In the last few months, Kerala has been witness to disturbing incidents related to women, their entry to a temple, diktats of religion, caste and so on. Has Kerala changed? To put it differently, can religion be politicised even in this state?
When Swami Vivekananda reached Thiruvananthapuram on December 13, 1892 and spent time with the royal family, it was an unplanned visit. For him, this journey through Kerala was shocking. Vivekananda’s original plan was to visit Mysore, and then Madras, and end his tour of India in Rameswaram.
Who was responsible for changing Swami Vivekananda’s original travel plan? Dr Palpu, a medical practitioner in Bangalore who had a degree from Madras and had also studied in Europe. He was not allowed to take up the medical profession in Kerala because he belonged to the “untouchable” caste — Ezhava. In Bangalore, Palpu got an opportunity to meet the Swami and explain to him the prevalence of the horrific caste system in his state. At Palpu’s request, Vivekananda cancelled his travel plans to Rameswaram and went to Kanyakumari, travelling by train, bullock cart and boat from the north to the south of Kerala. While in Thrissur, he was eager to visit the Kodungallur temple. But even after waiting for three days, Vivekananda was not allowed to visit the temple mainly because his caste was not clear to the temple authorities. Referring to the dehumanising caste system, Swami Vivekananda said that Kerala is a lunatic asylum, a mad house of casteism. His criticism became a talking point all over the world.
More than 125 years have passed since the Swami’s visit. Over the years, Kerala saw radical social change because of two factors: One, the people were exposed to global society and two, education became the primary driving force in society. The floodgates were opened when Rani Parvathi Bayi declared on June 17, 1817, in Travancore that all children must go to school and the cost of their education will be borne by the state.
As Amartya Sen puts it: “The totality of foreign exposure, including Christian, Jewish and Islamic elements, drawn from the Arab world and the Mediterranean, side by side with indigenous Hindu, Jain and Buddhist ancestry, must have had its impact on this part of India. Tolerant pluralism is itself an educational influence, and by opening the door to other people and other cultures, a host society remains alive to learning from other traditions and other ways of living, including the uses of education and schooling elsewhere.”
Kerala began to feel the impact of these twin factors through Palpu, Sree Narayana Guru, Chattampi Swamikal, Ayyankali, Mannathu Padmanabha Pillai and others from all castes and religions. The radical changes towards a secular ethos were evident when Sree Narayana Guru said: “One caste, one religion, one God for all.” No one attacked him; on the contrary, he became a hero. His ideas led to the people of Kerala travelling all over the country and beyond; a growth in radical writings and an efflorescence in the cultural sphere, especially in theatre and cinema, followed. The novels, stories and writings of thinkers led Malayalees to become a debating, argumentative community. No one was a “victim” of radical thinking.
When Vayalar Ramavarma wrote in a Malayalam song, that “man created the religions, religions created the gods; and man, religions and gods together shared the land, they shared the mind”, he was not attacked — instead he became a well known poet. K J Yesudas sang this song for the film Achanum Bappayum in 1972, which reverberated across Kerala.
All this was made possible by a sense of community which began to be forged centuries ago. This community bonding led to secularisation. That is, Kerala is not bound in the iron frame of a religious or caste “community”. The secular identity is strong in Kerala.
Kerala has been transformed over the years and is viewed as an icon of secularism and socialism. Two events that have occurred since 1980 are acid tests of secular Kerala.
First, there was a serious conflict between Hindus and Christians over Nilakkal, where according to the Christian tradition, St Thomas, disciple of Jesus, built a church in the first century. There a cross was said to be found and it soon disappeared. This sparked serious communal tension in March 1983. There was a war cry from a section of a Hindu organisation to save the Nilakkal temple and church leaders wanted to save Nilakkal for Christians. This dispute went to the extent of some predicting that the cross found and lost would become the crucifixion of Kerala’s communal harmony. But there was no violence; not a drop of blood was shed and after eight months, the social fabric of Kerala regained its original texture.
The second was the 1987 election to the Kerala Assembly when the BJP-Hindu Munnani (Front) claimed that communalism had entered the state. They contested 122 seats out of 138 in the state with the support of a section of resourceful, upper-caste Hindus. But the people of Kerala elected the Left Democratic Front and the BJP-Hindu Munnani could not win even a single seat.
Swapan Dasgupta, writing about electioneering in Kerala in The Statesman (March 18, 1987) stated that in Kerala, “the gulf between politics and social relations is striking”. The state now finds itself at a critical juncture. God’s own country can’t afford to fail.