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On the tip of foul tongues

J Devika | Updated on January 12, 2018

Hand-picked targets: The adivasi woman and the lower-caste woman of Tamil origin — worlds away from the gentrified Malayali feminine ideal — have been targets of hate speeches in Kerala. Photo: K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

Contempt for women and poor are now entwined more firmly than before

Why do male politicians in India, irrespective of party affiliation, often burst into offensive language when criticising women active in public life? We know that they hardly ever recognise women in politics who disagree with them as worthy opponents, antagonists in the best sense; but the standards seem to have fallen further.

Three instances haunt me. One was during the Kerala State Assembly elections of 2016, when Vellapally Natesan, the leader of the Bharata Dharma Jana Sena, an ally of the BJP, showered unmentionable rape-talk on the CPI candidate, ES Bijimol, from Kerala’s poorer and mountainous district, Idukki. Had there been no law to protect women, he chuckled in the middle of a speech, she would have been bludgeoned to death and thrown into a ravine. The second incident was in the Assembly in October 2016. The CPM’s minister for tribal welfare, AK Balan, cracked a ‘joke’ which had legislators and ministers laugh uncontrollably. Responding to a question on infant deaths among tribal people, he remarked that four infants had died after the Left Democratic Front (LDF) came to power. The LDF couldn’t be blamed, he smirked, because the women had conceived earlier, when the United Democratic Front was still in power. Comrade Balan continues to handle SC/ST affairs and, crushingly enough, culture, law and parliamentary affairs. What culture, what law, what parliament, one wonders.

The third is very recent, and perhaps the most intriguing. MM Mani, CPM strongman from Idukki and MLA, gave a speech in which he claimed that the officer-in-charge of the attempt to evict encroachments at Munnar, in the Western Ghats, was a drunk. He was trying to emphasise the depravity of all sections that believed encroachments were widespread — especially the media. He called the sub-collector of Idukki a dullard who ought to be locked up in a mental asylum (thus revealing his tremendous sympathies with people battling mental illness), and then for further evidence against the media, recollected the historic struggle of women workers in Munnar led by the remarkable ‘pater-less’ union, the Pengal Otrumai. The mention of the union built by lower-caste women workers seems to have elicited reference to a particular vice: commercial sex. During the Pengal Otrumai agitation, he alleged, there was much depravity going on there; the media was indulging in alcohol and “all sorts of other dirty things”, and hidden away in the “forest” they were doing much “pani”, hand-in-glove with the officers. Pani in Malayalam is also a euphemism for sex.

Now, Mani’s defenders, not unexpectedly, CPM cyber warriors, have quickly pointed out that there is no direct reference to Pengal Otrumai that can be interpreted as an insult. Mani himself expressed “regret”, claiming that he meant no insult to women. Yet we know too well how deep-seated patriarchy creates enduring associations which surface in speeches, no matter what the speaker’s intentions. But thinking of these incidents, it is hard not to see a pattern. In each, the target of insult is far away from the elite conception of the ideal Malayali woman. Bijimol is known to be a tough-talking lady, anything but demure and decorous. The adivasi women who were insulted by Balan and the lower-caste working-class women of Tamil origin whom Mani berated are far away from the elite Malayali feminine ideal — and also representative, importantly, of the poorest and most disempowered sections of Indian society.

This is a pandemic that now infects India — deep contempt for the poor pervades all of political society. In India, and Kerala, the poor are mostly female. Contempt for women and the poor are now entwined even more firmly than before.

Gomathy Augustine, a leader of Pengal Otrumai, vowed to protest until Mani would “fall at the feet of women workers and beg forgiveness”. She was rightly not satisfied with Mani’s “regret”. Expressing regret and tendering apology are different things. But Gomathy asks for a physical display of remorse that owns up ethical misconduct, and affirms implicitly the moral superiority of the other from whom forgiveness is sought. Let this man and his ilk not forget that Kerala is saved from the worst forms of poverty by the labours of women workers. It is they who hold this society from collapsing into chaos. I salute Gomathy’s anger; may it save us from the evil that enshrouds the present.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on June 02, 2017

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