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‘For centuries, Nair and Syrian Christian feudals were partners in maintaining Kerala’s caste oppression’

Against the backdrop of the RSS cozying up to the Kerala church establishment, Prof G. Mohan Gopal says there is a crying need for a new political movement in Kerala that will represent the interests of SEBCs, Dalits and Tribals and ally with the Muslims to safeguard Kerala from being taken over by the former feudals

Kerala goes to the polls next month. Over the past few years, the efforts of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to enhance their role in Kerala politics haven’t gone unnoticed. In Kerala, any statement that stokes up anti-Islamic sentiment will benefit only the Sangh Parivar. Early this year, the synod of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church issued a statement decrying ‘love jihad’ and condemning the killing of Christians by radical Islamists in Nigeria on Christmas day. The RSS-BJP has also taken an active interest in resolving a longstanding property dispute between the Syrian Orthodox and the Syrian Jacobite Churches and more recently in ‘saving’ a 1000-year-old Syrian Orthodox church from being razed for the widening of a national highway. While the church seems to have been their focus over the last few months, the RSS-BJP has been equally invested in making inroads into the Ezhava community, the largest Hindu social group, into which Narayana Guru was born and which has a history of being staunchly anti-brahmanical. Prof G. Mohan Gopal, a former vice-chancellor of the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru and one of India’s foremost legal scholars, is also a keen observer of Kerala’s sociopolitics. In an interview with FORWARD Press, Prof Gopal analyzes the recent sociopolitical developments in his home state:   

The RSS’s overtures to the traditional, multi-denominational Kerala church have been happening for a while but now it seems like the church does not have a problem. What do you make of this?

The simple, straightforward answer to the question, why is the RSS reaching out to the Christian community, is that they want to isolate the Muslim community in Kerala.

For some 42 years, since 1979, the Muslim League has aligned itself with the Nair and Syrian Christian[1] communities through the United Democratic Front (UDF). The three communities have ruled Kerala for 21 of the last 42 years. The UDF arrangement has allowed each of them to use State power to enrich themselves considerably.

With the rise of the RSS/BJP in the 1990s culminating in their victory in the 2014 Parliamentary elections, a substantial chunk of Nair voters have largely deserted the UDF and switched to the nationally dominant RSS/BJP. The Sangh vote share in the Kerala assembly elections went up from 0.6 per cent in 1970, the last “normal” election before the formation of the UDF to 10.55 per cent in 2016, broadly reflecting the 12 per cent population share of the Nair community. This is because in Kerala, the RSS and BJP are basically the Nair community – they are its backbone. The growth of the BJP means that the Nairs have gradually abandoned the UDF coalition and, more importantly, turned against the Muslims.

The Muslims are now left with only one UDF community as an ally – the Christians. The Hindutva forces, basically Nairs, now see a perfect opportunity to break this alliance and completely isolate Muslims. Given the global power of Christians and their historic role in Kerala as partners of the Nair community in maintaining Kerala’s oppressive caste order as landlords in the old feudal economy, what is possible, and what is emerging, is that at least in Kerala, an accommodation is reached between the Nair-dominated RSS and the Syrian Church in which the Church will desist from criticizing the RSS as far as possible and will also join in the RSS agenda of attacking Islam by linking the religion to terrorism and misogyny – which may explain why a synod of the [Syro-Malabar Catholic] Church in Kerala recently issued a statement attesting to the existence of “love jihad” and highlighting a brutal attack on Christians in Nigeria and linked it to Islam.

The ancient and unique Muslim community in Kerala, which at 27 per cent is the single largest community in the State, is an integral and central part of the mosaic of Kerala. We should not allow the Muslims of Kerala to ever be isolated or even feel isolated or even feel that there is an attempt to isolate them. We should not “other” them. That will be wrong and very dangerous for the social unity of the state.

This has been going on for a while. The allegations of “love jihad” started in Kerala a few years ago. Was it a two-pronged strategy because the RSS and the BJP were also trying to co-opt Narayana Guru and get the Ezhava communities on their side? Did the attempt to co-opt Narayana Guru and bring the Christian community on board happen at the same time? Or did the first fail and so they took up the second?

There are three Hindutva political strategies at play here – the campaign against the Muslims, the wooing of the Ezhavas and the co-option of Narayana Guru. They run in parallel. The three strategies are distinct, but they are closely interrelated.

The wooing of the Anarya, Avarna communities is part of the RSS strategy to integrate them into the Aryan, Savarna social order and create a homogenized, Sanskritized, Brahminist Hindu community in which there is, in Golwalkar’s words, “One Country, One State, One Legislature, One Executive”.

There is also an electoral reason to woo Ezhavas, Kerala’s largest Hindu community (some 22 per cent of Kerala). The BJP has pretty much maxed out its growth potential within the Nair community – Nairs are 11.9 per cent of the state’s population and the BJP vote share in the 2016 Assembly election was 12 per cent and 13 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. There’s not much room for growth there. So, electorally, the BJP simply cannot grow in Kerala without the support of the Ezhava community. Ezhavas are largely supporters of the Left Democratic Front (LDF). Attracting them to the BJP fold will kill two birds with one stone – expand the BJP vote and simultaneously hollow out the LDF vote.

They are not co-opting Narayana Guru, they are falsifying him. They are re-interpreting his message and falsely packaging him as a saint in their Brahminist pantheon. This is because his message is very dangerous to Brahminism. Narayana Guru strongly disagreed with the Savarna movement on every point. He rejected all religious identity. He also rejected the very existence of Hinduism as a religion. He accepted all religions equally and had no objection to conversion into any religion. He rejected the categories of Aryan, Anaryan, Savarna, Avarna, Chaturvarnya and the like and saw Homo Sapiens as a single community. He rejected hierarchy. He was strongly committed to individual agency, liberty and equality. He rejected the Brahmin priesthood. He is the only reformer in India who reformed and democratized the liturgy, sacrament and ritual of Hinduism to de-brahminize it. His pivotal role in the progressive democratic transformation of Kerala and in questioning traditional Brahminist Hinduism is unparalleled.

Prof G. Mohan Gopal, former vice-chancellor, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru

The love jihad campaign helps to “other” Muslims, splinter India into warring factions by demonizing Muslims and spreading Islamophobia – fear of Muslims. Once Hindus and Muslims are made to clash, the focus of the masses shifts to fighting each other fighting caste oppressors. Behind the facade of nationalism, the Savarna campaign carries forward the age-old Brahminic practice of divide and rule.

All three Hindutva strategies are running in parallel to promote the real agenda of the RSS project, which is to impose the culture, ideas, beliefs, opinions, faith and worship, of the Brahmin community on all of us in India, especially on those of us who are Hindus.

The RSS agenda is to control every aspect of our life and our being – what we should think and how we should think, in what language we should speak and think, what time we should wake up to what time we should go to sleep and how every minute in between should be spent; what we should eat, how we should dress; how we should breathe, what our values should be, what knowledge we should have; what the nature of our most intimate relationships should be, how we should organize our society, our economy and our polity and so on. They wish to wipe out our own diverse cultures and homogenize us like automatons. They want to make us ‘Prakrit’ people ‘Sanskrit’ (ie, Brahminic). This is a more sweeping and extensive programme of cultural imperialism than has ever been seen in human history. Given the scale of what is attempted – involving a billion people – far bigger in scale and in scope than the dreaded ISIS project to Islamize the world or the genocide carried by Australians against Aborigines or by American settlers against Natives of America. Their real project is to “Retain Savarna Supremacy” (RSS) in India.

Is there a problem with the Kerala church? Are they ignorant? Or, do they fear they have too much to lose? 

There is no question of the Kerala Syrian church being ignorant. They are acting with great deliberation and calculation.

After the second BJP national election victory in 2019, and the dimming of the prospects of a comeback by the Congress, the BJP government has become very aggressive and determined in implementing the RSS agenda using State power where necessary to prosecute and imprison those who stand in their way. In this environment, I would imagine that some elements in the Christian community, particularly those in positions of responsibility, want to be on the right side of the Union government rather than against it, not only to protect their considerable business interests but also to avoid prosecution by economic enforcement agencies and to look after the massive economic assets of the church and the business interests of the community.

As I said earlier, we should also not forget that the elite amongst Syrian Christians and Nairs are traditional collaborators and share many common interests, For centuries they worked together to serve the interests of ruling Rajas and Nambudiri Brahmins and played a key role in maintaining caste oppression and slavery in Kerala. Most landlords came from these two communities. The Nair-Syrian Christian conservative coalition is the foundation of the UDF. As the RSS in Kerala is essentially led by Nairs, the Nairs in the RSS are trying to find a modus vivendi for their old partners, the Syrian Christians, to work with the BJP/NDA in Kerala, notwithstanding the strong anti-Christian focus of the national Hindu-Hindutva movement.

And there may also be perhaps a desire amongst sections of the Christian community to align with the global conflict between the Christian West and Islam. In doing so, they are forgetting that the Kerala context is very different from the global context. Christianity and Islam have been living together in peace in Kerala from time immemorial – before either reached the West. This ancient friendship must be protected. Islamophobia should not be allowed to penetrate the Christian community in Kerala for short-term gains.

Leaders of the Christian community who are joining hands with Hindutva forces should not forget that Hindutva considers Christianity no less a foe than Islam. If you read What is Hindutva? by Savarkar, or Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, the holy books of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, it becomes very clear that the Hindutva movement is not only anti-Muslim, it is also anti-Christian. Hindutva knows that if there is a threat of mass conversion of OBCs and SC/ST out of Hinduism it is not from Islam, it is from Christianity. Christianity is the largest and wealthiest religion in the world, with more than 2.3 billion followers (about one-third of the world’s total population). Over 120 out of a total of some 195 countries in the world, including most of the world’s big powers, have a majority Christian population (as against some 50 countries with a Muslim majority).

Mizoram Governor P.S. Sreedharan Pillai meets bishops of the Orthodox church. Pillai, also a BJP leader from Kerala, has been mediating between Orthodox and Jacobite churches to resolve a longstanding property dispute

The Syrian Christians who are flirting with Hindutva and espousing Islamophobia should remember that religious minorities will be safe in India only within the inclusive framework of the secular Republic of India under our Constitution, which guarantees them equal right to profess, practise and propagate their religion. A Hindu Rashtra polity will destroy their liberty and equality.

But it may be too late. The dice have now been rolled. With important leaders of the Nair and Christian communities having set out on the path of divisive anti-Muslim communalism in Kerala, the only option left for the Muslim community is to forge a progressive social justice alliance with socially and educational backward classes (SEBCs), Dalits and Tribals to work for a vision of a secular, progressive Kerala that stands for secularism, socialism, equality, freedom and social justice.

Ezhavas and Muslims together constitute some one half of Kerala. SCs, STs and Non-Ezhava OBCs make up 22 per cent of the population. Together, Muslims, Ezhavas, non-Ezhava SEBCs, Dalits and Tribals constitute some 70 per cent of the state. They have all been, and continue to be, victims of social injustice under the Varna order. What is needed to protect the future of Kerala is for these five groups, which cut across religion and caste, to unite around a secular, progressive, social justice agenda for Kerala.

Progressive members of the Nair and Syrian Christian communities must also have the opportunity to align with this progressive, social-justice alliance in the interests of Kerala. This will leave any one who seeks to divide society on the basis of Islamophobia or caste isolated. We cannot forget that the Nair and Christian communities have played a key role in progressive struggles in Kerala from which the poor among them have benefited greatly. They must be true to this progressive, secular agenda.

Which political party, which flag, could such a progressive alliance for social-justice use? As the current major representative of the SEBCs, would the LDF be able to transform itself into the home of this type of a progressive alliance for social justice? There are ideological barriers that come in the way of the development of a coalition based on social identity under the leadership of the LDF. A major challenge for the Left would be to win the confidence of the Muslim community because of the tension between the Left ideology and religious and social traditions of the Muslim community.

Nor is it realistic to expect that the Congress party can provide a home to this new Muslim-SEBC-Dalit-tribal progressive social justice alliance representing some 70 per cent of Kerala. The Congress party’s Kerala wing has been hijacked by right wing, regressive forces and entrenched business interests. Strong and independent SEBCs, Dalits and Tribals have been marginalized inside the Congress. As a result, in Kerala the Congress has emerged as primarily an anti-SEBC party of former feudals. In addition, the Congress is currently facing an existential threat. They have lost the Nairs to the NDA. They are on the verge of losing a section of the Christians as well – as the Christians seek an accommodation with the NDA. This leaves the Congress, as an anti-NDA party, with only the Muslim League vote base.

There is therefore a crying need for a new political movement in Kerala that will represent the interests of SEBCs, Dalits and Tribals (all three categories cut across religions and castes). If that happens, the Muslim community can join it or create an alliance with it and safeguard Kerala’s pluralist traditions of social unity and communal harmony. In such a scenario, the political battle would be between the new progressive social justice alliance and the right-wing NDA.

The Left has an option to reimagine itself. The Left has played a very important and positive role in making Kerala progressive and continues to do that. The continued strength of the Left, particularly the working-class and trade-union movement, is vital to protect grassroots democracy in Kerala. So, we have to hope that the Left can transform in a way that it can align itself with the new progressive, social justice alliance. I also hope the Congress party can also re-imagine itself and liberate itself from the right-wing forces that have captured it and take on an agenda true to its own original commitment to Constitutional socialism and secularism.

What is needed is a realignment of political forces, new visions and development of leadership, which is progressive and egalitarian – so that we can protect and preserve the unique achievements of Kerala on the social front which are the envy of the rest of the country. We should find the courage and the strength to resist the cancer of social division and social conflict which is sought to be fostered by the right wing in Kerala. Let us keep Kerala safe, united, harmonious and peaceful.

[1] Syrian Christians belong to the centuries-old traditional Kerala church. Their ancestors are said to have been converts from the high castes

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About The Author

Anil Varghese

Anil Varghese is Editor-in-Chief, Forward Press