Caste in stone: Debate and denial in progressive Kerala

Dateline: Thiruvananthapuram

When the Kerala government made it official that over 1.24 lakh children in the state left the religion and caste columns in their school admission forms blank at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, it was a promise of change. Minister for Education C Raveendranath made the announcement on March 28. He was responding to an MLA's question in the legislative assembly, barely a week after a man stabbed his daughter to death for deciding to marry a Dalit man, in Malappuram district.

The context was hard to miss and the numbers emerging from schools in the state were dubbed as a sign of change, imminent and inevitable; and as it turned out, rather unrealistic.

It took only a day for the euphoria to die down as managers of many government and government-aided schools started questioning the veracity of the data released by the minister. Schools run by religious minority groups also confirmed that religion was still integral to the documentation of student details in their institutions.

The minister countered the charge by pointing out that he was only quoting figures collated through Sampoorna, a school management software that has compiled details of around seven million students between classes one and 12, covering over 15,000 schools. Official figures, released subsequently, confirmed that figures the minister quoted from were the result of a technical glitch and the actual number of students who entered neither their religion nor caste in the respective slots was only 1,538.

Re-assertion of caste

The cheer over a "casteless" future, which trended on social media for a day, has since made way for cynicism. The debate over a palpable re-assertion of caste identities in Kerala - caste has increasingly started to steer discussions in the state's socio-political spaces - is now caught in a technical argument over statistics.

There still is no final word on the figures or the authenticity of data entered into the system, typically by school managers, often in a rush against deadlines.

Activists and social commentators in the state do acknowledge the story's positive angle, important in times of aggressive caste politics, but maintain that the numbers don't reflect a social trend. They point out that the uninformed optimism with which many welcomed the minister's announcement shows how disconnected they are from the reality of religion and caste even in what is still celebrated as a progressive, inclusive society.

According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes comprise 9.1% and 1.45%, respectively, of Kerala's population. Sunny M Kapikad, a Dalit activist and writer, calls the official release of incorrect data as a "political crime". Kapikad is among those who dismiss the buzz around a few thousands - "a microscopic minority", as he calls them - deciding not to disclose their religion or caste when there are larger issues to be addressed, bigger battles to be fought.

Atrocities continue

"Kerala has been witnessing atrocities against the Adivasis, police brutality on Dalits and now, even a 'dishonour killing'. All this has finally facilitated open deliberations about caste, something we had so far tucked under our false sense of progressiveness. The emerging debate over people shedding their caste identities is skewed and will only take us back to a state of denial," he says.

Dalit activists point to three recent incidents that they say dispel all signs of optimism. In February, a group of believers and administrators of the Ernakulam Shiva temple objected to the body of Dalit artist V K Mahesh, aka Asanthan, being kept at the government-owned Durbar Hall Arts Centre in Kochi.

Their reason: the centre is located only about 50 metres away from the deity, on the eastern side of the temple. In the same month, Madhu, a tribal youth accused of theft in Attappady, in Palakkad district, died after a public trial and mob assault.

In March, Athira (22), was stabbed to death by her father Rajan in Areekode in Malappuram district a day ahead of her wedding with her Dalit boyfriend. The incident has been reported as a probable first 'dishonour killing' in the state.

A bit of optimism

The idea of a casteless society is viewed by many with scepticism but it's also important to dwell on the possibilities from whatever little contribute to the idea, according to T Abhilash, an assistant professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. He sees Kerala's resistance against any form of othering as a reality that has to be celebrated as a positive example.

"It's true that disclosing or keeping private one's religion or caste in a document is not critical in the larger context. And these are, obviously, exaggerated figures, but there's also the reality that Kerala is standing apart in times of caste discrimination and profiling," he says. Abhilash agrees with the argument that the Dalits cannot afford to discard caste as a form of identity.

"These are strange times;  babas are becoming ministers - the fact that this news about children not disclosing their religion and caste was widely discussed is by itself a positive for me. I'm hopeful," says Abhilash, whose areas of specialisation include ethnography, social exclusion and tribal marginality.

The open dialogues on caste and discrimination that Kapikad refers to were recently revived around a wall in Vadayampady, in Ernakulam district, built to deny Dalit families in the village access to a temple.

The brazenness involved in these acts of discrimination is not something the state is accustomed to. But it's also, arguably, debunking perceptions of the inclusive society and setting off stronger, more vocal forms of resistance.

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