Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Rise of the caste-conscious, angry Hindu male in Kerala

Sabarimala issue has pitchforked caste to the centre of politics in the southern state

Bengaluru: Abhilash G. Nair, who belongs to the upper caste Nair community in Kerala’s Kottayam district, is part of a household that is filled with people who support either the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, or the main opposition Congress, in line with the two-party politics of the state.

But they are all united on a particular topic now, said Nair, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter—that the government is playing with fire by facilitating the entry of two women to Sabarimala hill shrine on Wednesday. He thinks the support the BJP is earning on Sabarimala is beyond caste and is linked to the religious unity of Hindus in Kerala.

Pinarayi Vijayan is pained to see potential to create violence at a Christian church but not on a Hindu temple. He is seeing the public in two different ways based on religion," said Nair.

Vijil M., a lower level official of a pro-Left youth outfit, does not carry a caste name for a reason—he does not see himself as a representative of any caste, but says his family belongs to the Vishwa Karma community, low down on the caste hierarchy.

Vijil M.’s household, like Nair’s, is filled with CPM and Congress supporters. But he thinks they all have come to agree, after some initial doubts, that some dated traditions like the women ban in Sabarimala need to go. “It is essentially an upper-caste protest now. They are holding their ground on the ban in order to preserve their caste hierarchy," said Vijil M.

Such debates happening across Kerala households gives the impression that for the BJP and the CPM, the Sabarimala topic is more than just about letting women enter a temple. It has pitchforked caste to the centre of politics in Kerala, giving a tool for polarization for the Left and the Right in a fierce turf war ahead of general elections.

So far, the BJP has received clear support from upper-caste Brahmins and Nairs, who are a dominant minority among Kerala’s Hindus, who form about half of the state’s 3.3 million population.

The CPM, on the other hand, has received potential support from lower caste Dalits to Ezhavas, who form the bulk of the Hindu community. But the undisputed leader of Ezhavas, Vellappally Nateshan, is in an ally of the BJP, which puts him in a quandary.

“In the past, the upper castes lived off exploiting their hereditary resources, like the land, and over the years have been seen as not enterprising enough. They mostly looked out for white collar jobs like government service. On the other side, the lower castes and minority groups have emerged as competitive, led by very active welfare organizations such as Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDPY), various Christian and Muslim organizations," said J. Prabhash, a political analyst and professor of political science at Kerala university.

“Large numbers of angry Hindu men are the ones working behind the scenes of both pro-CPM and the pro-BJP rallies. The BJP seems to be able to recruit more upper caste men than the CPM to hold such rallies, who were frustrated with their loss of hegemony in the society. But it risks to lose their support with violent protests. Middle class Malayalees, of any caste, are generally against violence," said Prabhash.

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