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Memory's Fatal Lure: The Left, the Congress and 'Jeevan' in Kerala

The raging controversy in Kerala over the "secularism" content in one chapter of a school textbook brings back memories of similar controversies from the 1950s. Caste groups are protesting in defence of upper caste interests and religious organisations are angry at what they see as the state government crossing the limits in a discussion of secularism. On the other side, the spirit of rationalism which was earlier espoused by the radical anti-caste reformers is missing; now even the left has had to accommodate the demands of the powerful community organisations.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 26, 200813public to calm down. They led massive peace rallies. Little space was left for reporting the plight of those poor families whosenearones had died or those who were lying in hospitals. There was no effort in the media to mobilisepublic opinion to take action against the culprits of this crime. In fact, as already men-tioned, the media collaborated in divert-ing attention to SIMI involvement.ConclusionsThe July 3 Bharat bandh for Amarnath shrine land was only an excuse. Any odd excuse can cause a flare-up in Indore. And every new flare-up makes the situation more volatile. Indore is indeed a mini-Gujarat in the making. The Muslims are insecure. They cluster together and seek shelter in the religious infrastructure whether it is Friday namaz or sending their children to madrasas. At the same time, the Muslim youth is restive and desperate.The Hindu right wing has many suffi-ciently well-organised squads of young activists who are ready to cause mayhem anywhere at a very short notice. No one dares to resist them. The administration and media offer support with impeccable loyalty to the ruling party’s political agenda. The educated and elite Hindu middle class is complacent, rabidly anti-Muslim and anti-reservation. The rest of the Hindu community (the poor and the lower caste) is silent. This silent majority has no opinion, primarily because it has no confidence that its opinion matters anywhere.It is of utmost urgency that the secular space be recovered. Politics has to be neces-sarily wrenched from the domain of caste and religious divides so that the meaning-ful agenda of development, employment and equitable growth comes on the centre stage. One hopes that the civil society groups and the left parties, and secular forces from other political and non-political parties/organisations will come together and take up this ambitious task without losing any time. One hopes that sufficient confidence can be instilled in the silent majority. It can then claim its democratic space and declare, “We will not allow Madhya Pradesh to become another Gujarat”.Memory’s Fatal Lure: The Left, the Congress and ‘Jeevan’ in KeralaJ DevikaThe raging controversy in Kerala over the “secularism” content in one chapter of a school textbook brings back memories of similar controversies from the 1950s. Caste groups are protesting in defence of upper caste interests and religious organisations are angry at what they see as the state government crossing the limits in a discussion of secularism. On the other side, the spirit of rationalism which was earlier espoused by the radical anti-caste reformers is missing; now even the left has had to accommodate the demands of the powerful community organisations.The spectre of 1958 has been haunt-ing Kerala since June. These are troubled times, even otherwise, for the left. A massive ongoing struggle involving some 7,500 landless families at Chengara in south-west Kerala, demand-ing the redistribution of productive land to the landless, is forcing the left to re-examine its self-image as the left. The happy days of the 1980s when all Mala-yalees, especially those of us on the left, basked in the credit for social develop-ment, seem so far away. There was once a time, in the mid-20th century, when Kerala suffered the dubious fame of being “the problem state”. However, in the 1970s, the state was lifted up, almost Cinderella-like, from the sooty and dingy confines of “economic backward-ness” and “political instability” into the shining heavens of international develop-ment discourse. The glass slipper of social development fitted Kerala very well indeed; it became the desirable model, in politics and development, for the third world.But now we have been rudely awak-ened: historical memory may be short, but we have been forced to remember. Most recently because a tiresome controversy over a lesson in the seventh-standard text-book for government schools brings back memories of similar controversies and coalitions from the 1950s.Textbook ControversyThe “textbook controversy” erupted in mid-June this year, over the lesson titled ‘Jeevan Who Has No Religion’, designed as a conversation between the father of Jeevan, the child of a Muslim father and a Hindu mother and the headmaster of a school. Jeevan is to be admitted to the school, but the headmaster finds that no religion has been mentioned in his application. Father answers the headmas-ter’s query, saying that Jeevan has no reli-gion as of then. He reminds the anxious headmaster that his son is free to choose his religion later, when he grows up. The lesson also includes excerpts from Jawaha-rlal Nehru’s will, which reveals his distance from religious ritual – and quotes from the teachings of Guru Nanak and the prophet. The present public outrage over this short lesson has been led by the cream of the political opposition in the state – the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the powerful caste-community organi-sations – the organised Catholic church, the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Muslim organisations. Since mid-June, these J Devika ( is at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.
COMMENTARYjuly 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly14groups have been accusing the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led government of spreading “godlessness” and “preaching the futility of religion” – immediately iden-tified as “communist ideology” – in increas-ingly shrill and belligerent tones. For upper caste organisations like the NSS, the text-book was filled with “casteist feeling”, and distorted “historical facts”. The opposition demanded the immediate withdrawal of the “objectionable textbook”. In the Kerala state legislative assembly, the minister for education, M A Baby of theCPi(M), rejected the demand to with-draw the book, but agreed to have the dis-puted portions examined by an expert committee. This did not appease the protestors; even as Baby was promising a re-look at the disputed portions, the “strug-gle” had intensified on the streets in violent protests. The Kerala Students’ Union of the Congress, already on hunger strike, inten-sified it; the Muslim Students’ Federation, agitating in Malappuram, burnt bundles of some 14,000 textbooks snatched from a nearby government book depot in pro-test against “anti-religious textbooks filled with communist ideologies”. Meanwhile, experts of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan strongly defended the lesson, claiming that it was well within the na-tional curriculum framework. In Kerala “cultural leaders” had by then arrayed on both sides: the cultural wing of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee criticised the lesson, while that of the CPi(M) de-clared that it would organise meetings throughout the state to defend it. The leftist teachers’ union defended the les-son, while its rightist counterparts decried it. Some members of the Kerala curricu-lum committee held a press conference in which they alleged that the controversial lesson was not discussed in the committee meetings. “Anti-religious textbooks” were roundly condemned after Sunday mass in the state’s Catholic churches (though Prot-estants have not found anything objec-tionable), and in mosques as well. The Catholic and Muslim schools declared that the lesson will not be taught. In contrast, dalit groups have supported the textbook.Committee RecommendationsIn July, the violent street protests and counter-protests continued to paralyse daily life and the government moved to appoint an 18-member expert committee chaired by K N Panikkar. The Congress and others rejected the committee as a farce “packed with Marxist fellow- travellers” and appointed their own rival committee. However, the full implications of stoking such embers became apparent when two village panchayats controlled by the Indian Union Muslim League in Malappuram district adopted resolutions that the controversial lesson need not be taught in the schools falling within their limits. The state government moved against these panchayats through the om-budsman. Protests continued but it seemed as though the Congress had begun to feel uneasy about the strident communal over-tones the “struggle” was taking. On July 10, the leader of the opposition, Oommen Chandy gave “five reasons” for their rejection of the textbook – now it was the “substandard” quality of the textbook, compared to the Central Board of Secon-dary Education textbook that is its major fault. Also important was its apparent denigration of the national movement and “unfair” upping of communist stru-ggles. The technical grounds were also moreimportant now: biases in the selec-tion of curriculum committee members, the violation of the rules and procedures, and lack of transparency in the process of curriculum formation were alleged. Fur-ther, news reports of M A Baby’s meeting with Arjun Singh in New Delhi indicated that the Congress leadership there may not be equally willing to press the “religion-at-risk” line. By this time the textbook controversy hit the blogs and many new generation Malayalee bloggers found fault with the textbook not for its alleged disrespect for religion, but for its “commie” inclinations – its concern for social justice and apparent failure to hail the achievements of Mukesh Ambani.So, until last week it appeared that the education minister M A Baby was deter-mined to defend the lesson. It appeared as though the left was fighting to retain the spirit of radical rationalism espoused by radical anti-caste reformers like Sahodaran K Ayyappan, who had empha-sised not just the questioning of religious faith, but also of the practices which bol-stered boundaries between communities, such as endogamy. In other words, it all looked too good to be true – given that the left’s anti-caste strategy never included a direct and determined attack on endogamy. However, the recommendations ofthe K N Panikkar Committee brought the hopes of radical rationalists crashing down; it gave away so much ground that the Congress has indeed won much of what it sought. The K N Panikkar Committee recom-mended that the title of the controversial chapter should be changed to ‘Freedom of Faith’, thus eliminating reference to or-ganised religion; it recommended replac-ing the portion from Nehru’s will with an extract from his speech on secularism. Jeevan’s name and those of his parents, which suggest a Muslim-Hindu marriage, are to be removed, and Sree Narayana Guru’s sayings on religion and harmony are to be included. Further, the revised lesson will indicate the Indian Constitution’s support to “religious freedom”. The committee has also recommended changes in the list of books prescribed for additional reading. Concessions were also made about the Training Course onResearch Methodology in Social Sciences(September 9 to 18, 2008)Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research, UJJAIN (MP) invites applications from young social scientists, University/College teachers, and research scholars for participating in a ten days Training Course on Research Methodology in Social Sciences from September 9 to 18, 2008 with the financial assistance of Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi. The objectives of this course are to help participants acquire intensive knowledge and understanding appertaining to the research methodology in social sciences. Applications are invited on or before 20 August, 2008. Lodging, boarding and travel will be arranged by the organizers. Applications may be sent to Dr. Yatindra Singh Sisodia, Senior Fellow & Course Coordinator, Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research, 6 Bharatpuri Administrative Zone, UJJAIN (M.P.) Phone: 0734-2510978, Cell: 094253-80127 E-mail:
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 26, 200815lesson introducing students to caste ine-qualities in Kerala’s past.Death of the HeadmasterThese recommendations did not placate the opposition. The protests turned vio-lent and ugly: at Malappuram, protests by the activists of the Muslim Youth League in front of schools hosting cluster meet-ings of teachers ended in the death of James Augustine, the headmaster of a pri-mary school at Areekode, a member of the Congress teachers’ union, after being roughed up by protestors. Protests and counter-protests continue; the left student and youth organisations called for a schoolboycott and strike on July 21. It appeared as though the opposition, which was waning in strength last week, now smelt blood. However, the killing of James Augustine seems to have destroyed all the gains notched up by the Congress. That the death of an innocent man – a schoolteacher – has been caused by pro-tests against “state secularism” in the name of religion and piety, and after the protestors had won much ground – is a terrible irony indeed, and it will not be lost upon Kerala’s reading public.Nevertheless, why did the Congress zero in on a potentially inflammatory issue in the first place? The Congress’ present move is, as we say in Malayalam, like curing an itch on one’s scalp with a burning twig. There is nothing in the much-derided ‘Jeevan Who Has No Religion’ that goes against the Kerala government’s pub-licly-proclaimed official position on reli-gion and access to schooling. A Kerala gov-ernment circular issued in 1962 when the Congress was in power in response to a complaint that headmasters are refusing to admit pupils if parents do not furnish de-tails of their religion clearly says that this cannot be a ground to refuse admission: Every person has the right to have his non-religious faith or no faith and so there should not be any compulsion to furnish the information on religion if the person concerned does not wish to furnish it (KER G O (P) No 99/62, 7.2, 1962). Moreover, Congress ministers have, in the past, defended prescribed reading in high schools from charges of obscenity and irreligiousness: in 1963-64, during Congress rule, when the CongressMLA K M George opposed the introduction of Kesavadev’s novel Odayil Ninnu (From the Gutter) as non-detailed reading in the 10th standard syllabus, it was defended by the chief minister, R Sankar.Liberation Struggle MemoriesPerhaps it is memory’s fatal lure. This year, it may be noted, is the 50th anniver-sary of the first of the many textbook con-troversies in Kerala, in 1958, which was part of the political build-up towards the infamous “liberation struggle”, which cul-minated in the resignation of the first communist ministry. Maybe the opposi-tion’s effort, despite present misgivings within the Congress, is to build an anti-communist coalition similar to the one that successfully ousted the communists in 1959. If so, the Congress must be reminded that certain crucial pieces are missing. First of all, the liberation struggle succeeded because of a specific configura-tion of communal forces and interests. TheNSS, representing the politically and economically powerful nair community, did join in the shrill chorus in 1958 against the inclusion of the “obscene, anti-religious” writings of Vaikam Muhammed Basheer, one of Malayalam’s finest literary lights, in the school curriculum. The NSS stalwart Mannath Padma-nabhan declared that if Velu Thampi, the early 19th century nair dewan of the princely state of Travancore, were in power, Kerala’s first minister for education Joseph Mundassery would have been burnt at the stake for his choice of school lessons! However, it was the passing of the Kerala Agricultural Relations Bill of 1958, per-ceived as a threat to nair landholding inter-ests that prompted NSS and other upper castes to swing decisively in favour of the anti-communist liberation struggle – and this ensured its victory. These days, how-ever, the left is not so forbidding; it holds no such threats to entrenched powers. Whatever be the rhetorical pronounce-ments, the past 10 years have seen the roll-ing back of the leftist agenda of radical redistribution. Secondly, in the 1950s, the communists were publicly sceptical of reli-gious faith. In 1957, nine out of 11 members of the communist ministry refused to take the name of god in the oath of office; this was headline news in the religious press. Such fervour hardly exists now; in any case not to the extent that could justifiably provoke acts of self-defence by religious groups. Even the recent “militant action” against “false sanyaasis” led by the CPi(M) youth wing spared the big players to swoop down on small fry. Nor are the communists averse to ritual anymore; indeed they are willing to adopt upper caste rituals. Last March, the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Kerala objected to what it identified as “sexual anarchy” in the conduct of certain persons who took part in a night-vigil in Thiruvananthapuram supporting the ongoing land struggle at Chengara. A few days after the event, lead-ing AIDWA members “purified” the sidewalk where the night-vigil had been organised, sweeping and sprinkling the spot with cow-dung water, like true ‘savarna’ women. Thus it isnot easy, anymore, to paint the communists in the colours of rationalism and anti-caste atheism. Thirdly, the larger context has changed – the cold war that justified all-out attack on communists from the Catholic side does not exist any-more. Even the local political context in which one could portray the enmity of the Catholic church and the communists as approximating a propertied vs non-proper-tied divide is long gone. So it appears that the Congress chose to catch the proverbial tiger’s tail in a situation in which the political differences between the left and the right have become almost non-existent.Choice of FaithHowever, the same may not be said about the fury of community interests about the lesson. The NSS, of course, is clear in its defence of upper caste interests. The rage of the organised church and the Muslim organisations is, however, more complex. According to them, the government had already over-stepped the limits of “secu-larism” when it inserted a discussion on faith in a school textbook. The lesson dis-turbs the near-total monopoly these inter-ests hold in spiritual matters, which allows them to collapse “religion”, “community” and “faith”. The lesson’s approval of free choice of faith by individuals is perceived as a threat precisely because these forces fear the democratisation of religious faith most. And we know that the free choice of faith
COMMENTARYjuly 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly16is not merely the passing of individuals from one faith to another. The person who freely chooses her faith does not merely move from submission to one set of reli-gious authorities and texts to another; often the move is towards a self-constructed faith, most often perceived as offering greater self-fulfilment. More often than not, this self-constructed version may be at loggerheads with the official, institu-tionalised version. Indeed, we have seen this before, and not too long ago – in the acceptance of Islam by one of Kerala’s most brilliant minds, Kamala Das. Kamala Suraiyya, as she was known later, was welcomed by many leaders of the Muslim community. Yet, it was clear soon that even as she defended her faith before those who condemned her for hav-ing left the “freedom” of nair womanhood, she would not submit to entrenched au-thority. No wonder then that entrenched powers fear free choice of faith. No won-der then that the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference, in the same month of June, called upon the wives of the community to breed more of the faithful. The falling birth rate, which points towards the con-cern over minority status, was the stated reason. The unstated reason is that this helps the shepherds. Those born into the faith are easier to control than those who choose to enter it. The ezhava community organisation, the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), however, does not support the agitation – it may be im-portant to remember that the Congress chief minister R Sankar, who silenced his colleagues in 1962, reminding them that “legislators should not be nervous touch-me-nots”, was a leading figure in the SNDP.And no wonder that the left has bent backward to accommodate the demands of the powerful communities. The left in Kerala has never been a determined cham-pion of intercaste marriages; as scholars have pointed out, the Congress-Communist Party of India consensus on school text-books has always granted centrality to the Indian nation and polycommunalism in Indian history – and so M A Baby’s claim that the lesson conformed to the national curriculum framework may have indeed been somewhat off the mark. The present class VII textbook went beyond this con-sensus – it seemingly questioned the poly-communal framework in ‘Jeevan the Creed-less’; it destabilised the centrality of the national movement and the Indian nation by bringing in caste questions and peasant struggles. The latter should have been of more concern to the Congress; and it in-deed made a weak effort to foreground the apparent demotion of the national move-ment in the textbook. However, its failure to shift the focus of attention only reflects the extent of its dependence on caste-com-munity organisations in Kerala. In sum, once again we are reminded that Kerala, for all the hype around its “human devel-opment”, is still not ready for Sahodaran K Ayyappan. And that it is a fatal flaw in the left’s hegemony in Kerala –that its criticism of religious faith was not bolste-red by political work to break down com-munity boundaries – which allows the spectre of 1958 to haunt Kerala even now.[Readers can post their comments on this article in the blog section of the EPW web site. The blog will be open until August 5.]

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