Contemporary politics: horrors and hope


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FOLLOWING Brecht, let us engage with the bad new things rather than the good old ones. The most apparent is garbage in the emerald bowl. For long, urban waste was ‘taken care of’ by the civic authorities by dumping it in the countryside, generally where the poor and the hapless live. However, there is resistance now, and it is no longer possible. Yet, no effective solution has been found. While roads and by-lanes are strewn with domestic garbage, hospital waste is offloaded in lakes and rivulets, choking and polluting them. The hills, many with evergreen forest cover, are being razed to the ground, with stones quarried in massive quantities for the construction of highways and high-rise buildings, and the red earth carried down to the coastal tract to fill the swamps and fields.

These critical receptacles of water transform into residential and commercial plots, as the worst forms of concrete sprout up. The sand for construction is mined from the rivers turning them into cesspools. The proliferating resorts and hotels consequent to tourism threaten to wipe off the coastal mangroves, a unique ecosystem and a wall of protection against sea erosion. The houseboats flush out human excreta into the backwaters while plastic bottles toss around. Several lakhs of pilgrims who visit the jungle shrine in the higher reaches of the Western Ghats raise the volume of such waste to exponential proportions.

Even more painfully, there is blood in the emerald bowl. The blood-spill owes not merely to extreme right wing communal forces, but to the state’s biggest political organization, the CPI(M). Such is its attitude towards dissent that recently a long-standing activist who had chosen to form a new parliamentary, communist organization, was put to a gruesome death with no less than 51 slashes. This horrid act had other frightful dimensions. Apparently, the killer comrades had travelled in a cab that bore a sticker with the Arabic words Masha Allah (as God wills) to misdirect the police investigation and to deceive the public. Had the sinister ploy worked, many innocent Muslims would have been taken into police custody or killed in the possible violence set-off by the right wing Hindu forces.

However, the utterances of party officials soon gave away the lie. The state secretary, while denying that the party had any role in the killing, noted: ‘Anyway, a traitor to the clan is a traitor to the clan is a traitor to the clan’ (kulamkuthi, kulamkuthi thanne). Is Kerala’s ‘actually existing communism’ that claims to fight capitalism and globalization – even while promoting its own new corporate forms – so pre-modern that it views itself as a clan? How does the clan mindset and communism converge, with the state secretary speaking like a warlord?

In connection with the recent killing, in which some key party officials were allegedly involved in the conspiracy and interrogated, the secretary threatened that the party would turn into a flaming torch if there were more arrests. This was soon followed by the tragicomic intervention of another leader who sought to invoke images of the historic, peasant resistance to justify the present intolerance of police investigation. A district secretary, nearly quarter of a century old, boasted about the 1980s: ‘We drew up a list of 13 men. [He then called out the digits in English] One, two, three, four... The first three were the first to be killed. One was shot dead, another was beaten to death, the third stabbed to death.’


Most of Kerala’s intellectuals, otherwise eloquent, chose to remain silent over the recent killing or were snail-slow to react. Not surprising, considering that the vast majority of this class are ‘paid intellectuals’ of the party. The silence also owes to the lack of a tradition of inner-party democracy and their servility to the party headquarters. A few years ago, when a primary school teacher, a key organizer of the RSS, was lynched to death in the classroom right in front of little children, a leading intellectual of the party, who had extensively written and spoken on both Marxism and psycho-analysis, justified the killing by noting that the RSS had earlier finished off a comrade in front of his parents. The intellectuals, their kith and kin, have arguably gained from the party’s earlier terms in government and therefore, keenly look forward to its next term. The possible recompense range from academic and official postings to honours and awards. These are short-cuts to power and recognition is critical to most of them who are deficient in the activity they are professedly engaged in, whether it be the arts or academics.

How about the non-party, non-paid intellectuals? The smog of social fascism is so dense that only a few openly criticized the misdeeds of the party. Even the scattered responses were belated and cautious, and merely noted that ‘whosoever has killed’ has to be condemned. A poet who was a fellow traveller of the far left during his youth, openly admitted that he was too scared to respond. His fear was echoed by the historian: ‘We are all frightened to utter a word and our freedom is under chains.’ The fears were not unfounded. It was not so long back and not too far from the place of the present murder that a short story writer was manhandled by the CPI(M) cadre for criticizing the party. Another writer who had publicly denounced the recent killing, was intimidated with posters at his doorstep which proclaimed that his survival in the red village was dependant on the ‘pleasure’ of the party.


The post-1970s mark a period of embourgeoisement of Kerala, except for its most marginalized. Rather than any spectacular advance in agriculture and industry, this owed to a range of other factors. There was a growing flow of remittances from migrant labour in the Persian Gulf. Locally, with increased employment opportunities in government and in the rapidly expanding education, insurance and banking sectors, the middle class began to bulge. They were unionized and therefore able to win a persistent rise in income. The boom in construction, trade and health services further expanded employment and income. Wages of manual workers rose owing to increased money in circulation, growing trade unionization, and labour scarcity. The scarcity of labour, in turn, owed to outmigration and the increased local preference for non-manual employment following a rise in the levels of education. While the period saw a steep fall in rice production, a class of middle and rich peasantry was firmly established in natural rubber and cardamom production thanks to remunerative prices and state support.


While the early migrants to the Arab states were mostly unskilled and semi-skilled workers and almost entirely men, increasingly women too began to migrate. Over time, skilled professionals, both men and women, began migrating to the United States and Europe. A large share of the rising remittances and income of the middle and lower classes flowed into housing and assumed the form of jewellery and bank deposits, even if mostly as dowry. The rest was simply spent on anything and everything. Kerala became highly consumerist much before the emergence of the new, globalizing malls. In the absence of civic consciousness and socially responsible local authorities, such consumerism was bound to create mounting heaps of garbage. The voluminous expansion of hospital waste was mostly due to the expansion of premium, private health care facilities that saw large numbers from the Maldives and the Persian Gulf flocking for treatment.

Embourgeoisement was attendant with lumpenization. Many routes of illegitimate accumulation were newly opened up. No surprise, the most repeated word in the local media is mafia. Only a combination of interests could facilitate the new, illegitimate routes to accumulation. Consider, for instance, the sand mining mafia. With the construction boom, large volumes of sand were removed from the riverbed, and subsequently from the river itself. Considering the ecological implications, sand mining was then subjected to licensing and control. With demand continuing to rise, a nexus of sand miners, transport operators, trade unions, local panchayat officials, peoples’ representatives and the police soon emerged all across the state. The story is similar regardless of whether it is quarrying of granite or smuggling liquor or reclaiming ecologically fragile land for tourist resorts.


The party was not spared by the mighty tide of the new economic processes. As an economic entity, the party had started small: establishing primary credit cooperatives, placing local party officials on board, and prioritizing credit flow to the cadre and the fellow travelling middle class. There were also a host of handloom weaving cooperatives and a beedi rolling cooperative with a large network of units all across northern Malabar. These were established to provide at least bare sustenance to the poor workers, most of whom were party members or sympathizers, and to advance the ideology of communism among the rural masses. Many of these initiatives subsequently went into decline, owing to the crisis in their industry, which could not be addressed. These cooperatives had been conceived as extended class organizations and thus without sufficient attention to their economic functioning. During this period the party was run almost entirely on members’ levies and small contributions from fellow travellers and well-wishers.

From the 1990s, there was a ‘Great Transformation’ in the political-economic engagement of the party in northern Kerala, from cooperatives to corporations. With money pouring in from global migrants and grease money from dubious economic interests, the party set up multi-speciality hospitals, television channels, tourist resorts, and IT and amusement parks. Party offices began to wear the look of corporate cabins, and party officials enjoying a range of perks – like vehicles on command, governance of economic undertakings, networking with the moneyed elite, and regular foreign tours to raise funds from the global migrants. Thus, losing an official position was like losing a plush job, whether in government, a bank, a university or elsewhere.


Besides the foliage of leadership, the party’s root system comprising the rank and file was transformed after the emergence of the new, lumpenized economy. The size of the agricultural working class had rapidly dwindled consequent to the decline in rice cultivation. Nor did the class of industrial workers expand owing to the absence of large industrialization. The available rural industrial proletariat – comprising those employed in handloom weaving, toddy tapping, and beedi rolling – dwindled to near insignificance in the new economy. Any substantial growth in the size of manual workers was evidenced only in the construction sector. However, consequent to outmigration and the reduced preference for manual work among the local, educated youth, employment in this sector was increasingly filled in by labourers from other states. The decline of the working class in the economy was mirrored in the party. In the absence of substantive political struggles, its role was mostly reduced to participating in rallies held at the time of party conferences and elections.

A new rank and file was soon formed. The fuzzy class location of many of the new cadre is noteworthy. Reflecting the larger trend of the state economy, most them are employed in the tertiary sector and distributed in scattered or shifting work locations like autorickshaw drivers and those employed in local, private bus transport. Usually, they have at least a tiny residential plot, thanks to the inheritance from the 1970s land reforms. They are like Marx’s classic sack of potatoes, not much enjoined by a commonality of interests. Although unionized, the absence of a common worksite where they are concentrated, the individuated nature of work and flexible working hours, have implications for political training and consciousness. The flexible work timings and work days often led to their involvement in a variety of quick money making operations and activities.


Faced with ‘political unemployment’ and lured by the temptations of the new bad economy, many of the rank and file became small-time contractors, real estate brokers, money lenders and sand miners, and began pursuing varied routes to lumpen accumulation. Further, as a link with power was crucial to the conduct of such activities, many of the new lumpen classes sought party membership, with some even rapidly rising to become local party officials. A change in the composition of the rank and file had the ideological sanction of the state leadership, which also resorted to similar, illegitimate ways of accumulation, the difference being merely of scale, brokering with the multinational electricity undertakings and the pan-Indian lottery dons.

Often the second generation of the earlier rank and file does join the party, but they are not of the same class as their parents. Again, it is the tertiary sector that provides them jobs. Many are employed in the new corporate ventures of the party, even if at lower levels. For them and others employed in other party controlled outfits, allegiance to the party is a prerequisite of economic survival. Dissent involves the threat of ouster, both from employment and from the party. It is a symbiosis of corporatism and fascism that now defines the party line. To view this as merely ‘reflecting the feudal-Stalinist trend’, as a leading left wing economist has chosen to do, is to miss the subtleties. The adjective ‘feudal-Stalinist’, if valid, is not a ‘trend’ any more, but a structural feature of the Kerala party. Clearly, feudalism and Stalinism are easy generalizations that fail to capture the Kerala, especially the North Malabar, variety of communism.

Extending the ecological metaphor, the undergrowth of the party as represented by fellow travellers has also changed over time. Rather than contribute to a critical understanding of the new social and economic processes and facilitating the party to adopt appropriate policies and programmes, they propagated the message of invincibility of the party, possibly to please the leadership. With economics in command, in society at large and the party, the ambitious, consumers of power and pelf continually seeking shortcuts, began to swell the ranks of fellow travellers. While sticking to the party is often a matter of economic survival for the cadre, for the intellectuals it ties up with questions of power and social recognition. Firmly established in the universities and cultural institutions, many of these intellectuals are masters of corruption of every kind – both on their own and as desired by the party.


It is no secret that almost all political organizations in Kerala have killed political opponents, with the CPI(M) and the RSS in the lead. During the late 1940s, the Congress led the cops to red hideouts. The killing of political opponents as an unwritten policy of the communists began with the 1964 split in the CPI. Erstwhile comrades happily killed each other. During the 1970s, the CPI(M) helped the cops to round up CPI(ML) activists, while the CPI(M) itself fell prey to the CPI-Congress combine during the Emergency. The CPI(ML) contribution to the killings followed a different trajectory. In the courts, they owned up to the annihilation of landlords and attacks on police stations as political action, reflective of revolutionary self-delusion.

By the late 1970s, the CPI(M) guns were clearly set on the scattered but growing number of RSS activists, many of whom were former party members. Reportedly, they had shifted loyalties, attracted by the militant resistance of the RSS against the Emergency. As with the CPI(M), the rank and file of the RSS too comprised of workers, especially those engaged in the somewhat nebulous tertiary services as detailed earlier, and mostly from the backward castes. Barring exceptions, those who kill and those who are killed reflect such socio-economic backgrounds.


The serial killings and counter-killings may thus be traced to the race for dominance between the CPI(M) and the RSS. Notably, from the early 1980s, the earlier, politically interspersed and mixed villages of the Congress, the CPI(M), and the Muslim League in northern Malabar, came to be distinctly marked off as red villages and saffron tracts. There were a few red villages earlier too – all the sites of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) and the CPI-led peasant struggles of the 1930s and 1940s. In these villages communism was a family ideology conveyed through generations and where the party was the supreme arbiter of all truth. Interestingly, many of the saffron tracts too were carved out from the once red or Congress dominant villages. As differences brewed within the party on varied local issues, including the sharing of spoils, often the only option for a dissenting comrade to protect his skin was to join the other militant outfit, the RSS. Initially, many chose it as a temporary abode, but given the concrete reality of village politics and the powerful indoctrination of Hindutva ideology, they soon became ardent activists of the RSS.


It is easy to distinguish between the two partisan territories if one travels by road in northern Malabar. Monochromatic signs and symbols – in red or saffron – on the road and on the electric poles, mark the division. With over 260 activists from both sides having lost their lives in the serial killings so far, their portraits and statues jostle for space along the roadside. While distinguishing the partisan territories is easy, traversing them is not. A stranger to the locality, even if a Keralite, is allowed to enter a red village or a saffron tract only after much questioning. If allowed, he/she is sure to be followed to ascertain the validity of the stated purpose. The visitor is ‘escorted’ back after the visit. Whichever the ruling electoral front, the everyday reality of village politics in northern Malabar and its ‘forms of government’ remain unchanged.

Significantly, in the context of the present killing, the chief minister and the home minister announced that the state would deal with the present killing differently from the past. What was the pattern of police investigation in the past? Consider that a local activist of the CPI(M) or the RSS is killed. The killing in all likelihood would have been planned at a higher level or even the highest level of the organization, and carried out by activists and/or hired goons from outside areas, although with some possible local help. As investigations begin, the local organizers would provide the police a list of people that comprises, first, the names of activists who were not involved in the killing, but who loyally own up for the sake of the organization; second, the names of dissenters within the organization; and third, sometimes even personal foes.

The police are most happy; they do not have to labour. In the court, the accused argue that they owned up to the crime because of police torture. In the absence of any material evidence, they are usually set free. If convicted, they spend a few months or a year in jail before being acquitted by a higher court. During their prison term, the respective organizations take care of their families, attending to their every need, including food, health and education. Further, in the case of the CPI(M), small-time employment in a party enterprise is often provided to the kith and kin of the convicted. All legal expenses are borne by the organization. The jails themselves are merely extended geographies of village politics. The central prison in northern Malabar has separate blocks for saffron and red prisoners. Portraits of leaders and slain activists adorn the cell walls. There was even an instance of political killing within the jail.


It is imperative that the highest leadership of the party undertakes a serious political-economic analysis of Kerala, explores how the composition of its state cadre has changed over time, and identifies the implications thereof for a programme of social change. The macro statistics of varied classes, as presented in routine organizational reports, is clearly not enough; the need for a close enquiry into the new class formations and processes is pressing. Lenin’s study of the development of capitalism in Russia and Mao’s analysis of the classes in Chinese society were attempts precisely in such a direction.


The new political processes have not spared the institutions of higher education either. Over the past few decades, the relations of power between the state and its universities have been substantially altered. In the late 1950s, if a vice chancellor sought an appointment with E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the then chief minister, he was told that it would be better if the chief minister called upon the vice chancellor. The office of the vice chancellor has long since ceased to command that kind of respect. Now it is rare for a genuine scholar to be appointed a vice chancellor. As soon as a position falls vacant, there is a long queue at the door of the party offices. If a Congress-led government rules, almost anyone, yes almost anyone, can be considered for the position. Besides caste and religion, cash too allegedly plays a role. The CPI(M) too is sensitive to considerations of caste and religion, but has a relatively better stock of intellectuals. Under its regime the most slavish of the lot are appointed. Incredible but true, when the party is ruling, the appointment of the vice chancellor requires the prior approval of the district committee!

Appointed under political tutelage, the vice chancellor is bound by the dictates of the party responsible for the appointment. The presumed internal check on the functioning of the vice chancellor is the Syndicate, a body whose majority members are nominated by the state government. The vice chancellor and the Syndicate thus become an extension of the ruling front. Consequently, despite clearly laid out rules and regulations, almost every administrative decision – whether relating to recruitment of administrative personnel, the appointment and promotion of faculty, eligibility for research supervision, granting of affiliation, recognition of research centres, award of grace marks, and many more – is influenced by extraneous considerations, personal or partisan.

While financial corruption is rampant in the state university system, it is academic corruption of varied kinds, which is far more devastating to the cause of higher education. Given the unenviable conditions in the state universities, there is a clamour for setting up a greater number of national centres of excellence within the state to elevate the quality of higher education. For instance, it is repeatedly pointed out that Kerala does not have an IIT. Good intentions apart, such thinking is sadly illusory: it misses the fact that islands of academic excellence with a large composition of non-local students can hardly make a difference to the larger question of improving the quality of higher education in Kerala. A clinching evidence of the abysmally low quality of higher education is the increasing flight of students to centres outside the state.


We have mostly looked at the nature and manner of Kerala’s biggest political organization, the CPI(M). On the other side of the political spectrum, led by the Congress-Muslim League-Kerala Congress front, the less said the best. Unlike the CPI(M) and its major ally the CPI, the Congress-led front has a longer tradition of institutionalized corruption. The new economic reform package of liberalization and privatization has come in handy for them. The front thinks in terms of mega projects of developmentalist corruption, like greenfield airports and express highways. The primary obligations of the government – such as solid waste management, public health, and maintenance of roads – strike its attention only when these assume crisis proportions. The ensuing efforts are either half-hearted or, more likely, enthusiastically turned into opportunities of rent seeking.

While both the electoral fronts seek to gratify communal parties and religious interests as a short cut to power, the Congress-led front has been more persistent and successful in doing this. Today, with the Congress-led government in power, though with a wafer-thin majority, the situation is such that the communal allies can coerce the Congress to concede to varied community demands. The truncated Nehruvian space in the Congress now faces extinction. While the BJP has yet to make it to the legislative assembly, its influence is growing rapidly as revealed by the fact that the BJP candidate in the most recent by-election – consequent to the CPI(M) legislator resigning from the party and the assembly to join the Congress – secured five-fold the number of votes as compared to the previous election.


To be realistic, the present situation offers little room for optimism for the traditional left. What does a communist party do when the old proletariat disappears? Which are the new sections whose problems the party should address? What are the ways of organizing them? The party, treading as it does the twin paths of corporatism and fascism, does not seem to care. Yet, despite the communist decay and other depressing signs, the sparks of a politics for change, a politics for another world too are evident, though admittedly scattered. The emergent sparks are mostly in the realm of the so-called new social movements. Certainly, in terms of politics, these are not new in Kerala. They continue the politics of the people, as evidenced by the early Congress and Communist workers, the people’s science activists, the neo-Gandhians, and the Maoist cultural workers, all displaying similar waves of energy and commitment.


What do the new social movements in Kerala stand for? These movements, more appropriately described as peoples’ struggles, resist the dumping of urban garbage in the rural neighbourhood, the usurping of Dalit colonies by the land mafia, the denial of cultivable land to the Dalits and Adivasis, the social insecurity of women, the eviction for ‘development’ projects, the non-availability and pollution of drinking water, the destruction of rivers, reclaiming fallow rice fields for non-agricultural purposes, the unjustified toll on new bridges and roads, the plunder of marine resources by trawlers, the industrial pollution of air and waters, the ravages of the sand and granite mafia, the degradation of forests and wetlands consequent to encroachment, development projects and tourism, the mining of radioactive mineral sands, and the aerial spraying of life-crippling pesticides. The oppressors too are varied and include private operators, be it the local mafia or the multinational corporation, civic governance authorities, and the state at large.

While the causes, the activists and the opponents are diverse, the connecting threads of these movements are striking. First, these movements have all expanded Kerala’s political agenda – from ‘exploitation of man by man’ to ‘exploitation of man by man directly and through destruction of environment.’ Second, none of the mainstream political organizations in the state show any interest in these struggles, except at the time of elections. Third, in sharp contrast with mainstream parliamentary politics, the presence of Dalits, Adivasis, and women is prominent in these struggles. Fourth, except for a few, there is no centralized leadership in these movements. Fifth, the activists include a large number who are fresh to politics, but also a few who are members of political organizations. Sixth, these struggles have gained greater media attention and are thus capable of securing wider support from within and, as a result of intervention of intellectuals, from outside the state. Seventh, despite their locality-specific nature, the concerns expressed through these struggles are universal. Finally, the struggles, even while scattered over varied sites, for varied causes, and with the participation of varied peoples, are united by a broad ideology – a vision of how they wish to see themselves, their neighbourhood, and the world.


Is another world really possible through these struggles? Kerala presents at least one such instance of apparent sustenance and growth. This is the struggle at Chengara by the landless Kuravas, under the leadership of the Sadhu Jana Vimochana Munnai (Poor People’s Liberation Front). The struggle appears to have drawn important lessons from the tribal struggle for land at Muthanga, led by the Adivasi Gotra Maha Sabha (Great Tribal Assembly). The Sabha had chosen a state reserve forest as the site of agitation, much to the wrath of environmentalists who otherwise had always sided with the Adivasis. It had pursued a path of violent conflict with the state – resulting in the killing of a tribal and a policeman – which further alienated many potential supporters. The killing of the policeman came in handy for the state to flush out activists from the occupied territory by unleashing terror.

At Chengara, in contrast, the struggling masses have taken charge of their lives. The landless families have occupied a part of the rubber plantation of the Harrisons Malayalam Company, a former sterling company now owned by the Goenka group. Despite being attacked by the estate labour unions, especially the CPI-led AITUC, the occupation was peaceful. Over the past five years about 1500 families have been settled on the occupied site. They have divided the occupied territory into plots of 50 cents for each family, the houses built through collective labour. The cultivable land is used for raising a variety of food crops which are first exchanged among themselves for their own consumption and the surplus marketed. Administratively, the whole area is divided into five zones, each managed by a committee of men and women. A school, a provision store, and a tea shop have been opened in the occupied territory, none of which are recognized by the state apparatus. As the houses are not legally recognized, they are deprived of electricity and water by the state. Therefore, wells have been dug for drinking water and irrigation and plans are afoot to obtain electricity from solar cells.

Even if scanty, there are signs of a politics of hope in the intellectual-cultural domain too. Concerned scholars have instituted a Kerala chapter of University Watch, a non-partisan organization that conducts a social audit of institutions of higher education. It works entirely through constitutional means, obtaining records under the Right to Information Act to explore the academic and financial improprieties in the state universities and research institutes. The organization also provides counsel to teachers and researchers who are harassed in their academic pursuit by the powers that be. Even amidst the collective-brutal silence of left intellectuals over the recent killing, there was a lone voice of the poet: ‘Why they too fall prey to the daggers they hire?’

A few swallows make no summer, but they do sing a politics of hope.