Caste, Nationalism and Communism in Malabar (1900-1948)

CASTE, NATIONALISM AND COMMUNISM IN SOUTH INDIA: MALABAR 1900-1948. By Dilip M. Menon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xiv + 209 pp. Rs. 295.

In the first issue of Social Scientist (August 1972), Prakash Karat offered a thorough and clear review of Victor Fic's tendentious Kerala: Yenan of India, Rise of Communist Power: 1937-1969 (1970). Fic, following a trend in Parsonian social science, accused the communist movement of manipulation of local caste and religious identities in its road to power in Kerala. Karat did not dispute the communists' reliance upon the Ezhavas and dalits for their power, but he pointed out that "unless this is linked to the rural class structure, where the overwhelming majority of these castes are the poor peasants and landless or even middle peasants fighting against landlord exploitation, mostly upper caste, the reasons for radical mobilisation is totally missed" (72). Dilip Menon, in his superb book, develops Karat's insight further: the communists, he argues, understood that the principle contradictions in Kerala were articulated in terms of caste inequality. Hence, the Left's ability to forge their own political strategy around the intimations of equality in Malabar (north Kerala) enabled a fusion of the popular will and the initiatives of the Congress Socialist Party and the Communist Party of India.

In Malabar, the urges for caste equality encircled the various struggles around subsistence, worship, caste, Hinduism and peasant unions. These urges, these aspirations for community, produced many political devices which the various social groups utilized in virtuoso ways. Whether the groups fought over the local shrines, the temples, the nature of the surplus or the question of local power, they understood the transitoriness of their strategic formations of community: people came together to win concrete battles from which they developed new communities as the balance of forces altered. A detailed social history of Malabar, the first of its kind in English, enables the reader to follow the attempts of such low castes as the Tiyyas in the rearrangement of their worshipping lives in a bid to reorder their unequal social universe. Menon draws from a fabulous assortment of sources: government documents, newspapers, anthropologists' ruminations, interviews and accounts written by major political figures from the region. We are given a very adequate analysis of the complex ways in which low castes and dalits negotiated the politics of 'cleanliness' (temperance, neatness, etc.) and the dilemmas faced by caste Hindus as they found themselves unable to welcome low castes and dalits into their community (in such incidents as the Guruvayur and the Vaikkam struggle). Just for the social history, Menon's book is the most significant study of Kerala since Karat's essays in Social Scientist.

But Menon also offers us important theoretical insights. The emergence of the Left in Kerala offered the language of class to ongoing struggles: many issues simmered without elaboration because the people had no framework to analyze their conditions. Bharateeyan told the first all-Malabar peasant meeting in 1936 that "there are only two castes, two religions and two classes -- the haves and the have nots" (134). A poem from the Chairakkul taluk peasant union pointed out that "For long the landlord has taken vasi [feudal levy]/Reducing peasants to poverty/Now by forming unions/We shall show our vasi [obstinacy]" (138). Low castes and dalits, unlike anthropologists, typically analyze their subordination along the axis of Knowledge/Ignorance rather than Purity/Pollution. Menon shows how this comes together with the Left's attempt to educate the people via newspapers, jathas, study circles and theatre (teyyattam): this pedagogy enabled a popular reassessment of a historical struggle for caste equality into language which enabled wider secular solidarities to be crafted (such as in the peasant unions). Political strategy must always develop from the concrete contradictions in localities. To ignore or deny caste in India is to engage in a false idealism. To utilize caste for electoral purposes or to hold power is to play with a politics of fission (as the Congress Party has recently discovered in its KHAM experiment in Gujarat). The Left movement, Menon shows us, neither ignores nor manipulates caste. Krishna Pillai, a founder of the Communist Movement in Kerala and author of the Karl Marx (1909), wrote in 1934, "Tiyya, Nayar, pattar, Mappila and Christian -- one must forget these differences and assert that 'I am an agricultural worker, I am a mill worker and my success is the success of each worker belonging to my class" (117-118). The introduction of the language of class produced a new level of contradiction: between parochial caste identities and universal class identities. These struggles await a verdict from the future. For now, we have Menon's book as a viable map to understand the moral and material lives of the Malayalis.

Vijay Prashad


This page is maintained by Vijay Prashad.

Back to History Page

proXsa home page