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Sabarimala: Caste Redux

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Speaking Tree
09th January, 2019 06:50 IST

It is not so much plain misogyny as assertion of caste that explains the Sabarimala row


To observers outside Kerala, Sabarimala is all about misogyny, a misguided mass construing one strand of anti-woman tradition as a pillar of faith. But to those in Kerala, it is increasingly clear that resurgence of caste marks the Sabarimala protests, gender injustice being one element subsumed in that assertion of caste.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Kerala’s caste system practised unapproachability. Even proximity could pollute. The Nair polluted the Namboodiri if he was less than 31 ft away. An Ezhava polluted the Nair within a radius of 31 f. And so on.


Curbs on Female Sexuality…


Men and women of lower castes had to reveal their caste by wearing or eschewing specific garments and ornaments. Caste permeated language. Lower caste members could not use the same terms as those used by their caste superiors. A man was beaten to death for asking for salt at a shop, instead of describing the product by its taste as his caste required him to. Vivekananda described Kerala as a madhouse.


This obnoxious caste culture was overturned by stiff resistance, ideological and physical, by large sections of the people. Narayana Guru challenged the Brahmanical order, drawing on resources within Hinduism, namely the Vedantic philosophy of Advaita. Advaita means non-duality, and posits the unity of prakriti and purusha, the creator and the created. Everything and everyone is a manifestation of the same unknowable metaphysical entity that is called Atman. The seeming difference between things is maya, or illusion.


Sankara, the fiercest ideologue of Advaita, travelled across India, challenging scholars to debate philosophy and trounced everyone. Once, goes the story, a chandala, a member of the lowest of low castes, startled him by turning up very close to him. Sankara scolded him for his insolence. The chandala then asked him what in Vedanta allowed him to maintain distinctions between castes. Sankara is said to have owned up his error and apologised.


Narayana Guru drew upon this undermining of caste by Vedanta to declare that mankind has only one caste. What is important, goes the corollary, is to be a decent human being, whatever your faith. He challenged Brahmanical orthodoxy in practical terms, too. An Ezhava, he lacked scriptural sanction to set up temples or consecrate idols. He established several temples. In one of them, he consecrated a mirror. See the Atman in yourself for you to worship, was his message.


Ayyankali, a leader of the Pulayas, a caste that worked the land and is a scheduled caste today, led India’s first strike, against denial of admission to a Pulaya girl to a government school. We will refuse to till the land, he declared, till our children can go to school. There were attempts to kill him, but he fought off his would-be assassins, and led a boycott of cultivation for three crop cycles, after which the upper caste landowners caved in and accepted lower caste children in schools.


…A Cornerstone of Caste


Reform movements flowered among the upper castes, too, Nair and Namboodiri organisations combating regressive custom, many oppressive towards women.


Christian missionaries set up schools. Caste groups set up schools, seeing education as the key to emancipation. Fear of loss of legitimacy led the state, too, to open many schools. Thus did southern Kerala get an early start in mass education. Malabar, part of the British-ruled Madras Presidency, did not see much of this social ferment. Malabar modernised later, thanks to the organisation and efforts of the Communists.


The anti-caste movement had weakened the ties of rigid hierarchy that had bound Kerala society, when the Communists began to organise section after section of workers and occupations, seeking land reform, better wages and dignity, besides Independence. Communists hegemonised Kerala society by the 1970s, and most political parties of the state became variants of the state’s communists, competing to organise and empower different sections of society.


But the Communists did not have an anti-caste agenda, nor did they see gender equality as a key driver of overturning caste or creating a just society. Most Communists were patriarchs at home. Their transformative agenda petered out after land reforms were implemented. Building capitalism was anathema, but progress in the real world meant capitalist growth. Kerala stagnated in economic terms. Nasty thing fester in stagnant pools. One such thing is resurgent Brahmanism, the ideology of caste. To flout ritual traditions, particularly one that weakens control of women’s sexuality, a cornerstone of caste, is to attack the legitimacy of caste superiority.


Stunted local economic growth has led to the relative diminution of traditional Hindu elites, as those associated with migration to West Asia or the US prospered more. Breaking a women-restrictive tradition at Sabarimala erodes the elites’ remaining reassurance of caste worth. This angst finds expression as an upper casteled protest against women’s entry into Sabarimala.

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