Kozhikode: Geetha M, a school teacher associated with a pro-Left teacher’s union in Kerala, is having an unusually busy Sunday. She has attended two street rallies already, but has almost a dozen more houses to visit and distribute pamphlets before calling it a day. “This is the need of the hour," she says, walking past houses, tea-shops, libraries, among others in her neighbourhood, where, like during the historic floods in August, all discussions have converged into a single topic: a wall.
In this, one might say, Kerala, the seat of the only elected communist government in India, may have unwittingly found something in common with United States, the first country of the liberal capitalism, where President Trump’s proposal to build a wall has generated a heated debate.
Geetha is one among the millions of women who are canvassing people to join a symbolic wall Kerala’s Left Democratic Front administration is building on 1 January, expected to be one of the biggest demonstrations in the state in the recent past. But, like in the US, the wall has also become a most polarised idea in Kerala.
Titled ‘Vanitha Mathil’ (Women’s Wall), the idea is to have more than one million women join hands along multiple national highways, all the way from Kerala’s northern tip called Kasargod district to its southern capital Thiruvananthapuram, as if in an unbroken chain of bricks in a symbolic wall.
While many women agree with the wall’s official motive, to feature Kerala’s renaissance history and women empowerment credentials, many others, like actor Manju Warrier, have backed out citing its political overtones, especially its relation to the Sabarimala issue.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has posited the wall as a signature campaign to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s biggest expansion yet in Kerala using the Sabarimala issue. Over the last few months, the BJP has been at the forefront of several agitations in Kerala, to prevent women’s entry in Sabarimala against the Supreme Court’s decision to cancel a ban on women of childbearing age in the temple. In December, the party also created a national cell in an attempt to take the campaign against the Left at a national level.
Some others who would have otherwise joined a pro-left rally have also backed out, like writer Sara Joseph, who do not see the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPM, or the chief minister as a credible agent of renaissance, especially after a party legislator P K Sasi was not asked to resign, even though suspended, after a woman within the ranks raised a sexual assault allegation. Dalit leader Sunny M Kappikad has also backed out citing Vijayan administration’s non-committal stand on provide security to women who want to visit Sabarimala bracing right wing protests.
However, the CPM is leaving no stones unturned in its efforts to make the campaign a major success. “Three women for each meter, that’s our calculation. Kerala’s road-length is about 490 km, so we shall have 14 lakh women (officially, the party is expecting up to 50 lakh women). In districts such as (hilly district) Idukki, where the wall is not passing by, we have arranged about 200 buses to ferry women to nearby Ernakulam district," said a CPM leader, requesting not to be named.
The CPM also has the backing of other 200 odd organisations whom the administration sees as the legacies of the renaissance movement, including dominant leader of the lower caste Ezhava community, Vellappally Nateshan, who is an ally of the BJP but has a blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with the saffron party.
“What is going on right now is a political battle in view of the coming election," said BRP Bhaskar, veteran journalist and a political commentator. “The reason why the BJP and the RSS have not able to get a foothold here yet is that there is a voter in Kerala which is a product of its renaissance period. At this moment, regardless of its motive, people are forced to take a side in the fight between these two parties, otherwise it means a recession of renaissance and a victory for the pro-temple side. Our choices are always very limited."