Brand Kerala: Down or out?

Kerala has for long been recognized as the symbol of hope and modernity.

Ardhra Nair/ZRG

For long recognized as the symbol of hope and modernity given its sustained socio economic strides, viability of brand Kerala has of late come under severe scrutiny due to the ugly spate of violent crimes against women. But is it all over for the God’s own country or is this just a bad phase?

With a 0.92 Human Development Index which is at par with that of Japan and Switzerland, 93.91 per cent literacy rate, a tag of cleanest state in India, a booming tourism sector and on the path of becoming the first 100 per cent e-literate state in the country, anything and everything about Kerala seemed just perfect; until the script turned topsy-turvy with a spate of violent crimes targeting women in particular in the recent past. The state also witnessed a brutal political killing earlier this year justification of which snowballed into a national controversy.

The turbulence has now found echo in the National Crime Records Bureau Report 2011 which stated that Kerala observed an IPC crime rate of 515.6, earning it the status of number one Indian state in criminality. Kerala also has one of the highest individual suicide rates (25.3 per cent) in the country with Kollam reporting the highest rate of 39.3 in suicides among 53 mega cities. Kochi reported the highest crime rate of 1636.4 among the 53 mega cities in the country. The state ranks highest in incidents of rioting with a rate of 32.2 compared to the national average of 5.7.

The new found crime capital status obviously has not gone down well with those who champion brand Kerala. Said V S Achuthanandan, leader of opposition in the state Assembly and ex-chief minister, “Kerala tops the crime charts because of the high rate of reporting which points to an extra vigilant society. In other states Dalits and poor people are afraid to register cases.” And for a change there is vocal support to the ‘transparency’ argument. Congress Kerala MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted: “Kerala keeps accurate statistics, the badlands don’t”.

The strong defense, however, did not cut much ice with someone who has made a virtue of seeing reel life in real life. As a matter of fact, Kerala born Adoor Gopalakrishnan, considered one of the greatest film makers of India, said, “Keralites lead a life of double standards. We speak of modern values but when it comes to ourselves we remain orthodox. Films now are totally unreal. Now heroes are the rowdies. The increased violence and killings in Malayalam movies are a testimony to the fact that the Kerala society now gives less value to life.”

But why specifically target women when the state boasts of almost no gender literacy divide. “Malayalees still perceive women as sexual objects. The answer is a mixture of politics, fundamentalism and orthodox mentality,” said C Chandran, vice president of All India Malayalee Association from Delhi.

That explains the reluctance on part of 23-year-old Ashwathy, a Keralite living in Mumbai, to return to her home state. “Kerala is the most beautiful place on earth to go for vacations. But I will never want to live there,” she proclaimed.

So what makes Ashwathy and many like her dread this place so much? Not long ago, what happened to Soumya can be termed as perhaps the worst nightmare for any young girl. While travelling in a ladies compartment in a passenger train last year, her head was smashed; she was pushed out and killed after being brutally and cruelly raped. She is said to have had more than 100 wounds on her body. The nightmare continues.

NCRB 2011 found Kerala to have the highest crime rate of 11.2 as compared to the national average of 3.6 in cases related to molestation of women. “Kerala is at its worst now. Even babies as old as 6 months are being sexually harassed. We may have modernized in dressing but we still think with an ancient orthodox mind. Sexuality is a taboo, hence men objectify women. The moral policing too are a result of such double standards. Women in Kerala live in a constant fear,” said K Ajitha, president of Anweshi, a women’s rights organization.

This has caused much consternation among those who have put Kerala on national mind space. I M Vijayan, an Arjuna Awardee who won the Best Footballer of the year award thrice in his time, lamented, “Too much education seems to have ruined people here. Fundamentalism in youth is growing. Brand Kerala is a disappointing story.” Worse, he saw the decay, stifling the growth of football, an obsession in the state. “The lack of proper management, funding and rampant corruption in the system is hampering the growth of football here. This is a bad phase for the sport.”

Of the 1,791 cases registered in India during 2011 under the IT Act of 2000, 227 cases were from Kerala, coming second only to Karnataka. The study also showed that 58.6 per cent of the offenders were under the age group of 18-30 years. “A state is defined by its youth. The young generation feels insecure and wants to belong to a group that protects its interests. The religious parties prey into these insecurities leading to communal tension”, said Antony Palackal, an eminent sociologist from Thiruvananthapuram.

Is this a case of a demographic dividend turning into a liability?

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