Monday, May 31, 2010

A quiet consensus on caste census

By BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A noisy debate is going on in India on whether or not to gather caste data during the census operations now in progress. The issue does not, however, figure in the public discourse in Kerala.

As soon as the census operations began national political parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which draw support from the backward classes of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively, demanded that caste data be collected. The Bharatiya Janata Party supported the demand but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh opposed it.

In Kerala, the Nair Service Society, which represents the forward Nair community, joined backward class organisations like the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam in endorsing the demand for caste census. As a result, a quiet consensus has emerged on this issue even though the state’s major political parties, the Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist, have not publicly taken a position.

The SNDP Yogam, which represents the Ezhava community, was the first to join the demand raised in Parliament by the SP and RJD. On caste-related issues, the Yogam and the NSS are generally in disagreement as the interests of Ezhavas and the Nairs, who together account for the bulk of the state’s Hindu population, differ.

Since 1872, when the subcontinent was under British rule, the government in New Delhi has been gathering population data every 10 years without fail.

In Britain, the census exercise usually steers clear of religion. On the few occasions when religious data was collected, the information was published separately, and not included in the census report.

Departing from the practice, the colonial administration gathered information on religious affiliation and made it part of the census report from the very beginning. The official explanation was that the government wanted detailed information about the governed.

The first census classified the people in four groups: I. Indo-Aryan; II. Iranian; III. Semitic; and IV. Primitive.

Among Indo-Aryans, three subgroups were recognised: A. Hindu, which was further divided into (a) Hindu Brahmanic, (b) Hindu Arya-Vedic theists and (c) Hindu Brahmo-Eclectic theists; B. Sikh; C. Jain; and Buddhist.

Parsis, who profess the Zorashtrian religion, were the only community in the Iranian category. The Semitic category covered three religious groups: A. Musalman; B. Christians; and C. Jews. The Primitive category was divided into two: A. Animistic; and B. Miscellaneous.

Scholars are of the view that the census reports promoted consolidation of the Hindus on a national scale. Over the years the government refined the classification but it continued to be fuzzy with the result that the reliability of the data relating to castes was in doubt. The administration did not have an equal interest in religion and caste.

The officer in charge of the 1931 Census wrote: “India is the most religious country in the world and (that) must be regarded as the justification for the importance attached to religion in the Census of India as compared, for example, with the US of Americas where culture is relatively independent of religion.”

In the early 1930s, Madras presidency in British India and princely states like Travancore and Mysore introduced reservation in government services for backward castes.

After the 1931 census report was published, the Hindu upper castes, who, though numerically small, dominated government and politics, mounted pressure to stop gathering caste data. Following this, caste enumeration was dropped. However, in 1941 the government gathered information about Maithili Brahmins of Bihar at the instance of their association for a small payment of Rs24,000.

The Travancore and Cochin regions of Kerala, which were under princely rule, were among the earliest “native states” to follow the British example and conduct census operations. Population data from these states formed part of the census reports published by the Indian government.

At election time, all parties of Kerala, including the Congress and the CPI-M, take into account the caste and religious composition of constituencies, as assessed by their leaders, while selecting candidates. Their silence on the issue of caste census is attributable to the lack of clarity at the national level.

With the Congress divided on the issue, the Union Cabinet recently constituted a committee of ministers to take a final view in the matter. The CPI-M’s position, as outlined by its leader in the Lok Sabha, is that the party considers caste a divisive factor but is not against collecting data in the context of the reservation available to backward classes.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 31, 2010.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fronts in disarray as polls approach

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The rival political fronts which have provided Kerala stable administrations during the past three decades are in disarray as the state moves into election mode again.

Two elections are due in the next 12 months. Elections to local bodies at village, town, block and district levels are to be held in September. State Assembly elections must take place by May next year. After that the state can look forward to two election-free years as the next Lok Sabha poll is due only in 2014.

The electoral performance of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress over their years presents a set pattern. While they alternate in power at state level, the LDF has an edge over the UDF in the local bodies elections and the UDF has an edge over the LDF in the parliamentary elections.

The UDF’s rout in the Lok Sabha elections marked a departure from the familiar pattern. Its impressive win in last year’s poll restored the pattern.

As the two fronts prepare for the local bodies elections, changes in their composition and re-emergence of factionalism in the CPI-M and the Congress have created an air of uncertainty.

Soon after the last Assembly elections, the LDF had expelled the National Congress Party to keep out former chief minister K Karunakaran and his son K Muraleedharan who had joined that party. The Janata Dal broke away from the alliance in the wake of differences which surfaced during the Lok Sabha elections. A few days ago the Kerala Congress (Joseph) walked out of the LDF to merge with the Kerala Congress (Mani), which is a constituent of the UDF.

The Indian National League, which has been an informal ally of the LDF since it broke away from the Indian Union Muslim League, is in negotiations for return to the parent body.

Following the national leadership’s assessment that the camaraderie with Abdul Naser Mahdani’s People’s Democratic Party harmed the party in the Lok Sabha elections, the CPI-M has been distancing itself from it. After this month’s police action at Kinaloor the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has generally backed the LDF in elections during the past several years, has moved away from it and the CPI-M has branded it as an extremist group.

The CPI-M itself suffered a setback when three former MPs, AP Abdullakutty, KS Manoj and S Sivaraman quit the party to enter the Congress. Abdullakutty is now a Congress member of the Assembly.

While these former MPs are not political heavyweights the fact that they belong to the Muslim, Christian and Dalit communities has electoral significance.

Recent public statements of Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan show that they are still locked in combat. Several days have passed since Vijayan got the State Committee to reiterate the choice of CP Narayanan as the chief minister’s political secretary, overriding Achuthanandan’s objections. The chief minister is yet to sign Narayanan’s appointment order.

If the LDF has suffered as a result of desertions, the UDF is suffering as a result of accretions. Having admitted the Janata Dal as a constituent, the UDF has to accommodate it in the coming elections. The Congress has voiced reservations over merger of the Mani and Joseph factions as the unified Kerala Congress will demand more seats.

Personal ambitions appear to have strained the relationship between Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy and Pradesh Congress President Ramesh Chennithala who had worked closely together during the past few years, opening up the possibility of new alignments within party. K Karunakaran, who is back in the Congress, is nursing two grievances. Muraleedharan has still not been readmitted, and those who returned with him have not been accommodated honourably.

As they grapple with these problems, the fronts, particularly the parties, which lead them, have to take into account the impact of the increase in women’s representation in the local bodies from 33 per cent to 50 per cent and the possibility of several new players entering the poll arena.

The CPI-M, which is retaining in the LDF some remnants of the parties, which walked out in recent years, is looking for new allies to cover the losses and improve its prospects in the local bodies elections. The minorities having turned away, it is trying to woo the Hindus. India Today’s perspicacious correspondent MG Radhakrishnan says, “The CPI-M’s best hope lies in the religious hunger for consolidation of the majority community.” – Gulf Today, May 24, 2010

Lawyers must learn to respect human rights

The Bar Association of Thiruvananthapuram has decided that its members should not represent a police officer who threatened a local advocate, according to a newspaper report.

The officer is Sureshkumar, Circle Inspector of the Cantonment police. K. Shaji, an advocate who had moved an application in the district court seeking anticipatory bail for a person named Suresh, had complained that Sureshkumar threatened him on the telephone for two days. The court the police to register a case and investigate.

Whether or not Sureshkumar is guilty of the charge levelled against him is a matter for the court to decide on the basis of the evidence produced before it. The police is known to go to great lengths to protect the evil elements in its ranks. The lawyers cannot, therefore, be blamed if they do not expect it to conduct a fair investigation. That, however, is no justification for them to deny him the right to a proper defence.

It is possible to argue that the association has only barred local lawyers from appearing for the inspector and that it is open for him to engage a lawyer from some other place. What is the guarantee that the association will not put obstacles in the way of a lawyer from elsewhere who is ready to appear for him?

The bar association’s stand shows scant regard for a basic principle of legal and human rights -- an accused person’s right to be defended by a person of his choice. It also reveals that the professional training the lawyers received is deficient inasmuch as they are not able to overcome petty personal and group prejudices.

The association must reconsider its position, recognizing lawyers’ duty to respect human rights.

Monday, May 17, 2010

LDF regime enters the last lap

Gulf Today

Kerala's Left Democratic Front government, which took office in 2006 amid infighting in the Communist Party of India-Marxist, enters the last year of its five-term term tomorrow (Tuesday), still hamstrung by lingering sectarianism.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who was subdued after his demotion from the Politburo as a disciplinary measure, has lately shown readiness to lock horns again with state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan who demonstrated his total control over the party machinery at the state conference in 2008.

Last week, the party leadership asserted its authority and reiterated its choice of state committee member CP Narayanan as the chief minister's political secretary, brushing aside Achuthanandan's objections. It also disapproved of his intervention to foil Industry Minister Elamaram Kareem's plan to speed up work on a four-lane road to an industrial estate at Kinaloor, which has met with popular opposition.

The government had its finest hour on the eve of its first anniversary when it concluded a deal with Tecom of Dubai to set up the Smart City project at Kochi. The chief minister's personal standing was also high at that time, thanks to the campaign he had initiated to reclaim lands grabbed by encroachers enjoying political patronage in and around the hill station of Munnar.

On the eve of the fourth anniversary, the government's image is dull. Not a brick has been laid at the Smart City site. With Tecom and the state government locked in a dispute over land title, the project is on hold. The Munnar operation was scuttled by local leaders of the CPI-M and the CPI.

The uneasy relationship between the chief minister and the party secretary limits the government's ability to refurbish its image in the last lap.

Last year's Lok Sabha poll revealed erosion of the ground support which had enabled the CPI-M and the LDF to register spectacular victories in the previous parliamentary, local bodies and Assembly elections. It is now preparing for the local bodies elections, due later this year, which will provide the next big test.

Outwardly the party has been projecting a picture of satisfaction at the government's performance. It attributed the electoral reverse to failure to convey to the people the state government's achievements, which included expansion of welfare measures and turning of loss-making public sector units into profitable undertakings.

According to the Restructuring and Internal Audit Board, the PSUs, which had incurred an aggregate loss of Rs696 million in 2005-06, yielded a profit of Rs2.32 billion in 2009-10. The turnaround was achieved by pumping in more than Rs2 billion and tying up some units with Central PSUs.

In view of the high level of unemployment in the state, one yardstick with which to measure its performance is its record on the job front. There was only a modest increase of 30,000 in the strength of the state's work force in the organised sector in the first two years -- from 1.10 million in 2006 to 1.13 million in 2008, the last year for which figures are available. The number of registered jobseekers went up from 4.0 million in 2006 to 4.5 million in June last year.

Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac claims collection of commercial taxes has increased and the state's finances are in robust condition. He has secured financial stability by pushing up the debt burden from Rs459 billion in 2005-06 to an estimated 672 billion last year.

There are reports that Pinarayi Vijayan has voiced dissatisfaction at the performance of the government and some CPI-M ministers in a document prepared for discussion in party forums.

The government's lacklustre record must be viewed against the background of the dismal performance if all governments of the last three decades, during which the LDF and the rival United Democratic Front have alternated in power.

Essentially the Achuthanandan government's problem is one of poor image rather than poor performance. Its bid to give the police a people-friendly image has collapsed with a dozen police personnel facing murder charge in connection with a custodial death. There are allegations that it is shielding senior officers involved in this and other cases. Last week, policemen, ostensibly provoked by demonstrators, had gone on a rampage in Kinaloor.

On the education front, the government has bought peace by surrendering to the powerful private sector, dominated by the Christian Church, and on the administration of Hindu religious institutions it is seeking peace by giving in to the demands of the powerful Nair Service Society. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 17, 2010.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Selective pursuit of the past

Gulf Today

Along with Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and Leader of the Opposition Oommen Chandy, a writers' delegation met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi last week to press the demand to declare Malayalam as a classical language.

The delegation included poets ONV Kurup, K Satchidanandan and Sugathakumari.

They said later Dr Manmohan Singh had offered to refer the matter to experts. He had observed that Malayalam appeared to have a strong case but this was a matter for experts to decide.

The government of India began the practice of granting recognition as classical language in 2004. Tamil was given classical status that year, Sanskrit in 2005 and Kannada and Telugu in 2008. Since then Kerala has been nursing the grievance that it is the only southern state whose language does not enjoy classical status.

No language of the eastern or western region has received classical status so far. There is no clamour for such recognition there either.

The Centre originally laid down three criteria for granting classical status to a language:

1). It must have high antiquity with texts and recorded history going back more than 1,000 years.

2). It must have a body of ancient literature which has been considered a valuable heritage by generations.

3). It must have a literary tradition that is original and not borrowed from another language.

Later it added a proviso. "The classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may be discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or offshoots."

Until recently the Malayalam literary establishment did not claim great antiquity for the language. Thunchath Ezhuthachan, who is considered the Father of the Malayalam language, is believed to have lived in the 16th century.

This, of course, does not mean the language was born in the 16th century. A language evolves gradually over a long period. Ezhuthachan's Adhyatma Ramayanam and Mahabharatam are acclaimed as Malayalam classics. A classic may emerge only after a language had produced considerable volume of literature of a lesser order.

Earlier the literary establishment was eager to highlight Sanskrit's impact on Malayalam and distance it from its Dravidian past. The Kerala Sahitya Akademi's 1993 publication "Malayalam Literary Survey," for instance, points out that, though Dravidian in origin, around 80 per cent of the Malayalam words are taken from Sanskrit.

Scholars are of the view that the modern languages spoken in the southern states have a common proto-Dravidian ancestor but evolved differently over the centuries. The varying degree of impact of Sanskrit was one factor that influenced their development along different paths. Sanskrit made the least impact on Tamil and the most impact on Malayalam.

Some scholars believe that Ilango Adigal, author of Silappadikaram, and Chathanar, author of Manimekalai, which were written in the early part of the Christian era, were natives of Kerala. Both the works are in an old form of Tamil, which was apparently in use in the region in their time. They also contain references which indicate that the region was under Jain and Buddhist influence when they were written.

The difference between the language of these ancient works and modern Malayalam is reflective of the socio-political changes that have occurred since then. The discontinuity between the two may be attributed to the emergence of a new literary establishment with a pro-Sanskrit bias and its attempt to make a break with the Jain-Buddhist past.

Thanks to the proviso to the Centre's criteria for grant of classical status to a language, this discontinuity need not come in the way of Malayalam's claim to be declared as a classical language.

The government and the literary establishment have a selective approach to the past. While seeking to establish the antiquity of the regional language they have shown little interest in reclaiming the rest of the region's culture and history, especially the period before the establishment of the caste system.

The excavations at Pattanam, near Kodungallur, have yielded archaeological evidence to believe it may be the lost port town of Muchiri (Muziris). An expert has identified an Indus Valley motif in the engravings in the Edakkal cave in Wayanad. These are indicative of a rich pre-Sanskrit past.

The state is keen to secure classical status for Malayalam as that will lead to generous Central grants for development of the language. The declaration of Tamil as a classical language was followed by the establishment of the Centre for Excellence in Classical Tamil, which is now working on 10 major literary projects with Central assistance.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 10, 2010.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bid to protect migrant workers

Gulf Today

Kerala added one more item to its long list of 'firsts' last week. It became the first Indian state to institute a welfare programme for migrant workers.

"Behind every rise of Kerala there is the effort of workers from other states," the state government said in an advertisement announcing the programme, which provides for medical assistances to migrant labourers and educational assistance to their children.

Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan inaugurated the scheme on May Day eve. Labour Minister PK Gurudasan presided over the inaugural function at which three other ministers distributed membership cards to selected migrant workers.

The local media, which was following up developments relating to the exit of the Kerala Congress (Joseph) from the ruling Left Democratic Front to merge with the Kerala Congress (Mani), a constituent of the opposition United Democratic Front, paid little attention to the event.

Preoccupation with politics apart, the media's indifference was indicative of the apathy of the middle class to the plight of workers from other states. Reports of exploitation of migrant labour rarely evoke sympathy in the state.

Millions of Keralites are working in other parts of India and abroad. There are an estimated 2.2 million of them in the Gulf States, which have been the main destination of jobseekers from the state since the 1970s.

Inward labour migration, which was going on at a slow pace for many years, gathered momentum in the recent past as remittances from Keralites working abroad fuelled construction activity and unskilled workers arrived to do jobs which local workers did not find attractive.

Observers have noted that unskilled workers of other states are coming to Kerala, "viewing the state as their Gulf." Labour contractors get them to work for longer hours at lower wages than are paid to local workers.

Dr N Ajith Kumar, Director of the Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies, who studied the condition of migrant labour in Kochi in 2007, had said the rising inward migration raised questions of governance, public health, sanitation, water supply, housing, urban environment, education, infrastructural needs and law and order, which warranted the attention of the authorities.

The State Planning Board, in its report for 2009, observed that migrant labour, like child labour, was a social hazard. It said workers had been coming from distant states like West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand besides the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Their number was increasing.

The board said migrant labourers were working under shabby conditions and did not even get subsistence wages. However, it claimed that much had been done in the last five years to "improve the life situation, education, health etc of migrant workers."

No one knows for certain the size of the migrant population in the state. Unofficial estimates vary from one to three million.

After the Andhra Pradesh police arrested Malla Raja Reddy, a Maoist leader of that state, from a hideout in Angamali, near Kochi, in December 2007 the Kerala government ordered a survey of migrant labour. The results of the survey have not been made public.

Meanwhile some alarmist theories are circulating among the middle class. A blogger wrote in 2008 that in three years' time 30% of the state's active population would be immigrant labour. Another claimed that migrant workers already formed two to three per cent of the population in most constituencies and they were in a position to tilt the election results.

The chief minister, while launching the welfare programme, said it would benefit about 500,000 people. This indicates that a large number of migrant workers will remain outside the protective umbrella.

In 1979 the Centre had enacted a law to regulate employment and service conditions of migrant labour. It covers every establishment or contractor employing more than five migrant workers. Few states have given effect to the provisions of the law.

Construction, road making and cable laying are among the activities in which large numbers of migrant workers are involved. Kerala was the first state to set up a welfare board for construction workers in response to the Centre's suggestion. It is this board which has been charged with the task of implementing the new welfare programme.

A migrant worker who registers under the programme will be required to pay an annual contribution of Rs30. The board will credit twice that amount in his account. The government will provide the rest of the money needed for the welfare measures. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 3, 2010.