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A leap in the dark?

J Devika | Updated on January 20, 2018

Unholy matrimony: CK Janu, seen here with young supporters, has called the BJP the ‘Satan’ she would compromise with, if it helped her people. -- S. Gopakumar

J. Devika

The decision to ally with the BJP in the Kerala elections puts tribal leader CK Janu in the eye of a political storm

The news of the well-known tribal leader CK Janu’s decision to contest along with the BJP in the coming assembly elections in Kerala has left sections of the Left deeply hurt. There can be little doubt that her leadership has contributed in no small measure to the visibility and voice recently gained by this community, which is just a minuscule minority of the population and dogged by a history of unrelenting oppression, exploitation, and marginalisation. It is common knowledge that despite the markedly high visibility that Adivasis have gained in Kerala, no government has fulfilled promises made to them, and large funds set apart for tribal development seem to never reach the most deserving sections. Clearly, Janu’s decision is a response to this desperate situation, but her reference to the BJP as the ‘Satan’ she would compromise with if it helped her people has provoked much criticism, especially in the social media, which compares her with Faustus selling his soul to Mephistopheles.

I find the above comparison extraordinarily unkind. Of course, the disappointment, even the outrage, her decision generated is understandable. Far from just a tragedy for the tribal people, this decision is a huge blow to radical civil society as a whole — indeed, the ‘Stand-up Struggle’ that the Adivasi Gotra Sabha had initiated last year was immensely successful in drawing greater numbers into the radical civil society. No doubt other leaders of marginal communities have made such decisions before — Mayawati, for example — and managed to stave off getting swallowed by the BJP. In Kerala, the Dalit Human Rights Movement leader Seleena Prakkanam has argued that formal politics here is no longer a clash of ideologies, and that it is populated by the big men and their personal constituencies. She rejects moralising about marginalised groups seeking unconditional alliances with the latter. But Janu is not reaching out to the BJP from a position of relative strength, like Mayawati, or working with individual leaders, like Prakkanam. Janu’s successes were in, and through the radical civil society, and forging connections with the BJP would mean that all bridges with that other world will have to be burned.

But are the accusatory responses justified? I cannot help thinking that accusatory responses can serve only to stall serious questioning of why those of us who saw promise in Janu’s Adivasi Gothra Sabha were unable to engage in open, fearless and frank internal criticism of it even when researchers did point to its potential to become elitist. More importantly, Janu as an Adivasi woman had revealed the limits of neoliberal feminism in Kerala in the early years of the Millennium itself, during the Muthanga struggle. Those were heady times when neoliberal welfarism in the state was celebrating the ‘below-poverty-line woman’ as the new subject of empowerment through self-help and micro-credit; it was also the time when Adivasis and Dalits were being slowly told that they could no longer expect land as a productive resource and that they had to be happy with handouts through the panchayati raj institutions. And there was Janu, refusing both these solutions, defiant and willing to face the state’s wrath. Who can forget the images of Janu being hauled into the police vans, the scars of the violence she had suffered visible on her face? But — and I am being self-critical here — did those horrifying images, which clearly revealed the limits of the idolisation of the poor woman as the ideal subject of neoliberal welfarist order, prompt us to rethink, for example, the terms on which feminists participated in the governmentalised empowerment discourse?

I too am sad at Janu’s decision. Janu is not selling her soul to the devil for personal ambition perhaps, but she is indeed attempting a leap across the abyss. She believes that the BJP may propel her across, but historically, there is no evidence that offers any comfort. If upper caste Hindus in Kerala have been the traditional rivals of the Syrian Christian land-grabbers of Wayanad through the 20th century, there is an equally long history of their close collaboration to suppress common enemies. It is hard to perceive that the BJP, especially the national leadership, would so easily turn away from the Syrian Christian transnational community that actively aspires to be the ‘model minority’ under the Hindutva regime and participates in the bunch of lies called ‘love jihad’, for the hapless tribes of Kerala.

Janu’s leap is indeed to be watched, but I hope she remembers Lloyd George’s observation that you cannot cross the abyss in two jumps. Especially when it is the BJP that persuades her that there is no abyss at all.

(J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram)

Published on April 22, 2016

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