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Who Owns The “Country”?

Ajith Kumar A S

ajith_kumarWhile having tea at local tea shops around Trivandrum city I have seen lot of workers, may be from Bengal, Orissa or Bihar. They (A problem- No other terms to use other than “they”) would be very active having tea, snacks, talking to each other, talking to the shopkeeper, laughing, talking on phone. For many years I have been seeing this. They have been a part of our city life and the economic process. There are many shops that sustain/depend on the migrant workers. They keep a strong connection with their relatives. We hear them talking on phone with their relatives and family in their languages unfamiliar to us. They do have relatives, families, places they have grown up in, places to return. “We” do have relatives working in different places and we do keep close relations with them. What makes migrant workers from the “north” different or how do they “disturb” or become a threat for “us”? The question would be who owns what is known as Kerala?

This Sunday, migrant workers who gathered in Gandhi park, a public park in Trivandrum, were driven out by the police. The police say they are involved in many of the criminal activities in the city. The fort police have made it clear that hereafter “they” won’t be allowed to gather there. We have to be aware that for a long time the government has been involved in racial profiling of these workers. We did see similar instances in our neighboring state Tamil Nadu when five migrant workers (“suspected robbers”) were shot dead in an “encounter”. Police allege with a patronizing male tone that on Sundays they gather there after getting drunk and indulge in criminal activities mostly against women. While for many years “criminal” activities are not directly connected to any particular community or people from a particular territory, there are some stereotypes about criminals- dark, flabby, people from colonies, from Tamil Nadu- an image that represents everything that the middle class Malayali feels they don’t look like.

Why does others’ pleasure disturb us so much? Why can’t they spend their leisure time in a public space? Can “we” insist that, their duty (or burden?) is to work for “us” and keep our lives comfortable and safe while they have no right to enjoy? They have to be essentially “laborers”? The dominant “Left'” advocates the unity among workers, they would shout slogans like “sarvarajya thozhilaalikale sanghadikkuvin“, a call for the workers of the world to unite. The problems is that this slogan just addresses  the workers of different countries but misses the differences and discrimination based on caste, race and gender (and many more categories). The migrant worker, I think, is defined by many lacks and excess. A migrant worker is never completely a worker. They are a hyphenated category that doesn’t easily fit into “sarva rajya thozhilaali“. It may be the reason we don’t see any trade unions supporting these unorganized workers. The displacement and discrimination they face in the workplace and public space is complex.

The tourist slogan “god’s own country’ carries the violence of the Travancore monarchy’s history of violence. It depicts the history of the country “owned” by the monarchy offered to lord padmanabha to escape the anti-monarchy struggles by the lower caste. The history of modern Kerala is more violent. The landless Dalits and Adivasis are never the “owners” of the “country” known as Kerala. The Malayali self emerged defining itself against its low others: the Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. The authoritative erasure of Ayyankali’s history from the history of Kerala in EMS’s “malayalikalude mathrubhumi” tells this in volumes. We could also remember that the Trivandrum ‘Malayali” public was also irritated by the adivasi struggle in front of the secretariat led by C K Janu because, maybe, they thought that they owned the space. The xenophobic hate campaign against Muslims in the state by the Malayali (the Malayali even ridicules Malappuram district as a separate country) also exposes the claims of the Malayali self on the Kerala state.

If Malayali is such a problematic and exclusive category in itself, for whose interests are you trying to purge out the migrant workers? I am sure that they don’t need patronizing sympathy that some of the FB-ian Malayalees are offering. They have the right to work, live and celebrate in this part of the world.


Ajith Kumar A S is a Dalit musician and writer based in Trivandrum.

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