ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Untouchability in Kudalmanikyam Temple?

Fresh Challenges to Kerala Model

Blocking a motorable road in Kudalmanikyam temple under the garb of “purity” shows the limitations of the famed Kerala model of development. Unexpected reinvention of untouchability, an antiquated model of cruelty, is slowly emerging from the veneer of this model.

Kerala has denied the existence of caste-based social exclusion ever since its first Communist ministry was thought to have brought a political revolution. It became an instant hit and Kerala became a model state for many others. Till this date the hysteria has not died down and the experiments of its decentralisation are especially felt through local self-government initiatives and non-governmental organisations. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad are being debated outside India as a route to comprehensive political change from below.

However, why do issues like eviction of landless poor continue in places like Muthanga, Chengara or Arippa? Is it because they are Adivasis or Dalits? Why have these problems not found any solution within the Kerala model? Why does misogyny and crimes against women continue unabated in this model for change?

It is also interesting to note that a project like the controversial Vizhinjam port project, being built by the Adani group, has not been criticised by Congress, the Communists or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This project will adversely affect the lives of poor fishermen first before “raking in the dollars.” Only the church of the Dalit Christians raised their voices against this mega project. Why is it that they all seem to converge on the notion of social justice while the Latin Church cannot?

All this is said merely to introduce a new problem that is being exposed slowly beneath the veneer of Kerala’s romanticism with development models.

Purity in the Temple Town

The Kudalmanikyam temple in Irinjalakuda, a medieval, municipal temple town in Thrissur district of Kerala is a recent addition to this re-opening of the old wounds. The temple authorities have unilaterally blocked a public motorable road through the temple complex for unstated reasons. People who have used this road for decades now stand confused as to how to bring their vehicles home from work.

Interestingly this road was opened to the public after the Kuttamkulam agitation in 1946. The famous Unnai Varyar memorial, an institute for teaching Kathakali built in honour of the eponymous poet in his hometown, was also located in this very road. About 60 days back this sign board showing the way to the memorial was removed and a barricade was built on the southern end of the road.

A decision such as this is presumed to have come in the form of a reaction to the 50-year old landmark agitation that got the road opened initially. The people who have erected the barrier claimed that the road was always open for passengers, but never for vehicles. The vehicles are held responsible for bringing in impurity to the precincts of the temple.

However this stance hides deep-seated bias against the poor and Dalits—it is their cars which the temple authorities are against. There is no doubt that some of the erstwhile marginalised are prosperous enough to own a vehicle. The Kerala Pulaya Mahasbha (KPMS) has therefore started an agitation to get the motorable road reopened.

Caste is an indulgent route for masculine modernity in Kerala to establish its privileged place in all forms of discourse. Historical accounts relate that Alummootil Channar, an Izhava landlord, had to dismount the elephant when he reached the Vaikom temple road. However his mahouts, who were higher caste Nair men, passed through with the elephant. The Vaikom Satyagraha—an agitation of 1924 for freedom to use the temple’s roads for all, put an end to this practice of extreme caste-based discrimination.

Media has not seriously addressed this issue, apart from a few reports and photos in local editions of Malayalam dailies. It could be because political parties are not involved so far, or that it has not yet succeeded to impress the rationale of a middle class bias who think that the temple premises should be out of bounds for certain kinds of people. It may be also due to stiff resistance from the temple administration which has the moral support of the Hindu devotees here represented as a common public. Staking a claim to purity has indeed paid off in the efforts of the temple authorities to master wide appeal in sealing the road for motorists.

A Different Kerala Model

At this stage, after 57 days of agitation, the only agency behind this public cause is a Dalit organisation.  Kerala as a state is not easily prone to communal or caste violence. This is also stated as one of its achievements as a model. But that does not preclude its manifest forms of cruelty in the name of purity. Unexpected reinventions of untouchability, an antiquated model of cruelty exemplified here by centuries of decadent slavery in the name of caste is now slowly emerging from within this model.

KPMS would need to substitute the male-dominated upper caste Communist revolution with their own idea of social justice and equity. Here, they could pave way for the rest, which will be to return to the ideas of society that were pre-conceived in the establishment of a Communist government in the state, but were hence lost or forgotten in the name of a model.    

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