Turning a Blind Eye: Power and the Intellectual in Kerala Today

Today someone who is an absolute darling of the post-socialist oligarchy in Kerala and their army of hanger-ons told me, without a tinge of irony, with the most endearing innocence, that they were not celebrated at all in Kerala. That they were excluded from circles that praised and glorified the work of many other authors. It was most intriguing, to say the least. I think it reveals a lot about how the present dispensation manages intellectuals and minimises critical thinking.

You can be a rebel without any serious losses in present-day Kerala if you desist from any serious criticism of the establishment and its acolytes. You can spout feminism, dalit politics, espousals of the solidarity economy, liberal Muslim thought, queer thinking, soft Hindutva– literally anything except Islamism if you keep your mouth shut about the establishment and the post-socialist oligarchy, or at least limit yourself to weak, occasional noises. You can also present yourself in combinations of the above laced with hints of your slant towards the establishment and reap much success in classrooms and academic fora, and much applause on the social media. If you have connections with the Nair deep state and ‘deep intellectual elite’, you can pornify, sell, any kind of abuse of women.

I think the fact that the present post-socialist oligrachy allows you to be a rebel and a thinker even, as long as you stay within the broad terms of silence set by them, is attracting more and more critical thinkers in Kerala. Since each of us feel that we have something substantial and important to say/sing/recite/perform, we convince ourselves that this is not feeding nepotism or turning a blind eye to wrongdoing or injustice.

Speaking with this person was hard; I could not help remembering psychoanalysis and John Steiner’s brilliant essay on ‘turning a blind eye’. In this thought-provoking essay, he tells us about a patient who ignored his own insights into his condition (of loneliness, failure) and tried persistently to make Steiner (his analyst) affirm the fantasies that allowed him to survive the experience of failure. When Steiner tried to help him accept the realities of his world, he would accuse Steiner of humiliating him. Steiner was evidently stripping away the world in which his patient could be at least comforted by fantasies. Steiner notes that this patient was convinced that the real world was awful and unbearable, and this made it hard for him to learn about it. But neither splitting nor repression seemed to be at work here.

Steiner points out that the chief protagonist of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus also displayed precisely the tendency ‘to turn a blind eye’ – Oedipus knew the truth of his birth, but somehow there is something that prevents him from taking it seriously. He has reasons to turn a blind eye — a rootless young man offered a throne and a queen. Jocasta has her reasons to turn a blind eye too, so does Creon, so do the elders, all blundering. All of them see something denied to them hitherto rising in the horizon and do not want other things to obstruct their access to it. The cover-up, the misrepresentation, leaves nothing to mourn, as Steiner reminds. There will be no mourning, no reparation. The façade is preserved, but the psychic pain remains.

There is something akin to this at work among intellectuals in Kerala (and I do not mean the haters or the champions of unethical borrowing, the two kinds of word-toting servants of Kerala’s post-socialist oligarchy — they call for separate and distinct analysis) — the singers, the poets, artists, scholars , all of them adorning themselves with feminism, liberalism, so on. These are not the type that reach for any ideology that is current, convenient, and chic. These are people who genuinely believe that they are progressive, liberal, feminist, well-meaning, generous, and so on, and are opposed to right-wing ideologies and anything that obstructs liberal life. They are especially committed, at least on the social media, to fighting the Hindutva right-wing. It is as if presenting opposition to the Hindutva agenda allows you to turn a blind eye to not just the injustices perpetrated by the ruling oligarchy and its adherents, but even to the suffering of their victims.

Yet they know only too well that they are failing morally and politically. The cover-up they practice brings pain even when the façade of security and comfort (and self-care philosophizing about the ‘need to stay happy’ or ‘need to smile’) is screwed tightly on. That is the real tragedy of all who turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

I wrote some days back on Kafila how Kerala’s establishment-friendly feminists had turned a blind eye to an incident of horrific sexual violence and battery against a woman in the heart of the city of Thiruvananthapuram. This is not unexpected; feminism in Kerala is a predominantly bourgeois and elite club into which some women of dalit and muslim social origin who can produce bourgeois credentials will also be admitted. They are extremely alert to sexual violence at the workplace, because that does affect their upward mobility and their bid for power there, but they can well turn a blind eye to the stranger-violence that women workers in the informal sector are more likely to face than them. And they will turn a blind eye to it, if they want to enjoy the protection of the establishment — which is so vital to every privilege they enjoy, from the prospects of career mobility to protection by the police in the face of any untoward incident that may occur on the street.

So I was not surprised when a leading feminist from Thiruvananthapuram whose NGO led research on ‘Safe Cities’ in Kerala responded to my post privately, on Whatsapp, with a few terse lines. First, she claimed that her NGO was not a ‘service provider’ aided by the government as I said. Well, does that make a difference to the question I raised? Does that exempt an NGO which accepted funding for research on safe cities in the Kerala context, from making at least a phone call to the Pettah police station, since this horror was reported prominently in the media in the days that followed? The Sakhi website also lists (without adequate explanation) the addresses of the Sakhi One-Stop Centres, a central government-funded, State-government implemented project, with just one line which says that it helps women and girls facing violence in the public and at home. Since that information is found valuable by Sakhi, cannot one even expect the NGO to make at least preliminary inquiries?

Secondly, she writes: ‘…because of our limitations we are not able to intervene in all the incidents of violence against women that happen in this place’. Again, how is this an answer to my question? I did not say that Sakhi or any other such establishment-friendly NGO, should intervene in every single incident of violence, even though it would be excellent, I am sure, if it could. The post was about one incident, which however displayed an extraordinary level of misogyny. The victim happens to be a single woman who raised a daughter by herself, largely unsupported by community and family. She is a blue-collar worker, lives by herself. She is not economically stable, she has no powerful connections. A right-wing TV channel outed her name and she has suffered enormously. Yes, we all know that we all are limited in our resources to help each other. But should not such a woman not receive priority in our battles? In any case, is a phone call to the Pettah police station, or a visit there by you, Madam, prevented entirely by such ‘limitations’? If so, what might those ‘limitations’ really be? It is definitely not distance. The Google map says that the distance from Sakhi to the Pettah police station is 2.3 kilometers, just 7 minutes by vehicle and 17 minutes if you chose to walk.

Thirdly, she says: ‘We too do not reveal the names of the individuals whose issues we intervene in.’ Really, come again? How on earth is that an answer to the question why you did not intervene at all? The affected person confirmed that you never bothered to call or contact her. The police too did not tell us. Yes, it is important that the privacy of the victim should be protected. But why it you did not wake up even when a right-wing channel revealed the victim’s name?

Finally she declares: ‘We do not seek to convince anybody.’ Ah, that is the classic response! Yes, of course, Madam, you don’t have to if you do believe yourself to be high above the sufferings of such women as the one who was murderously assaulted by a stranger, who might have even lost an eye, had she not found a stone with which she defended herself. It is just good luck that she did not develop internal bleeding in her brain.

But this is class ‘turning a blind eye’ defense. In fact, it is no answer at all. It is a pitiless silence.

Those who continue to turn a blind eye in Kerala in this manner today are even more pathetic than Oedipus who blames ‘chance’ and ‘fate’ when he tries to understand his fall. They have no answer at all.

It is precisely that silence that power seeks to induce, which serves it in our times.

I can only bow to and marvel at the immensity of Sophocles’ wisdom. Yes, all the troubles in the world persist only because we turn a blind eye.

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