In an interesting part of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864), the protagonist (an ordinary clerk), distraught at being dehumanised and treated like “an invisible” by a high-ranking officer, decides to take revenge. He spends months trying to plot the perfect way to get back at the officer before coming up with “the most marvellous” idea: to confront the officer on Nevsky Prospect, a central street in St Petersburg, where the clerk often spotted – and had stepped aside for – the officer in the past.

“What,” he thinks, “if I were to meet him and… not step aside?” This “audacious notion” of revenge begins to excite him beyond bounds, making him dream about the event “ceaselessly and vividly.” In this instance, the clerk’s presence on the public road – where his agency had been denied to him and members of his class by the aristocrats – would be his protest. By asserting his share of the public road, he would challenge authority and the street that had been a banal space for years would – at least transiently – be transformed into a political one.

To borrow the Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s words, such an “appropriation” of space for purposes outside of their conceived roles is the crux of democratic processes. Lefebvre argues that space, and particularly the social construction of space, should be central to how we study changing social relations in modern societies.

If the idea of subverting ascribed power relations on a public street appeared serendipitously to Dostoevsky’s protagonist, it would take a million little mutinies over decades – arguably even centuries – for a similar political assertion to take place on the Indian subcontinent. Reeling under centuries of caste suppression, the 19th and early 20th centuries were a period when spatial practices and forms of social relations were radically redrawn in India.

While civic enactments and popular participation at celebrations like Ramlila became important for the public expression of caste-oppressed communities in North India, the move of the nationalist movement from the private clubs to the beachfront in Madras would prove pivotal in the anti-colonial and anti-caste movements in Tamil Nadu in early twentieth century.

In Kerala, where laws of purity and pollution had remained extremely rigid (the region had relegated some castes to the status of “unseeable” and “unapproachable”, apart from the untouchable), public spaces like streets, kavalas (crossroads or street corners), and markets became highly contested spaces once these laws began to crack in the 19th century, and early signs of what Jürgen Habermas called a modern public sphere were taking shape.

Meanwhile, the discursive spaces like literature and journalism in Kerala had, by the turn of the century, evolved a distinctly unique cosmopolitanism which was progressive but also rooted in regional identity. While much attention has been given to the strides made in education, literature, culture, and religion, less has been written about the specific spatial changes that were simultaneously shaping new sociospatial relations in Kerala.

The emergence of a new social order, as Lefebvre argues, also suggests the emergence of a new spatiality. On one hand, social spaces like teashops, reading rooms, and libraries were starting to emerge, while on the other, the rules of engagement in other spaces like roads and public and religious institutions were being renegotiated.

These efforts begin to take shape through protests like the Channar Revolt in 19th-century Travancore. Here, women belonging to caste-oppressed communities who had recently converted to Christianity were insulted and the clothes covering their breasts ripped in public places by upper-caste Hindu men, leading to widespread protests. Although caste-Hindus were wary of the conversions, they were more rattled by the challenge this posed to their dominance over spaces like public roads and markets.

Following interventions from the Governor of the Madras Presidency and missionaries in Travancore, King Uthram Thirunnal Marthanda Varma proclaimed in 1859 that Channar women had the freedom to “wear any cloth of their choice, according to their dignity, to cover their breasts,” provided these clothes did not “imitate the clothes worn by higher-caste women.”

Crowds at a Shobha Yatra in 2017. Credit: S Harikrishnan.

Over the next half-century, streets would emerge in Kerala as spaces where political consciousness and movements for social equity would take shape. Such an openly spatial assertion over public spaces culminated in Ayyankali’s famous bullock-cart protest in 1893. Ayyankali’s very presence on roads where access had been denied to his castes, dressed in upper caste clothes and a turban – sartorial markers of caste that were also forbidden to him and his caste – was his mode of protest. Movements like the Vaikom Satyagraha – the agitation for access to members of caste-oppressed communities to walk along the roads near the temple at Vaikom – gave impetus to these efforts.

The nationalist and socialist waves in the 1920s and 1930s further transformed public roads into spaces for anti-imperial and anti-class struggles. Memoirs and biographies of (mostly male) public figures begin to reflect these changes, and the role of public roads as spaces that shaped the worldviews and political positions – often through the most mundane and everyday experiences – begin to stand out.

Kerala’s first chief minister and communist leader EMS Namboothirippad wrote in his memoir, for instance, how walking along the roads in Thrissur and his evening strolls near a relative’s home in Karuppadanna were pivotal in shaping his politics because they allowed him to meet and interact with people from across castes. Such everyday experiences, he noted years later, left “a deep impact” on his life.

A music performance on Manaveeyam Veedhi in Thiruvananthapuram. Credit: S Harikrishnan.

Even as other secular spaces emerged in Kerala in the 20th century, streets continued to be where the state’s public consciousness took its most visible and vivacious form. They became avenues where some hegemonies were challenged, while others, like gender, reified.

From the many processions (across faiths) that criss-cross Kerala to the protesters occupying a stretch of the footpath outside the Secretariat building in Thiruvananthapuram, political, religious, and cultural contestation, assertions, and re-appropriation of streets continue to be a feature of contemporary Kerala.

Recent decades have seen political, cultural, and economic pressures to control public spaces, resulting in incidents of privatisation of public lands, or the redevelopment of urban landscapes in cities like Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. Yet, some subversive spaces have also emerged.

One example is the Manaveeyam Veedhi – a stretch of road in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram – where for over a decade now, art and cultural events, folk songs, and film screenings are organised periodically. One of the organisers told me over a cup of tea, that the strength of Veedhi is that it functions outside the direct patronage of any political or religious organisation.

Once Manaveeyam Veedhi started attracting crowds, there were attempts to “hijack” the space from political parties who tried to hoist their flags; attempts that were vehemently opposed by patrons of the space. Recognising the relevance of such cultural corridors, the previous Left Democratic Front government, in its 2017-’18 budget, set aside a sum Rs 50 lakh to develop Manaveeyam Veedhi, and a further redevelopment proposal was approved as part of the Smart City plan.

Large-scale occupation of public roads was also seen during the Sabarimala agitation, both by protesters and also when progressive groups and the government organised a 620-kilometre-long human chain along the stretch of the national highways in the state in response to conservative protests. Meanwhile, other public spaces like grounds are also finding space in recent election manifestos of political parties in Kerala.

At a time when the ruling dispensation in Delhi appears to enjoy a near-monopoly over virtual spaces like news and social media, there is a need to recognise that politics in India has, and continues to be, essentially spatial, and streets and public roads remain front and centre in these contests.

The incredible resilience of the dadis of Shaheenbagh, the farmers occupying main roads outside Delhi against the farm laws, and the long walk that migrant labourers across the country were forced to embark on during the pandemic serve as testimony that streets continue to witness significant events that shape the political milieu of the country.

S Harikrishnan is an Assistant Professor at Dublin City University, and author of Social Spaces and the Public Sphere: A Spatial-history of Modernity in Kerala. He is also a co-editor of Ala and his Twitter handle is @harikrishnan_91.

This article was first published on India in Transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

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