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Communal, sectarian, neo-conservative: Is this the new Kerala?

Is Kerala’s famed cosmopolitan ethos breaking down? With increasing incidents such as the severing of the hand of a Kerala professor for a perceived sectarian offence, it would seem that the once solid Malayali identity is being fragmented on religious, denominational or caste grounds, says John Samuel

Kerala’s legacy of peaceful co-existence and cosmopolitan social ethos is well-known. Two major religions, Islam and Christianity, took root in Kerala from the very early years of both religions and both were introduced through trade and by word rather than through the sword or war.  

More than 25% of the population is Muslim and more than 20% is Christian. People belonging to the Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities have lived together peacefully for centuries, nurtured their Malayali identity, and played a key role in enriching the culture, society, economy and political process of the state.  

In spite of multiple religious and caste identities, it is the cosmopolitan social ethos that has made Kerala a very distinct society, known for communal harmony, peace and social development. People from different religious and caste groups nurtured and shared the same cultural, social, economic and political space.  

However, there are alarming signs of growing intolerance and neo-conservatism in Kerala. This growing religious and caste sectarianism, neo-conservatism and the new, divisive political trends need to be challenged and changed.

There is a tendency in recent times to assert various shades of identity politics based on the politics of exclusion and also new pressure politics based purely on a religious, denominational or caste identity. There is growing soft and hard sectarianism of various shades. And, above all, there is also a trend towards moral policing even by parties that are expected to uphold ‘progressive’ values and gender justice. The entrenched patriarchal attitude and the new tendency of questioning any man and woman travelling together gives the impression that regressive trends have crept into this society.  

Instead of challenging these trends, political parties seem to be more interested in fishing in muddied waters. Hence it is important to identify some of the disturbing trends developing within this society.

1. One does not need a microscope to discover how various competing strands of 'communalism' (majoritarian and minoritarian) feed into each other in the form of soft and hard sectarianism in the society and politics of Kerala today. There are many actors, including those from the 'minority' community, responsible for nurturing new kinds of sectarianism, intolerance and consequent reactionary violence in Kerala society.

The statements of less enlightened and more sectarian bishops and the 'pressure politics' guised as 'institutional interests' operating in the name of Christian and Muslim communities are also contributing factors. And then there is soft Hindutva getting more 'reactionary' acceptance within a very significant number of the middle class.  

Political parties seem to be more interested in the votes that emerge from this new sectarian communalism, of the soft and hard varieties, than in addressing its causes and consequences.

2. This new kind of sectarian neo-conservatism is also nurtured by new sectarian pressure politics practised by the leaders of organisations that claim to be representing certain communities. One can identify such sectarian tones in the statements of some new leaders of caste-based community organisations such as the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) and Nair Service Society (NSS). So we reach this sad and shocking predicament as a society due to the cumulative impact of sectarian indoctrination of various kinds among Christians, Muslims and Hindus of Kerala.  

This is fuelled by a new kind of identity politics of exclusion (most evident in the last 15 years) which spouts a mock liberal rhetoric and a seemingly 'subaltern' content, with a deeply sectarian and conservative social agenda propagated by a few groups in Kerala. Any sectarian divisive politics in the name of religion, or promoted primarily by an exclusive religious entity, can be dangerous in Kerala where each community is big enough to create social disintegration, political decadence and, eventually, multiple forms of violence and criminalisation within Kerala and elsewhere. As of now, it is manifest in occasional incidents and due to the middle-class character of all communities there is less scope for massive violence so far.

3. The recent criminal and violent attack by fanatics on TJ Joseph, the professor who framed a question paper with sectarian undertones, is also an outcome of the cumulative indoctrination of intolerance.

It is alleged that those who were arrested for chopping off the professor’s hand in July 2010 are affiliated to a particular group which has a secular-sounding name and is supposed to be involved in subaltern politics. Such formations are criticised for their mock-liberal veneer and neo-conservative Islamic core and divisive political and social agenda. It is up to these formations to clear perceptions about the integrity of their politics.

4. Irrespective of the ‘truth’ of the matter, planned attacks like the one against the professor cannot be executed by a local group simply for the sake of it. Such attacks have to be well planned by vested interests and fanatical groups in order to polarise the religious communities in Kerala. There is a very sinister and dangerous political plan behind this ‘symbolic’ dispensation of ‘justice’ against someone who might have framed a very questionable question in a question paper, in a society that is becoming increasingly intolerant.

5. It is important for all sane and sensible people across all religions and castes to react against not just the disturbing incident of the attack against the professor, but against all sectarian and neo-conservative trends promoted by vested interest groups in all formations based on religious or caste identity. It is important to challenge and change the causes as well as consequences of sectarianism and neo-conservatism.

Of course, during such volatile moments it is important for all major media and political parties to deal with such situations sensitively and with a sense of responsibility to the larger society and politics.

It is time for a social reform movement by civil society actors across the religious, community and caste spectrum, to challenge these disturbing social and political trends and to ensure that the defining cosmopolitan ethos of Kerala is maintained, nurtured and strengthened. Each of us has to take social, political and moral responsibility to promote peace and harmony in Kerala by avoiding stereotypes, religious/communal prejudices and encouraging values of freedom, human rights, justice and peace within the family, society and politics.  

Infochange News & Features, July 2010