Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why Kerala does not become Bengal

When West Bengal’s Left Front government celebrated its 30th anniversary, leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, gave public expression to a long-cherished goal of theirs. As in West Bengal, they would like to enjoy monopoly of power in Kerala, where the LDF has to take turns with the Congress-led United Democratic Front.

In the eyes of the Communists, Bengal’s place may be high. But the fact is that after 30 years of uninterrupted Left rule Bengal is still not able to match Kerala’s record in many spheres of activity.

It is the CPI (M)’s enormous hold on the rural areas that enables it to win elections continuously in West Bengal. Yet, according to official statistics, rural poverty in Bengal (21.98%) is thirteen and a half times the figure for Kerala (1.63%). The situation is even worse in Tripura (37.89%), the other Marxist stronghold. With regard to urban poverty, Bengal (8.98%) and Tripura (4.48%) are better placed than Kerala (9.34%). But Kolkata has the notoriety of being the only city on earth where men still pull rickshaws.

Bengal was the first place in the subcontinent to come under British rule. It was there that facilities for English education were first established. That helped Bengal to make an early start. But Kerala forged ahead of it in literacy. In health, as in education, Kerala is way ahead of Bengal. After three decades of Left rule, it has not been able to catch up with Kerala, where the Communists come to power only in alternate elections. Why so? The short answer to this question is: Sree Narayana Guru (1854-1928) and Ayyankali (1863-1914) lived in Kerala.

There is nothing on record to show that Narayana Guru had heard of Karl Marx and his theory. It is also not clear whether he was aware of the ideals that had inspired the French Revolution. But these ideals were not unknown to him. The concepts of Equality and Fraternity illumine the lines he inscribed at Aruvippuram: With neither caste distinctions /Nor religious hatred /All live like brothers/ In this model place. Although he did not specifically mention Liberty, the lofty ideal of freedom found expression in his advice to the people to seek liberation through education and organization. His concept of freedom, which transcends political lines, is particularly relevant in today’s context, when the nation is free but the vast majority of the people remain enslaved by political, economic and social interests.

All ideas that the Communist movement sought to advance were actually placed before the people by the Renaissance leaders of the Kerala even before that movement was born. Its founding fathers were still infants when, responding to Ayyankali’s call, Dalit farm workers struck work to win the right to send their children to schools. The Communist Party had not even been formed when Sree Narayana’s followers organized trade unions in Alappuzha.

The Bengal renaissance was an upper caste movement. Its leaders mobilized public opinion against social evils and pressured the British rulers to put an end to them. But they could not act purposefully against caste discrimination. The pioneers of the Communist movement in India came from caste supremacist groups and other feudal elements. Bengal’s Communist leaders too came from these sections, and included many who had been educated in England. It is be difficult to find among them someone like P. Krishna Pillai, one of the founders of the Communist Party in Kerala. The Communist movement in Kerala, too, attracted many from feudal, caste-supremacist elements. But even before they entered, Kerala society had been set on a progressive course by the stir created at lower levels by reformers like Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali and the constructive response of the princely regimes to their movements.

The Sachar Commission, which studied the condition of the Muslim minority, shows that even after a long period of Left rule, Muslims, who constitute 25% of West Bengal’s population, have only 4% representation in the State services. The Narendran Commission found that Kerala’s Muslims had not received full justice but they are better off than their counterparts in Bengal.

The Communist movement must try to make Bengal like Kerala, not the other way round.

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