Who are these ‘Hindus’? The Tragedy of Vizhinjam and the Despicable Cruelty of the Majority

The struggle against the ecologically-fatal Adani seaport being built at the seaside village of Vizhinjam in south Kerala is probably the first large-scale instance of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ in the history of this state. The state — the ruling government, the police, and judiciary — hold hands now in their effort to dispossess the large population of fisher people whose home this coast has been since centuries, for the convenience of predatory capital. As usual, the port-building commenced after massive ‘opinion-building’ exercises by all the major political parties among their supporters in the port-affected villages, promising them golden futures (now that the resources of the sea, which they had depended on for centuries, were robbed, in the course of some seventy years since the 20th century, through the commercialization of fisheries). Doing fieldwork in those areas around 2013, I remember how hard it was to even broach the topic without provoking massive, sometimes, violent, disagreements — it has divided the people completely and left the major social force there, the Latin Catholic Church, quite confused. Now, after 2018, the ecological destruction wrought by this foolish act of greed is nakedly evident for all with eyes to see; and most residents of the sea coast are convinced that in just a few years, the sea will take everything, including the houses built with sweat and tears, labouring for years abroad, even.

The people of the coast who now protest against the seaport demand that a thorough study of the effects of the port-building must be immediately undertaken after stopping the construction activity. For this, they have been labeled ‘anti-national’, ‘terrorist’, and ‘slaves of the Catholic Church’. The last was a gift from the progressives who refused to forgive them for their active role in the street protests that brought down the first Communist government in the infamous ‘Liberation Struggle’ of 1959 — the stereotype of the dull-headed fisherman who follows the orders of the Latin Catholic clergy. However, the first two are the gifts of the Hindutva forces who, of course, care for no history and are happy to bestow such epithets on anyone who opposes them. The saddest part of the present conundrum however is that these labels are being liberally used against the fisher people by the leaders of the CPM who desperately wish to serve the interests of predatory capital.

Holding hands as they are now against the highly-marginalized and stigmatized fisher community, neither the Left nor the Right have any use for the past and the contrary evidence it provides. In 2018, when devastating floods threatened to drown tens of thousands of people trapped in the mid-land areas, and neither the state government nor the Navy knew what to do, it was the coastal fishermen who came up with a plan: they would launch their boats in the flood-affected areas. This, they did at their own cost and own initiative. Of course, they knew the swirling waters much better than the Indian Navy, and that did not make them ‘anti-national’ then; indeed, at that time they were hailed as Kerala’s saviours, heroes; they were, everyone said, ‘Kerala’s army’ — an honour that they have received again and again as they helped in rescue operations in the subsequent years as well.

Now however, it appears that ‘Kerala’s Army’ can be trampled upon and dubbed ‘terrorist’ when it is predatory capital on the other side.

But then, the fisherpeople of the Thiruvananthapuram coast had proved their nationalist credentials long back — in 1962, when the ISRO’s rocket launching station was built at Thumba, 900 families had been displaced from the coast. The majority of them still await rehabilitation and compensation. They did not rise up against the state in the way they have done now. Why? Because this time, they know, the state demands the destruction of not just their livelihoods but also of their land and the culture that it nurtured, for the sake of predatory capital masquerading as ‘national interest’.

Which is what the Hindu Aikya Vedi and the other Hindutva groups who have been agitating in favour of the Adani seaport would like to conceal. The groups which have massed aggressively at Vizhinjam, ostensibly in protest against violence by the anti-port protestors against the police are ‘Hindus’ in Mulloor, near the port-gate. The accounts of the violence last Sunday differ — the anti-port protestors say that it was provoked by the arrests of people unconnected with the protests and the refusal of the police to reveal their whereabouts. Nevertheless it is clear that ‘Hindus’ in this context are none other than those who kneel before the triumphant conquering chariot of predatory capital, and their evocation of the ‘Hindu-is-in-danger’ slogan shields it. Of course, they are not touched by the fact that some of them or their relatives and friends might have been rescued by these fisherpeople or their kin and brethren from elsewhere — that was ‘Kerala’s Army’, after all. The only ‘army’ that matters to them is the one that will serve the interests of the capitalist.

What they would like to erase, also, is the fact that these remarkable people, who have been in Kerala’s written historical record since 1536 at least — and the names of these villages have remained the same since then — have certainly not been passive cultural clay in the hands of the Catholic Church.

The people of these villages were converted ‘from above’ — through the order of the local Hindu Raja who sought the support of the Portuguese in the petty struggles of local Hindu powers at that time. Francis Xavier entered the scene at a time when the struggle between these powers to control the lucrative pearl fisheries on the southern coast had heightened. The fisherpeople sought the support of the Portuguese against these armies. The mukkuva people of the Thiruvananthapuram coast were asked to obey Xavier like they would obey their Raja — these are sour truths that the Hindu Aikya Vedi will want to cover up — with their hatred of Xavier, evident on the Hindutva websites, and the petty excuse of ‘Hindus’ attacked at Mulloor which is, as mentioned before, quite a misleading claim.

Recent studies have shown without a doubt that these people have retained many cultural and faith practices which are definitely pre-Christian, and indeed adapted many Catholic beliefs and practices — including Catholic saints — into their unique faith- and cultural-systems. Many social institutions and kin-related practices prevalent in these villages predate Christianity. However, the villagers have embraced change; the persistence of culture is neither an outcome of an autarky, much the contrary. Fishermen from these villages have migrated elsewhere for fishing activities since long, and now, besides this circular migration, they move to the Gulf and travel — as far as Brazil — seeking to build their lives. In the 19th century, migration from some of these villages to Ceylon and other places brought modernity to these places, and a class of ‘community-capitalists’ emerged, who settled ecologically-fuzzier areas like Adimalathura with asset-less workers — fishermen — from the Tamil coast. Those who benefited from education enabled by the schools supported by remittances from Ceylon, Malaya and other places, traveled the world sometimes, often through recruitment in the British army. Indeed, it is only because we accept something to be ‘culture’ only if it is dead and cold. In any civilized nation, these villages would have been protected and preserved as thriving, flourishing sites of living cultural heritage.

The Kerala government zigzags weakly as it cannot fully abandon the claim that it remains the single biggest bulwark against Hindutva in Kerala. But the Vizhinjam protests have stripped off that claim, revealing the point at which it does indeed converge — the defence of predatory capital that grabs natural resources and dispossesses the already-marginalized. Just as the savarna riots against the Supreme Court’s ruling on the entry of women of menstruating ages into Sabarimala revealed another point of convergence between the mainstream left and the Hindutva right — the need to pander to the Malayali savarna.

4 thoughts on “Who are these ‘Hindus’? The Tragedy of Vizhinjam and the Despicable Cruelty of the Majority”

  1. Hard facts of history laid bare. Couldn’t be more forthcoming. It’s depressing to see these magnificent people suffer because of collective apathy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Devika, for your deeply insightful pieces on the Vizhinjam struggle. If there were any doubts about the mercantile-oligarchic character of the ruling “Marxist” dispensation in Kerala, the brutality of the government’s response should put them to rest once and for all.
    As you rightly say: predatory capital, Hindutvavadis, self-described “Marxists” have all joined forces to launch the biggest exercise in primitive accumulation seen in modern Kerala. After its disastrous actions in Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal, the CPM appears to be on the verge of fulfilling its death-wish by self-destructing in its last holdout in India by taking the next step: shooting and killing fisherfolk struggling to defend their homes and livelihoods. Politically, it is clear what is certain to follow; the BJP is already licking its chops waiting to march onto the terrain vacated by the CPM.
    The question that looms on the horizon is: should we shed any tears at the impending demise of the CPM in Kerala? Truth to tell, one feels ambivalent: on the one hand, it is true that the CPM’s grassroots presence has definitely put the skids under the BJP’s efforts to gain a foothold in Kerala. On the other hand, what good is that if the CPM and BJP inevitably find themselves on the same side when it comes to people’s struggles?
    You lay out in crystal-clear terms the political economy of this naked act of dispossession in coastal Thiruvananthapuram: the unholy nexus between Capital and State and their joint preparedness to use the most brutal means to suppress the fisherfolk’s struggle. Indeed, “Right” and “Left” find themselves in complete unison anytime the banner of “vikasanam” is raised in Kerala. What accounts for the bewitching quality of this word — probably the single most dangerous word in the entirety of the Malayalam language — among all sections of the political class? “Material interests”, it seems to me, is only part of the answer.
    Can any good come out of the current deadlock? Will the Syrian-Catholic clergy and lay-folk finally realize that their interests lie in standing in solidarity with their Latin-Catholic brothers and sisters, or will they continue mouthing inanities about “love jihad” and “narcotic jihad”? Will both groups of Christians finally see that their survival depends on standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim brothers and sisters in the fight against Hindu fascism?
    As things stand, there are precious few grounds for optimism on that score. Only one bright spot can be discerned in the current stand-off: for once, Muslims are being spared being branded as “anti-national”. The Hindutvavadis have settled on an even softer target: the impoverished fisherfolk who barely eke out a living along the Kerala coast….
    Roby Rajan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Will the Syrian-Catholic clergy and lay-folk finally realize that their interests lie in standing in solidarity with their Latin-Catholic brothers and sisters, or will they continue mouthing inanities about “love jihad” and “narcotic jihad”?’

      A moot question considering that we are dealing with ‘merchants’ who are in the habit of making Faustian bargains. For instance, when the Syrian prelates met PM Narendra Modi in January 2021, did we read about any of them registering even a whimper of protest for a fellow Catholic and priest who was languishing in Taloja under incredibly dubious charges???

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When the interests of capital involved you can’t find different approaches from BJP and Parliamentary communists.We saw it n Nandigram

    Like

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