Kerala’s saffron secret: How Malayali Hindutva has escaped scrutiny so far

Malayalis are guilty of furthering a mystical characterisation of the state, often out of a false sense of moral superiority.
Kerala’s saffron secret: How Malayali Hindutva has escaped scrutiny so far
Kerala’s saffron secret: How Malayali Hindutva has escaped scrutiny so far
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By Anish Nair

Now that all the election fever has come down and the results are out for everyone to see, it would be a good time to talk about the creeping in of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member in the Kerala Niyamasabha. Juxtaposing this debut made by the party is the sweep made by the communists of the Left Democratic Front (LDF), invoking mixed reactions from the progressive circles. Some would like to be wary and cautious of the Sangh like this author, which has been emboldened by the debut, while others want to be jubilant about the landslide victory of the LDF. But even before the euphoria could die down, the wary and the cautious lot were vindicated when bombs were hurled at an LDF victory rally in Kannur, on the day of the results.

What surprises me the most is the fact that it took the election of a BJP member to the assembly for most progressives to take note of this phenomenon, which existed since at least the 1960s. RSS and Hindutva has been very much a part of the socio-political dynamics of Kerala. The election of the E.M.S. Namboodiripada-led communist government, immediately after the formation of the state was significant in two ways: a. it was the first and at the time the only non-Congress (or rather an anti-Congress) government in India, standing out as an anomaly to Congress hegemony in the post-independence India, and b. it was also a government that was serious about land reforms and the overhaul of the socioeconomic status quo, which was evident by the appointment of an oppressed caste woman, K. R. Gauri Amma, as the revenue minister. The rest is history as we know it. An anti-communist coalition of privileged landowning castes of all religions came together in what came to be known as Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle) and brought down the government within two years of its term. It is precisely here that we need to examine the role of the Sangh.

While RSS was not a prominent player in the Vimochana Samaram it was one of the beneficiaries of what resulted out of it. The privileged caste Hindus, especially the dominant caste Nairs, became a unified constituency with a shared sense of anti-communist rhetoric. The very fact that Nairs, the largest landowning community at the time, stood to lose pushed them towards Hindutva much earlier than what is generally assumed. A general look at the history of Nair Service Society and its leaders, is indicative of how intertwined the Nair identity was with Hindutva. But what may seem to be contradictory elsewhere, the Nairs found no issue in being a loyal constituency of the Congress and later the UDF while being involved with the Sangh. This is primarily because a Nair’s vote to the Congress was essentially a vote against the Communists.

My maternal grandparents were one such example. Both coming from the same extended landowning family, severely affected by land redistribution, were ardent supporters of the Congress and at the same time sent their children to Saraswathi Shishu Mandirs, to counter their secular public education. Almost all of their children would grow up to follow their parents to vote consistently for Congress, while in a very cognitive dissonant manner would also despise the Nehru-Gandhi family for not being Hindus or Hindus enough (some in my family even believes that Indira Gandhi was secretly a Muslim). The association became so pronounced over the years that it slowly became a rarity for caste Hindus to produce communists in their families. Even many of those who did become communists in the early days, turned their backs on the revolution and some went on to embrace the saffron ideology. So as a young communist, it is not uncommon for me to be lectured by an uncle or a family friend, almost always beginning with the disclaimer “I too was into viplavam (revolution) once”. The NSS may have maintained a pretense of being non-partisan, but individual members have come to be contributors, members and advocates of the RSS and the BJP, with the actor Suresh Gopi being the latest case. While growing up in a tremendously insular Nair community in Thane, it would be impossible to escape the routine Ramayana and Bhagwada saptahams in a local Malayali Hindu temple. The Hindutva ideology in its more blatant form started being visible in these saptahams when I was teenager, with swamis and pracharaks from the RSS using the platform to badmouth the “Vatican-run government”, “Anti-Hindu secularists” and other such enemies of Hinduism.

The RSS couldn’t have developed the largest chain of its Shakhas among all the states in India, if it wasn’t for the patronage of the Malayali caste Hindus. With vote share showing the BJP securing over a tenth of the total votes and clear indications that most of them defected from the Congess, it is anybody’s guess regarding who constitutes the newly found saffron constituency. But outside of Kerala, the much touted Kerala Model and other such tales of progress (both true and mythical) dominate all discourse about the society here, leading to a certain perverse exoticisation of the state as some kind of socialist (or liberal depending on which way you lean) paradise in the country. Several Malayalis from Kerala are equally guilty of furthering such mystical characterisation, often out of a false sense of moral superiority. This coupled with no Hindutva representation in the Assembly for so long, as if that is some metric of progressivism, made it almost impossible to critically evaluate the rise of the reactionary Hindu ideology.

Kerala remains perhaps the only state where non-Hindus are almost universally and legally barred from entering government-run Hindu temples. It was here that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, with some help from the Christian clergy, first hoisted the bogey of “Love Jihad” in 2009. It is also the state with the highest rate of riots in the country. In all of this Malayali Hindutva escaped scrutiny, until now.

The writer is an independent academic based currently in Kerala.

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