As Kerala continues to be roiled in the spat over women’s entry into Sabarimala temple, essayist and novelist K.R. Meera talks to The Wire about the faultlines in Malayali society, the contradictions in Left politics and how a highly literate state like Kerala hasn’t been able to change the culture of social conservatism.
In light of the Sabarimala row, would it be fair to say that the perception of a liberal Kerala is a carefully constructed myth?
It depends on how you define the term ‘liberal’. We, Malayalis, are basically survivors. The recent floods have proved this. We came together as a caste-less, class-less society to overcome the disaster. For example, the Sabarimala temple now in the eye of the storm, was so isolated during the floods that the thanthri (head priest) couldn’t reach the temple for the auspicious Niraputhari celebration. There was not even a single kanni ayyappan (the male devotee visiting the shrine for the first time in his life). The legend is that Lord Ayyappan promised to marry the goddess Malikappurathamma the day no kanni ayyappan visited the shrine.
Risking their lives, four Christian youths swam across the river Pampa. They carried stalks of paddy to perform the puja. Neither the thanthris, the rajas nor so-called devotees, now filling the streets after the court verdict, bothered about the puja or the temple.
During the floods our mosques opened their doors to victims of all religions. Temples opened to Muslims to perform Namaz. We opened our houses; shared everything we had with those who lost everything. In the relief camps, Audi owners and the homeless worked together. Our media rose to the occasion with its balanced reportage.
What has changed since?
As soon as the water receded, caste and class hostilities returned.
Liberalisation and the second Gulf boom, have spawned a large middle class which seeks comfort zones along the axes of class, caste, religion or patriarchy. We are characteristically insecure, the more educated we are more insecure we become. Education trains us primarily to be competitive rather than to be confident.
What are the reasons for such prejudices to continue?
The main reason is we are educated more by media rather than text books. Instead of giving us information, a highly competitive media ends up feeding us what we want to hear or read. We have seen in the past media competing with one another in celebrating non-issues.
How did media treat the Sabarimala verdict?
As soon as the verdict came, instead of focussing on the question of equal justice, media harped on the sentimental refrain struck up by self-proclaimed saviours of Ayyappa. Realising that such coverage swayed sections of innocent devotees, the Congress party joined them. The party sensed potential political advantage in the situation.
Soon, the Hindutva parties which earlier argued in favour of women’s entry and wholeheartedly welcomed the judgement, also joined the opposition. It is the educated and the ’empowered,’ especially the women, who have muddied the waters. Projecting their views on the issue as if they possessed deep knowledge in thanthra as well as in the laws on worship and temples. The common people were misled by all this.
But after the initial inertia, liberal and intellectual Malayalis have put out in the public domain researches around the history, geography, thanthric rites and politics of Sabarimala.
Your thoughts on some landmark social movements rooted in gender justice and gender equity.
In my view, this is the decade of awakening on women’s rights.
The process began with an actress filing a police complaint after being abducted and raped in the middle of the city. It was unthinkable for a woman of her stature daring to complain and going ahead with the case. She proclaimed to the world that rape is a criminal offence. A woman’s honour has nothing to do with it.
It was so heart-warming to see a bunch of her colleagues forming a collective to demand justice for her. They even risked their career prospects. One of the accused in the case was a prominent and powerful actor. I consider the formation of the Women Collective in Cinema a milestone in Kerala’s feminist movement.
For the first time in history – a nun took on the mighty Catholic Church, complaining against a powerful Bishop for continued rape. Her supporters – a group of nuns – protested for days together before the Bishop was taken into custody.
The Sabarimala agitation should be considered the third step in this direction. It is interesting to note that it is the same people who supported the accused actor, the accused Bishop are now protesting women’s entry in Sabarimala.
The majority/minority splits within women are interesting in this context.
Majority of actors instead of supporting the survivor, supported the accused actor, in the first case. The organisation formed in support of the survivor is called WCC (Women Collective In Cinema). In the second case, majority of the nuns supported the accused Bishop and not the survivor. Those supporting the survivor could be called the WCC (Women Collective in Church).
Now in the case of Sabarimala too, the majority of women are against temple entry. The minority who support the verdict could also be a WCC (Women Collective against Celibacy).
How have Marxists dealt with such conservatism?
The stand taken by CPI(M) and chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Sabarimala has won him many admirers, including some of his earlier critics. When other political parties are competing with each other to woo ‘believers,’ it requires strength to stand by one’s conviction. And safeguard the Constitution.
I believe the arrests of the accused actor or the Bishop would not have taken place under any other political regime. At the same time, I am totally disappointed with the way the party and the chief minister generally deal with misogyny within the party ranks, as in the case of the MLA accused of sexual harassment. Since misogyny is an integral of right-wing politics, it is imperative for the left to accept the idea of equal justice as a way of life rather than a theory.
To quote Balachandran Chullikkadu, our renowned poet, the Malayali Hindus are largely left leaning in the public and right in the personal spaces. So even though the chief minister is effectively delivering lengthy lectures on Kerala reformation, is he addressing the prejudices of right-leaning party cadres?
One good thing about the Congress is that it is openly supporting right-wing parties as if they are one and the same. The Sabarimala verdict has created several types of Hindus amongst us – the conservative Hindu, the liberal Hindu, the radical Hindu, the liberal-feminist Hindu, the liberal-anti-feminist Hindu, the left-but-conservative Hindu and the violently-awakened Hindu.
Does the recent stand against protestors taken by Pinarayi Vijayan surprise you?
It is not his stand that surprised me but the conviction with which he said that the government’s priority was to lead the state on a progressive path than winning elections.
What has been your experience as a writer and a former journalist based in Kerala?
Regarding Sabarimala? Personally, this has been a real learning process for me as a journalist, a writer as well as a citizen. It helped me to understand even my friends and relatives better. I have observed regardless of what we say, people would believe only what they choose to believe based on their character and insight.
Even in the 21st century, people continue to believe what they wish to believe. It is interesting to observe how history repeats itself too since this is exactly the same way the upper caste Malayalis behaved when the temples were opened to Dalits a century ago.
Despite literacy, higher education and social status, the Malayalis normally choose to stand with the larger crowd for three reasons: one, they believe this could be an opportunity to fulfil their political or personal agenda; two, they wish to believe the stand taken by the visibly larger group would be the right one; three, they feel secure by standing with the larger crowd. But Malayalis are survivors.
The moment we realise our personal space and well-being are being threatened, we would be awakened. An awakened Malayali is by default a progressive Malayali.