Why I will go to the DHRM’s Meetings

Someone just asked me why I would ‘still be soft on’ the Dalit Human Rights Movement — why I would speak at their meetings. For those who have not heard of them, the DHRM is a mass movement against casteist oppression in Kerala that fought very hard to break out of the liberal and statist imagination of dalit liberation — and continue to do so, despite having to face the most horrifying state violence.

The DHRM is a dalit movement, one that works in the abjected spaces of the ‘dalit colony’ — or the near-ghettoised welfare housing in which a large share of the dalit population live. Its founder was one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever met. Thathu Annan — or his pre-activist name, Anil Kumar — crafted for his people a neo-Buddhist vision which he tried to root in dalit cultural traditions. He developed a ‘reform programme’ for men (dalit women need no reform at all, he once told me, breaking radically with the histories of the new elite reformisms of the 20th century) to help them morally resist the pressure to turn into strongmen of the right- and left-wing parties. He designed a ‘Malayali native-Buddhist’ calender which completely changed the way one looked at time. The images that he created of Ayyan Kali and the Buddha as well as the audio albums he produced on the biographies of Ayyan Kali and Ambedkar were stirringly different. Exceptionally talented and deeply human, he inspired, even in his mistakes and failings.

He died too young, in 2015, at the age of 47. April 30 is his birthday. However, by this time, the DHRM grew into a force in the abjected spaces in which the dalit poor are confined in Kerala, supported especially by women who saw their men rejecting alcohol and drugs and refusing violence. No wonder Thathu’s supporters never fail to celebrate the occasion of his birthday, as a way of renewing their memories of him.

But the times are completely inimical to all those who defy the terms of social justice and welfare set by the state. The DHRM do not find microcredit and the development-centred civil society useful or desirable as a way of obtaining economic stability and social upward mobility; they see it as the state’s ruse, one that diverts attention from the dalit struggle for productive assets. Their insistence on an Ambedarite unisex dress code that also announces their newly-crafted native-Buddhist faith, their determination to rebuild from the scratch such institutions as marriage, and their lack of regard for conservative gender divides — combined with their disbelief in the state’s liberal and neoliberal resolutions of the caste question — made them appear monstrous in the eyes of the state. Even dalit activists and scholars who were in the forefront of dalit struggle for space in Kerala’s public remained suspicious.

By 2009 they were subjected to frequent violence, with the media refusing to hear their side of the story. The DHRM leadership was soon framed for the murder of a morning walker in the town of Varkala, which was their stronghold. The leadership, including the Chairperson, was accused of murdering this man just to ‘spread terror’. The DHRM was cornered in every way; they were sentenced to life-imprisonment by the lower court. A reign of terror was unleashed against them which lasted right up to 2016. I quote from the translation of a public statement the then-Chairperson, Seleena Prakkanam, issued in 2016, when the police tried to pin a bomb blast at a district Collectorate on them:

“When the then-ruling LDF realized that the concentration of dalit votes by the DHRM through elections was eroding their influence there, the CPM stepped forward to brand DHRM as ‘terrorist’. It was able to generate false evidence to put the responsibility of a murder in Varkala on the DHRM leadership. There were many, many attempts after this, to foist responsibility for violent incidents on the DHRM. The accusation in the Kollam incident is the last in this long series. This continuous assault led to violent attacks against the DHRM in dalit colonies by the police and the CPM. The police assault on a pregnant woman that led her to lose her baby, another attack on a woman which damaged her urinary bladder grievously, the stripping and parading of a young woman, the torture of male activists picked up by the police to make them confess, including rubbing chilli powder on their penises and anuses, hanging them upside down, and thrashing them on the spine with bricks and coconuts – these were just a few of the tactics used by the police then. Small children going to school had to hand over their lunch boxes for bomb-checks; they were even accused publicly of being ‘the children of terrorists’ and thrown out of school. When we tried to complain against local elements who were attacking us, the local police would tear up our complaints and throw us out.”

The attacks on DHRM property and neo-Buddhist shrines and rituals continued in 2016 even. After Thathu Annan’s passing, the pressure became even more gradually, with the police barging into DHRM meetings in private homes and forbidding them from collecting bucket-donations in public places. The immense pressures seems to have produced internal dissensions as well, but the DHRM survived. They continue their cultural work, their aspiration for political inclusion through a political party of their own, and stay true to the cultivation of a resistant subjectivity.

But this history of suffering is not why I am going to their meeting. They don’t need my sympathy. I am also not going because I think all their political decisions are correct. I do not think so, actually. But I can still go because I have noticed that the DHRM are one of the few groups in Kerala who realize that it is self-deception to believe that criticism is alien to love and fellow-feeling; indeed, any love offered without criticism may be sweet but unwholesome, causing the moral sensibility to turn obese. So this is not going to be just a show of solidarity either. The display of solidarity to dalit causes — when they are advanced by ‘dalits like us’, or middle-class, educated, state-affirmed dalits — by non-dalits is now a thriving cottage industry in Kerala. It is the perfect cover for elitist condescension. I have a horror for it, though that does not win me any brownie points for political correctness among the social media woke public. So I will go there, tell them clearly where all I disagree, but why I will stand with them.

I am going, actually, for a third reason. As an observer of the broader socio-economic, cultural, and political trends in 21st century Kerala, and as someone committed to barring the way of the Hindutva forces to protect whatever social amity that remains here, I think I must go and offer my support.

If you look close enough, you’d see that the two major brahminical socio-political formations in Kerala — the neo-savarna, dominated in the 20th century by the Congress and new elite sudra, brahmin, and Syrian Christian communities on one side, and the moral community that grew around the mainstream left on the other — have changed their strategies in the late 20th and early 21st century.

The neo-savarna is still a cultural formation mainly and is now dominated by the Hindutva forces. In it, neo-savarna elite culture is presented as a way in which members of oppressed-caste communities may gather symbolic and cultural capital through adherence. These capitals, however, are not readily converted into social connections (for example inter-caste marriage) or much political gain, either. But they provide a new sense of belonging within the new cultural community of Hindutva.

The moral community of the left has also transformed itself, shaking off socialist idealism and shaping itself within neoliberal hegemony. The dalits are still of extreme importance to them, for the neoliberalized vision of the welfare state in Kerala that is at the very heart of the left moral community’s narcissim is vitally dependent on them. And of course, such self-identification is absolutely necessary for the leftist moral community’s self-perception of being entirely separate from, and opposed to, both market-centred neoliberalism and Hindutva chauvinism. The leaders of the CPM who control the moral community of the left now believe that the dalit poor can be controlled through welfarism of the neoliberal sort. They believe that the challenge is to pacify the middle-class radical dalit intellectual class. This probably explains the recent implicit reaching-out to/support of prominent members of this firmament — through awards, recognition, fulsome praise by CPM supporters on social media, protection by the CPM cybertrolls, shows of support and protection, and even the promise of jobs, and so on. More important perhaps is the greater tolerance for and even adoption of Ambedkarite ideas and the insights of dalit intellectuals in mainstream left discourse. This does not however mean any firm committment to actualizing Ambedkarite goals. And of course this means that the dalit poor who refuse the passive-beneficiary mode, like the DHRM, will feel the full force of the state’s arm. Indeed, they have — and their abjection was reinforced by the media which refused them voice.

In other words, if the Hindutva-dominated neo-savarna cultural formation allows partially sharing of neo-savarna practices and ideas by members of oppressed-caste communities, the left is now trying to signal its tolerance of Ambedkarite ideas. Ambedkarite ideas now co-exist with elements of global governance feminism, especially its carceral elements, some elements of Ambedkarism, Blairite ‘third way’ community-based entrepreneurial neoliberal thinking — and all of these are somehow configured as though they are not in contradiction with a highly infrastructural imagination of development soft on predatory capital. Dalit intellectuals like K K Kochu are particularly useful to the CPM now precisely because they, through their very presence and their words, work to ameliorate the full force of this contradiction.

What is worrying, however, is the fact that Hindutva strategy is directed not really at middle-class educated people of the oppressed castes. It is true of course that a vocal section of the Ezhava upper classes profess their allegiance to Hindutva, but a vital part of this support seems strategic, easily withdrawn. The more dangerous development is the Hindutva focus on attracting the deprived and the poor. Maybe their tactics may not offer any real gains to the dalit followers. But these can inspire a strong sense of belonging which can well channel dalit frustration against their continuing exclusion through passive-beneficiary status. The left thinks that offering this status to the dalit poor will keep them under their control, but they are mistaken.

This is why it is so important to be in conversation with DHRM. Thathu’s vision emphasized unequivocally the need to break with Hindu and Hindutva; it refused the forms of Buddhism that could have cosied up to Hindutva. It is very hard, however, to refuse the seductions of power. Even when justified as purely strategic, power has a way of corroding and finally destorying the core of the resistant self. And in a context in which the DHRM are constantly demonized and attack, one has no standing at all to moralize about their political choices.

All the one can do — and what one must do — in such a context, is offer friendship, unconditional friendship. In the true spirit of Ambedkar’s maitri. That is why I will go to their meeting on 28 April and speak my mind, offering no gratituous praise or craven ‘solidarity’. I will go there to soak in the memory of a vision of resistance to caste that actually rejected the ties of blood. One that, instead, invited all those who struggle against caste to come join in the life-sustaining joy of recognising each other in our common mortality, our frail humanity.

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