PUCL Bulletin, September 1992

Has Kerala Lost Its Cosmopolitanism?
By George Mathew

"Kerala became the first destination in India for Christians, Jews and Muslims whose descendants have added a cosmopolitan flavour to the state's 29 million people who are predominantly Hindu". National Geographic, May 1988

Has Kerala lost its cosmopolitan flavour? Is the common conception that Kerala society is secular and communal harmony is hallmark giving way to a lurching suspicion that all is not well on communal front? A series of communal incidents in the state- the latest one claimed eight lives which took place in the capital of the state-seem to dim the shine on the jewel of Malabar Coast.

In 1892 when Vivekananda visited Kerala, he characterised that society as a mad house of casteism giving way to cosmopolitanism: people of different religions and castes working shoulder to shoulder against social injustice and for responsible government. The 'mad house of casteism' within less than six decades elected the first ever Communist government anywhere in the world. In fact, a few years earlier to this mandate of the people, Congress President of Travancore-Cochin, C. Kesavan had the courage to react to a fire in a famous temple in the state saying, "If one temple is destroyed, that much superstition also is destroyed". There was no communal holocaust following the fire at the Sabarimala Temple, nor C. Kesavan was stoned to death. On the contrary within a few months of Kesavan's statement he was made the Chief Minister. He was reluctant though. It was 1952.

To live and let others live in a plural society need creation of a social equilibrium to be cultivated with extreme care and sensitivity. Kerala was emerging as a model for it; the state was nurturing the resilience to withstand provocations to the contrary. In a sense Kerala has the largest number active religious community organizations but it was never at each other's throat. Their contributions to social reform, democratic functioning, education, health care and social concerns had contributed to the development of a secular society.

Moreover, the balance strength of major castes and religions-Nairs 13 per cent, Ezhavas 26 per cent, Christians 21 per cent and Muslims 18 per cent- and the rural-urban continuum in the state with remarkable intermingling without ghettos were contributory factors.

But what has happened now? The affluence of certain sections has been used to the detriment of societal peace. The nouve riche in all religions seems to be fuelling the fire for their own advantage, to control organization to enhance their power and status. For them the front organizations of political parties of all hues are convenient covers to carve their sphere of influence or settle old scores with their rivals through new found money.

All the three religions have departed in the recent times from their earlier emphasis of establishing schools, colleges, technical institutions, hospitals, etc., which were competing as centres of excellence for the entire community. Now the money flowing into religious hands are being utilised to erect structures and symbols which display each one's wealth and glory to the envy and anger of others. Naturally they become targets of fire at the slightest provocation.

Sometime ago an anti-fascist conference was organized by the youth wing of the Indian Union Muslim Leagure (IUML) in Calicut, and the key-note of the gathering was that Muslims must fight for their interests through democratic and peaceful means shunning violence. The IUML has also disowned the rapidly communal Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) suspected to be behind the recent communal disturbances. But Congress (I)'s known affinity to communal organizations in Kerala and CPI (M)'s stern 'no' to them have made qualitative difference to the communal scence. In the 1987 elections to the Assembly the Congress (I) went for alliances with religious and caste based parties. The LDF took a stance against communalism. The present UDF attitude of appeasing communal/caste organizations has contributed to the emboldening of communal elements to strike at will.

An objective analysis of the communal situation in Kerala will reveal that whenever outside forces and issues come to Kerala these have tried to vitiate the atmosphere in the state. With the arrival of the RSS Bajrang Dal/VHP/BJP, distrust among communities and minority Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) whose black hand is seen behind many a communal tension came to Kerala after the militant Hindu uprising had taken place in several areas of Kerala. ISS was a reaction to RSS. Therefore is BJP or RSS put all the blame on ISS for the communal upheaval in the state, then it is missing the point.

An optimistic note is that in spite of extreme provocations from sections of Hindus, Muslims and Christians and texture of the social fabric has not been destroyed. It is hoped therefore that civil liberties organizations and other secular forces will meet the challenge and threat from fundamentalist forces, and will restore and strengthen the universal ideas and humanism for which Kerala has been known.


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