The Sabarimala row has become an occasion to re-examine the cultural foundations of the mainstream Left in Kerala. To the Left, and beyond, Hindutva is first and foremost a cultural challenge. In ways familiar in Indian history since the 19th century, the Savarna caste communities identify “culture” as their essential core, and it is perhaps no surprise that their violent response to the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple now borders on the insane.

In this imbroglio, the most confusing word that is being used, perhaps, is “renaissance”. A term that became a familiar way of both describing and explaining the social churning Kerala experienced during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. As description, it referred to a diverse set of events, processes and movements of that period; as explanation, it gestured towards the recovery and re-reading of traditional knowledges and texts to generate a modern critique of tradition. This borrowing and redeployment of the notion of renaissance in Kerala happened in the context of the discourse of United Kerala, which placed the newly formed linguistic state within Indian culture and history as imagined in post-independence Indian nationalism. Not surprisingly, then, the renaissance as description and explanation selectively highlighted certain movements, events, personae and trends, to the disadvantage of others. As later feminist and Dalit critiques pointed out, the discourse of renaissance tended to render obscure the ways in which modern patriarchy was shaped in Kerala, and both the uniqueness of and the diversity in the challenge to the caste order advanced by Dalit leaders and movements. As explanation, it tended to stay within the terms of Indian nationalism and culture, highlighting the recovery primarily of the Hindu classics.

The feminist and Dalit critiques that began to be articulated from the mid 20th century have, by now, challenged the notion of the renaissance quite fundamentally – either as description (by demanding an expansion of it or a reselection of what could be named by it) or as explanation (by pointing to its inability to explain a number of 20th century sociological features with roots in the late 19th century to early 20th century, such as the rise of modern patriarchy). These have powerfully exposed the disutility of the notion for understanding the history of early modernity in Malayalee society. Indeed, in academic circles in Kerala, these critiques were taken seriously – or so it appeared.

Invisibilising feminist critique

What astonishes and pains me about the ongoing debate on Kerala’s early 20th century social transformation is the way in which the feminist critique has been either totally ignored or shorn of its analytical power. In other words, the renaissance as imagined by the gender-blind liberal and leftist scholars of the mid-20th century seems to be back in full force. The first social response of the Left government was to dissociate itself from “activist women” trying to visit the Sabarimala temple, branding them non-believers. Their second response was to initiate a series of public talks by the chief minister and leading public speakers of the mainstream Left. This was projected as an effort by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to revive the “critical spirit of the Kerala renaissance”. But it was actually a continuation of the mainstream Left’s public engagements, especially by the intellectual Sunil P Elayidom. The public speakers tended to keep their discourses within the terms of the debate set by the Hindutva, claiming to be battling it on its own turf – for instance, referring largely to the reinterpretation of the Hindu myths by early modernist intellectuals, or declaring a vaguely-defined “political Islam” to be against the spirit of the Kerala renaissance.

I believe this holds the possibility of rendering many strands of the 20th century socio-cultural churning, including the first-generation Malayali feminists, invisible. The trouble seems to be that these speakers project the social change of the time as essentially endogenous, reliant mainly on Hindu/Indian traditions, and hence deserving of the description “renaissance”. That this leads to the exclusion and invisibilisation of Christian and Muslim reformations of the time is evident. Equally seriously, this tends to ignore the many exogenous and cosmopolitan socio-intellectual currents of the time that were highly influential – the first-generation feminists, early anti-caste missionary discourse, Sahodaran K Ayyappan’s rationalist movement, C Krishnan’s Buddhism, birth control advocacy, the intellectual cosmopolitanism of Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai. The communist movement was one among these and it was as indebted to the other currents as to the subversive appropriation of Indian intellectual and spiritual traditions by figures like Sree Narayana Guru. It was also a time when Malayalis spread all over Southeast Asia and Africa and brought back cosmopolitan ideas that translated into anti-caste awareness. The exclusive highlighting of endogenous strands of the Navoddhanam discourse keeps it well within the terms set by Hindutva. And makes it difficult to absorb anti-caste critiques from other parts of India, say, Periyar’s powerful attacks on Brahmanical patriarchy.

Accommodation through an additive approach that mentions the names of women who “also participated” in the renaissance was indeed offered by some speakers, but this does not allow for the structural inclusion of the feminist critique in the broad ambit of the Left that the CPI(M) is now attempting to create. Nor does it permit the articulation of a queer critique. It is impossible to ignore the fact that compulsory heteronormativity was asserted as a fundamental requirement for a truly “civilised” society by the purveyors of Kerala’s renaissance, and the lingering discomfort about transpeople in Kerala is connected with the notions of gendered public propriety that emerged in those times. Feminists, queer or otherwise, cannot afford to join the ongoing celebrations of “renaissance values” uncritically, for the roots of modern heteropatriarchy lie in them. It is true that prominent Malayalee feminists have failed to notice, leave alone question, this alarming attrition of feminist space, and they will pay a huge price for this.

Masking modern patriarchy

This is why I have serious problems with the observations made by Elayidom in his interview to All the confusions that accompany the liberal-Left notion of the renaissance dog his arguments. His cursory reference to how it “attempted to modernise the familial space”, the lack of nuance in referring to very different, even mutually oppositional, strands of the critique of the pre-modern order of caste, the positioning of the renaissance and “tradition” in a binary, and the easy association of “progress” with the first and “regress” with the other – all of this thwarts the feminist critique and sneaks back the largely gender-blind liberal-Left “renaissance” both as description and explanation of those times. Indeed, this is precisely why his explanation of the rise of conservatism, assumed to be a post-renaissance phenomenon, is so weak. What it completely omits is the highly-gendered history of the shaping of the modern family in and through the renaissance. There is, by now, a very large volume of feminist historical research by a number of eminent historians, including K Saradamoni, Meera Velayudhan, Anna Lindberg, G Arunima, Praveena Kodoth, which traces this evolution during precisely the period of interest, which he simply ignores.

The unique feature of this rightwing assertion has been the widespread participation of women who live family lives and careers that would be deemed “modern” in Kerala – who follow the interpretation of “tradition” offered by male leaders and act at their command. This is certainly not contrary to the “renaissance values” in which the role of the reformer was inevitably reserved for the man and women were conceived as objects of reform – and so women’s public acts and roles were to be planned and shaped by male reformers. Surely there were some exceptions to this in social activism, but those events were hardly replicated or even remembered until the rise of feminism in Kerala.

It is precisely the same power that the mainstream Left leadership drew upon in planning and executing the massive “women’s wall” on January 1. Interestingly, this show of strength utilised women’s bodies as bricks in a wall to ostensibly guard Kerala from Hindutva’s efforts to “drag it back into tradition”. In other words, the “women’s wall” (whatever unintended consequences it may yield) was built by modern patriarchy against pre-modern forms of patriarchal power. The revival of the renaissance discourse served this end by setting the renaissance as untainted by patriarchy and by masking the insidious presence of modern patriarchy in all institutions in Kerala, including the mainstream Left.

I am, therefore, unable to join in the celebration over the success of the women’s wall or in the chorus celebrating Elayidom’s public discourses. As a beleaguered Malayalee feminist intellectual in 21st century Kerala, I cannot afford to let my guard down.

J Devika is a historian, social critic and feminist from Kerala. She teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.