Kerala is a state that shows signs of an advanced application of European Enlightenment values. Its social 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 into various denominations of caste and religions. In many ways, they live in the time warp 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 sympathise with them. They need upliftment rather than antagonism – for no modern state can exist without the application of the Enlightenment values.
Context: In Aug 2018, Kerala was ravaged by the worst floods the state had experienced in a century. But the community response in providing flood relief was overwhelming, and was widely praised by media and global agencies as an exemplary model. However, a 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 floods the state had experienced in a century, Rajiv Malhotra, a high-profile US-based author tweeted that Hindus in Kerala should be supported, while Christians and Muslims receive overseas funds to rescue them (ergo, they needn’t be supported). This tweet created an uproar, causing Malhotra to quickly delete it. 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 to defending the “Hindu” cause. I have read a few of his books. His videos on Youtube 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 put out a video defending his position. He cited the example of tsunami relief work in Tamil Nadu, where, according to him, the Christian missionaries used tsunami relief funds to convert entire villages to Christianity.
I do not deny the plausibility of such an incident. But the mistake Rajiv Malhotra made was that 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 Tamil Nadu where money can buy faith. Yes, Kerala has its share of Jihadis. But they are a micro-minority who are on their way to obsolescence.
What is important to note is the “opinion-milling” and argumentative nature of Kerala society. This argumentativeness differentiates the people in Kerala from the rest of India, and creates a “social cohesion” rarely seen elsewhere in India. The social cohesion of Keralites is not due to any tribal or ethnic identity but is based on a certain set of shared virtues that consistently makes it the best state across every index of human development.
North Indian right-wing commentators have difficulties in comprehending the invincibility of communist parties in Kerala. They consider communism a fallen ideology, and barely understand how it maintains its grip on Kerala. They make easily explicable conspiracy theories about Kerala communist anti-nationals colluding with Islamic jihadi anti-nationals. But what eludes their understanding is how Kerala demonstrates enviable progress in indices of governance and social welfare.
My answer to this is simple: the communism of communist parties in Kerala is in name only – they are indeed “pseudo-communist” social democratic parties (See for a long view article). What we see in actuality is parties espousing a 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, in fact, owe their economic stability to their keen commitment to 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 since after the Second World War, Western European nations stopped fighting amongst themselves. Their security was “outsourced” to Big Brother, the United States and while the US maintained a capitalist economy, Europe practiced a “socialist economy” at the expense of US 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 for bulk trading protection from the US). All this was thanks to the scare of the Soviet Union next door, eagerly waiting to extend its tentacles. In due course, political communism died in Russia, and welfare economies flourished and became the mainstay in Western Europe. The Russians may have suffered because of communism, but the western Europeans only reaped benefits. 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.
The immediate post-war European principle of governance was to invest in the 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, post independence. Huge investment in education and health was coupled with a revolutionary redistribution of land wealth with the liquidation of feudalism – which was done at tremendous political cost. The first communist government was dismissed within fourteen months of assumption of power. But the agenda it had set up continued to influence subsequent governments, including 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 the long term. When the West Asian states started to develop their petroleum-based economy, Kerala provided a steady source of high quality human resources. 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 with each other. Here there was a strange anomaly: while the West Asian economies were ultra-capitalist, the attitude in Kerala was that of a traditional “unionist” communism. This again created political ferment. The party leadership – with insidious practical inputs from party sympathisers in West Asia – started to shift focus. They, much like Deng Xiaoping of China, began to adopt economic policies that again, were closer to postwar Europe. This meant that while economically the system favoured enterprise, socially the focus was not capitalist – despite fiscal restriction, there was continued focus and investment on social welfare.
The North Indian right-wingers are entirely oblivious of Kerala’s syncretism . They dismiss Kerala as a “remittance-state”, but they don’t have the insight to understand that other populations in South Asia like the Bangladeshis and the Pakistanis – who make up most of the expat population in West Asia, where the remittance apparently comes from – didn’t flourish as dramatically as the Keralites did.
In short, there is no communism in Kerala, but there is a social democracy similar to what was practiced in postwar Europe. In the same way, there is no laissez-faire capitalism in post-war Europe, but pseudo-capitalist social welfarism, a copy born from the scare of the communist Soviet Union in the neighbourhood ever eager to expand.
This unique nature of common values gels Keralites to an extremely proud cultural cohesion that stalls the Hindutva brigade making inroads to Kerala.
Gujarat, on the contrary, is diametrically opposite to Kerala. It’s the foremost laboratory of the 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. Merchant classes in Gujarat operated as a close network of family-caste-religious groups. The average Gujarati derives “meaning”’ from their trade, which is a means unto itself. The community is not used to “opinion-milling”, unlike Kerala. Opinions are monolithic across communities and argumentativeness is not a habit which is part of their social fabric.
Because of the absence of “information-milling”, opinions in the community are generally “pre-formed” and static. Thus, there is an unconditional acceptance of traditional views. This includes the idea that there was a golden age in India during which all modern technology was actually “invented”; and the Islamic invasion led to the decline in India; Muslims and Pakistanis are India’s sworn enemy; the people in South India are anti-Hindu what with the communist and Dravidian politics in the South. Here, there are no finer differentiations between communism, Left politics, Dravidian politics, the legitimacy of conflicts between India and its neighbours 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 help rapidly classify people and get snap answers to problems that have highly intricate nuances.
The contrast between Kerala and Gujarat was most evident during the Gujarat riots. I had the misfortune of witnessing this first hand in 2002 when I was doing my medical residency in Baroda, 50 km from Godhra, ground zero of the Gujarat riots. The infamous “Best Bakery Case” where fourteen people were burned to death happened in Baroda.
When the Godhra incident happened, as the news of hartal and sporadic violence started pouring in, I thought it would be contained, and everything would be normal in one or two days. But it didn’t. I didn’t imagine in the wildest of my dreams that we would face a two month-long shutdown and the riots would take 2000 lives. It was like there was a tsunami-in-waiting with waves and waves of violence that almost entirely unrestrained. When I discussed it with my colleagues, I discovered that 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. That said, when I asked a few contrarian questions regarding the long-term sustainability of violence as a social response, a few of them came around to seeing it from my point of view.
To “teach a lesson” is a mob response. If you want to penalise a person from a certain community for a crime, you penalise everyone in the community. It may be a nuclear physicist teaching in Baroda university or a pregnant lady commuting for her medical checkup. Bystander killing or collateral killing is a tribal response. Its consequences were not apparent for the Gujaratis in that moment of frenzy. CM Modi famously invoked the third law of Newton and proclaimed that for every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction which sounded like a clear legitimisation of mob violence. Rule of law was suspended for a period of time and decisions were communicated to local police without leaving a paper trail. The officers who deposed against the government (Sanjiv Bhatt, RB Sreekumar) were persecuted. Those who stayed blind-eyed 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 Enlightenment values.2 But for a nation as big as India, to function efficiently you need to have the rule of law steadfastly enforced. If the law is not followed you will get disgruntled elements complaining of “asymmetrical justice”, and who over a period of time will foment trouble in the form of insurgency. We have seen this in Sri Lanka, in Arab militancy ( see Sykes-Picot pact), and in India with the numerous insurgencies in the North and the East. After many years, it came to light that the videos of the Gujarat riots were the main campaign videos for fundraising and recruitment of militant groups like the Indian Mujahideen. But by the time the long-term consequences of the breach of “rule of law’” came to play, the initial event that led to the unrest was forgotten, and armed conflict took centre 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), the “rule of law” breakers soon forget their own wrong-doing and resolve to fight a war against the “evil offenders”. “Evil” is only a word invented by people of right-wing disposition who cannot think beyond their immediate adversity.
Now, there have been thousands of riots and pogroms in human history. We cannot account for all these events using modern scales and the “rule of law” is a modern conception. Its actual application in running governments is even more recent. I would say it is 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 other parts of the world. In India its 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 the Marad riots, a riot that could have flared into another Gujarat riot had it taken place in any of the Northern states. I would say that if you compare the Gujarat riots to any other, the correct comparison should be to the Marad 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 that the “rule of law” is a recent concept. It didn’t have a practical existence before the war.
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 warp 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 sympathise 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 proselytising 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 terrorising 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’ behaviour 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 organisation 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)