Simply... Kerala Old And New

new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

Simply... KERALA old and new


Illustration by DAVID MOSTYN Kerala had the most cruel and rigid caste system in India. From 800 AD onwards the elite Hindu caste - the Namboodiris - held control. People of low castes were banned from public markets and had to go naked above the waist - regardless of gender. The Namboodiris considered themselves polluted if they as much as saw someone of low caste a hundred metres away and could punish them by death. Namboodiri women were expected to remain virgins, while women of the next caste down - the Nairs - were expected to satisfy the sexual needs of Namboodiri men. Kerala's Christians also operated a kind of caste system, Syrian Orthodox people being on a level with the Nairs and Catholic fisherfolk considered low caste. At the very bottom of the pile were the adivasi or indigenous people who have been in Kerala for 4,000 years.

In 1893 a man called Ayyankali committed an outrageous act: although he was an 'Untouchable' he dared to travel in a bullock cart along a public road. There followed other challenges to the caste system, such as low-caste groups uniting to form Caste Improvement Associations. In 1936, after a long campaign, low-caste people were finally allowed into temples in Travancore. In the 1930s and 1940s Kerala's growing trade union and communist movement became involved in the caste struggle. Activists of both high and low caste shattered taboos by eating together and going into each other's houses. Today Kerala is probably the least caste conscious of Indian states - although cross-caste marriages are still unusual. Violence towards low-caste people - commonplace in other parts of India - is rare.



Illustration by DAVID MOSTYN

Land has always been the main source of wealth in Kerala. For several centuries most of the land was owned by the Namboodiris. They did not manage their own estates but leased them to the next caste down - the Nairs. These would sub-lease part or all of the land to a third class of inferior tenants who were the actual cultivators. These cultivators in turn employed lower-caste people to do most of the hard labour in the fields but were compelled to pay exorbitant rents - often 50 to 75 per cent of their gross harvest. Syrian Christian families also tended to have large landholdings and as late as 1971 Kerala's structure of land ownership was the third most unequal in India.

In 1921 Muslim peasants and farmers rose up against Hindu landowners: 10,000 protesters were killed. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s radical organizations grew and tenants started refusing to pay their rents. It was on the issue of land reform that the first Communist government was elected in 1957. But the land-reform bill of 1959 met with fierce opposition from landowners and the Government of India responded by taking control of Kerala. During the next decade all land-reform attempts were blocked. But in 1969 a Communist-led coalition finally set in motion a 'land to the tiller' redistribution which is regarded as the most thorough in South Asia. Tenants became virtual owners of the land they farmed, no family was allowed to own more than eight hectares, and about one-and-a-half million landless families also benefited.


Up until 1956 Kerala was mainly ruled by monarchs controlling different principalities. There was Travancore in the south, Cochin in the middle and Malabar in the north. With the arrival of Portuguese. Dutch. French and British colonizers Kerala became a tangle of intrigues and shifting alliances between the European powers and the local kingdoms. By making treaties with the local princes of Travancore and Cochin the British had managed to get control by 1792. For the next century and a half the British governed Kerala in three separate units, retaining the local monarchs in Travancore and Cochin but imposing direct rule on Malabar in the north. Malabar was to suffer - politically, economically and culturally.

In the mid-1930s a dedicated group of young Gandhians and socialists began organizing poor tenant farmers in north Malabar. These became the backbone of the local Communist Party. Trade unions were formed, rice workers conducted a successful strike in 1942 and four years later coir (coconut fibre) workers confronted the police and army. Meanwhile most Keralites were joining the Indian struggle for independence from the British (achieved in 1947). When state elections were held in 1957 Keralites surprised the world by electing a Communist Government. Communist activists became targets for assassination by killers hired by outraged landowners. But the clock could not be turned back. In the past 30 years Kerala's voters have elected three solidly Leftist governments that have held power for eight years. Despite many twists and turns of party coalitions Kerala has retained its radical political culture.



Education was traditionally the domain of the higher castes - the Namboodiris, Nairs and Syrian Orthodox Christians. But with the Europeans came missionaries who set up church schools to instruct and convert members of the lowest castes - especially in Travancore. The progressive Hindu rulers of Travancore retaliated by setting up their own schools. In 1817 the Princess of Travancore called for a state education system, saying 'there should be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment' because 'by diffusion of education the people would become better subjects...' By the turn of the century Kerala already had a literacy rate double that of the rest of India, had begun a small programme of grants for low-caste children, and was in its fourth decade of female education.

photo by GAELLE ROUX Radicals saw literacy and education as a key to social change. The caste-improvement associations led the way, but soon trade unionists and Marxists were using literacy to awaken consciousness. Reading and writing circles were set up in villages. Workers were encouraged to write in union-sponsored publications. The right to literacy became a popular mass movement. In the 1970s the Kerala People's Science Movement (the KSSP) set up study classes, medical camps and literacy classes in villages. By the early 1980s there were nearly 5,000 village libraries. Today the state has over 400 newspapers and journals, a writers' co-operative that publishes 450 books a year in the local Malayalam language and a literacy rate that at 87 per cent for females and 94 per cent for males is higher than that of any Low-Income Country.


Mazuris, one of the ancient world's most important ports, lay just north of present-day Cochin. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Egyptians and Chinese all came here in their quest for spices. With trade came different religions. Legend has it that Christianity was brought to Kerala by the Apostle Thomas (the Doubter) in 52 AD. About 20 years later Jews from Jerusalem arrived seeking shelter from persecution. They established a community in Cochin - where they have remained safe from anti-Semitism for almost 2,000 years. Syrian Orthodox Christianity arrived in the fourth century and Arab spice traders brought Islam in the seventh. All these different religions flourished alongside the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism in an atmosphere of tolerance and communal harmony that set old Kerala apart from the rest of India - and probably the rest of the world.

Kerala's new Marxist rulers were unusual among Communists in that they did not condemn religion. They clashed with Hindus and Christians - but over caste and land reform. Some religious leaders found that their own beliefs and the ideals of communism had much in common anyway. This was true of the radical nuns and priests who led popular movements for justice among the poor - especially the fisherfolk. But in recent years the fundamentalism (both Hindu and Islamic) and communal violence of other parts of India have begun to appear in Kerala too. There have been few outbreaks so far but communal tension may be the greatest threat to Kerala's social harmony and its socialist achievements.

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