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Kerala shows the way

The Malayali ethos is the same as the best of the Indian ethos.

CELEBRATED PLURALISM: It is about a Malayali miracle and the Indian dream. PHOTO: MAHESH HARILAL

ON the eve of our 58th Independence day, I am conscious that my previous column was a rejection of the notion of sub-national Keralite chauvinism, and an evocation of the openness and diversity of the Malayali heritage. It is a theme that is fitting to continue today, as we prepare to celebrate our country's freedom — which itself rests on those very qualities that I hailed in this space a fortnight ago.

In many ways, my sense of being Malayali is tied up with my sense of being Indian. I grew up in an India where my sense of nationhood lay in a simple insight: the singular thing about India was that you could only speak of it in the plural. The same is true of Kerala. Everything exists in countless variants. There is no uniform standard, no fixed stereotype, no "one way" of doing things. This pluralism emerges from the very nature of the place; for both Kerala and India as a whole, it is made inevitable by geography and reaffirmed by history.

Indianness through Kerala roots

So I celebrate my own Indianness through my Kerala roots. There is an old verse of the poet Vallathol's which my late father loved to recite: "Bharatam ennu ketal, abhimaana-pooritham aavanum, andarangam; Keralam ennu ketalo, thillakkanam chaora namukke njerumbugalil. (When we hear the name of India, we must swell with pride; when we hear the name of Kerala, the blood must throb in our veins"). It is, in some ways, an odd sentiment for a Malayali poet, for Keralites, as I explained last time, are not a chauvinistic people: the Keralite liberality and adaptiveness, such great assets in facilitating Malayali emigration and good citizenship anywhere, can serve to slacken, if not cut, the cords that bind expatriate Keralites to their cultural assumptions. And yet Vallathol was not off the mark, for Keralites tend to take pride in their collective identity as Malayalis; our religion, our caste, our region come later, if at all. There is no paradox in asserting that these are qualities that help make Malayalis good Indians in a plural society. You cannot put better ingredients into the national melting pot.

One sometimes wishes other Indians would, in this sense, be more Malayali. Kerala's ethos is a reflection of what, in my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I have called the "Malayali miracle": a State that has practised openness and tolerance from time immemorial; which has made religious and ethnic diversity a part of its daily life rather than a source of division; which has overcome caste discrimination and class oppression through education, land reforms, and political democracy; which has honoured its women and enabled them to lead productive, fulfilling and empowered lives.

But that is not all. On the eve of Independence Day, there are other elements we must consider. Kerala's working men and women enjoy greater rights and a higher minimum wage than anywhere else in India. Kerala was the first place on earth to democratically elect a Communist Government, remove it from office, re-elect it, vote the Communists out and bring them back again. When the Italian political system saw the emergence of a Communist party willing to play by the rules of liberal democracy, the world spoke of Euro Communism, but Kerala had already achieved Indo-Communism much earlier, subordinating the party of proletarian revolution to the ethos of political pluralism. Malayalis are highly politically aware: when other Indian States were electing film stars to Parliament or as Chief Ministers, a film star tried his political luck in Kerala and lost his security deposit. (Ironically, the first Indian film star to become the Chief Minister of a State was a Malayali, Marudur Gopalannair Ramachandran, known to all as "MGR" — but he was elected in the neighbouring State of Tamil Nadu, where he had made a career as a filmi hero.)

A microcosm of every religion

More important, Kerala is a microcosm of every religion known to the country; its population is divided into almost equal fourths of Christians, Muslims, caste Hindus and Scheduled Castes, each of whom is economically and politically powerful. Kerala's outcastes — one group of whom, the Pariahs, gave the English language a term for their collective condition — suffered discrimination every bit as vicious and iniquitous as in the rest of India, but overcame their plight far more successfully than their countrymen elsewhere. A combination of enlightened rule by far-thinking Maharajahs, progressive reform movements within the Hindu tradition (especially that of the remarkable Ezhava sage Sree Narayana Guru), and changes wrought by a series of left-dominated legislatures since Independence have given Kerala's "Scheduled Castes": a place in society that other Dalits across India are still denied. It is no accident that the first Dalit to become President of India was Kerala's K.R. Narayanan — who was born in a thatched hut with no running water, who as a young man suffered the indignities and oppression that were the lot of his people, but who seized on the opportunities that our country provided him to rise above them and ascend, through a brilliant diplomatic and governmental career, to the highest office in the land.

Keralites see the best guarantee of their own security and prosperity in the survival and success of a pluralist India.

The Malayali ethos is the same as the best of the Indian ethos — inclusionist, flexible, eclectic, absorptive. The central challenge of India as we complete the sixth decade of our independence is the challenge of accommodating the aspirations of different groups in the national dream. Kerala has shown the way: may the rest of India follow.

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