This is first big, direct move by the party, acknowledging and addressing casteism in the state.

By acknowledging caste equations in Kerala with Womens Wall will CPI M make gains
news Politics Tuesday, December 04, 2018 - 19:28

Activist and political theorist Kancha Ilaiah at the Literary Festival in Kozhikode had said that caste is a reality in the Indian situation and that it should be addressed. The Supreme Court verdict on entry to women of all ages into Sabarimala has opened up the debate on casteism in Kerala society. Many have pointed out that even though Kerala is known as a progressive state, caste is very much prevalent here; the opposition to women’s entry into Sabarimala has further exposed this. While dominant caste groups have fervently opposed the Supreme Court verdict, Dalits and other marginalised groups have welcomed it.

The CPI (M) led government's move to form a Women’s Wall on January 1 from Kasargode to Thiruvananthapuram is unprecedented; and with this move, the party is for the first time acknowledging and addressing the caste equations and casteism in the state. The decision comes after discussions with various Hindu organisations in the state, and according to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the wall is an attempt to resist any attempt to destroy renaissance values.

The larger politics of Women’s Wall

The motivating mantra of the Left parties is class struggle. In the Indian situation, class is inseparable from caste, and faith is related to caste; however, this ideology hasn’t penetrated the Communist parties.

“The reason for this is that except in Kerala, Communist leaders are mostly from the dominant castes. In Bengal, for example, most of them are Brahmins. They held the idea of being compassionate and helpful to the people of the non-prominent class – ‘helping’ them, but not addressing the caste as a reality,” a source close to the CPI (M) accepts.

“In the last three party congresses, there were discussions on why a party like the CPI (M) is unable to gain strength in north India, despite it being a region that has scores of issues related to the basic upliftment of people. The discussion revolved around why caste politics and caste related issues in the Indian society have not been addressed. Before this, the party had not even accepted the existence of caste equations, nor had it acknowledged the identity of caste based organisations,” they add. And so, the CPI (M) formed the Pattika Jathi Kshema Samiti – an organisation for Dalits – for the first time in 2012.

The Women’s Wall is a larger move addressing casteism, especially considering that upper caste organisations like Nair Service Society (NSS) and Yoga Kshema Sabha (YKS) (which represents Namboothiris and Bhattathiripads – considered ‘elite’ Brahmins) have been vehemently opposing the entry of younger women into Sabarimala. The YKS was founded by visionaries like VT Bhattathiripad – a freedom fighter who fought casteism – and was once closely associated with the CPI (M). However, current CPI (M) members claim the organisation is in no way associated with them now.

Both YKS and NSS were not present in the meeting organised by the Chief Minister before his Women’s Wall announcement; according to the YKS, they did not get an invitation, however the government claims they did extend them an invitation to both groups, but neither attended.

The supporters

Among the 176 organisations that did attend the meeting, and extended support to the Women’s Wall, several have a large membership; their support could mean a boost for the CPI (M) in the state. However, a wrong move could also alienate a large chunk of voters.

The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), for instance, that represents the OBC Ezhava caste, which has the largest Hindu population in the state. Ezhavas are mostly working class people, and the backbone of the CPI (M). SNDP’s head, Vellappally Natesan, was sitting next to Pinarayi during the Women’s Wall meeting.

Vellappally is infamous for not having a firm stand on any issue. On women’s entry into Sabarimala, Vellappally has given contradicting statements; meanwhile his son Thushar Vellappally – who is a leader of both the SNDP and its political outfit Bharath Dhrama Jena Sena (BDJS) – actively participated in BJP-organised rallies against women’s entry into the shrine.

Ezhavas affiliated to SNDP will more or less support Vellappally’s stand – but there are always people who vote against Vellappally’s political stands during each election. In fact, in the 2016 Assembly elections, BDJS didn’t win a single seat. Also, not all Ezhavas are part of or supporters of the outfit. And as a community leader for decades, Vellappally cleverly plays the game of not alienating people from him.

The Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (KPMS), a community organisation of the Dalit Pulaya community, comes second in terms of strength. The Pulaya Community had supported the CPI for a long time – CPI is the second largest party in the LDF coalition. However, the CPI has over a period of time lost its influence on the community. A former central Minister of State and currently Working President of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, Kodikunnil Suresh, played a political game by inviting Sonia Gandhi to address the state conference of the KPMS in 2008. Kodikunnil’s move to gain the base for Congress in KPMS was countered later by the BJP. In 2014, the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a KPMS rally.

“By giving prominence for SNDP and KPMS in the Women’s Wall meeting, what the CPI (M) is attempting is to bring back the voters who shifted affinity directly to the BJP, or first to the Congress and then to the BJP over the past several years,” a political analyst said.

Coming to the NSS, the Left parties never had a strong base with the group. The Nairs who stand with the CPI (M) traditionally vote for the party, irrespective of the stand of the NSS. Largely however, the Nair Community constitutes the vote bank of the BJP. “Hence the CPI (M) has nothing much to lose or gain from the NSS,” he added.

Controversy and criticism

A controversy has already broken out regarding the move. The government has been attacked for making Hindu Parliament Secretary CP Sugathan the convener of the Women’s Wall. Many have been sharing the post of Sugathan against young women’s entry into Sabarimala, in which he used abusive language and slurs against women. Other criticism includes not inviting women to the meeting – as the decision being yet another agenda set by men for a women’s gathering.

Also, when Pinarayi called it a Renaissance move, questions were raised from several corners on who actually is a Renaissance leader, among those who took part in the meeting. Pinarayi has been criticised for ‘converting people without integrity’ – like Vellappally and Sugathan – as Renaissance leaders. On Monday in a press meet Pinarayi evaded repeated questions on Sugathan.

“Any action in this direction should have been with people who are credible. What I feel is that the Women’s Wall is a demonstration not action; it’s against the spirit of Renaissance. I am not enthusiastic with the idea and view it as a political gimmick, which won’t help in recapturing the spirit of Renaissance,” said public activist and political analyst BRP Bhaskar.

If the women’s wall has to be a success, Vellappally and KPMS General Secretary Punnala Sreekumar have to work hand in hand with the CPI (M) for almost a month. “If it is a failure, Vellappally and Sreekumar will wash their hands off, and it would be a huge setback for the CPI (M). But considering the organisational strength of the party, failure is a remote possibility. At the current political scenario, it is a practical and positive political move,” the political analyst added.  

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