Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Making of Modern Kerala

The Making of Modern Kerala:
Need for a New Perspective

By N P Chekkutty


Kerala is a land of paradoxes: For decades it had shown the best of human development indices and the worst of economic development records. It was hailed, by development economists like Amartya Sen and international agencies like UNDP, as a model for social sector development. However, within the State scholars including the tallest Marxist thinker E M S Namboodiripad warned about a development trap: Our achievements in the social sector have been hailed by the world, but such praises should not keep us negligent about our woeful economic backwardness, he said addressing the first Kerala Development Congress in Trivandrum in 1994.

At that point, the country had already moved ahead in its march towards a globalized economy. Many Indian States had seized upon the opportunities offered by the new policies. Kerala resisted, because of its deep-rooted left politics, its radical trade unions, its articulate anti-imperialist intelligentsia and a tradition of resistance to foreign forces starting from its battles against the Portuguese colonialism from the early 16th century to the 20th century’s anti-British struggles.

But Kerala has never been a land of xenophobia. It has had a rich history of meaningful engagement with aliens, a tradition of give and take that helped develop its modern institutions, its cosmopolitan culture and its multi-ethnic society. This process is what historians have described as the cultural symbiosis in Kerala - a tradition from the medieval Cera kings who welcomed the Budhists, Jains, Christian and Muslims to the 19th century European evangelists who gave Malayalam its first newspapers and a dictionary.

In the post-independence decades, Kerala has seen acute internal struggles. The first and second E M S ministries that came to power in 1957 and 1967, laid the foundation for its development strategy with special attention to the problems of the agrarian population, the middle classes and organized working class. The concept of a welfare state with socialist orientation took deep roots. The results were twofold: A virtual standstill in economic output as shown by a near negative economic growth rate by the mid-seventies; and an explosive improvement in the social sector indices including literacy, longevity, male-female ratio, infant mortality, etc. As Amartya Sen pointed out, China and Kerala had the same infant mortality rate of 37 in the mid seventies but in the course of the next two decades Kerala’s dropped to a mere 12 per thousand while China’s dropped only to 31.

The socialist idealism of Indian ruling class, represented by Jawaharlal Nehru and the economic policies of the successive Indian governments, had to be abandoned in 1991 when India faced economic ruin. The course correction was carried out by the new economic policies put forward by Dr. Manmohan Singh, and a national consensus has emerged in course of time. However, Kerala remains an exception; at least outwardly. There is strong resistance to the national economic policies and a bitter power struggle is now on in the ruling establishment. One of the several factors that divide the ruling CPM in Kerala is the differences over approach to development and the policies of economic liberalization and globalization. It would appear that the State may remain an island of resistance. But there are forces that pull in a different direction.

The crucial question, however, is why did Kerala remain aloof and how did it manage to withstand in spite of its poor economic growth? It should be surprising that while the Indian Government, with its immense resources and access to international funding, did take the plunge despite powerful opposition even from a section of Indian bourgeoisie, Kerala with its withered economy and poor resources chose to continue with its socialist-oriented policies. How could it survive and sustain its people on an empty stomach?

The reasons are twofold, once again: First Kerala’s welfare state is deeply partial. It feeds only its favourite offspring, robbing on its step-children. Its policies from the early sixties were mainly addressed to three segments: The middle classes who represented its ruling class and its administrative bulwark, the agrarian sector and the organized working class. The welfare state had its orphan children, like the coastal people and the tribal population. No wonder that by the middle of the nineties these two sectors became virtual political minefields, with violent clashes taking place in the hills and the coastal region.

The second aspect is the large-scale migration, mainly to the Gulf. The exodus started by the middle of seventies and at a time when the disastrous effects of the economic policies became evident, the people were sustained by transmission of funds from the non-resident Keralites toiling in the Middle-East. That helped the sound and fury of the revolution to carry on without a reality check even in those days after the fall of Soviet Union. In other words, Kerala’s imaginary revolution and strident anti-imperialism has been a foreign funded phenomenon. The economic resources mobilized through the forces of globalilzation have been its real energy.

But there are realists who saw through the curtain: Economic realities apart, the State’s society and culture had become fractured and new elements like a surge of religiosity, communalism, casteism and other decadent social practices became quite widespread, cohabiting along with its left-wing sloganeering. As a culture critic recently pointed out, the Malayalee is living a strange double life. His public life is dominated by left wing political clich├ęs, and his personal life is dominated by caste prejudices, religiosity, worship of godmen and women, and a revival of those practices long abandoned during the Malayalee social reform movements.

So it is necessary to raise some fundamental questions: Why Kerala has been able to pursue a special line of development, with its commendable achievements and sad shortcomings? What are the socio-economic and historical reasons for this? And what will be the outcome in the long run?

To put these questions in perspective, it is necessary to examine the historical experiences. From early 19th century, social reforms movement in Kerala had thrown up some interesting ideas. Sree Narayana Guru, who heralded the upsurge of the backward classes, had a vision of a new industrialized society but his movement ended up as a caste-based pressure group. The same is the case with the upper caste Nair reforms and the Dalits’ movement led by Ayyankali.

The 20th century saw the rise of freedom movement, with its focus on political and organizational tasks. Social reform efforts like the temple entry movement went side by side. However, the history of the 20th century was defined by three major streams of ideas: the Gandhian, the Marxist and the Communal. The history of 20th century in Kerala is the story of these various streams for dominance in social and political life. Not only in politics, but in social, cultural and literary spheres we see their influence, often inter-mingling and mutually supportive in a complex manner, thus reinforcing the image of a stagnant society immune to change.

Take for example, literature. This writer recently undertook a study of three major books of fiction which reflects on Kerala social life: Arundati Roy’s God of Small Things, O V Vijayan’s Thalamurakkal and M Mukundan’s Kevsavante Vilapangal. All of them deal with a society dominated by Communist ideology, but strangely its practice is immersed in a culture of caste prejudices, social pretensions and hypocrisy.

In the economy and politics this pattern works in a parallel way. There is a tumult of anti-globalization slogans, while everywhere resorts are coming up eyeing the foreigners making a beeline; aggressive talk about resisting the dominance of western culture and a plethora of English medium schools; a strident fundamentalist stream side by side the religious leaders going capitalist; seminars on dangers of foreign media’s entry even as the local media companies set up shop in the Middle East bringing in a windfall of profits…

So, ultimately, is it a unique case of playing the democratic game avoiding the pitfalls of being seen subservient to the West? An assertion of the independence of mind, making the best use of new opportunities? Or is it the case of the genius of a people who move ahead despite their leaders living in the past? Whatever be the case, its is clear that the contemporary Kerala society with its plethora of political and social controversies do call for a new perspective for making sense of it.

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