Last month, Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), suggested that “The Kerala government should learn from UP how to run hospitals.” Let the irony of this sink in: the head of the government of a state which is placed second last (among 17 major Indian states) in the Human Development Index (HDI) is asking the state which is placed at the top of the same index to learn from it regarding the health sector.
The issue here is not the political rhetoric (which does not, in any case, know any bounds in the present political climate). Instead, it is a larger one. It is illustrative of the narrative that is being constructed around Kerala in the national imagination by the forces of Hindu majoritarian nationalism.
Of course, the central government has, many a time, misused its powers to dismiss state governments constituted by opposing political parties – just as the communist government in Kerala was, in 1959, a critical moment in India’s democracy.
But here, it is not just about the political opposition. What is clearly visible is the hostility, both cultural and political, from a ruling dispensation (possibly, not seen before, except against Tamil Nadu during the anti-Hindi agitation, and against Punjab during the Khalistani movement). And crucially, this has been amplified by traditional media as well as social media networks doing the bidding for the dispensation.
A prominent television channel called the BJP president Amit Shah’s Kerala trip as a visit to ‘Thundery Pakistan‘. The backlash from many viewers forced the channel to apologise for the ‘inadvertent‘ mistake. Other such outlets, which have utterly-biased programmes on the killing of BJP/RSS political workers in Kerala, have also met with resistance from Malayali viewers and netizens.
Forwarded messages on WhatsApp and Facebook posts talk of Kerala’s ‘killing fields‘ and its ‘jihadi terror’ factories. And communism itself is often seen as supporting jihad or terrorism.
A few days ago, during a fact-finding mission for the Hadiya case, the chairperson of the National Commission for Women called the situation very grave – so far as forcible religious conversion of women (ostensibly with foreign funding) is concerned. Here, the Commission became a tool of the central government’s political agenda.
Why is this happening at present? The fundamental reason is that Kerala is the ‘last frontier’ for Hindutva and the Hindu nationalist project. MS Golwalkar, one of the central ideologues of Hindutva, and a former head of the RSS, argued that the threats that India faces are more internal than external. According to him, the three internal threats are:
Furthermore, he argues: “In this land, Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christians the dacoits.”
Astonishingly, Kerala has all the three ‘internal threats’ in substantial numbers – and among Indian states, it is unique in this demographical and ideological mix. This is what leads to the charged and motivated attacks against the state.
The systematic misinformation and propaganda unleashed about the political killings in Kerala is an example of this. As RTI data shows, between 2000-2016, there were 69 political murders in the Kannur district – the hotbed of clashes between CPM and BJP/RSS. There were 30 CPM workers killed, while 31 of these were BJP/RSS workers. For the whole of Kerala between 2006-17, the numbers were CPM: 50 and BJP-RSS: 44. This is a pattern that can be found right from the beginning of the conflict in the 1970s.
What is revealing here, and what has not been explored by the pliant media, is the question that how is it that the so-called ‘victim’, the BJP/RSS (a political force which is electorally insignificant in Kerala) is able to match the ‘perpetrator’, the CPM (which is the dominant political group and which enjoys power on and off) in this reprehensible cycle of violence? Despite the former’s weakness, these numbers clearly indicate that it is not a one-sided conflict.
While the killing of selected individuals intermittently (in which both sides are equally culpable) is termed as anarchy, and leads to a call for President’s Rule by BJP-Sangh Parivar in Kerala, riots in the BJP-ruled Haryana in the past few years, which have affected entire cities and have killed numerous people, do not elicit the same calls.
Another sleight of hand practised by the misinformation campaign is to draw a false equivalence between beef lynchings, killing of minorities and Dalits – and the killing of RSS/BJP workers, which are also portrayed as ‘anti-Hindu’. All these killings are abhorrent and have absolutely no place in a democracy. But innocent civilians being targeted just for their caste and religion cannot be the same phenomenon as a protracted and violent political conflict which involves only workers of the BJP-RSS and CPM (incidentally, many of the CPM workers killed are also Hindu).
While the political dimension of the conflict is certainly important to Hindu nationalism, the central battle is on the terrain of culture. That is why the cultural practices of Malayalis, like eating beef or festivals like Onam, are being relentlessly attacked. Beef is, of course, one of the principal discourses of the Hindutva cultural agenda – as we have seen in the last three years. And again, Kerala is the only major state where beef is not only consumed by the vast majority of the people, but also by the Hindu savarna castes.
Similarly, Onam, the festival that celebrates the return of Mahabali, the Asura king, who was banished by the Brahman Vamana (an avatar of Vishnu) by deceit, is antithetical to the Brahmanised notions of religion that Hindutva wants to propagate. Hence, it is not surprising that Amit Shah wishes people “Vamana Jayanti” on the eve of Onam – thereby generating huge resentment from the Malayalis, again.
आप सभी को “वामन जयंती” की हार्दिक शुभकामनाएं | pic.twitter.com/y4A5412mvM
— Amit Shah (@AmitShah) 13 September 2016
The importance of Onam is that it is a rare Hindu festival which is celebrated as a secular one by many religions. It is a ‘national festival‘ of Kerala, rather than being just a Hindu one – which again disturbs the notions of religious homogeneity and exclusivity pushed by Hindutva. Of course, while the myth surrounding Onam is about the just Asura king (who symbolised the non-Brahminical past), in the Kerala of today, it has been markedly savarna in its symbolism, especially concerning the vegetarianism.
Nevertheless, a crucial distinction still has to be made between the ‘upper-caste coding’ of Onam in Kerala (which still allows some plurality and liberating possibilities because of its original intent) and the Hindutva majoritarian nationalist project, which is displaying fascist tendencies. Furthermore, the upper-caste nature of Onam itself is not unchallenged. There are various appropriations of Onam like the celebration of the festival with meat dishes, or its celebration by the Dalit castes as a critique of the Brahminical order.
Finally, there is the aspect of development, which, along with politics and culture, becomes another point of the ‘othering’ of Kerala. But here, the Hindutva regime is at its weakest. If Adityanath’s statements are considered outrageous, they are not an aberration. Prime Minister Modi himself made the egregious equation of Kerala with Somalia. While Kerala is no utopia, especially regarding caste equality, it is the only Indian state with ‘high human development’ – while impoverished Somalia, racked by Western imperialism, has among the lowest human development indicators in the world.
This characterisation also has to do with the Hindutva regime’s propagation of Gujarat’s model as the model for Indian development, as compared to Kerala’s. This, despite the fact that, away from the media glare, Gujarat’s rank in the HDI has fallen from eight to 10 between 2007 and 2014. While the PM pits one state against the nation, the irony is that Kerala is the first state to become a digital state, the first to attain total banking, total primary education, providing electricity to all houses, and the third state to become open defecation free. Incidentally, all of these are also PM Modi’s pet projects.
Ultimately, Kerala’s plurality is a deep threat to the majoritarian nationalism and the monolithic, Brahminical Hinduism that the Hindutva regime wants to propagate. After all, the state’s successes in human development elicit the shortcomings in Hindutva’s economic model.
Without having societies like Kerala as its ‘anti-national other’, Hindutva (in its current form) loses its raison d’être.
A shorter version of the article was first published on The Hindu.
The author is Chair, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada. He tweets at @nmannathukkaren.