The mainstream narratives in connection with the recent Kerala deluge can be summarised in one of the ‘viral’ social media messages that had been circulated across the length and breadth of Kerala:
Kerala has encapsulated its self-acclaimed secular fabric through its cultural ritualistic practices like Onam, in which the death (and return) of the Dravida-avarna king Maveli was celebrated (and for some, it was the birth of the Brahman-Savarna avathar, Vamana). It was particularly through these cultural affirmations that the diverse religious communities of Kerala have constituted themselves as an ‘imagined community’ of Malayalis. It is again the annual festive time for Onam in Kerala. However unlike past times, this Onam had actually aroused the spirit of Malayaliness, and not just in rhetoric. It was mainly the deluge that hit Kerala that allowed the community not just to imagine, but to live as a coherent group. The unprecedented havoc for the present generation cut across all regional and religious barriers. It was the spirit and brave effort so many Malayalis that allowed the state to negotiate with the nadir point of its history.
However dwelling on the nuances of the event, one might perceive a slightly more diverse and complicated panorama. It is for certain that, in the aftermath of deluge, there will be discourses that ascertain the differential treatments reserved for the survivors, both on a religious and political party basis. Similarly one needs to highlight the silence of mainstream narratives on how the floods affected the life and livelihood of a fairly large number of migrant workers (especially the Bengalis) in Kerala. There also seems to be a need to highlight the mentalities of Keralites responding to the crisis. Though major parts of Kerala were hit, there were places which were completely untouched; in the latter, normal Malayali life continued, from celebrating marriages, to Baptisms, to drinking parties, to club meetings. Now when it comes to the former, there were complaints of fund appropriations, and complaints about the Thrissur Bar associations not giving out their hall for rescue operations. The mentalities of the rescue supporters is diverse, from Jaisal (the fisherman who touched the hearts of millions) to Rahul Cheru Palayattu (now infamous for his insensitive comments). But if there is one monolithic narrative that we can build up, it is none other than the brave rescue efforts of the fishing community of Kerala.
It is beyond a tinge of doubt that the unflinching determination that poured out of the fishing community allowed Kerala to get back on its feet. Apart from religio-community distinctions, most of them belonged to the ‘lower’ sections of society, in terms of both money and power assertions (and, until last month, socially inferior, too, in the minds of the rest of the Kerala population).
Society must be conscious of the need to pay homage to this community. But for many of us who are students of social sciences, it is our primary duty to analyse the meta-narrative in these discourses. One can argue that the elevation of the fishing community to the status of ‘superheroes’ is nothing but a reflection of the Indian fetishism for hero worship. We, who still hold faith in the ‘great men’ of our history, keep on banking on ‘great’ individuals to rise above their circumstances to act as godly saviours. The identification of Modi and the ‘Gujarat model’ of development as the future of India is only one such example.
Hero worship prevents us from seeing many nuanced, underlying facts, which leads to the construction of a reality of our own, in which collective amnesia is a prerequisite. In the present main stream narratives on floods, there is the construction of the ‘other’ for the fishing community (as if they came from Mars to help the people of Earth). It is clear that they were just helping out their own people, out of their own sense of humanity. However, we, the people of the mainland, reciprocated by offering them ₹3000 a day (a fee which was politely declined by the fisherfolk).
This ‘other’ is now engulfed in a new role of being a ‘hero’ or ‘saviour’; not only for the present, but also for a similar crisis, should it come up in the future. The mentality that emerged was that they are, after all, fishers, and they are supposed to take action during a water-borne crisis. If the idea is normalised over a period of time, it may become obligatory on the part of the fishing community to act on a bigger scale on future crises, something similar to the caste obligations of the pre-modern (but also present) days.
However the most dangerous outcome of the above mentioned visualisation is that it diminishes the urge for the establishment of a rapid rescue team in Kerala, which ought to be structured on modern professional training. This attitude again points out to the perception of this natural calamity as an accident. However in reality it should have been seen as the outcome of the particular development employed by the Kerala state, especially post-Independence. The inadequacies and the inefficiencies of the development agenda of Kerala was comfortably diminished for the creation of the teleological time for the State.
At this juncture of time we need to introspect on the discipline of social sciences in India, in general, and Kerala in particular. The above mentioned societal mentalities are connected to the very discipline of social science itself. Firstly, social science as discipline is neglected. Discourses which are supposed to arouse sensitivity and the desire to uplift all sections of people (to constitute an enlightened humanity) are always given only a concubine status in India. Recently, with the triumph of many Malayalis in civil service examinations, the popularity for social science subjects has increased. However, the scope of dealing with the subject was limited to competitive exams. But what the times demand is the enlargement of social sciences to engage in a crisis period with a touch of humanity.
Secondly, we need to highlight the epistemological limitation of the discipline of History itself. The present historiographical traditions are largely limited to political (or, at the maximum, cultural) narratives. History, rather than being a means to an end, is merely limiting to being an end in itself. By analysing our past, the primary duty of History as a discipline is to maximise our control of the present, and thorough it, of the future too. However History, in that sense, couldn’t arouse a historical consciousness about environmental degradation, in general, and ‘the Kerala flood of 1099’ (1099 in Malayalam era is the 1924 Common Era), in particular. Had our historical knowledge allowed us to be conscious of the limits of environmental exploitation, Kerala would never have rejected the Madhav Gadgil report, or had it been able to arouse a collective memory of ‘the Kerala flood of 1099’, rescue operations would have been much easier.
In short, what the times demand from the social science discipline is to shift away from its conventional or traditional outlook (which has so far fixated on political chronology or wars or personalities) to a much more historical sociology, with due emphasis on environmental history.
Hence, let us give birth to a hero out of this Kerala deluge, which is none other than the discipline of social science itself. To be specific, it shouldn’t be the one which was buried centuries ago, but the one which is always evolving to cater to the present day needs of our society. Again it is through this social science discipline that we can pay our real homage to the fishing communities of Kerala.
The history of Kerala is, by and large, dominated by the story of the mid-lands and the plains. Correspondingly, the story of the adivasis of the hill tracts and the fisherfolk of oceanic regions have been missed out. Let the story of these subalterns be narrated in the future social science discourses. Through that academic exercise, lets us transcend the dichotomy of ‘self’ and ‘other’.