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Red fades to saffron in Kerala

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With changing social equations putting enormous pressure on Left politics in Kerala, the Sangh Parivar is on a quiet roll. Can the Left wing marshal a response?

Anup Yasodharan grew up on Marxist slogans in Pattakkala, a hilly village by the Manimala river in Central Travancore. His grandfather and father were active workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)]. Today, the articulate and polite 22-year-old is the leader of a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) shakha in his village. Anup’s baptism into Hindutva is instructive.

The rupture between the Dalit family and the CPI (M) party came in 2002, when the party unit abandoned them in favour of a rich Christian expatriate, who bought the land that lay between their house and the main road and blocked their access. “One comrade, who was considered the dearest to us, shouted, ‘Why should these **** (a derogatory term for their caste) want to drive to their houses?’ says Anup. Then a little boy, Anup felt disowned by his own people. RSS activists from nearby helped the family. As Anup drifted towards the RSS, his mother put up strong resistance. “The Party ran in their veins,” recalls Anup.

Caste barrier

But an encounter with a Hindutva polemicist changed his mother’s mind as well in 2008. “Waiting for the bus in a nearby town, she happened to listen to this leader,” says Anup. Of the many things she was swayed by that day, one question still rankles. “A Christian comrade can go to the church, a Muslim comrade can go to the mosque but a Hindu comrade cannot go to the temple. Why?”

Anup was then able to persuade his mother that he would start an RSS shakha in the same courtyard where comrades had once assembled. The RSS formally arrived in this village, 83 years after its birth. The shakha today has 17 members, including some Christians, and there are three more shakhas within a three-km radius. A flag post and a Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) unit in the local market came up later, accompanied by violent clashes between them and CPI (M) workers.

While Anup and his mother found ‘minority appeasement’ in the CPI (M)’s politics, that is often a charge against the Congress, given its links with Muslim and Christian groups. Even Congress veteran A.K. Antony said a decade ago that the minority communities extracted unreasonable patronage from the Congress. “The BJP exploited Hindu sentiments against the Congress’s minority appeasement,” said V. S. Achuthanandan, popular Marxist leader, after the BJP performed impressively in a recent by-election. The irony is that while a family committed to the party felt that the CPI(M) was not sensitive to Hindu sentiments, its most popular leader often accuses the UDF of ‘minority appeasement’. But the ironies don’t end there.

The CPI(M) is a victim of its successes in the State, particularly in empowering lower castes. Inter-caste marriages are quite common though Dalits still face exclusion. Simultaneously, there has been a rise in Hindu religiosity, on the lines of, and partly in reaction to, the Christian and Muslim revivalist movements that accompanied the remittance-fuelled affluence of these two communities. For instance, the Sri Krishna Jayanti processions organised by Bala Gokulam, an RSS-leaning forum, have become increasingly popular in recent times. Anup and his friends started one in 2007 with 31 people; last year it had 220 people. Some were Christians.

Demographic change

The three drivers of Left politics — the backward castes, students and the working class — have changed their character in the last decade. Having overcome explicit discrimination, oppressed castes are anxious to set their own terms. Self-financing professional colleges have turned Kerala’s once-robust arts education sector into a forlorn dry land, weakening the Students’ Federation of India (SFI). And the working class? They are mostly migrants from West Bengal and Assam these days.

Demographic changes are unsettling social equations in the State in favour of the Parivar. Not only has a socially alien working class disrupted Left recruitment, new social prejudices, prompted by their presence, complicate Left politics.

In Pattakkala, several dozen migrants live a contented life but are sadly caricatured by the local populace as remnants of the Left’s failure in West Bengal or are suspected to be illegal Bangladeshi migrants, only because many of them are Muslims.

Consequently, the Muslim in Kerala is now an immigrant too, in addition to being an emigrant. The material success of the Gulf emigrants — who are now a formidable presence in Kerala’s public spaces — has made them targets of jealousy. As opposed to the more prevalent stereotyping of Muslims as uneducated, religious and having large families, the Muslims in Kerala face a different insinuation — ‘where is all this money from?’ A report by a team led by the late Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, on the Nadapuram communal riots in north Kerala in 2001, cited the overbearing social conduct of neo-rich Muslims and the increasing jealousy among Hindus as one of the reasons for the violence.

The emergence of some Muslim extremist groups adds fuel to the fire. Even before it was officially released, the 2011 census data on religion was loosely — and as it turns out, wrongly — cited by many to suggest that Christians and Muslims constitute more than half of the State’s population. Even CPI State Secretary Kanam Rajendran did so, suggesting that the Left has not been considerate towards Hindus.

Marshalling a response

Though these changes have been under way for more than a decade, the 2014 elections were the first demonstration of the electoral implications of these changes, when the BJP gained seven lakh more votes, roughly the margin that separates the winner from the loser, as the LDF and the UDF rotate power in the State. Expecting to benefit from the growth of the BJP at the cost of the Left in the 2016 Assembly elections, the Congress has taken a benign view.

Acutely aware of the situation, the LDF, and particularly the CPI(M), is trying to marshal its responses, through innovations to reach out to new sections, and negating the campaign that it is uncaring of Hindu sentiments.

In Kollam district, secretary K. N. Balagopal’s campaign to dig 200,000 rainwater harvesting pits this monsoon and in Ernakulum, secretary P. Rajeev’s initiative to give first-aid training to trade union workers who could help victims of road accidents have struck a chord. Palliative and geriatric care, organic farming are some of the initiatives that respond to the needs of a post-modern society, where empowerment politics may 0have run its course. Karate classes and yoga training by party associates seek to connect with the youth.

Dealing with ‘Hindu sentiments’, however, is a much more fraught challenge. Democratic Youth Federatio of India (DYFI) workers recently carried a nilavilakku, the traditional Kerala lamp, to a function attended by an Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) Minister who had refused to light one as he considered it un-Islamic; but the State leadership disowned the protest. CPI (M) veteran Pinarayi Vijayan rejected Kanam Rajendran’s suggestion that Left secularism amounted to minority appeasement, asserting that the LDF could not countenance communalism. Accused by both Hindu and Muslim groups of ‘appeasing’ the other, and by caste associations of being hostile, the CPI(M) is in an unenviable situation.

In all this turmoil, the Congress hopes to retain the State for a second consecutive term — it will be a first, if it happens. But things are not that simple. “Now we have Left workers coming to us. But Congress supporters will soon follow,” said V. Muraleedharan, State president of the BJP. Meanwhile, in a first, in the forthcoming local body elections, the BJP will nominate candidates in all wards in Puramatton Panchayat where Pattakkala falls.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 1:10:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/red-fades-to-saffron-in-kerala/article7591378.ece

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