For the past two months, Prof Sunil P Elayidom has been speaking out relentlessly against Hindutva groups’ ongoing attempts to prevent women from entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. In his speeches, which have been drawing huge crowds, the noted Malayalam writer, teacher and orator, invariably rails against the Sangh Parivar for “taking Kerala back to the pre-renaissance period when women were not allowed to even cover their breasts”.

The Sangh Parivar launched an agitation in Kerala after the Supreme Court on September 28 struck down a ban on the entry of menstruating-age women into Sabarimala. Its leaders claimed that Sabarimala was a matter of tradition and faith for millions of devotees who were “aggrieved by the ruling” and whose “sentiments cannot be ignored”. The agitators have ensured that no woman of menstruating age has entered the shrine so far.

Criticising the agitation, and Hindutva generally, has earned Elayidom the ire of the Sangh’s supporters, who allegedly vandalised his office earlier this month. But he is unfazed. “I am least bothered about these attacks,” said Elayidom, who teaches Malayalam at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kalady, Ernakulam.

In 2017, Elayidom delivered a series of public talks on Kerala’s renaissance, Sree Narayana Guru, nationalism and Mahabharata’s cultural history that received wide attention. The renaissance refers to the many movements against caste and gender oppression that started in Kerala in the late 19th century. They were led mostly by reformers from what are now called the Other Backward Classes and the Dalit community. Guru, a leader of the backward Ezhava community, was one of the movement’s prominent figures.

The talk series, Elayidom said, was essentially a response to the Sangh’s attempts to “appropriate Indian cultural traditions”. “My aim was to convince people about the polyphonic, secular and folk traits of the epic,” he added. “I came up with a lecture series on Sree Narayana Guru, the great 19th century scholar and icon of Kerala’s renaissance, when Hindutva outfits tried to appropriate him. And the series on nationalism countered the religious nationalism espoused by Hindutva forces.”

Excerpts from the interview:

You were recently attacked for criticising the agitation against the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing women to enter the Sabarimala shrine. Are you afraid?
The attackers drew danger marks in saffron on the door of my office at the Sree Sankaracharya Sanskrit University in Kalady. They also broke the name board. I had received hate messages before the attack. They may attack again if I continue speaking out against Hindutva forces and neo-Brahminical groups. I have been speaking out against them for trying to erode Kerala’s secular culture. I am least bothered about these attacks, though.

Why do you think Hindutva groups might target you?
Because I take on Hindutva groups on their own turf. I launched a lecture series on Mahabharata’s cultural history last year when they attempted to appropriate Indian cultural traditions. My attempt was to convince people about the polyphonic, secular and folk traits of the epic.

I spoke about Sree Narayana Guru, the great 19th century scholar and icon of Kerala’s renaissance movement, when Hindutva forces tried to appropriate him. I relied on Guru’s own works to inform people that ultimately he was not a Hindu sanyasi and anyone who understood his teachings could never support the Hindutva ideology.

Then there were lectures on nationalism rooted in India’s secular, multicultural and federal structure. The lectures primarily contested the idea of religious nationalism espoused by the Hindutva forces.

We are living in an era when Hindutva and Brahminical forces are trying to appropriate Indian culture, epics and reformers. I am talking about Kerala’s renaissance movement as Hindutva forces are trying to erode the values we have gained from it. I am providing a counter-narrative to them from the very literature they rely on to spread misinformation. My strategy might have infuriated them.

What prompted you to start the lecture series? And how effective do you think the talks have been?
I launched the public talk series with an aim to bridge the gap between intellectuals and the common people. I consider it as the distribution of knowledge. For example, the ideas I tried to convey in the Mahabharata series were not new, but they were in the exclusive domain of the academia. I sought to use those ideas to engage with the people. I consider it a political activity.

Given the encouraging response I have received, I must say that people will listen to you if you rely on facts to engage with them. You should not rely on rhetoric as that will work only for a short period.

What is so special about Kerala’s renaissance movement, which you have been talking about a lot? How is it different from such movements in other parts of India?
In the larger sense, Kerala’s renaissance is the modernisation of the state, with a cultural dimension to it. It is different in that it originated from a subaltern movement. Critique of the caste was at the centre of its discourse. In contrast, renaissance movements in most other parts of India harped on about religious reform. Kerala’s renaissance also attempted to modernise the familial space.

It began with the Channar mutiny of lower caste Nadar women, who fought from 1813 to 1859 for the right to cover their breasts. Ayyankali took it forward with his Villuvandi Yatra to protest untouchability. He rode in a cart driven by two bullocks with bells around their necks through Venganoor in 1893. It was a significant gesture since the “untouchables” were neither allowed to use public streets nor ride in a cart. Poikayil Appachan contributed to the movement by developing a subaltern theology.

Sree Narayana Guru gave a new momentum to Kerala’s renaissance. He put forward modern democratic values and the concept of fraternity, which he used as a critique against caste.

Sunil P Elayidom's university office was recently vandalised, allegedly by supporters of the Sangh Parivar. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Why could Kerala not take the renaissance movement forward?
The renaissance movement came to a standstill after the 1940s, mainly for three reasons. First, there was Brahmanisation of the middle class after Sree Narayana Guru. He was a proponent of Advaita Vedanta, yet he sought to bring modernity to the society. He projected the values of fraternity and used them as a critique against caste. But the modern middle class that rose to prominence after colonisation found this as a contradiction. They conceived religion in its neo-Brahmanical version. They could not understand the relevance of Guru’s teachings and began to identify themselves with Brahmanical rituals.

The second reason was the inability of people to understand the over-determining potential of caste. When socialist and freedom movements gathered momentum in Kerala, people started to believe that caste would cease to exist with the extinction of landlords. But they were wrong. Caste disappeared from the public domain but it got internalised, and became the centre of the family.

The third factor was the transformation of religious organisations into powerful caste-centric groups. These reorganised outfits never critiqued caste. The Nair Service Society, an organisation for the upper caste Nairs, and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, representing the backward Ezhavas, are the best examples for this. They began as caste reform movements but now enjoy political bargaining power. Political parties are reluctant to criticise them because of the pressures of electoral politics.

So, after the renaissance, Kerala became more castiest, anti-women and traditionalist than ever.

How do you see the agitation against women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple?
It is a symptom. It shows Kerala has become a society that is castiest and anti-women, where women do not have the right over their bodies or the right over wealth. The reason for this is the emergence of nuclear families in the post-renaissance era that preserved Brahmanical traditions.

I believe Sabarimala exists in all of Kerala’s homes now. Patriarchy, castiesm and other regressive practices are entrenched in our society. This problem will not be resolved if a few women enter Sabarimala.

How strong do you reckon neo-Brahmanism is in the Malayali society?
Upper caste people identify Indian cultural traditions with Brahmanism and believe that they have the right to protect the culture. This is neo-Brahmanism and it is more masculine than traditional Brahmanism.

Brahmanism does not mean the power, privileges and interests of Brahmins as a community, it denotes the negation of the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Protests against women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple have intensified with Hindutva outfits joining forces with neo-Brahmanical groups.

How do you see the counter-movement against the Sabarimala agitation?
People from diverse sociopolitical domains – Dalit, Left, Far Left, environmental activists and feminists – have come together against the neo-Brahmanical groups agitating against women’s entry into the Sabarimala shrine. All the stakeholders have the responsibility to take forward this second renaissance movement, creatively.

But Adivasis and fisherfolk are still excluded from this discourse about the second renaissance. Adivasis in Kerala are the most backward in India. Mainstream political parties never considered their problems seriously. Politics revolves around the 60% of the population that constitutes the middle class in Kerala. No one cares about the communities outside this spectrum. Adivasis’ starvation never bothered the middle class, but the Sabarimala protests rattled them.

How secular do you think Kerala is today?
In Kerala, secularism is a cultural symbiosis. Different communities depend upon each other and our secularism is a practical negotiation by understanding this fact. This is a material necessity. No community can exist in Kerala without depending upon the others.

This aside, the ideas of the renaissance have strengthened secularism in Kerala compared to other Indian states. But internal caste convictions and the resultant caste exclusions are strong in Kerala.

Why do neo-Brahmanical group and the Sangh Parivar try to appropriate leaders of the renaissance?
Mainstream political discourses describe Ayya Vaikundar, Ayyankali, Sree Narayana Guru as just social reformers. This means the larger public may have misgivings. We forget the contribution of these leaders in inculcating certain ethical values that have had huge functional effect in human lives.

Kerala has failed to uphold those ethical values. The danger of calling Guru a social reformer is that anyone can take up his mantle of reform. So, the Sangh Parivar can easily claim he was a Hindu reformer. But if you look at the ethical values espoused by Guru, the Sangh Parivar can never make him one of its own.

The Left had the responsibility of upholding Guru’s ethical values. But it considered him an extension of bourgeois ideology. Fortunately, though, Kerala has many people who have experienced Guru. I think anyone who has experienced Guru can never believe in Hindutva while anyone who believes in Hindutva can never experience Guru.