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Disturbing Aspects of Kerala Society

 

Gail Omvedt

Arundhati Roy's prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, focuses on the most socially explosive of all relationships in India, a love affair between a dalit man and a high-caste woman. It ends with the brutal murder of the man by the police, "history's henchmen," and the woman's banishment -- punishments for breaking the caste-based "love laws" that have become so notorious in India today. The events would not be surprising if they were shown as taking place in backward Bihar. But the novel is set in Kerala, the single Indian state that has gained the greatest reputation for progressiveness.

 Yet participants in a February 1998 seminar on dalit studies at the University of Calicut (in what is now known as Kozhikode) assured me that this situation was not so unusual. [1] Roy, they said, should be congratulated for "opening up the subject" of intercaste relations; instead, she was practically boycotted in Kerala itself.

 (I have received newsclippings of similar incidents elsewhere.) To these seminar participants, Kerala, progressive Kerala, was still -- in spite of its history of social reform -- a region of "Nair-Nambudiri dominance." There was a fair amount of admiration for Tipu Sultan, the Muslim fighter against British rule, who had once conquered the Malabar region of Kerala and apparently opposed lower caste subservience to Nair warrior-rulers. The "Mappila revolt" was to them not simply a Muslim or even a regional ("Malabar") revolt, but one of dalits and others in the lower caste who had all been energized by their conversion to Islam. Buddhism was another religion that caught the imagination of some, and most viewed Shree Narayana Guru's movement as simply falling under the hegemony of Hindutva ideology, something that had served the interests of Ezhavas (a lower "backward caste") rather than the true dalits, Pulayas, Cherumans, and others. The seminar was striking to me for another fact, that there were no upper-caste Marxist intellectuals present as there would have been at similar events in Maharashtra, vigorously debating the "caste-class" issue. Instead, the one dalit characterized as a CPI(M)-oriented Marxist was bitterly attacked in a long Malayali dialogue.

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Dalit intelligentsia must act responsibly

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During my last visit to Hyderabad, a young Dalit got rather upset with my view that the British rule had helped emancipate the community. So passionate was he that he wouldn't even listen to Karl Marx's views about the positive impact of British rule in India.  Ultimately, when I presented him with details of how the British fought a long drawn out battle with the Varnas to win Dalits their right to education over the second half of the 19th Century, he relented a little.

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And thus spoke Gama Ram

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When the news of the appointment first filtered in, all of Sarai Mir town had descended at his house. His father had enough land to feed the family. He had enough land because he had inherited the traditional family occupation: tanning. His father had saved money to buy land because he knew that if the family was to ever gain some honour in society, he would have to "convert" his occupation. Before Ram, there were only four Dalit Sub-Inspectors with the UP Police.

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Does India deserve international curbs?

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A novelist friend has just returned from Oxford. She was there to attend a Dalit-related talk where the UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, to be held in Durban this year, came up for discussion. She wondered why European scholars were not easily prepared to equate caste-based discrimination with that of race. Another friend, who works for a popular American daily and visits the US quite frequently, echoed similar views.

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