Left turn for the worse

J Devika | Updated on November 23, 2018 Published on November 23, 2018

United we disrupt: CPM leaders and their supporters have joined the Sangh’s chorus against ‘activist’ feminists   -  SIVARAM V

The mainstream Left in Kerala never really took on the forces of social conservatism. This blunder has blown up in its face in the wake of the Sabarimala verdict

Kerala, it is often remarked, shows where the rest of India will go, and this is meant as a compliment. From a Kerala overwhelmed by a right-wing upsurge, as a feminist intellectual for whom physical harm is a real threat today, I cannot help but notice how ironic this sounds. Kerala is indeed showing what may happen to feminists in an Indian society if they actually gain a public voice and presence, and begin to demand equality in religious communities — and, by extension, in social institutions closely shaped by them.

I write this with a heavy heart. For more than 25 years, feminist scholarship in Kerala has been trying to warn the mainstream Left that its tendency to be politically progressive but socially regressive will erode the rich legacy of social revolution from which both anti-patriarchal and socialist strands emerged. Yet the latter remained determined to either ignore the warning, or absorb it in the most superficial way possible. By refusing to re-examine its toleration of social conservatism and, indeed, foster it in its own ranks, the Left has contributed to the steady strengthening of the conservative moral majority.

When feminist scholarship and literature began to gain foothold in our public sphere, they practised a curious kind of denial: readily consuming the critique, yet failing to take seriously its implications. In the 1990s, the mainstream pushed its agenda of empowering women in ways that would not cause the slightest discomfort to the social conservatives, and whatever agency women may have gained came not from a substantial challenge to gender conservatism, but from unintended consequences. Some of the forces unleashed by the early 20th-century social revolution in Kerala, prominently literacy, were never fully bridled by either the mainstream political progressives or social conservatives. Other aspects and strands of democratic politics were ignored or rendered marginal by the political and social mainstream. These formed the basis of the oppositional civil social space that emerged in the latter half of the 20th century and after. For the mainstream Left, the real enemy was never really the right wing or the conservatives; it was always the other strands of left politics that it attacked most viciously.

With the Supreme Court’s (SC) verdict on women’s entry into Sabarimala, the mainstream Left’s strategy has blown up in its face, just as feminists had warned since long. Social conservatism has turned in full fury against the CPM and the government it leads that bears the responsibility of implementing the court order. Exactly this time last year, the CPM government and its supporters were nearly on the same side as the right-wing Sangh organisations in their condemnation of a young woman, Hadiya, who had converted to Islam and found a life-partner from her chosen faith. In the horrid din about ‘love jihad’ and alleged ISIS conspiracies, it was hard to distinguish who was who. Now the SC has somewhat forced the CPM to reclaim socially progressive legacies, but it is doing so kicking and screaming.

The new strategy seems to be a combination of speech-making that draws upon socially progressive thinking of the early 20th century social revolution, and non-action on the ground. Not surprisingly, their ‘orators’, including the chief minister, as well as their supporters in cyberspace have been liberally borrowing — without acknowledgement — the political language created by feminist and dalit scholarship in Malayalam. At the same time, however, CPM leaders and their Facebook supporters have not spared any effort to join in chorus with the Sangh against the ‘activist’ feminists who took the chief minister’s rhetoric seriously and attempted the pilgrimage. This has put vocal feminists under huge risk, not to speak of the brave women who attempted the pilgrimage. Among them was Bindu Thankam Kalyani, a schoolteacher and dalit feminist activist. She has been relentlessly hounded at her workplace by parents, students and Sangh radicals; she had to be transferred to another school, but has had no respite — neither the police nor the local CPM cadres have come to her aid.

Meanwhile, the largest Left women’s organisation in Kerala plays dead, and it appears fruitless to appeal to it because you cannot wake someone from pretended slumber. The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) alone could have saved the day — for there are believers aplenty among its members, whose numbers run into many lakhs. They could have prepared from their ranks a thousand young women to undertake a mass pilgrimage. Perhaps it is no mystery why they haven’t. For, as I mentioned before, they have not been able to extricate themselves from social conservatism. The way ahead looks long and dangerous indeed.



J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on November 23, 2018
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