Kerala, redux

The calls from Kerala where I have family, and friends on various sides of the political spectrum, were jocular; much amusement was apparently occasioned by the BJP’s ‘Janraksha Yatra’. Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath were particularly ripe targets for that peculiarly Mallu brand of humor, whose chief characteristic is savage cynicism.

Thus, Shah panicking at the lack of crowds, traction and media pickup for his carefully-planned ‘mega event’, and consequently having to run back to Delhi and hold his march there to get coverage in the national media, triggered mirth. As did Yogi Adityanath’s ‘fiery’ speeches and his suggestion that Kerala’s government should visit Uttar Pradesh to learn how to run hospitals properly — especially given that almost at the same time, 16 more children died in a 24-hour span at the BRD Hospital, scene of the August tragedy that claimed over 60 lives. Even Adityanath’s wildly exaggerated claim that hundreds were dying in Kerala of dengue and chickangunya was dismissed as sound and fury to no purpose. The amusement was magnified when President RN Kovind, on a state visit to Kerala, lauded the government for its work in maintaining communal harmony.  “These guys,” my interlocutor of the time told me through chuckles, “can’t even coordinate their messaging properly.”

But humor is fraying around the edges, especially these last couple of days. After a bomb hurled at a CPM rally injured 14, including four policemen. And after a police raid, a day later, on a BJP office in the sensitive Kannur region unearthed an assortment of weapons including steel bombs.

No one is laughing now. The mood, as far as I can judge, is turning decidedly ugly; the feeling appears to be that the BJP/RSS combine has unleashed its entire arsenal of dirty tricks. There was, I heard from a source I know to be politically unaffiliated, a semblance of peace in the sensitive Kannur belt after a spate of killings earlier this year — but this latest bomb attack, and the discovery of more bombs, has put the area in ferment again.

There is anger, too, at the growing incidence of fake news calculated to cause societal unrest. On the first day of this month, news was spread that a woman worker of the BJP had been murdered in gory fashion. It was actually a clip from a street play on violence. Four days later, What’sApp was rife with rumors that dozens of children had fallen unconscious, and some were critical, after being vaccinated. On October 8 and 9, another fake video in wide circulation alleged that a migrant worker from Bengal had been killed by locals. The “news” led to large numbers of migrants fleeing from the state, and prompted Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to order an inquiry.

I need to stress, again, that much of what I heard over the last few days comes from a dozen or so people I have been in regular touch with since earlier this year when violence began to escalate. Extrapolating from a dozen voices to guage the mood of a state is always fraught, as journalists who have covered elections and got it horribly wrong can tell you. But to the best of my belief, these voices are representative of a larger mood, and that mood is turning decidedly ugly. 

Anger against the BJP/RSS seems to be peaking; the feeling is that the saffron combine is playing a calculated game of provocation in the hope that it will trigger retaliatory violence that can then be used to underscore its argument that Kerala is in a state of anarchy. Alongside that, fake news is being spread with a plan and a purpose: to create communal divides, to foment fear among migrant labor.

A Calicut-based journalist, whose beat for a leading Malayalam newspaper includes Kannur, called last night and in course of an angry rant, he said something that was so striking, I asked him to repeat so I could take it down verbatim. He led into it with talk of how it was all part of a BJP gameplan to ensure that it won at least 15 seats across the state in the 2019 general election, and then he said:

“The <bleep> BJP is proving in Kerala that there is no depth to which it will not descend, that no low is too low, in its pursuit of power. But look at the state of the country — these <bleep> who will do anything for power have no <bleep> idea what to do with power once they get it, they have no idea how to govern, they have no time to administer because their entire energy is spent in ceaseless campaign mode. If this keeps up, I am very much afraid that something bad, really bad, will happen here, sooner than later — and these <bleep> will have our blood on their hands.”

You cannot understand, he told me, what it is like here unless you come down and see it for yourself. “And you should,” was his sign off.

I intend to make a short exploratory trip later this month, around the 20th, and then go back for a longer trip across the state in November.

Meanwhile, some related reading:

  1. Let’s talk about Kerala — my post from last month on the one-sided narrative around political violence in Kerala
  2. Fake News and Real Problems: A post from end-September, about the dangers of spreading false stories
  3. The science behind fake news: A Vox piece on the science behind why the impact of fake news lingers even after it is disproved


One thought on “Kerala, redux

  1. “If it walks like a duck…. ” except, these people just can’t figure out why this particular duck is so different. For them, it is forever a surprise that this state behaves so oddly. I have personally seen the stark difference between the reactions to events along the border of Karnataka and Kerala. Things that catch up fast in Mangalore and snowball into communal frenzy get a beating just across the border. Boy-girl of different communities traveling together in a bus, for example (And this has happened with the daughter of the Manjeshwara MLA who studied in a Mangalore college).
    These things simply don’t catch on in Kerala. Now you might say that it is because of the literacy levels, or demography, or culture, or history and so on. But if I may suggest – I think it is because the Keralite happens to believe his/her own myth. I am not being disparaging nor dismissive. But it has always fascinated me that Malayalis have a world-view that is often not the reality but made up entirely from what it believes it should be. I think most of the country used to be like that just a few decades ago. How we used to fervently believe in “unity in diversity”. how we used to embrace the patriotic songs and desh geets and national integration and so on.

    This, to my mind, was the greatest loss since the advent of satellite television. The forced, barf-worthy fare of state television used to somehow, in its own way, influence people with its mild pro-state propaganda and for the most part the people were innocent enough to stand by the official line.

    This, in Kerala’s context, still exists. God’s Own Country, the campaign for tourism turned into something fierce and mythical. The communal harmony that we see is not only because of the commingling of common histories between communities, but also because the average Malayali truly believes he/she is utterly secular. The other day, watching Tiyaan, I was amused beyond anything when I heard a line from the priest Pattabhiraman instructing a foreigner – “Intonation is everything. Sanskrit utterances have great power, but they need to be pronounced properly. That is why I told you to learn Malayalam – it is based on Sanskrit”. I could not help but wince while laughing too. The Manipravala Malayalam is what, a few centuries old? But most Malayalis take it for granted that it has always existed as the lingua franca. The truth is, the proto-dravidian and proto-tamil languages that were commonplace just a few centuries ago had nothing to do with Sanskrit. In fact, Verbotten for most commoners to even use Sanskrit words on the pain of death or worse. Now does that mean that there is Dravida pride in Kerala, then? Not at all. Like I said, very unique and very heartening. The combination of all these things is something that mystifies the Sangh Parivar, which is essentially a northern formation which has blinkers on and cannot see anything south of the Vindhyas, just as their great god only encountered monkeys, asuras and bird-people and yakshas in the south in the quest for his wife. (By the way, a digression – you can see remnants of the proto-Tamil Malayalam in parts of Kerala. Tanni for water is commonplace in both Kasargod district as well as Palghat Wynad etc. Lots of words that sound funny to people of interior Kerala are probably not just appropriate but also purer in form and etymology in these forgotten dialects).

    This funny (but in bad taste) memory always remains with me to completely describe the North-South divide when it comes to Malayalis versus the rest. When in engineering college we had rented out a house in the middle of a plantation, near the college. Half Malayalis and half from the North. There was a lot of bantering and exchange of cultural info, which was good. Except when there were fights and each would utter expletives in their own mother-tongues. So one day, one diminutive Nigel Cherian gets frustrated with a dumb giant “Northie” and spits out venomously “Phoo… Po da, P***rie Mone!!!” And the North Indian is completely red with fury because the one half of the population is laughing at the slight. And he retorts, “Tu saala, undu gundu.. Tu Idli Sambar Mone, Tu Masala Dosa Mone”
    Yeah… I can never forget that. And it always brings back this memory when I see big toad Shah and the likes utter something completely un-understanding of the ground realities of Kerala. While the Malayali will always contemptuously swat them away, these people, stung, will always lash out with masala dosa and idli sambar as expletives – simply because no one told them that poorie bhaji in Malayalam describes them completely and they could not understand why. (Sorry, tasteless, but unavoidable… bleep** if you wish). Po Mone, Yogi.

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