Kerala is a state that is exhibiting an advanced application of European Enlightenment values. Its cohesion is the direct result of these shared values. North Indian commentators do not understand this phenomenon in Kerala. They comment on Kerala through a limited ‘right-wing prism’ that diffracts their vision as various denominations of caste and religions. In many ways, they live in the time wrap of prewar Europe. The nature of discourse on ‘nationalism’ and ‘anti-nationalism’ is just a reflection of this time warp. Keralites should understand this conundrum, and sympathize with them. They need upliftment rather than antagonism- for no modern state can exist without application of the Enlightenment values.
Context: In Aug 2018 Kerala was ravaged by the worst floods of the century. But the community response to the flood relief was overwhelming, and it was widely praised by media and global agencies as a model to watch out. However, certain group of people tried to milk sectarian interest here as well. This note was written in the context of a debate that emerged subsequently.
On 18th August 2018, as Kerala was hit by the worst of the century, Rajiv Malhotra, a high profile US based fundraiser tweeted that Hindus in Kerala should be supported, while Christians and Muslims have overseas fund for their rescue ( and ergo, needn’t be supported). This tweet created an uproar and Malhotra deleted it soon. When I posted a collage of the hate campaigns against Kerala, including that of Rajiv Malhotra, a friend asked me why I am giving importance to these trolls. I replied that Rajiv Malhotra is not any ordinary troll, but an influential Hindu intellectual who by his own admission has devoted his life for the cause defending the ‘Hindu’ cause. I have read a few of his books. His videos in the Y-tube are quite popular, and he is considered one of the frontline intellectuals of the Hindutva brigade. Clearly, Rajiv is not a common slander-monger.
Subsequently, Malhotra came up with a video defending his position. He cited the example of tsunami relief work in Tamilnadu where according to him the Christian missionaries used tsunami relief fund to convert entire villages to Christianity. I do not the deny the plausibility of such an incident.
But the mistake Rajiv Malhotra made was when he thought Kerala is like any other place. Kerala is a state rapidly advancing to agnosticism the way Europe did in the 1990s. Kerala is not Tamilnadu where money can buy faith. Yes, Kerala has its share of Jihadis. But they are a micro-minority who are in the course of obsolescence.
What is important to note is the ‘opinion-milling’ and argumentative nature of Kerala society. This argumentativeness differentiates it from the rest of India, and create a ‘social cohesion’ rarely seen elsewhere in India. The social cohesion of Keralites is not due to any tribal or ethnic identity but upon a certain set of shared virtues that consistently makes it the best state concerning every index of human development.
North Indian right-wing commentators have difficulty in comprehending the invincibility of communist parties in Kerala. They consider ‘communism’ as a fallen ideology and barely understands how it maintains its grip on Kerala. They make easily explicable conspiracy theories that in Kerala communist anti-nationals are in collusion with Islamic jihadi anti-nationals. But what eludes their understanding is how Kerala demonstrates the enviable show in indices of governance and social welfare.
My answer to this is simple: Communism of communist parties in Kerala is only in their name- they are indeed ‘pseudo-communist’ social democratic parties ( see for a long view on this: ) What we see are parties espousing social democratic commitment similar to that seen in Europe following the devastation of the Second World War.
None of the so-called capitalist European nations espouse capitalism to its core. Most of them are distinguished by an extreme degree of social investment ( yes, socialist investment) in health, education and elderly care. This they do at the expense of exorbitant social expenditures. They can afford to do so as after the Second World War, Western European nations stopped fighting amongst themselves. Their security was ‘outsourced’ to the big brother the United States. While the United States maintained a capitalist economy, Europe practiced a ‘socialist economy’ at the expense of the US’s protection. Indeed, the rebuilding of Germany after the war was aided by a huge infusion of US funds under the Marshall plan ( mostly one-way infusion of funds from the US to Europe in return of bulk trading of protection from the US: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Plan). All this was thanks to the scare of the Soviet Union next door, eagerly waiting to extend its tentacles. Thus, while political communism died in Russia, welfare economies flourished and became the mainstay in the Western Europe. Because of communism Russians suffered, but the western Europeans gained. Western Europe adopted the social principles of communism but projected themselves as ‘capitalist’. These nations turned out to be ‘pseudo-capitalists’ in their social policies.
Immediate Post-war European principle of governance was to invest in social sector irrespective of economic consequences in the short term. This yielded exponential medium to long-term benefits. Kerala’s first communist government did precisely the same. Huge investment in education and health was coupled with revolutionary redistribution of land wealth by the liquidation of feudalism. This they did at tremendous political cost. The first communist government was dismissed within 14 months of assumption of power. But the agenda it had set up continued to influence subsequent governments including that of the Congress governments in the state. Kerala took an irreversible leftward social democratic path, not dissimilar to the path taken by the seemingly capitalist states of Western Europe. Social investment created short-term fiscal issues and conflicts, but created benefits that were exponential in proportion in the long term. When the West Asian states started to develop their petroleum-based economy, Kerala provided a steady source of high quality human resource. This could not have happened but for the policies of the early governments of the state. A consequent development was the evolution of a Kerala- West Asian twin economy, both synergistic to each other. Here there was a strange anomaly. While the western Asian economies were ultra-capitalist, the attitude back home in Kerala was that of traditional ‘unionist’ communism. This again created a ferment. The party leadership- with insidious practical inputs from party sympathizer in West Asia, started to change. They, much like Deng Xiaoping of China, began to adopt economic policies that again were more close to postwar Europe. This means that while economically the system favoured enterprise, socially the focus was not capitalist- ie in spite of fiscal restriction, there was continued focus and investment on social welfare.
This syncretic nature of Kerala is totally oblivious to the North Indian right-wingers. They dismiss Kerala as a ‘remittance-state.’ But they don’t have the insight to understand that other populations in the Middle East like the Bangladeshis and the Pakistanis didn’t flourish as dramatically as did Keralites.
In short, there is no communism in Kerala, but social democracy as practiced in postwar Europe. Again, there is no Laissez-faire capitalism in the post-war Europe, but pseudo-capitalist social welfarism, copied out of the scare of the communist Soviet Union in the neighborhood ever eager to expand.
This unique nature of common values gels Keralites to an extremely proud cultural cohesion that stalls Hindutva brigade making inroads to Kerala.
Gujarat, on the contrary, is diametrically opposite to Kerala. It’s the foremost laboratory of Hindutva experiment in India.
Gujarat for historical and geographical reasons has been the abode of merchants of different ethnic stock. It is also a crossroad where many foreign conquests happened. It has a sizeable tribal population that is virtually cut off from the mainstream population. Certain tribes1 like Dangs were so hostile and belligerent that the British notified them as ‘criminal tribes’. Merchant classes in Gujarat operate as a closely networked family-caste-religious groups. Gujarati derives ‘meaning’ from their trade. Trade is a means unto itself. The community is not used to ‘opinion-milling’, unlike the Keralites. Opinions are ‘monolithic’ across communities and argumentativeness is not a social habit.
Because of the absence of ‘information-milling’ opinions in the community are generally ‘preformed’ and static. Thus, there is an unconditional acceptance of all the traditional views. These include the views that there was a golden age in India where everything good in the modernity was already ‘discovered’, and that it was the Islamic invasion of India that led to the decline in India; that Muslims and Pakistanis are India’s sworn enemy, and that the people in South India are anti-Hindu, and this has much to do with the communist and Dravidian politics in the South. Here there is no finer differentiation between communism, Left politics, Dravidian politics, the legitimacy of conflicts between India and its neighbors and so on and so forth. BJP’s simplistic coinage of words like ‘anti-national’ , ‘pseudo-secularism’ , ‘Islamism’ has much currency and much social-cognitive value ( these words helps to rapidly classify people and get ‘snap answers’ to problems that have highly intricate nuances).
The contrast between Kerala and Gujarat was most evident in Gujarat riots. I had the misfortune of witnessing this in the first hand in 2002 when I was doing my residency in Medicine in Baroda, the ground zero of Gujarat riots. Godhra was 50 km from Baroda. The infamous Best Bakery case where 14 people were burned to death happened in Baroda.
When Godhra incident happened, and as the news of hartal and sporadic violence started pouring in, I thought that it would be contained and everything would be normal in 1-2 days. But it didn’t. I didn’t know in the wildest of my dreams that we are facing for 2 months shutdown and a riot that would take 2000 lives. It was a tsunami in waiting. Waves and waves of violence that was almost unrestrained. As I discussed it with my colleagues, the response was almost unanimous. Muslims need to be taught a lesson. The surprising thing was that unlike in Kerala, I found very few ‘contrarian’ views on this. But when I asked few contrarian questions regarding the long-term sustainability of violence as a social response, few of them turned around and came to my point of view.
‘Teaching a lesson’ is a mob response. If you want to penalise the crime of a person of a community, you penalize everyone in the community. It may be a nuclear physicist teaching in Baroda university (https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/js-bandukwala/234461). It may be a pregnant lady commuting for her medical checkup. Bystander killing or Collateral killing is a tribal response. Its consequences were not apparent for Gujaratis at that moment of frenzy. CM Modi famously invoked the third law of Newton and proclaimed that for every action there will be equal and opposite reaction. It was a clear legitimization of mob violence. Rule of law was suspended for a period of time. Decisions were communicated to local police without leaving a paper trail. The officers who deposed against were persecuted. Those who stayed blind eye were rewarded with cozy post-retirement positions. It was a complete breakdown of the rule of law.
Rule of law is not quite an Indian concept. It emerged from the Western Enlightenment values.2 But for a nation as big as modern states need to exit effectively you need to have rule of law steadfastly enforced. If this rule is not followed you will get disgruntled elements complaining of ‘asymmetrical justice’, and who over a period of time would foment trouble in the form of insurgency. We have seen this in Srilanka, in Arab militancy ( see Sykes-Picot pact: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sykes–Picot_Agreement), and in India numerous insurgencies in the North and the East. After many years, we came to know that the videos of Gujarat riots were the main campaign videos for fundraising and recruitment for militants groups like Indian Mujahideen. But the time long-term consequences of the breach of ‘rule of law’ comes to play, the initial event that led to the unrest would be forgotten, and armed conflict would take center stage as the only plausible solution. Being of right-wing disposition ( the nature of cognition in people who are right wing has been studied. See Jonathan Haidt: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/the-psychology-of-moral-divides/510569/), the ‘rule of law’ breakers would soon forget their own wrong-doing and resolve to fight a war against the ‘evil offenders’. ‘Evil’ is a word invented by people of right-wing disposition who cannot think beyond their immediate adversity.
Now, there are thousands of riots and programs in human history. We cannot account for all these events from modern scales. Because ‘rule of law’ is a modern conception. Its actual application in running governments is even more recent. I would date it as recent as the world that developed following the culmination of the Second World War. It emerged in the West and is slowly disseminating to the other parts of the world. In India it’s application is patchy and haphazard. In the vast swathe of North-India you barely see it in practice.
But in Kerala, you see its progressive and even ‘precocious’ application. We saw it in Marad riots, a riot that could have flared to be another Gujarat riot had it been in any of the Northern states. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marad_massacre). I would say that if you compare Gujarat riots to any other, the correct comparison should be to Marat riots and how it was contained. You cannot compare it with Malabar riots, the 1980 Sikh riots or the partition related riots- because of the very reason ‘rule of law’ is a recent concept. It didn’t have ‘practical’ existence (although in theory, it emerged from European Enlightenment) prior to the postwar world.
To conclude, Kerala is a state that is exhibiting an advanced application of European Enlightenment values. Its cohesion is the direct result of these shared values. North Indian commentators do not understand this phenomenon in Kerala. They comment on Kerala through a limited ‘right-wing prism’ that diffracts their vision as various denominations of caste and religions. In many ways, they live in the time wrap of prewar Europe. The nature of discourse on ‘nationalism’ and ‘anti-nationalism’ is just a reflection of this time warp. Keralites should understand this conundrum, and sympathize with them. They need upliftment rather than antagonism- for no modern state can exist without application of the Enlightenment values.2
- During Gujarat riots, significant portions of rioters were the tribal. The VHP have been working on these people for many decades, and had created a militant network among these tribes with anti-Muslim animosity as a binding theme. Most of these tribes were outside the traditional Hindu fold. To avert them being proselytizing by the Christian missionaries VHP systematically worked on them for decades ‘Hinduvising’ their traditional practices. Gujarat riots were when these background works was unleashed as a terrorizing influence. My objection to the ‘social service of RSS group of parties is precisely on this point. The illiberal groups (whether it is Muslim groups like Jamata Islami or Christian groups like various Christian missionaries) create ‘illiberal’ behavior in unsuspecting recipient of their charity. They use ‘charity’ to gain social respectability and legitimacy. The RSS was banned by then Home minister Sardar Vallabai Patel after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Its ban was only lifted when Patel got assurance from its leaders that it would respect Indian constitutional machineries. It slowly achieved social legitimacy by ‘social service’ activities. Incidentally, the Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attack is a major social service donor in Pakistan. In the 2014 Kashmir floods, Saeed’s organization was in the forefront of charity work.
- Enlightenment values are empiricism ( belief in evidence that is demonstrated rather than that is narrated in scriptures), skepticism (a natural extension of empiricism- an attitude of belief only when evidence is overwhelming and consistent- skepticism and empiricism is the backbone of science. http://skepticsvocabulary.com/article-detail/51/skepticism.html ; liberalism: an attitude of tolerance of divergent views unless the view impinges on the attitude of tolerance itself; individualism: consideration of the individuals right to personal liberty, with individual being considered as the basic unit of the society –vs community or tribe being considered as the basic unit as the society)