People beyond the bracket

J Devika | Updated on June 08, 2018 Published on June 08, 2018

In or out: The elites of the Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths in Kerala share a sense of social equality, which excludes the oppressed castes s ramesh   -  s ramesh kurup

The murder of Kevin Joseph forces us to acknowledge the dark side of Kerala’s fabled religious and communal amity

The murder of Kevin Joseph, a young dalit man, by his upper-caste Christian bride’s family allegedly to avenge the ‘dishonour’ of their union, and the complicity of the police with the murderers are not news any more. Hostility towards dalits and religious Muslims appears to be an undeniable aspect of law and order management, so much so that when I was told by a friend about the murder, my immediate response was to ask if the victim was a dalit. Given that the Kerala police is presently the worst oppressor of dalit people in the State, and that the dominant Left seems to be ineffective or disinterested in reminding the force that they function within a democracy, the victory of the CPM in the recent Chengannur bypoll does not mean anything for dalit youngsters daring to defy upper-caste authorities.

The depth of this conflict must not be ignored. Against the backdrop of the Hindutva and elite Christian propaganda around ‘love jihad’ against young Muslim men, we have witnessed the confinement of young women by their families for long periods, either at homes or at remote and shadowy ‘correction centres’. This illegal ‘family custody’ of adult women, was assented to by the Kerala High Court, as was clear in the Hadiya case (thankfully, it was corrected, however late, by the Supreme Court).

Compare this to the cases in which an upper-caste woman chose a dalit man against her family’s wishes. Two such cases, on the heels of the other, have resulted in murders. In the first case, a young woman from North Kerala was hacked to death by her father the evening before her wedding to a dalit man whom she had chosen against his wishes. The father claimed that he was pushed towards the act by the taunts and jeers hurled at him by neighbours, acquaintances, and relatives. When upper-caste women choose dalit men, it seems, the murder of one, or both, seem a distinct, chilling prospect in Kerala: No amount of the glorious history of anti-caste social movements can hide this grim reality.

The Left’s political management of the dalits in Kerala is under severe strain. Historically, the dalits have figured as recipients of welfare, deserving ‘uplift’, as distinguished from middle-caste small farmers who were considered fit to be full owners of property. The flow of welfare resources to dalits, once militantly fought for as ‘people’s rights’, is now thoroughly neoliberalised and often sluggish, but still steady. Even as the older generation of dalits are placated this way, their young are reminded time and again, through blatant violence, that they should not aspire for social equality. And whenever dalit communities have raised questions about upper-caste appropriation of public space and the denial of productive assets to them, the inevitable response has been deep hostility, demonisation, and state violence.

An interesting response from voices sympathetic to the CPM government has been that the hatred that killed Joseph was not towards his caste, but his working-class status. The argument is hardly convincing in the present context. It is hard to imagine the same response from the young woman’s family had her choice been, for example, a poor Nair man. The murder of Joseph by a gang led by his brother-in-law and cousins poses no sociological puzzle though the bride’s family is atypical. Her parents are Christian and Muslim, and had braved family opposition to marry for love.

Some are puzzled that the ‘honour killing’ against a dalit man was planned and perpetrated by a family that was formed through an act of rebellion against two powerful communities in Kerala. This is really no puzzle because the dalits have, historically, been oppressed by the elite in Hindu, Christian, and Muslim faiths. In broad terms, the elites of the three faiths, until recently, shared (the distancing of Muslims began under colonialism and continued through the decades after independence) a sense of social equality. This perception continues to prevail despite the severe stress inflicted on it by Hindutva forces.

This terrible murder compels us to acknowledge the dark side of Kerala’s fabled religious and communal amity. That it is restricted to the caste elite, and excludes the oppressed castes is a fact that is rarely recognised. If we are serious about bringing justice to Joseph, we must not overlook this fact.

J Devika


J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on June 08, 2018
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