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Disturbing Aspects of Kerala Society

Disturbing Aspects of Kerala Society

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Gail Omvedt

Arundhati Roy’s prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, focuses on the most socially explosive of all relationships in India, a love affair between a dalit man and a high-caste woman. It ends with the brutal murder of the man by the police, “history’s henchmen,” and the woman’s banishment — punishments for breaking the caste-based “love laws” that have become so notorious in India today. The events would not be surprising if they were shown as taking place in backward Bihar. But the novel is set in Kerala, the single Indian state that has gained the greatest reputation for progressiveness.

 Yet participants in a February 1998 seminar on dalit studies at the University of Calicut (in what is now known as Kozhikode) assured me that this situation was not so unusual. [1] Roy, they said, should be congratulated for “opening up the subject” of intercaste relations; instead, she was practically boycotted in Kerala itself.

 (I have received newsclippings of similar incidents elsewhere.) To these seminar participants, Kerala, progressive Kerala, was still — in spite of its history of social reform — a region of “Nair-Nambudiri dominance.” There was a fair amount of admiration for Tipu Sultan, the Muslim fighter against British rule, who had once conquered the Malabar region of Kerala and apparently opposed lower caste subservience to Nair warrior-rulers. The “Mappila revolt” was to them not simply a Muslim or even a regional (“Malabar”) revolt, but one of dalits and others in the lower caste who had all been energized by their conversion to Islam. Buddhism was another religion that caught the imagination of some, and most viewed Shree Narayana Guru’s movement as simply falling under the hegemony of Hindutva ideology, something that had served the interests of Ezhavas (a lower “backward caste”) rather than the true dalits, Pulayas, Cherumans, and others. The seminar was striking to me for another fact, that there were no upper-caste Marxist intellectuals present as there would have been at similar events in Maharashtra, vigorously debating the “caste-class” issue. Instead, the one dalit characterized as a CPI(M)-oriented Marxist was bitterly attacked in a long Malayali dialogue.

Our visit revealed other disturbing aspects of Kerala society. Calicut apparently has little industry except for a major Birla factory, and for a short village tour we were taken to see severe pollution caused by the Birla factory at Mayavoor. This factory, our guide told us, had been bought by Nambudiripad himself (which he described as an example of “brahman-bania alliance”) and the CPI(M)-led union in the factory was unwilling to take any action on pollution and health issues. A struggle committee of local villagers had mainly Muslim leadership and had been stamped as “communal.” When I asked why the famous Kerala Shastriya Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) did not take up the issue, I was told that it was also brahman-dominated, and there seemed to be no feeling that local committees for peoples’ planning were at all relevant.

 Dalits are turning out to be some of the greatest critics of the Kerala model. They feel that upper-caste dominance has not been fundamentally changed by Kerala’s history of social reform and Communist rule. Dalits in Kerala are apparently more limited to the agricultural sector and are more landless than elsewhere in India: whereas 56 percent of the non-dalit workforce in the state is in the secondary and tertiary sectors, only 40 percent of dalits are; and 77 percent of dalits in agriculture in Kerala were landless, compared to 63 percent at an all-India level. [2] In other words, land reforms have largely passed them by because tenants, not agricultural laborers, have gotten land; education has been of little use in giving them an equal opportunity for the few existing jobs. Further, while dalit-brahman and other mixed marriages can be seen among the political and intellectual elite in other parts of India, those at the seminar could think of none in Kerala. Kerala, in other words, remains a socially conservative state; feminists have also found it to be so.

 Tharamangalam’s critique centers on economic issues, not these social ones. Here he has raised some crucial problems. The Kerala economy is something like a drug addict, hooked on Gulf money and cheap rice. Much has been written about Gulf funds; but the rice situation is even more indicative of the general problems of the state. Kerala is considered to be a big success story for the PDS (Public Distribution System); a higher proportion of its peoples’ foodgrain needs are supplied by PDS than in any other state in India. [3] But it is not Kerala rice that is being distributed. While agricultural laborers get wages of two to three times that earned elsewhere, Kerala farmers are increasingly unwilling to grow paddy and it is the poorly paid laborers and farmers of Tamilnadu and Andhra who are supplying the Kerala PDS system. With high wages, small plots, and relatively low yields, it is easy to see why farmers consider paddy an unprofitable crop. But the only response of the CPI(M) political elite has been to organize the agricultural laborers’ union to attack and destroy alternative cash crops planted by farmers. Apparently agricultural laborers, their political leaders and intellectual supporters feel that farmers can be forced to produce, evidence of the self-defeating statist mindset that Tharamangalam describes.

 What has the PDS achieved in Kerala? People appear healthy, but it is hard to know whether the per capita food consumption is actually as high as Tharamangalam claims. A 1994 survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) showed that Kerala had the lowest foodgrain consumption in India at 9.8 kg per capita per month compared to an average of 14.3 kg for rural India. As the report pointed out, this is undoubtedly an underestimate since tapioca, a popular Kerala staple, is not included among foodgrains (though an earlier article by Joan Mencher questions the role of tapioca in the diet of agricultural laborers). [4] In addition, Malayalis still undoubtedly maintain much of their traditionally healthy fish diet, although here there are numerous scattered laments about the decline of many traditional food varieties. In any event, it would be a misreading, I think, to attribute Kerala’s relatively healthy population to the PDS system rather than to its good medical care.

 For an article in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, the boldest step Tharamangalam takes is to link the Kerala crisis to a critique of the traditional Marxist faith in a state-run economy. Here it should be recognized that the problems he describes, from the sorry state of higher education to the ineptness of the public sector and the anti-work culture, are not unique to Kerala. Teaching anywhere in India, for example, is a matter of grappling with a stifling bureaucracy that features course syllabi set by committees and “external” exams set and graded by outsiders to the course. Examination time is the period during which unions of non-teaching and teaching staff invariably choose to strike — since that is when they can make their weight felt. As a result timetables are never met. With externally approved and outdated course syllabi, there is no structural reason to keep up with developments in any academic field and professors under the system become little more than trainers preparing students for examinations produced by others. The lack of “productivity” in education is symptomatic of that in the entire bureaucratized public sector.

 These problems are worse in Kerala because it has chosen to continue to finance its vigorous welfare programs and because it remains a relatively unindustrialized region, lacking the dynamism provided by a large industrial city. Elsewhere in India these factors have produced contradictions that lead to policies of liberalization. I have been arguing for several years that instead of simply opposing each and every move towards debureaucratization (“liberalization” and “privativization”), the left should instead formulate well-conceived policies that combine social welfare with a dynamic economy able to use the market. This would be, hopefully, a “social market economy” moving in the direction of a socialist market economy; but if the result were nothing more than a progressive welfare capitalist state this would be a step forward from the type of rentier- state mercantilism (or even “semifeudalism,” if one prefers this language) that currently seems to exist. The analysis of Kerala’s crisis by Joseph Tharamangalam shows the urgency of this reconsideration. Without it, the left is becoming increasingly marginalized, and the people of India are left with the gloomy choice between a Congress Party with a history of corruption and dynastic leadership and an increasingly dangerous right-wing Hindu nationalism.


1. The conference was organized by Professors M. Dasan and Ramachandran of the Department of English and the Forum of New Literatures of the University of Calicut, 17-19 February 1998. return

2. See the article by Chandra Bhan Prasad, “EMS Is No More: Long Live Socialism,” in Communalism Combat (Mumbai), May 1998. return

3. 78 percent of rural households are supplied by PDS and the system fulfils 52 percent of their foodgrain consumption needs, compared to 33.2 percent and 23.5 percent for the all-India average, see NCAER (National Council of Applied Economic Research), Delhi, “Survey of Rural Households,” 1994.

4. Joan Mencher, “The Lessons and Non-Lessons of Kerala: Agricultural Laborers and Poverty,” Economic and Political Weekly, Special Number, 1980. return.



Courtesy: Ananthapuri forum 

(Originally published in