Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s article in The Indian Express, The Sabarimala Aftermath, will make Malayalis sit up and think. The salients of the column are three:

  1. Being a country that professes constitutional rule and primacy to rule of law, a mobilization to damn the authority of the Supreme Court is a dangerous path to tread. “The idea that mobs can prevent and intimidate women, who are, as of now, exercising a right they have won in the Supreme Court should worry us.”
  2. Sabarimala highlights that India’s political parties have shied away from carrying the burden of social reform as part of their political platform. “Both the BJP and, in its own way, the Congress, are quite ready to play the politics of religious consolidation. Both are giving succor to orthodoxies that make them counter reformist rather than vehicles of reform… The ominous spectre of India’s two national parties lining up behind orthodoxy (on Sabarimala issue) should alarm you.”
  3. The left government in Kerala led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has “no option but to try and implement the Supreme Court order. He has to do it in a way that the BJP is not able to don the mantle of martyrdom.”

Only a liberal thinker could have articulated such a compelling view dispassionately observing from the heights. What Mehta, one of the most respected observers and thinkers on India’s political economy, has written is indeed the crux of the matter.

Of course, being a Malayali who has lived in the “lunatic asylum” that is Kerala, there is also a caste dimension to what is going on. The agitation in Kerala is an upper caste agitation, but the lumpen elements probably provide the foot soldiers.

The BJP has sized up that Kerala is ripe for such an agitation. As Mehta hinted, the historic social reform movements that transformed Kerala in the 1930 such as Temple Entry have run out of steam. And retrogression is in full evidence. Today it is about Sabarimala. But what will prevent these people from agitating tomorrow that as until a century ago, lower caste women should not cover their breasts anymore – or that Brahmins should have precedence over the husbands of Nair women for sexual intercourse? Yes, the 64 “anacharams” prescribed exclusively for Malayalis in the aftermath of the decimation of Buddhism from the region have no parallel in human history – and they were in vogue for centuries as Hindu “beliefs” and “traditions”.

Meanwhile, a “re-Sanskritization” has also been steadily going on. For example, the great reformer Sreenarayana Guru advised the lower castes to simplify marriage rites and dispense with Brahmin priests, as communion with god didn’t really need intermediaries. But the orthodox belief has staged a comeback. The Guru advised his followers to think beyond castes. But how many of them dare to marry from outside their castes?

The tragedy of Kerala is that the inheritors of the wave of modernization and reform of the 1920s and 1930s turned out to be the communist parties, who after consolidating their electoral base by riding the wave of radical reform and creating synergy for their political platform, incrementally began behaving as if history had ended. Whereas, social reform in such an archaic society as ours is a continuous, continuing process and a standstill means retrogression.

Someone like Sreenarayana Guru may not appear again before another millennium. Sambhavami Yuge Yuge (‘I will come back millennium after millennium’)– as Bhavagat Gita says.

A lot of alienation is visible and the BJP hopes to cash in on it, although the party’s leadership in Kerala as such is heavily dominated by the upper castes who form a small minority of the Hindu population.

Fundamentally, therefore, Kerala’s salvation lies in the communists going back to their roots. How they do it is their business. In the 1950, in my childhood, the communists even had standing people’s theatres and literary circles to propagate progressive ideas.

The Malayalis’ openness to the ideology of Marxism must be seen in historical context. Social reform (breaking the outmoded crust of religion and caste) is not antithetical to Marxian ideology. At any rate, compulsions of “bourgeois politics” should not come in the way.

The communist parties and Congress have been neck-to-neck in electoral support most of the time. But there is no hope on earth that the conservative Congress leaders will touch with a barge pole an “unprofitable” issue such as social reform, where there is no quantifiable gain.

The really obnoxious part, however, is that Congress has begun competing with the BJP in courting the forces of obscurantism and religious orthodoxy. For a party that is trying to differentiate itself as the platform of secular, democratic, modern India, this is an abominable degeneration. The party is on the same disastrous path that it took in recent decades in Uttar Pradesh, the home state of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, where it is a zephyr today – a fine cotton gingham.

(M.K.Bhadrakumar is former Ambassador with a distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service).