Madhu, not post-imperialism, is the new subaltern reality in Kerala
When the first international book fair by the Kerala government gets going in Kochi on March 1, among the thrust areas identified for debate and discourse is the section that figures under the genre s
When the first international book fair by the Kerala government gets going in Kochi on March 1, among the thrust areas identified for debate and discourse is the section that figures under the genre subaltern. Not surprising as it weaves in seamlessly with the professed sensibility of a government run by the Left front. Therefore, when the thrust area list featured subaltern right below gender, nobody should have been surprised. Reason: over the years, the Left movement has taken pains to empathise with the marginalised voices, no matter if the decibel levels were high enough to attract much public attention.
Therefore, in a state that is always at pains to wear on its collective sleeve loads of empathy for the downtrodden, the lynching of A Madhu, the mentally challenged 27-year-old tribal youth, for allegedly pilfering edible items from nearby shops has come as a very rude shock. And it happened in Attappadi, that tribal outpost in Palakkad that keeps piling infamy on the state for its high infant mortality, so cannot be brushed under the carpet.
The state government was quick to announce an ex-gratia of H10 lakh to Madhu’s mother Malli. And all 16, who were either party to the questioning of Madhu before he was handed over to the police or were in the vicinity, have been arrested on charges of illegal detention, assault and murder. Once again, the cell phone camera that does not differentiate between the trivia and critical issues, has provided the clinching evidence and those who got caught on the camera questioning Madhu for alleged theft are now behind the bars.
It is another matter that the jury is still out whether the youth died of injuries sustained at the hands of the public or the police, after they took him into custody. His post-mortem report points to Madhu having succumbed to heavy injury on the back of his head and also to the fact that his ribs were broken. Prima facie, the police say they have evidence to show this was a murder and the cause of death was head injury.A case like Madhu’s killing was always waiting to happen, given two factors – one closely interlinked to the other.
For years together, successive governments in Kerala have failed to find a solution to thousands of tribals who have been alienated from their dwelling places in the Attappadi forest region. They continue to be at the mercy of the town-dwellers, in almost a real life take-off on the James Cameron movie ‘Avatar’. But unlike for the Na’vis, for the Kurumbas, Irulas and Mudugas of Attappadi there is no Jake Sully donning the mantle of a Na’vi hybrid to ensure the land of Pandora is not totally lost.
Earlier efforts to issue title deeds to tribals in Attappadi have come a cropper as the land allotted was right in the elephant corridor and did not have sufficient drinking water sources. Add to this, stiff resistance from the forest department and the tribal misery is complete. According to NGOs working in the region, the successive governments have been more empathetic to man-animal conflicts than to tribal-mainstream conflicts.
Nobody can ignore the uncomfortable truth about Madhu taking resort to living in a cave, not unlike an animal. And it was his sporadic forays into the civilised world, arguably to ‘feed’ on local shops over the past couple of years that made him enemy number one. If there was no one to represent his take on this situation, then perhaps it is high time the state government starts considering the option of identifying tribal leaders to represent their communities in the local self-government bodies.
Coming back to the relevance of subaltern in present day Kerala, perhaps the time has come to look beyond the clichéd focus on post-colonial and post-imperial realities. Instead, the time may have come for our society to place the likes of Madhu on the pedestal of those who fall socially, politically, and geographically outside the purview of the hegemonic power structure. We simply cannot keep flaying, Don Quixote-like, at the windmills, of a colonial-cum-imperialistic past, despite a clear absence of Sancho Panzos in our midst.
Unfortunately real life Madhu could not take a leaf out of the books of Sylvester Stallone’s ‘First Blood’ and settle things on his own. But then he was no John Rambo with military training to outlast the physical assault unleashed on him by self-styled vigilantes. We do not know for sure if there was a Will Teasle needling Madhu once he was taken into custody. The damage to his head could easily have been done by one of the vigilantes.
There have been similar instances, like the one of a self-styled puritan brigade clubbing to death a man in Malappuram in 2016 for straying from the morally straight path. These may be aberrations, but it is indeed disturbing when one cannot accept when others look and act different what is decreed as the norm at ‘home’.
Clearly, this will not be the last instance of flawed justice delivery in the Attappadi region that connects the town-dwellers and mostly landless tribals. Not many of them would behave as ‘normal’ mainstream does. But then, with almost 33,000 in numbers, the Kurumbas, Irulas and Mudugas have a right to have some say in the way they lead their lives. Not as marginal people, but as the mainstream, yet without sacrificing their individuality. As they too deserve to live. With dignity.
Resident Editor, Kerala