Sunday, December 10, 2023

Devika: Kerala public’s reluctance to call an institutional murder by its name

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Jasmin Naur Hafiz

Kerala’s reluctance to call an institutional murder by its name speaks volumes about its mainstream political discourse. Instead of generating a discussion on her Dalit social location and her experiences of marginalization, Devika Balakrishnan, the 14-year-old Dalit student’s institutional murder has created an army of people giving mental health advice to the marginalized, putting the blame of the murder on the deceased. Devika, a daughter of a daily wage laborer in Kerala was found dead near the family home on Monday, the first day of the new school term, having apparently taken her own life. She was unable to attend online classes because she did not have a television or smartphone.

But this isn’t an aberration. Perpetrators of oppression asking victims of structural violence to be patient and bear it all is nothing new. However, this unsolicited advice from people who are located in positions of privilege, puts the burden of oppression on marginalized groups, absolving the perpetrators of structural violence from the responsibility of dismantling the system.

Trivializing Devika’s suicide without adequately addressing the question of online classes does the same thing. The government’s haste in starting these classes for school children is a desperate attempt to maintain the state’s image of meeting high standards of social progress – even if it means a covering up of all fault lines in the society. Not only are these classes exclusionary, but they are also a futile attempt, an unnecessary step to be taken for school children in this lockdown. What urgency dictates the need to start classes for a 6-year-old child in the midst of a pandemic, when even higher education is at a necessary halt? The only urgency comes from the need to present before the public, a shiny and polished image of Kerala that thrives on the ideologies of the mainstream that are supposedly inclusive. One that is about reflecting an idea of progress, owned and operated by the mainstream, that conveniently hides all narratives from the marginalized. Any other opinion, highlighting the layers of social discrimination in the state, by marginalized groups themselves,  is deemed divisive and is easily silenced. This is the reason why even when institutional murders like these happen, the mainstream continues with the unfaltered promotion of this glossy version of Kerala, giving mental health advice to marginalized groups.

In fact, Kerala’s politics of progress has long hijacked movements of the marginalized or has silenced their narratives. This is the same politics that attaches tags like ‘secular’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘egalitarian’ with the state’s identity, misusing them to erase from the collective memory,  incidents like the Beemapally and Muthanga firing. This politics of erasure of experiences of the marginalized is what has led to the killing of Devika.

Ironically enough, the same left groups that have vociferously campaigned against online examinations in central universities, are the ones who are applauding online classes in Kerala. However, this hypocrisy remains the feature of Indian mainstream dissenting groups. These left-liberal spaces dominated heavily by the upper caste, become the saviors of the marginalized. They define the terms, the demands, and the mode of protest, when to speak and when not to speak. But only as long they remain the ones speaking. As soon as marginalized groups start getting agency and start exerting themselves, their politics is dismissed as ‘identity politics’, termed communal, divisive, and unsuitable to be supported. Marginalized groups become the grounds of their political gain and remain just that- making it easy for them to support and ignore the claims of the marginalized according to their convenience. However,  this is not an exception. This is the defining feature of Indian mainstream politics.

Jasmin Naur Hafiz is a student of B.A. (Honours) Economics at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi.

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