Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Marxism, Maoism, Democracy: Kerala 1957 and Nepal 2008

Nepal's Maoists want the monarch to step aside: a dance of death is on the cards?

NEPAL IS entering an exciting new age in its history and politics: From a monarchy, it is going to be a democracy run by Maoists!

That is going to be a very fascinating scene to watch. Fifty years ago when E M S Namboodiripad came to power in Kerala in the 1957 election, it was one of the first elected Communist governments in the world. Now unlike our traditional Communist parties who took to parliamentary democracy way back in the fifties, Maoists never really put much faith in parliamentary system. They took to the gun and even in Nepal it was the gun that took them to the mainstream politics, as all other traditional parties had lost their credibility among the people. Now Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, two youthful leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal(Maoist), are poised to take over the reins of the Government there, write a new Constitution for the country and dethrone the monarch, taking Nepal to the status of a Republic.

But how are they going to dethrone the monarch, King Gyanendra? From the days of the Magna Carta to the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution, we know that the practice has a gruesome side to it: It involves bloodshed. And will Nepal be able to avoid it, for a change?

Recently I read some very interesting accounts about Nepal which give some deep insights in to the developments in the country.Here is what Jimmy Carter, former US president and Nobel peace prize winner, said in his article Pariah Diplomacy, in New York Times, yesterday:
About 12 years ago, Maoist guerrillas took up arms in an effort to overthrow the monarchy and change the nation’s political and social life. Although the United States declared the revolutionaries to be terrorists, the Carter Center agreed to help mediate among the three major factions: the royal family, the old-line political parties and the Maoists.
In 2006, six months after the oppressive monarch was stripped of his powers, a cease-fire was signed. Maoist combatants laid down their arms and Nepalese troops agreed to remain in their barracks. Our center continued its involvement and nations — though not the United States — and international organizations began working with all parties to reconcile the dispute and organize elections.
The Maoists are succeeding in achieving their major goals: abolishing the monarchy, establishing a democratic republic and ending discrimination against untouchables and others whose citizenship rights were historically abridged. After a surprising victory in the April 10 election, Maoists will play a major role in writing a constitution and governing for about two years. To the United States, they are still terrorists.

Then there was a very long and perceptive interview in The Hindu with Prachanda. It touched upon many issues but I think what is important for us, who have to deal with Maoists in our own surroundings, is how they could influence the Indian Maoists. In fact former RAW chief Hormis Tharakan, an able Malayalee officer, wrote the other day that they might influence the Indian Maoists to take to a new line, of joining the mainstream politics. Sitaram Yechuri, CPM politburo member, who had played a key role in the Nepal’s recent developments as an emissary between Maoists and the mainstream parties there, also had written an article that the Nepal Maoists should be an example to their Indian comrades.

This is what Prachanda told The Hindu:
I do feel that what we are doing will send a strong message not only to Indian Maoists but Maoists worldwide – about how the Nepali Maoists have gone from bullet to ballot, how they have influenced and won the hearts and minds of the Nepali people, and how they have come to the position of leading the government and building a new constitution. This will be the subject of very big debate, and this will have a positive impact on Maoists everywhere because we have not betrayed our basic theory, we have developed it based on the changed situation in the world, and tried to move ahead on that basis. For example, even when the Peoples War was going on, we concluded that multiparty competition is a must even in socialism. Not only in the phase of democratic revolution but also in the phase of socialism, if multiparty competition is not there then a vibrant society will not be possible. This is the conclusion we have drawn from the great revolutions and counter-revolutions of the 20th century. And on the basis of those conclusions we are moving forward. So I feel that for the Indian Maoist party, its leaders and cadres, these efforts of ours provide some new material to study, to think about and go ahead in a new way. Our efforts provide a reference point.

I had occasion to go into detailed discussions with many friends on the future of Nepal. One of my friends, John Samuel, who has been travelling to this country and has wide contacts there, gave an account of how he views the new Nepal:

He writes:
The emergence of Maoists has something to do with the systemic discrimination against Dalits, abject poverty and unequal distribution of land. The Kathmandu clique (consisting of Royalists, few well known Brahmin families, the middle class elites) managed to marginalize ethnic minorities as well as the poor from rural Nepal. CPN (UML) too more or less got co-opted in to the Kathmandu elite. Maoists partly emerged as a reaction to these entrenched power equations.

However, the leadership of Maoists too are a part of the upper caste (Brahmins, Nevaries, etc), middle class and many of them studied in Delhi (Baburam Bhattarai did his Ph D from JNU.) So on the one hand, the upper-caste, middle class revolutionaries knew the language of the establishment; but at the same time, they also lived with the poor people and learned their language too. During various phases of the Maoist insurgency, many among the Maoist leaders were very much in India and Delhi. During the royalist take over, many of the top leaders of Maoists used to meet political leadership in Delhi. Their coming to mainstream was only a question of time. Baburam is more close to CPM and there used to be a few of their representatives in Delhi to connect with others.

Once I was in Edinburgh organizing a big rally (in 2005) challenging the G8, asking them to deliver on debt cancellation, etc. During the course of my stay there, I found a very interesting Socialist Book Centre as part of the bookstalls at the meeting venue. I realized that there were Maoists from Andhra, Bihar and Nepal organizing this. It appears that there are direct links between Maoists across South Asia and many of them consider CPM to be in the enemy camp.

Nepal Maoists have got rather an opportunistic and tactical links with CPM and India. On the ground there is a widespread anti-India rhetoric as well as sentiments. During the last Madhesi uprising in the Therai, many thought it is a section of the Indian Establishment in connivance with the Royalists that created the trouble. It is another thing Madhesis (closer to UP) had been sort of marginalized in the Kathmandu power clique. It is also true that a faction of VHP and RSS did promote the unrest (along with the breakaway factions of Maoists). But it is not clear whether it was a part of the Government of India policy. India has one of the biggest foreign policy establishments in Nepal. And usually there is a sort of love-hate relationship with India.

I was in Kathmandu recently. I was surprised by many factors. 1) Personification of a Maoist Movement- I have seen huge hoardings declaring Prachanda as the Future President of Republic of Nepal; 2) The style of campaigning, advertising and many other factors looked like a very uneasy mix of ‘Congress style’ of campaign in India, with a bit of CPM cadre methods and also a bit of Maoist violence. So it looked like that Maoists have got in to the mainstream with amazing speed, opening trade unions here and there and every where. Of course, there are corporate connections and funding too (and a few Indian businessmen have all of a sudden become pro-Maoists!)

One has to wait and see where Prachanda would take Nepal. There is ambivalence here, given some of his style and the manner of his working. The good thing is, there is indeed a deep sense of democratization in Nepal. And there seems to be a complete disenchantment and even anger with the present Royalists and an overwhelming approval for the Republic.

There is a big difference between the leadership of Maoists in Nepal and the present leadership of Maoist outfits in India. The leadership of Maoists in Nepal consist of well meaning ‘comrades’ from the upper caste and middle class background from the ‘mainstream’- very similar to the earlier Communist leaders in India. They are educated, practical as well as with middle class aspirations for power (though no one will admit it). The leadership of Maoist outfits in India is less from the ‘mainstream’ background. There is less of ideological conviction or even ideological commitment.

(Cartoon courtesy: Sudheernath, New Delhi.)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Laughing Gas

Centre refuses to part with rice to feed Kerala:News

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mohan Lal and the Story of a Kid Kept Safe in an Ivory Tower

Mohan Lal fails to show burning illusion magic: Magicians and showmen need to learn something from the politicians...!

MOHAN LAL is Malayalee’s tinsel icon. He is a cog in the wheel of our multi-million culture industry too. That explains how and why Mohan Lal had to burn his fingers in the Burning Illusion magic show, a pet project of the celebrated actor, which he had to abandon as pressure mounted.

In a way it was a comedy of sorts, as we witnessed all kinds of people including his own mother urging the man to desist from going ahead with this ‘dangerous’ game, as if he were such a silly boy who knew nothing about the consequences of what he was doing! We saw his fans, that group of cheer crowd who are an essential part of celebrity business in any part of the world, threatening him with a satyagraha or a gherao in case he went ahead ignoring their pleas: Dear, dear Mohal Lal, please do not go ahead with this dangerous game...!

Then came the dictates from that all powerful AMMA, which means mother in Malayalam, the association of Malayalam movie actors, which decides what each and every member should do from the morning till night and vice versa, that he should not go for this game. I had heard plenty of stories about possessive mothers who are so possessive that they even chain their young and rebellious kids in lofty towers from where there is no escape. Fairy tales like the Grimm’s tales are so full of such stories and how the ingenuous kids defeated such tyranny and enjoyed their life using all kinds of wonderful stratagems to escape to freedom. Rapunzel, the popular story of a girl shut in a tower by a witch and who escaped using her long hair, and the story of Hansel and Gretel are two examples of such poor good kids kept under captivity by a loving and over-possessive mother, step-mother, a witch or a fairy. The love turns into tyranny and there is no way for the kid but to revolt for his/her freedom.

But poor Mohan Lal seems to be a kid who has been trapped in this world of ivory tower, from where he has no escape. His desires for the simple excitements of life like a magic show is denied to him, like, in the fairy tales and also in our own daily life, the desires of a kid for chocolates or playing in the fields outside, is denied as it might put him to danger!

In a way, Mohal Lal is now a prisoner of his own image, an artist trapped in his own cage: He has to play and act as the director decides and outside the set, he finds his life being directed by external forces that include his ever-intruding fans, his friends and well wishers and all those silky dressed and smooth talking men and women who constitute the cultural industry’s foot-soldiers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Caste, Marriage and Poverty Reduction: A Letter to a Friend

RECENTLY AN economist friend from an academic institution sent me a copy of his new article which argues that there is direct cause-and-effect relationship between the caste system and the entrenched marriages within the caste hierarchy with the persistence of extreme levels of poverty in India. India has had record growth levels in the past few years but the growth has had no impact on the life of the majority of people. A serious study conducted by the Planning Commission, done by Dr Arjun Sengupta, Dr K P Kannan and others, found that even after the massive efforts at ensuring a more equitable distribution, almost 75 percent remain at levels of extreme poverty with less than Rs.20 a day.

I thought the article which called for changes in marriage practices and a more liberated family atmosphere, urging the government to design policies that would promote vertical and horizontal integration at the community level was interesting, though I suspect whether it would have any real impact on the issue of poverty reduction in India.

Here is my brief comment on the article in the form of a letter:

Your primary argument, in proposing changing marriage norms, seems to be that they cause persistent economic inequality and poverty. Hence for a smoother and freer flow of social and economic capital across the spectrum, we need to destroy caste walls and rewrite the rules of marriage as a social institution.

I have no quarrel with any effort for destroying caste walls. They ought to be destroyed for a variety of reasons, though I doubt that it would have any real impact on our poverty issue.

First, when we speak of poverty in Indian context, we speak of a section of our people who live at a daily income of Rs. 20 or below. They seem to constitute almost 75 per cent of the population.

These sections, going by the recent EPW paper by Arjun Sengupta, Kannan, et al, mainly constitute Dalits, Muslims and the OBCs, in that order. So if you look at the harsh reality, our poor, the extremely poor, are people from these sections. Those who are relatively well off, those who constitute the middle class and above, are substantially from the upper castes, though there is a small elite creamy layer, from the OBCs, Muslims and Dalits, to a lesser extent.

You will agree when we think of changes in marriage system, we cannot think about anything but monogamy these days. That is one woman, one man in a legal sense. Here comes the conundrum: You don't have sufficient number of eligible match for upper caste woman/man from lower caste/Muslims/Dalits (and vice versa) even if we bring down all the social and cultural barriers.

So the problem, especially, is economic and not cultural or historical as you seem to argue. We have a caste-controlled and intra-caste marriage system not because we were not short of social reformers or revolutionaries who argued for vertical and horizontal integration, but because our society was economically divided and stratified on the basis of caste. Hence caste and class are synonymous in India in many ways.

That would mean, once we are able to destroy the economic stratification, we will automatically destroy the caste stratification too. It is not the other way around, as you seem to argue in your note.

Such social inter-mingling is actually taking place, among the middle class who were able to lift themselves up economically in the past few decades. Instead of a Dalit boy marrying a Brahmin girl (which is also taking place), what is actually happening is an aggregation or consolidation of smaller castes with bigger ones with more or less similar features. You will notice that some of the small groups like Ezhuthassans, Warriers, Nambiars, Kurups, Panikkars, etc etc, are slowly merging themselves with bigger caste formations making them large social/caste groups. Earlier, there were variety of Nairs, but today no one takes such a deep look at what kind of Nairs are they when one goes hunting for a match. Same is the case with others.

But that does not help the poor, or those 75 per cent. For them a match from the upper caste is a near impossibility, not (mainly) because of caste but primarily owing to lack of resources.

And, what to do about it? Here I am as clueless as any other in this country.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Laughing Gas

The government plans special courts for trial of corruption cases in India: news.

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

V S Ramachandran, Picasso and the Cosmic Dance of Shiva

VILAYANUR S. Ramachandran is a well-known scientist described as one of the hundred great people to watch in the 21st century science. He explores the human mind and hence fellow scientist Richard Dawkins calls him the Marco Polo of the neuroscience, venturing into hitherto unexplored areas of the vast ocean called human mind.

The grandson of famous freedom fighter Alladi Krishna Swamy Iyer, VSR speaks Tamil and has strong cultural and personal relations with Kerala. It is likely this 57-year-old alumni of a Chennai college, would be the next person to bring a Nobel plaque to south India, after Sir C V Raman.

He was in Thiruvananthapuram the other day, delivering a lecture at the AKG Center Hall, to a packed audience. He spoke about human mind in its creative splendor and this is how one among the audience described his speech: “It was interesting to hear his argument that artists, poets, novelists and other creative people are inheritors of a brain `dysfunction', due to which adequate deactivation of links between different parts of brain does not happen and hence they see many links between seemingly unrelated aspects.”

Ramachandran in his books, Emerging Mind, A Brief History of Human Consciousness and famous the BBC 2003 Reith lectures have made some interesting forays into areas of art, literature and aesthetics. His is a new way of looking at the world of art and literature, a path charted out by the possibilities opened up by modern science and technology. Naturally, it has its admirers and critics too.

Ramachandran in his BBC lecture makes his position clear:

"Now let me add a note of caution before I begin. When I speak of
artistic universals I am not denying the enormous role played by
culture. Obviously culture plays a tremendous role, otherwise you
wouldn't have different artistic styles - but it doesn't follow that
art is completely idiosyncratic and arbitrary either or that there are
no universal laws.

Let me put it somewhat differently. Let's assume that 90% of the
variance you see in art is driven by cultural diversity or - more
cynically - by just the auctioneer's hammer, and only 10% by universal
laws that are common to all brains. The culturally driven 90% is what
most people already study - it's called art history. As a scientist
what I am interested in is the 10% that is universal - not in the
endless variations imposed by cultures. The advantage that I and other
scientists have today is that unlike we can now test our conjectures
by directly studying the brain empirically. There's even a new name
for this discipline. My colleague Semir Zeki calls it Neuro-aesthetics
- just to annoy the philosophers."

Ramachandran in his Thiruvananthapuram lecture took examples from the western and Indian art history, including the famous statue of Nataraja, Shiva in one of his myriad forms, in cosmic dance from the great Chola tradition to the cubist and expressionist works of Picasso. His lecture gave rise to a fierce online debate, on how far science and technology can help us understand, and appreciate, art and literature.

I made the following points in a debate:

First, VSR is a pioneering scientist in an area which traverses the universes of science and arts, two distinct forms of creative energy in action that are products of human brain. Second, while philosophers and literary theorists did bring up such debates on these realms, what makes Ramachandran unique is the knowledge and methodology of scientific enquiry that he brings into this area. Third, it is a matter of fact that ancient Indian thinkers had achieved a high level of prominence and progress in many areas of 'pure thought' and scientific inquiry. But the West took it far ahead with their empirical methodology that we woefully lacked and that has put us far behind. Four, that should help us place scholars and thinkers like our own M N Vijayan who made inquires into human mind in their literary studies making use of Freud, as an original thinker, but what makes him different from Ramachandran is that though they may speak about the same phenomena, one follows the path of pure thinking or metaphysical speculation, while the other has science and technology behind him and that gives him vast strength and credibility.

Many scholars and academics put in their views on these points. Let me quote a few (with due acknowledgements to all of them):

Dr P K Pokker, who teaches philosophy at Calicut University, said: My argument is that he (VSR) did not confer any new information or knowledge in the realm of aesthetics. He might be a good neurologist. But in the case of aesthetics he simply presented a kind of "manichithrathazhu" model argument. His criticism of western theoreticians was baseless. Besides Rasa and Dhvani cannot explain the origin and development of aesthetic production. He either ignores or forgets about the social means of production and enjoyment. Above all he wanted to simply idealize the so-called Indian feudal art. His theory of distortion in art is not at all new. Let me ask whether he has contributed anything new to understand the origin, development and even decay of art and literature.

My response:
Dr. Pokker has brought up a serious point, with which I generally find myself in agreement. I read Dr Ramachandran's speech in The Hindu and it seems it has two parts in it. First, a scientific explanation on the new areas of neurology, undoubtedly important as areas of scientific inquiry. It explores the human mind in new ways making use of the technological advancement of our age. In this context, I remember what Dr. Craig Vintner said the other day about his genome project, that most of the work was done by advanced computers...

Then comes the other part, which is more disputable. It is about a theory of aesthetics as he tries to explain the human mind in its creative activity taking examples from Chola art to modern masters including Picasso. He seems to suggest that these art-forms are the creations of a special kind of brain activity.

Here the problem is that science may not be able to explain human mind in its creative mood, outside its social milieu. Because we see the Nataraja in cosmic dance in a particular phase in our history, in a particular part of our country; we see the cave paintings in Ellora and Ajantha in a particular place and time; and we see the rise of novel as a particular form of fictional expression in a particular phase in the capitalist development...

That means art and aesthetics need other forms of thought to explain itself deeply and more accurately. A neural science expert may shed some light on some aspects but it would e too ambitious to attempt any comprehensive aesthetic theory purely on the basis of science and technology. That is why I tend to listen to M N Vijayan more seriously when he speaks about poetry and turn to VSR when he speaks about fantasies and itching limbs which are not there.

So let us just accept that there is something beyond mere science and technology and that everything can't be explained through its certainties.

John Samuel wrote:
Chekkutty says: "That means art and aesthetics need other forms of thought to explain itself deeply and more accurately."
What is thought? "Other forms" of thought too may be able to be explained by science. Why not? After all "thought" too is an outcome or a process that emanate through the functioning of brain. There has been number of efforts to understand the working of brain through using linguistics, or visual mapping etc. By the way, I do no think that VSR has been trying to develop or even propose any theory aesthetics. He is a scientist who is in to the business of explaining the neurological aspects of brain. He draws from art, visual mapping etc to explain or suggest and at times speculate different aspects of the functioning of brain.
While he has tried to venture into Philosophy of Mind, he is primarily a scientist who uses imaginative and insightful ways, including from art, to understand, explain and suggest multiple aspects of the working of brain. So it will be misleading to consider VSR as a philosopher or art critic.

Prof. K Satchidanandan wrote:
I would not go to VSR with the expectations I have of an art critic: then I would read Arnold Hauser or Herbert Read or Ernst Fischer or John Berger or Partho Mitter or Geeta Kapoor... I do not think the knowledge about art comes from a single source, it cuts across disciplines and even if we add up all of them, something will remain-- I do not in the least deny the irrational or irreducible in art, its mystery; I cannot as I have known it in my blood and bones; but that does not permit me to deny the possibility of explorations from different angles and disciplines.
Pokker is perfectly right in what he says about the social in art. All reductive and simplifying approaches have their inadequacies. (Even sociological reductions).

Sanil V, who teaches at the Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT, Delhi, wrote:
VSR’s research is at once an invitation and a provocation to serious philosophical thought. He helps us to challenge the we-have-always – already-known-it-all attitude of some philosophers. It is the task of philosophy to recognize and respond to novelties in science, politics and art by proposing new concepts to them.

VSR tells us about the plasticity of brain. The idea of a compact and continuous substance is not suitable for understanding the materiality of brain. Brain is full of holes, dysfunctions and blind spots. Thought occurs in those holes. Brain is always a bit beyond itself and a bit less than itself! It is no longer that self identical, central, hyperactive agency which is in control of body and mind. This is an exciting result for any philosopher who learns from the materialist tradition of Spinoza, Marx and Deleuze. VSR’s views demand a serious rethinking on the relationship between perception, beliefs and action.

Philosophy should respond to specific research in sciences and not get trapped in popularizing pseudo-religious ideas like “scientific method” and “progress”. Not all scientists are positivists. But all popular scientists are!!

What is VSR’s contribution to aesthetics? Yes, much of what he says about art is pretty naïve – just as what Dawkins says about religion. However, Art is not VSR’s route to aesthetics. Aesthetics has two meanings. Aesthetics is a theory of art. It is also a logic of sensation. There isn’t much to learn from VSR on the former – in a direct manner. But VSR has exciting things to say about the latter. In my opinion, a materialist aesthetics of art must seriously worry about the nature of brain and sensations. Inputs from a non-reductionist and post-(naïve) empiricist neuroscience is necessary to disabuse the excessively culturalist and symbolist theories of art. Some of VSR’s experimental results (filling-in and assigning at the blind spots) have been enormously helpful in my own research on the ontology of the cinematic image.

Some critics might say that VSR only dramatizes the results of patient and piecemeal research conducted by many unknown scientists. Here, he may be compared to Stephen Hawking. This could be true. Fortunately none of us are in the Nobel award committee, and hence, need not bother about who –did –it- first issues. For me, the name VSR simply refers to a contemporary enthusiasm which has spread across neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, art, etc. Sorry for those who miss it!

Now, a final note on my part: This is an exciting debate and surely it will continue in the years to come, especially when VSR will bring home the much coveted Nobel for his great work in the frontier areas of scientific research.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Food Crisis Hits Kerala: A Summer of Discontent in God's Own Country

Facing an acute food crisis, Kerala seeks higher rice quota for its public distribution system, but the Union Government refuses to budge.

SUMMER IS the festival season in Kerala. As April comes with its scorching heat and the ripening fruits, farmers are busy harvesting paddy in what is known as puncha season and by the time Vishu celebrations arrive by the middle of the month, granaries are full and every face radiant with a happy smile…

Well, to set the record straight, this is how it used to be, when the summer harvest festival is celebrated on the day of Utharayanam, or the northern solstice, the day sun starts moving to the northern hemisphere.

But this season, instead of celebrations what one comes across is the heart breaking stories of farmers committing suicide, even as the paddy in their fields, ripe for reaping, remain uncut. In the past three weeks there were three reports of rice cultivators taking their life in various parts of Kuttanadu and Kottayam, the two main rice growing areas in southern Kerala, where an unprecedented crisis has gripped the farm sector. Simply put, it is a crisis of shortage of man-power to carry out the farming operations of harvesting and threshing on a time-bound basis as they need to be completed before the summer rains hit, on the one hand; and the unwillingness of the farm workers and their powerful trade-unions to allow the machines to take over, taking into consideration the potentially huge losses faced by farmers.

Farmers in south Kerala say the 83-year old Eeeravettikkttu John, who hanged himself on April 5 as he failed to harvest his paddy, had faced immense financial losses as most of his crop remained in the fields. Earlier, two others also had committed suicide in the same area where the harvesting should have been completed weeks ago. Now what remain in the fields are broken stacks of paddy, most of the grain lost and destroyed in untimely rains. Even the hay appears to be useless, unfit as cattle-feed.

The present tragedy of farmers in Kuttanadu is a man-made tragedy. It is one of the most fertile areas for rice cultivation and the yield is excellent and one can go up to three plantings a year. Around 30,000 hectares were sown in Kuttanadu this summer harvest season and as rice cultivation is a time-bound, labour intensive operation, shortage of labor has always been a big issue. The farm-hands are well organized and they are politically active as the heirs of many revolutionary struggles from the days of Punnapra-Vayalar uprisings in the forties that gave deep roots to Communist party in these farming regions.

In those revolutionary days, workers and peasants marched together, but now they are finding themselves at loggerheads. The area under rice cultivation has been going down alarmingly, making cultivation a loss-making affair, and the number of active farm-hands has also dropped much faster. The result is acute shortage of farm-hands in the peak season, making use of machines inevitable. But the farm hands’ unions refuse to accept it and insist that they should have a monopoly on all farm operations. They say they were not opposed to the use of machines per se, they cold be used in emergency situations, but they insist that such use should be cleared by their unions to avoid job loss. It means that every farmer, in case he finds no farm-hands to work his farms, has to apply to the trade unions for permission to bring in machines.

As usual this year too there were disputes and haggling over the permission to import machines into Kuttanadu, the farmers insisting on their use and labor unions refusing to accept their demands. Every year it is a committee chaired by the district collector which
settles these disputes and finds a solution to avoid crop loss.

But this year rains came a few weeks early and that unsettled every calculation. Thousands of hectares of ripe paddy remained in the fields and were completely destroyed. According to the State Government, the total loss of crops could be around 30,000 hectares all over the State, the deadliest hit coming to Kuttanadu, Kottayam region. The total losses, according to figures submitted by the State to the Central Government, were around Rs. 200 crore.

The government swung into action, but quite late. The authorities made every effort to bring in harvesting and threshing machines to Kuttanadu from Tamil Nadu in the past few weeks, but most of the machines are now busily engaged in fields of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where it is the peak of harvesting season.

As frantic calls were made to Tamil Nadu for more machines to be made available for Kerala, the machine owners there refused to oblige. They said when they had sent machines weeks ago, they were stopped and sent back by the unions in Kuttanadu. “Why should we sent the machines there when we have much work here itself and also in other states,” they ask.

But the pro-CPM farm-hands’ union, KSKTU (Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union) refused to accept responsibility. “We have not stopped any machine coming here,” said KSKTU state secretary C K P Padmanabhan. He, however, accepted that there may be some stray cases where such incidents had taken place as farmers forcibly brought machines to deny work to farm hands.

“There is a clear calendar for sowing and harvesting which has been in practice for so many generations,” said K P Devadas, an expert on Kerala’s farming calendar and weather cycles, who pointed out that as the monsoon hits Kerala first, it has to sow first and reap first. Once this calendar is upset, the entire farming operations could be upset. He felt it was wrong to accuse the early rains for this season’s tragedy as summer rains, quite unpredictable by nature, were experienced even by mid-March even in recent past.

The cycle of accusations and counter-accusations continue unabated, even as the rice production in the state goes down in an alarming manner. According to the State Department of Economics and Statistics, there has been a drastic decline in both area under rice cultivation and its annual production. According to the recent figures announced by the Government, the drop in area under rice cultivation was a whopping 63 per cent in a 44- year period from 1961-02 to 2005-06. The rice production which stood at 13.40 tonnes in 1981-82 had gone down to 6.30 tonnes by 2005-06, registering a decline of around 50 per cent in 24 years.

Still, demand for rice keeps rising as rice is the staple food for Malayalees. The present annual demand is to the tune of three million tonnes a year and as the rice supply has declined from its own fields, the state has been depending largely on imports from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and other states. Now the Central Government has reduced its rice quota by around 80 percent owing to poor off-take from PDS. With the steep rice in food prices in markets all over the world, the price of rice a kg has shot up from Rs. 14 a few months ago, to Rs. 21, sending alarm signals.

Then came the statement from Kerala’s Food Minister, CPI’s C Divakaran: “The shortage of rice is going to be a perennial problem. So why not think of changing our food habits”, he said and suggested meat and eggs as an alternative. As the CPI leader found himself at the receiving end for his innovative suggestion, some commentators even comparing him to Marie Antoinette, the French queen who wondered why people can’t take cakes if bread was not available, beat a hasty retreat and blamed the Centre for causing the shortage.

The saddest part of the events of this summer of discontent in Kerala is that all these years, farmer suicides were confined to its eastern hill belt, where cash crops, mainly dependent on the global market are grown, is now spreading to other parts too. Rice had been a stable crop, though with reduced income for farmers, but there has never been any case of rice growers taking the extreme step. Now in a tragic turn of events, even Kuttanadu, the rice bowl of Kerala, joins the trail of farmer suicides that link the entire rural India, in a sordid drama of unhappy peasant lives.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Vishu and the Solar Tradition in Indian Astrology

Vishu, a time of celebrations, dates back to the Gupta period in Indian history.

A FRIEND, John Samuel, wrote to me from Thailand that on the day of equinox, when the sun starts moving north, the Thai people celebrate their new year Sonkran, just like we Malayalees celebrate Vishu. They too have kanikkonna during this season, and kaineettam, with exchange of gifts among the near and dear.

In Assam, they have Bihu, the New Year day on the day of equinox, and in Bengal they have Baisakhi. In Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, we have similar celebrations on the day of Vishu, or the day of utharayanam, when day and night are equal, a universal New Year day and a day of celebrations.

Vishu marks the day of medasankranthi, or the day sun enters the medam rasi from the meenam rasi. In the solar calendar, this is the point of New Year and hence it is the auspicious occasion for starting agricultural operations, beginning of the sowing season, settling accounts and paying the taxes to rulers.

It appears that the solar calendar became very popular in India during the Gupta period, mainly from the time of Aryabhata, in the third or fourth century AD. It was Aryabhata who calculated the year according to the solar movements and his Aryabhateeyam is the most important astrological work of this period. Later on Bhaskaracharya wrote two books known as seminal works in Indian astrology.

In Kerala, it was Sankaranarayanan, the court astrologer of the second C’era ruler Sthanu Ravi, who gave the greatest contribution to the science of astrology. His guide to the ancient Indian texts on astrology, called Laghu Bhaskareeya Vyakhya, was written in 869 AD, completed on the 25th year of Sthanu Ravi’s rule, as mentioned in a conversation between the ruler and courtier referred to in the books. Historian Dr MGS Narayanan points out that it was Elamkulam Kunhan Pillai, eminent historian, who came to the conclusion that Sthanu Ravi’s rule started in 844 AD based on this reference in the book.

Sthanu Ravi was a ruler who held control over most of Kerala from his capital near the modern-day Kodungallur. It was evident that his court was a centre of great knowledge and scientific pursuits as it was this deep south kingdom which continued to the great Gupta tradition, at a time when their rule had been eclipsed in the north.

There is reference to the Vishu day's unique solar position, even in Mahabharata. Bheeshma, who can fix his own time of death, waits in his bed of arrows for the day of utharayanam, an auspicious time to die. There is a similar reference to the equinoctical change in Viushu Puranam too, a text that could belong to the Gupta period, say historians.

Later, this tradition and pursuit of knowledge spread far and wide, as Jains and Buddhists travelled to various parts of South and South East Asia, taking the solar calendar the culture of Vishu even to distant lands like Thailand.

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Oppana to Mappilappattu: The Rainbow Colours of Muslim Life in Malabar

A perunnal festival celebration at Nadapuram, a town colourfully described in the northern ballads, the Vadakkan Pattu.

AS THE summer sets in, Kerala enters its festival season, and every temple and every village gets ready for its celebrations. In these poorams and festivals we come across the best aspects of Malayalee culture and the richness of our traditions.

The classical art-forms and percussions like Kathakali, Koodiyattom, Mohiniyattom and Thayambaka are well known. There has also been a conscious effort on the part of the Malayalee elite in the last century, like poet Vallathol who set up Kerala Kalamandalam, to preserve and promote these art-forms and unique traditions. The temple festivals and poorams, like the world renowned Trissur Pooram, helped popularize such forms like panchavadyam, a wonderful combination of percussion and wind instruments.

But the epicenter of these art-forms is mainly central Kerala, the mainstay of Kerala’s feudal elite, while the more traditional and folk art-forms like Thira and Theyyam in deep north and the Muslim cultural forms like Oppana, Kolkali, Paricamuttukali, Duff muttu, etc, in Malabar are not much known outside even today. In the case of northern folk art-forms there has been, recently, a sudden excitement as many foreign scholars have shown interest in them and have conducted studies trying to link them with Kerala’s history and anthropology, with some serious academic works done by scholars like Dr K K N Kurup of Calicut University.

But in the case of art-forms like Oppana, Kolkali, Paricamuttukali, etc, which are mainly practiced among the Muslims of Malabar such serious academic studies are yet to take place. Nor are there any effort to preserve these forms or promote them with training facilities for younger academics and art enthusiasts. Recently the Government of Kerala set up the Moyinkutty Vaidyar Memorial centre at Kondotty, in memory of the great Mappilappattu poet, but its main focus is on Mappilappattu and other art-forms linked to these romantic, lyrical songs.

There seems to be a variety of streams in these Mappila art-forms, with south Malabar mainly the former taluks of Valluvanadu and Ernadu accounting for one tradition, and the north Malabar where the areas that came under the rule of Arakkal Beevi and dominated by Muslim elite families in Koyilandi, Vadakara, Thalassery, Nadapuram, etc, following a definitely different tradition.

Even in the folk songs this difference is discernible. In north the Vadakkan Pattu or northern ballads, which describe the life of folk heroes and the people are more popular, while in south there is a more vibrant Mappilappattu tradition, which focuses more on romance, daily life and religious topics, with an unusually high dose of Arab words and idioms.

Some of the poems and songs hugely popular in the southern parts of Malabar seem to have been influential in a different way, as a series of Mappila rebellions took place in this region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was during this period that Mr. Conolly, Malabar Collector, was murdered by a gang of four Mappila convicts. A recent account of the developments based on contemporary British records make it clear that the conspirators had during their preparations for the for assassination, had taken pledge at a shrine at Mambram near Kondotty and also recited Moideen Mala, an Arab-Malayalam poem written by Quasi Muhammed, some 400 years ago. Moideen Mala, or Muhiyudheen Mala, is a long poem hailing the life of a Sufi saint, Mujahedeen Geelani, and belongs to a rich Sufi-Bhakti tradition:

Here is the account of the assassination of Conolly:

Mr. Conolly, the District Magistrate and Provisional Member of the Council for the Presidency, was murdered by a gang of Mappilas.

Mr. G. B. Tod, Assistant Collector in Malabar, wrote to the Chief Secretary at 1 a.m. on the 12th of September 1885:

“It is my melancholy duty to inform you, for the information of the Right Honorable the Governor in Council, that Mr. Conolly, the Collector of this district, was most barbarously murdered this evening, between eight and nine o’clock, in the presence of his wife. He received seven wounds, one of which at least was mortal.

So far as the details at present are ascertained, the perpetrators were three Mappilas, who rushed into the veranda and completed their deadly work before assistance could be called. In the present state of Mrs. Conolly, it is impossible to gather further particulars of the tragedy of which she was the sole witness; but immediately that I am able to do so, I will furnish more complete information.”

The Mappilas were escaped convicts from Calicut Jail called Valasseri Emalu, Puliyakunat Tenu, Chemban Moidin Kutti and Vellattadayatta Parambil Moidin. They had escaped from a prison working party on the 4th of August 1855, spent the following month on the run in various houses in the foothills of the Ghats. At a place called Mambram, they prayed at a shrine of a Tangal, known as a fanatic and insurgent leader. They had then hidden in a house three-quarters of a mile away, for several days, before taking vows at a ceremony where they sang a song called Moidin Mala Pattu. Their war knives were passed through incense smoke…

This description gives a clear account of how deeply influential some of these songs were, as the simple folk were nurtured on such a tradition. The strong Sunni tradition helped spread such cultural practices. There are occasions like nerchas in various mosques belonging to the Sunni Muslim tradition and other festivals like Kuttichira’s famous Appa Vanibham (sale of bread) festival where these art-forms and traditions come to life. On major occasions like perunnal (Eid-ul-Fitr or Bakrid) one could see the colours of traditional Muslim life come alive, in the streets of Kuttichira in Kozhikode or at Nadapuram or Koyilandy, some of the greatest Muslim centres in Malabar.

(Illustration courtesy:Sudheernath, New Delhi.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Pazhassi Raja and the Missing Palanquin, or How History Leaves Our Shores

KERALA RECENTLY observed the 200th anniversary of the martyrdom of Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, a native prince of North Kerala who fought the British East India Company's forces in the thick forests of Wayanad and fell dead on November 30, 1805. T H Babar, the British collector of Malabar who led the colonial forces against the local hero, had carried the body of the dead fighter in his own palanquin to Mananthavady and had cremated him there with full honours. His remains are kept in a mausoleum on a hillock there.

Babar had recorded in his note to the then Madras Governor that he was a great hero who fell at the British bullets, after a series of guerrilla battles that continued for many years. The Raja was one of the pioneers in South India, who, after Tipu Sultan of Mysore, fought and resisted British efforts to annexe the country in the late 18th century.

Ironically, even as the people of the region were celebrating the memories of their folk hero, the authorities at Calicut University, the premier centre for higher education in the region, were busy inquiring into the mysterious circumstances in which a historic artefact, intimately connected with the history of Pazhassi Raja, has been missing from its museum. A beautifully carved palanquin, donated by the East India Company to one of its officers who helped hunt the Pazhassi Raja, kept in the museum of the University's history department, was later recovered from a nearby bush.

"The palanquin is of great historical value as it dates back to the early days of colonial conquest in Malabar," says Dr MGS Narayanan, eminent historian who had collected it from an ancient family in Ramanattukara for the University's history museum back in the '80s. He said the palanquin was donated to Pulapre Karunakara Menon by the Company in recognition for his services. Menon had joined the company as a sepoy in the 1790's and according to the notes left by T H Babar, it was he who identified the body of Pazhassi Raja after the decisive battle in the forests near Mananthavady when the Company forces killed the Raja and a few of his loyal followers and tribal warriors. It was Babar who had arranged for the cremation of the Raja and the mausoleum of the late prince still remains in the hillock, attracting thousands of visitors every year.

Scholars at the University's history department said that it was not only the palanquin that was taken out of the museum where the University had collected and stored a large number of historical articles over the past many decades. Even as a controversy over the missing palanquin raged, the University found that three ancient copper plates, valued in thousands of dollars in the international art market, have also disappeared from its coffers. These copper plates, which are historical documents recorded on thin copper sheets, date back to the 12th and 13th centuries and are of immense value to the history of the region. They are also valuable as ancient artefacts, highly sought after in the western market.

University sources said that one of the copper plates, dating back to the 12th century has been traced to the London Museum recently. Dr Kesavan Veluthat, a scholar on ancient Kerala history, has said that the copper plate is now with the London Museum. The museum authorities have confirmed to him that they had acquired it from an antique dealer in London in 1979. The two other copper plates are still missing and have left no trace so far.

Dr MGS Narayanan who has done an extensive study on the ancient copper plates as part of his studies on Kerala history, said that the one that has surfaced in London is of great value to Kerala studies. The plate was of 12th century origin and it describes in detail the proceedings of the ancient Brahmin sabha at a village called Chellur, now Talipparamba in North Kerala. Chellur and Payyannur were among the 64 original villages set up by Brahmins in Kerala over 1,000 years ago and their history is the story of medieval Kerala and its relations with other parts of India. The copper plate which was part of the huge collection of books and documents in the North Kerala royal family of Kolathiris was donated to the Calicut University by the eminent scholar, Chirakkal T Balakrishnan Nair, who belonged to the royal family. The copper plates were kept in a secure box in the university museum for almost three decades after it acquired them in the early Seventies.

The plate was traced to London when the British Library sought the service of a famous South Indian scholar from Tanjore to decipher the writings which were in ancient Tamil/ Malayalam. It was Dr Subbarayaulu of Tanjore University who informed the scholars in Calicut University about the copper plate in London, triggering alarm bells in the Calicut University who found much of its treasures were gone.

Following a furore, the University instituted and inquiry with Dr MGS Narayanan and Dr S M Mohammed Koya, both historians who served the university as members. Dr MGS Narayanan, who headed the probe panel, said that they had submitted the report to the Vice Chancellor, but no action had been taken to recover the missing artefacts or find the culprits.

The scholars in the university are agitated and express the suspicion that a powerful clique is operating within the university, helping antique dealers get away with such booty. Senior scholars say that only a CBI inquiry with the help of Interpol could help locate the missing valuables now safely hidden away in the western museums and retrieve these historical artefacts back to their original owners, the people of the state.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Prakash Karat: A Leader with a Difference

I WAS at the Talkathora Stadium in Delhi three years ago when Prakash Karat took over as the youngest-ever general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It was an historic occasion because in fact what I was witnessing was a moment in history when a generation that saw the immense struggles for political emancipation of this country, was handing over the baton to a new generation to continue the struggle, for social and economic emancipation of millions and millions who were denied the fruits of this freedom.

It was a highly emotional, extremely meaningful moment: On the stage were those frail, battle-scarred veterans Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu, both into their nineties. Their speeches told everyone that these two, the last of the original politburo members of the CPM –the party called them navaratnas as there were nine of them-- when it was formed after the split in 1964, were making their swan-songs.

And Prakash Karat in his first speech as the new general secretary made a direct reference to this rich history of the Communist Party in India: It was the inheritor of the tradition of a great and relentless struggle, carried through many generations, accepting immense difficulties and making great sacrifices.

Then during the next two days Prakash Karat gave interviews to scores of newspapers, television channels and news agencies from all parts of India and the world, and I was the last person to meet him on day two. I was one of the few Malayalee journalists representing a Kerala newspaper, who got the interview and as I walked up to his room he was already getting up thinking the gruelling ordeal was over. He was the person primarily responsible for organizing the party congress in Delhi, as the senior PB member in charge of organization, he was based in Delhi and he had completed extremely hard work in the run up to the party congress travelling to all states, and then the six-day-long congress itself and after that he had, during the past 48 hours, answered the same, monotonous and often moronic questions from hacks from all over country, repeating his party’s positions ad nauseam…

But he still looked fresh and quite affable. He sat there across the table and as I introduced myself, he said yes, I know...

That was indeed quite gratifying. Ever since I came to Delhi I was covering the CPM beat but I never made any attempt to meet him or any other PB members personally, except S Ramachandran Pillai. It was more than three years since I had met Prakash Karat, at the Kerala state conference of the party at Kannur that took place some time in late 2000. He was staying with other PB members like Surjeet and Sitaram Yechuri in a bungalow outside the town and I went there with a camera crew as chief of the news division of Kairali Television, which the CPM state leadership had launched only a few months earlier. I had joined the television channel in a fit of recklessness (which I regretted later as I found myself jobless…) and the conference had come for us as an occasion to show our significance as the only left-of-centre television channel communicating to Malayalees all over the world.

Before that, during the days of organizing the channel and training our staff, I had occasion to contact him a few times. We were hoping to get some support from NDTV, launched by Pronnoy Roy, a close relative of his, and I got hold of Prakash in the Chennai office of CPM on the phone and he promised me that he would try to get in touch with Pronnoy…Perhaps he could not get him, because I never heard anything from him on it.

Those were the few personal contacts but I had on many occasion interviewed him and had attended his press conferences both in Delhi and Kerala and was impressed by the deft way in which he handled even the toughest media guys and the trickiest questions. But it appears that just as he gave answers to questions -- always sharp, straight and to the point -- he often took his own lessons from them. I remember one occasion: During the Delhi party congress news came that for the first time the Sri Lankan Janata Vimukti Peramuna, once known as a left extremist Sinhala group, was being invited to the 18th party congress as honored foreign delegates. I was surprised about this decision and when I rang up SRP for his clarification, he told me the party viewed them as a genuine leftist organization and that they had eschewed their parochial, violent ways. But later in a press conference announcing the details of the party congress, some journalists from Tamil Nadu exploded, questioning the correctness of the party decision. It was clear even the Tamil Nadu comrades were none too happy about it. But the invitation had already been sent and there was no way backtracking…

But this time in Coimbatore, I saw that there was no representative from JVP.

Well, Karat is a politician who has now emerged as one of the most important in the post-Independence generation in Indian politics, and he has come to stay, because he is just past sixty. Too young by Communist standards.

Now about that interview I had with him three years ago at AKG Bhavan: He gave me 20 minutes, and then he got up and I asked him the final question:

Comrade, what was your role in that decision of the party which was later described by Jyoti Basu as a historic blunder?

He was unruffled.

“What is my role? It was a collective decision,” he said as he left the room.

But it was clear Jyoti Basu did not think so. In his last speech at the party congress, at the Talkathora Stadium, he spoke lovingly and proudly about a new generation of party leaders and he specifically mentioned the name of Sitaram Yechuri and not Prakash…

(Illustration courtesy: A Hameed.)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Census Revelations

AS CENSUS Commissioner Jayant Kumar Banthia released data on religious communities in the country, the first to react were BJP’s president and RSS spokesman who found a “demographic time bomb” ticking around. The imagery of time bomb was deliberate, and they warned the sharp increase in Muslim population growth rate, as reported by the
census data, was quite dangerous for the country’s future.

Only, they were a bit premature in their reactions because Banthia, who was elevated to this critical job by the NDA Government, was pulling a fast one on them as well as the country. He was playing with figures and now the Home Ministry is inquiring about
how the faux paus on Census data release on religions came to be despite serious
differences within the Government on the advisability of such a move.

What made Naidu and Madhav see red was the statement in the first page of the analysis on Religion Data, which said that among the six major religious communities, the decadal growth of the Muslims was the highest (36.0 percent) at the 2001 Census. The analysis also said the growth rate of the Hindu population had come down from 25.1 per cent in 1981-1991 to 20.4 per cent in 1991-2001.

But the problem with this analysis was the fact that the data for the Muslim growth rate did not take into consideration the fact that the population of Jammu & Kashmir, a state with 67 per cent Muslim population, was not included in the 1991 Census as the census operations could not be carried out there owing to extremist violence. This critical information is revealed as a footnote on a later page which says that no census was conducted in Assam in 1981 and in Jammu & Kashmir in 1991.

Still, the Census Commissioner made this observation about the decadal growth in Muslim population, which was carried by the government’s own media organizations as the I&B Ministry’s Press Information Bureau highlighted this point in its press release on the census findings.

It was the vigilant press in the capital who saw through this game and exposed it the next day, and then the Census Commissioner’s Office announced that they were withdrawing the controversial analysis. Since then, the Commissioner has released adjusted figures and it says that the Muslim population growth fell from 32.9 per cent in 1981-91 to 29.3 per cent in 1991-2001. In the same period Hindu population growth fell from 22.8 per cent to 20.0 per cent. Overall, the picture is that while the Muslim population growth fell by 3.6 per cent, the Hindu population growth fell by 2.8 per cent; and the growth rate for the Muslim population has remained several points higher than the rates for others'.

It must be noted here that though data on religions were not being published by the Census Commissioner in the post Independence period, collection and tabulation was ongoing. The Commissioner, in his introductory note, says that he was taking the bold step of releasing data on religions as the National Minority Commission and Central Statistical Organization asked for such data; alongside the Commissioner acknowledged that some experts had expressed reservations on the release of such sensitive data.
* * *
Minus the numbers on religion, Census data was released a month ago, on the eve of the World Population Day. The data gives disturbing evidence on the demographic changes taking place in the country. India is now a country of more than 102.8 crore people, the second largest populated in the world after China, and what is more, we will cross the Chinese record within another 30 years. Surely this will be an unenviable achievement.

It is not that India totally failed in its population control programmes in the past decades. There have been immense efforts to bring the population growth rates down, and there is a clear indication that the efforts did bear fruit too. However, China with its one-child policy and repressive government machinery has been more successful and its rate of growth of population is much smaller compared to that in India. Hence by 2035, India is all set to replace China as the most populous country on the earth. It will be a severe test for policy makers and planners as the pressures on resources with a teeming population clamouring for basic necessities may become a nightmare.

But the numbers also tell us that in the past decade, that is 1991-2001, India had had the best results in population control measures since Independence. The growth rate in the past decade was lower by 2.3 percentage points compared to the previous decade. The growth rate, which had been 23.9 in 1981-91 fell to 21.5 in the period from 1991 to 2001.

The worst performer in the mater of population control is Bihar and this brings us to the problem of poverty and demographic patterns. Bihar remains one of the most economically backward states and its literacy figures too remain abysmally low. But in the matter of population growth, it tops the chart. The saddest part of the story is that its performance has been declining as its population growth rate which was 23.4 percent in the decade from 1981-91 actually registered a rise to 28.6 per cent in the period 1991-2001.

Bihar is proving to be a classic case of misrule and wrong priorities in social sector, going by every indicator of human development index available in the census data. Its performance in literacy status also gives the same dismal picture, as the state recorded the lowest literacy rate in the country. Its literacy rate of 47 per cent is much below the national average of 64.8 per cent. In the matter of female literacy too, it lags behind all other states.

In contrast, the impressive performance of Kerala and some other South Indian states in the matter of population control and literacy levels takes us to the question of public policy on vital issues of social life. It appears that while most of the Indian states were taking some conscious steps in the direction of improving their human development indicators, Bihar and some other northern states like Jharkhand (part of Bihar during most the past decade) were unconcerned about such matters.
Kerala’s population growth rate is the lowest at just 9.43 per cent. Its neighbours, Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh follow, with 11.72 and 14.59 percents respectively. In fact Andhra had the record fall in population growth rate, registering a fall of about ten percentage points in the decade.

Sex ratio is another clear indicator of an enlightened social life. On the national level, there has been an improvement, albeit a barely satisfactory improvement. India had 933 females for every 1000 males in the 2001 census; a slight improvement from the ratio of 927 in the 1991 census. But in Kerala, which has the highest sex ratio, there were 1058 females for every 1000 males. Pondicherry which holds the second position has 1001 females.

In literacy, Kerala is leading the pack with 90.9 per cent literacy maintaining its 1991 ranking. The national performance too was encouraging, recording a jump of 14.6 percentage points from 1991’s 52.2 percent to 64.8 in 2001. Most of the states recorded good growth in literacy levels, leaving Bihar the only spectacular failure. Today, Bihar is the only state in the country whose literacy level remains below 50 percent. In female literacy too, Bihar is at the bottom. It has replaced Rajasthan.
Kerala’s good show ends with its social sector achievements. When it comes to economic performance as reflected in the census data, the state is the real laggard. Take employment: the percentage of working people in the total population (or the work participation rate, WPR) was just 32.3%, at the bottom of the scale.

At the national level, the WPR did show an increase indicating that more people were able to find employment, either part time or full time, in the past decade. The WPR was 37.5% in 1991 and it grew marginally to 39.1% after a decade, showing a sluggish economy and poor growth in the past decade.

Another deeply disturbing trend in Kerala is that the female participation in work force is still poorer, while this number has registered an increase in the country as a whole. At the national level, the female WPR is 25.6, which means every fourth woman is economically active in the country. But in Kerala, the female WPR is as low as 15.4 percent.

The greatest revelation (some would say confirmation) of the census data is about the missing girl child. The document itself describes this as the most alarming fact emerging out of the Census 2001. It found that the child sex ratio in the 0-6 age group has been steadily declining in the country and the greatest culprits are states like Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh who fell below the less-than-800 girls for 1000 boys mark. The number of girls per 1000 boys in this age group fell from 945 in 91 to 927 at the national level, showing an alarming decrease of 18 points in just one decade.

It is a clear case of unchecked female infanticide, despite legal restrictions. This situation is cause for concern for our entire society. But economic causes are at the root of this phenomenon and with a poor economy and the burdens of dowry on the parents, more and more Indian girls are simply going missing from the womb.

N P Chekkutty
September 2004

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Kadammanitta and the Poetry of Revolution

In memory of poet Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan who died on Monday, March 31, 2008.

I FIRST met Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan in 1977 or early 1978 when I was a student at the Malabar Christian College, in Kozhikode. I was a first-year degree student and in the first college union election after the Emergency, I was elected a university union councillor.

Those were unforgettable days. The nation had been coming to grips with the terrible experiences of the Emergency through the investigations conducted by the Shah Commission at the national level and in the State, the Rajan case was unfolding which later resulted in the resignation of K Karunakaran as chief minister. Indira Gandhi had been defeated in the election and the country was under the rule of the first non-Congress government.

We were young and committed to a romantic revolutionary politics, and the Students Federation of India had been making waves in campuses across the state. The established left parties were not known for their resistance to the Emergency, and the CPI openly supported Indira Gandhi throughout the 19 months of internal emergency, but the SFI was active in campaigning against the semi-fascist rule during the Emergency. Many of the senior leaders were in jail or were underground and at the national level leaders like Prakash Karat were active in the students’ movement.

I remember the day when Emergency was declared, on June 26, 1975. We had already completed our SSLC examinations and as the news spread the students in our school at Koduvally took out a demonstration in the town and soon the police jeep came rushing in, giving us the first lessons of the Emergency rule, and all the demonstrators ran helter-skelter, most of us running home through the vast paddy fields…

Those two years were suffocating. Then in March 1977 Indira Gandhi called for elections and I remember that I was in a small town called Omassery near our village, coming home after a students meeting somewhere in the hills, when the news came through the All India Radio.

It was evening and suddenly a crowd collected in the town and in no time there took place an impromptu demonstration, people shouting slogans condemning Emergency and Indira Gandhi, in an expression of defiance after so many months of frustration. I forgot about going home and I was there in the demonstration, shouting slogans lustily as I never had had an occasion to shout slogans as we used to in all those 19 months...

It was then Kadammanitta came to our college one day. He was an imposing figure, a dark and stout man, with a coarse khadi jubba and dhothi, some books or magazines tucked in his shoulder bag…There was a lean young chap who came along with him and they said it was a poet called Balachandran Chullikkadu. I had never heard of this Chullikkadu and I didn’t care either, because I was so excited about this dark and stout man whose fiery lines had been etched into my mind.

In the two or three hours they were in the college, Kadammanitta and Balachandran recited many poems and I still remember the booming voice that hit our hearts directly, stirring something within us, telling us how revolutionary a weapon indeed was this poetry…

Since then I had heard Kadammanitta many times and at many stages, but all my memories of the man and his poetry of power take me to the first occasion as a young boy of 17 or 18, I saw him recite his poems in a thunderous voice. Kadammanitta was a symbol of defiant energy, a raw humanism that inspired all our activity and his poems brought something refreshingly original, something quite lofty and elevating to us who were small beings living through the most extraordinary times.