Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Seeds of Communalism

Coastal Tension in Kerala: Two

The famed Kerala model of development had an ugly underside: The egalitarian social model that made the State quite popular among development economists had left a few islands of poverty and penury untouched and among them were the tribal people in the hills and the fisher community in the coasts. Both of them had been ignored by the development process, resulting in disastrous consequences in the course of time. It is not by accident that some of the most violent clashes in Kerala society had been witnessed in these two social segments, sharply brought into focus in recent years by the Muthanga adivasi struggles in Wayanad and the Maradu communal carnage in the northern coastal village.

The Kerala model of development was a creditable achievement for a third world society because it ensured the first world standards in human development indices like health care, education, male-female ratio, longevity, etc, even though in matters of economic development Kerala was a laggard like any other third world economy. Amartya Sen, writing on the Kerala experience, has pointed out that Kerala—despite its low income level—has achieved more than even some of the most admired high-growth economies such as South Korea and China. But economists had been concerned about the dismal state of affairs in stimulating economic growth. Kerala’s performance in that sphere has been quite dismal, even compared with other Indian states, Amartya Sen pointed out.

The regional imbalances in social sector indices were another major problem: The coastal region and the hills have been largely untouched. A study on the Hindu fisher community of Dheevaras in mid-nineties said that the literacy level in the community was 84 per cent at a time when the state was celebrating its achievement of total literacy. In higher education, the performance of this fisher community was much poor compared with other backward communities. The literacy level of the other predominant coastal community, the Muslims, also remained comparatively low.

Scholars who have made studies on this aspect of social inequality in Kerala have said that the artisanal fisherfolk who constituted about 85 per cent of the fisher people, had been, socially and politically, a forgotten group. While the peasants, workers and landless labourers were organized into trade unions and other progressive political formations, such a progressive and secular social organization was conspicuous by its absence in the coastal region. Jona Halfdanardottir, a Netherlands scholar, in a study on social mobilization of fishers in Kerala, has observed that political parties, left and right, neither showed any interest in mobilization work in the fishing villages nor did they react on the fisherfolk’s problems.

This political vacuum was eventually filled by communal organizations, slowly dominating the life of the fisher people. In the southern parts of Kerala, where the Latin Catholics were the major fisher community, the work of organizing them was undertaken by the Church and Church-sponsored voluntary organizations while in the north, where the Hindu dheevaras and Muslims were dominant, it fell on the shoulders of the Hindu communal outfits like the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and various Muslim organizations.

As the secular parties refrained from organizing the fisher people, the coastal social life became a hotbed of communal politics. It was tragic in many ways because the fisher people, through generations, had developed their own effective systems of self-governance which would have emerged as the natural centres of secular social and political organization. But what happened was the eventual destruction of such organic structures by the invasion of these new forces. A classic example is the gradual disappearance of a community-based quasi-judicial mechanism known as kadakkoties or sea courts which had been vibrant in the entire northern coast from Chavakkad to Mangalore. These courts had been adjudicating all kinds of maritime disputes in the community and their verdicts were accepted by all, irrespective of their social rank or community, as noted by V K Prabhakaran, of Chombala near Vatakara, who had studied the functioning of these courts. These courts which had boat-owners of each turai, or the beach village, as its members had jurisdiction on all disputes relating to the sea. They had their own ways of taking evidence, cross questioning the witnesses, making appeals to a higher court, etc, and they had enjoyed a measure of legitimacy during the British administration as the civil authorities in Malabar had accepted their rulings in maritime disputes.

But after Independence, the new authorities failed to take note of the special nature of the problems of the people in the coastal region, leaving them to the care of the revenue and police authorities on the one hand and religious groups and communal organizations on the other. This tendency was evident even in the mid-fifties when the Church and community leaders were successful in rallying the fisher people in the ‘Liberation Struggle’ against the first Communist Ministry led by EMS Namboodiripad in 1958-59. Jona Halfdanardottir says that the Catholic Church and the organizations of high caste Nairs mounted violent agitations against intended reforms in agrarian and school systems bringing the fisher-folk into the streets. This was the first phase of fisher-folk’s politicization through communal organizations, which later took stronger roots. This politicization is described as “purely communal in character stimulated by Catholic priests safeguarding the interests of the Church and the vested order.”

In the 70s and 80s a new group of priests, some of them inspired by the Latin American liberation theology, came to work in the southern beaches and they took up a series of struggles for the uplift of the fisher people’s lives. At present there are around a dozen non-governmental organizations working among the Catholic fisher community in the southern beaches from Ernakulam to Thiruvananthapuram. Most of them receive funds from international agencies and were accused of partisan and communal campaigns. Recent tsunami relief operations were an eye opener as religious and caste-based charity organizations overshadowed the governmental efforts and their style of operations served to segregate the society with a community or caste based approach in the selection of beneficiaries. Moreover, a number of important functionaries of some fishermen organizations were accused of swindling funds made available for tsunami relief efforts.

Though trade unions were not very powerful among the fisher people, an independent trade organization, the Kerala State Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation (KMSTF) was launched in 1980 with support from the Latin Catholic Church. Many of the important functionaries of the organization were Church representatives, and the leadership had been accused of taking a partisan position on many issues. In fact, Eugene Kulas, a key functionary of the federation, had resigned from its leadership alleging that the dominant Church-sponsored leadership was preventing a genuine leadership from among the ordinary fisher people emerging to take over the reins of the organization. The federation had faced a split in its ranks over the control of the Church hierarchy in its decision-making and activities. The communal divide in the south is evident at Vizhinjam and Poonthura beaches in Thiruvananthapuram, where the Christian and Muslim fisher people now live as separate communities, their areas of operation demarcated by a virtual no-man’s land in between. If any one trespasses this boundary, beaches go up in flames as a series of incidents in recent years have proved.

In the north, where the Muslims and Hindu Dheevaras are the dominant communities in fisher villages, the social life is controlled by the Sangh Parivar organizations like the RSS among the Hindus and the Jama-at committees among the Muslims. The social divisions in Maradu beach, where more than a dozen people were killed in two incidents of communal clashes in 2002 and 2003, gives a graphic picture of the way the two communities are divided into separate compartments in the same beach.

The Maradu beach forms part of two wards of the Beypore panchayat, a traditionally left dominated area in Kozhikode. The fisher village is separated from the mainstream by a road, the Old Maradu Road. Those who live on the western side of the road are fisher people, both Muslim and Hindu and those who inhabit the eastern side are non-fishermen who eke out a living through other vocations. Though those who live on both sides of the road fall into the same economic category, a huge social wall divides them: on the beaches it is the politics of communalism that rules the society while on the eastern side it is the mainstream secular politics that dominate the people’s daily life. The economic activities of the Hindu fisher people in Maradu are controlled by the Araya Samajam, who provides loans to all its members at very low interest for procuring speed boats or new gadgets like nets. On the other hand, the Jama-at committee and the Muslim mosque committee, who enjoy financial support from their community members in the Gulf, are able to give interest-free loans to their members. Thus the communal organizations are in a position to dictate the terms of social life in the beaches. Dr K N Ganesh, of the department of history of Calicut University, who did a sociological study on Maradu after the carnage in 2002, has pointed out that the secular space in their life has been squeezed out as even cultural and sports organizations were marginalized and their activities taken over by communal outfits. In Maradu the first carnage took place after some minor incidents between the youths of different communities during a football match, and the cycle of events proved that even the places of worship of both communities had become hotbeds of communal campaigns. In fact, a huge cache of arms were seized by the police from the local mosque immediately after the second carnage and there is strong evidence that a wide section of the community was involved in the criminal conspiracy that went on for many months.

The breakdown of social relations in Maradu, where members of both communities were living next door to each other, is a heart-breaking tale. As the assault took place in which nine persons were killed in the span of just half an hour, eight of them Hindus, all the Muslim families had to flee for their lives. Around 400 Muslim families from Maradu had to live in relief camps for many months before they were able to return to their homes. When they came back they saw their homes ransacked, every household article destroyed or looted in an orgy of wanton destruction indulged in by their own neighbours.

But this breakdown of social and community relations is not the handiwork of the communal forces alone. It is the failure of the secular forces at the political level and the deliberate policy options exercised by these authorities at the economic level that left these poorest sections of Kerala society to their own fate. To understand the real tragedy, we will have to look at the impact of the economic policies on the life of the people, throwing them into a situation of desperation and bitterness. They were the abandoned children of Kerala’s famed model of development, left behind to fight for the little crumbs coming their way.

(Originally published at

No comments: