Social change, as we all learn eventually, and as many social theorists have pointed out, does not unfold quietly. The next Great Opening is going to be one of deep contestation, just like its predecessor. I want to write about what it’s shape might be …! What else to do in this time of darkness?

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