A Heretic Hartal of Kerala – Dismantling of the Patriarchal Figure

Muhammed Shah | May 1st, 2018 | Hyderabad

Massive crowd protesting in Manjeri, Kerala on April 16, 2018

On April 16th, in Kerala, without any knowledge even to mainstream media or any advance notice served to the State Government, a hartal (a general strike) was called in. Not only that it was called in without any organisational support, it resulted in one of the recent massive public turnouts. Caught unaware of the momentum, the mainstream derogatorily christened this strike as ‘Anonymous Hartal’ or ‘Fake Hartal’.

This incident seemed to be a successful expression of political conscience in Kerala. Hartal was conducted in solidarity with Asifa Banu, raped and murdered inside a temple, by a group of caste Hindu fundamentalists in Jammu three months ago. The Hartal, ‘anonymously’ called via social media, unfurled itself without any authority. However, according to the State, it disrupted the day to day activities and business in few places.

One of the most important features of this Hartal is, it has torn down the notion of a central authority. Instead, ethics, a force of self, occupied the center for people to take the street.

Hudaifa who participated in the Hartal in Mampad shared his conversation with Ramees, a medical representative from Chandakkunnu, Nilambur, “Every Muslim mother should come out of their households and march in public, clad in Burqa”.

Smaller groups who were detained by police in Kozhikode during the Hartal recorded videos expressing their anger and despair and posted it on their Facebook timelines. One of those videos had a voice over that said, “This Hartal is people’s Hartal and it doesn’t require any political party’s backup. “

Later on, media reports suggested that majority of the people who participated were youngsters from the local communities. But they were all detained by Police on the same day. The arrested were seen declaring to the police that ‘we are detained for voicing out for an 8 8-year-old girl, who was raped and murdered’.

The languagee of minimum ethics in the place of a familiar political vocabulary! It was as if Asifa, murdered thousands of kilometers away three months back, immediately became a visceral reality in their lives!

In another video circulated, a group of people, from Kasargod district of Kerala, wore black shirts and held a banner in support of Asifa Banu and raised slogans against RSS.

The language used in all these above instances of protest, invoking Asifa Banu, as an ethical question which seemed to be emerging from the conscience of a layman who could be identified as a daily wage laborer or a student of the locality.

We cannot find any conventional political idioms expressed by them, rather colloquial lingo directly targeting the right-wing Hindutva during the Hartal.

This incident was not only the subversion of the authority of the political demonstration but also created the language of dissent and anguish and a new stream of discourse to protests itself.

Almost all of the mainstream media referred to the Hartal as ‘fake’ and inauthentic. Mainstream parties fervently released disclaimers on the social media disassociating themselves with the Hartal. The vernacular media (Manorama news, Mathrubhoomi etc) hastily reported that ‘Muslim extremist’ organizations were behind the Hartal when not a single Muslim organisation staked claims over the Hartal. One of the prominent actresses from Malayalam film industry Ms. Parvathy went on to state on Facebook that whatever was happening in the name of the protest is ‘abuse’.

Media, anxious of this particular ‘bastardized’ nature of Hartal, promptly cast suspicions on Muslim organizations for masterminding it. At the same time, whoever participated in the Hartal were seen to be celebrating the decentralisation of authority. This incident was not only the subversion of the authority of the political demonstration but also created the language of dissent and anguish and a new stream of discourse to protests itself. 

Malayalam newspaper, Mathrubhumi, reported the next day, that even though it was a ‘fake’ Hartal, surprisingly it had also been successful. Wary of the success, they continued the media spin and speculated that ‘Muslim extremist’ organizations masterminded the Hartal, sticking to the Sangh era nature of its journalist ethics. Most CPM proponents unanimously alleged that the Hartal was sponsored and executed by ‘Muslim extremists’.

In another video that circulated, a textile owner from Ponnani posted on his timeline claiming that he is shutting down his shop by himself in support of the Hartal.

This incident was not only the subversion of the authority of the political demonstration but also created the language of dissent and anguish and a new stream of discourse to protests itself.

Sadik remembers the day just after Babri Masjid demolition when people observed Hartal without any announcement or authority. He, being part of the Hartal in Nilambur, said that most of the people who observed the strike immediately took to the streets and observed Hartal without any announcement or authority. He also added that most of the people who observed the Hartal, who blocked vehicles, who requested to shut down the shops did not express any affiliation to any political parties. Also, these were largely either manual laborers, (loading and unloading laborers) or students.

A few days back to this, Dalit organisations in Kerala had called in for another Hartal on May 9th, to protest against the attack on Dalits nationwide. This Dalit Hartal was also rebuked, dismissed and denounced by mainstream political groups questioning the authenticity of the Hartal and cast aspersions that it could have been supported by ‘Muslim extremists’.

The Hartal which was announced (or unannounced?) on social media took on a whirlwind across the political discourses in Kerala. It was interesting to note that whoever got arrested (around 1200 at the time of this write up) had no plans to bail themselves out. When police tried to detain people, a large crowd would quickly gather and prevent it.

Since there was no party claiming the fatherhood of the strike, Kerala became an ‘orphanic desert’ for a whole day. This also could be read differently, in association with the fact that Social media squandering has increased in Kerala with the arrival of affordable mobile networks which help every sect of people to keep abreast of the campaigns and news flowing over the Facebook or other social media.

Social media often appears to be dividing real from the virtual or fake. This discourse of real and fake has been actively consumed by the mainstream media in their reports of the Hartal. However, this same divide was flushed out in the Hartal which confused even the media. The widely assumed fakeness of social media proved itself as the most ‘real’ aspect that troubled even the notion of the real itself.

The presumptions of ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ about media houses have already been crushed down in the battle of facts that has been often evinced in their ‘false’ reportage of the Hartal. One of the most important features of this Hartal is, it has torn down the notion of a central authority. Instead, ethics, a force of self, occupied the center for people to take the street.

Surprisingly enough, Muslim elites, apprehensive about the facelessness and fatherlessness of Hartal were equally petrified. No Muslim civil right organizations or any religious collectives issued any statement in support for these incidents. Moreover, we witnessed them denouncing it (the courageous position was taken by Nahas Mala and S Irshad, the leaders of SIO and Fraternity movement respectively should be acknowledged).

Leftist intellectuals who disappointingly behaves like a closed ‘militia’ in Kerala, united against any such moment or massive outbreak. This unity between them and the elite Muslim organizations demonstrates not just the sense of apologia permeating among them, but also their inclination towards the libidinal structure of hegemonic Hindu ‘secular’ democracy.

While acknowledging the attempts to challenge libidinally of hegemony, most of such essential political communities in nature and form remain within the same libidinal structure. This also exposes that any dialogical attempts to engage with the Hindu secularity would end up being a reinforcement of the figure of the father.

Anything which occurs outside this structure of the libido would be easily captured as ‘communal’ in public discourse, observed Sadik P.K, a research scholar on Muslim politics, from EFL University.

To riot against the father is considered as heresy in the discourse of the political. In that sense, the pertinent feature of the Hartal was its heretic behavior which refused the ‘rule of the political’ in Kerala.

Ajithkumar AS, a Musician, and writer rightly observed that the difference between Dalit Hartal and the Hartal for Asifa is that the former has been considered by the public as an occasion to attest to their ‘castelessness’ as a feature of being modern while the latter creates the threat to the modern.

Hartal, due to the participation of different communities and political affiliations confused the State Intelligence and Police. In order to dismiss the strike and legitimize their own ‘communal’ label to the Hartal, Kerala police widely and selectively arrested Muslim youth.

CPM’s transmutation to be a Hindu party should be marked by two major factors; the uncritical affirmation of Hindu democracy and the fear of the traumatic facelessness of Muslim Other. The idea of ‘party’ itself could be rendered as the figure of the father which enacts the political. To riot against the father is considered as heresy in the discourse of the political. In that sense, the pertinent feature of the Hartal was its heretic behavior which refused the ‘rule of the political’ in Kerala.

In lieu of understanding the Hartal in terms of the idea of ‘event’, ‘moment’, or ‘multitude’, I would prefer to chain it to the recent episode of protests which was heralded by ‘Amanava Sangamam’ (A-human meet) conducted in 2015 December at Calicut.

It was a call, without any centralized authority or political leadership, for the radical renunciation of the left-humanist political tradition in Kerala. The meet, perhaps unprecedented, had been called in protest against the exclusion of Muslim organizations from a conference, which claimed to be anti-fascist, conducted in the supervision of leftist political collectives.

In it’s forms and contours, Kiss of Love protest of 2014, incentivized by a right-wing Hindutva group’s vandalizing on a Muslim shop, has also maintained a certain kind of similitude despite being severely criticized by Dalit and Muslim intellectuals for its inexorable liberal characteristic.

In all of these events we see a kind of momentary populism appearing and quickly disappearing, outside the grammar of political conventions, so to speak, we see a radical anonymity. Interestingly enough all these incidents have been erupted out of some Muslim problem.

To put in another way, Muslim problem has recently been operating in Kerala as a spontaneous outbreak without any continuation or essentialization. However, two important characteristic features to be noted with regard to these incidents are; fatherlessness and fugitivity.

These incidents did not allow itself to be controlled by a father figure or central authority or by any political essentialism at any moment. It keeps fleeing from any form of people that are being constructed through such incidents.

The people who participated in one event would be in opposition to the other event, thus it refuses any form of essential political community. That is, it constructs a spontaneous community and immediately negates it.

To be precise, Muslim problem in Kerala enacts the moment of a radical anonymity and fatherless fugitivity and thus performing a revolutionary negativity. The terrifying nature of this could be a cause of disturbance to the intelligence and police machineries.

Later, hours after the Hartal, the police started to hunt down those who were accused of taking part in the Hartal. Youngsters were arrested from their houses at midnight to try to avenge it categorically with the unconditional support of all the mainstream political parties and media.

As things have unfolded after days, five RSS people have been accused by police of having conspired to organize the Hartal. The flow of multiple narratives and stories that were subsequently generated is so much telling with regard to the potential of the form of Hartal.

The consistent concurrence of police narrative and CPM party narrative is primarily obsessed with the notion of the father (of Hartal). ‘Who’ started or ‘who fathered’ the protest has been held as a question prominent in all the narratives of police as well as the party.

The obsession and anxiety over the absence of the father can also be read as ‘fatherly’ anxiety. In the same vein, the some of the damages which happened during the Hartal was exponentially exaggerated and highlighted as a menace of this ‘fatherlessness’.

Obviously, the anxiety was not about the destruction of the property, rather the absence of the father in the process of destructing the property. Let’s also remember one of the CPM affiliated discussants in a channel debate saying that we would not have any problem if this would have directly declared and executed by SDPI (one of the organisations that receive a lot of flak as ‘Muslim extremist’ ).

It is in this sense that I argue that whether it was conspired and planned by RSS, CPM or ‘Muslim extremists’, the most potential and traumatic dimension of the Hartal lies at its consistent negation of a figure of the father.

Hence I consider the question of the form of Hartal important over the ‘father’ of the Hartal. One of the ‘fatherly’ tasks in a Hartal is to maintain a proper communication with authority and law, hence taming the chaos anticipated which is generally presumed as the ‘rule’ of the protest.

Here we see the ‘rule’ being subverted, thus the Hartal has become ‘illegitimate’, ‘non-Hartal’ or ‘heretic’. Even though we assume by taking the police version in face value that the Hartal was initiated by RSS people, the united and popular outrage ever expressed against the RSS proves the Hartal being a real riot against the father.

In any aspect, this Hartal has become the most heretic expression of the people’s ethics. The protest for Asifa was just a matter of guilt so far, but now, has been a real trauma of ethics, heresy and Islam in the public sphere of Kerala.