Patriarchy's rise in Kerala: From Smarta Vicharam to Suryanelli

In a state often eulogised for high scores on human development indicators, Kerala shows how patriarchy has gained ground despite 'progress'.

Rajeev Srinivasan February 18, 2013 16:04:36 IST
Patriarchy's rise in Kerala: From Smarta Vicharam to Suryanelli

The Suryanelli rape case is in the news again: a 16-year old girl was abducted and raped by 42 men in 40 days in 1996, and most of the accused were acquitted by the High Court. It is often trumpeted that Kerala (with justification) is an exemplar in the issue of women’s rights. But Suryanelli tells me otherwise — the woman is being tortured afresh. First, the rapes and now, an inquisition by the media, including accusations of being a prostitute, as well as of financial impropriety at her workplace.

If you look at a historical parallel, you can see how, in the space of a century, women’s rights have evolved. For, there was the sensational case of the Smarta Vicharam (trial) and subsequent excommunication of Kuriyedath Tatrikutty (Savitri) Antarjanam in 1905, a Nambudiri woman accused and convicted of, and punished for, extra-marital sexual relations. This is the subject of a remarkable book, Bhrasht (Excommunication) by Madamp Kunjukuttan; a Malayalam film, Parinayam, has fictionalised the same theme too.

It is instructive to compare this to the treatment of the unnamed victim in the current Suryanelli case, which had been in and out of courts for years, until the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s decision. A highly-placed politician, the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, is accused of being one of the rapists. Many establishment politicians have rallied to his side.

In the Smarta Vicharam in 1905, 64 highly placed men were accused, found guilty, and punished. Finally, the local rajah, the King of Cochin, intervened, and cried, “Enough!”

Patriarchys rise in Kerala From Smarta Vicharam to Suryanelli

Women activists staging a Protest, demanding resignation of Rajya Sabha Dy. Chairman P J Kurien for alleged involvement in Suryanelli rape case, in front of the Kerala High Court at Kochi. PTI

Thus, in both cases, there is the interplay of power and illicit sex — a combustible mix.

Here is the background of the Smarta Vicharam. The land-owning, high-caste Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala had a tradition of patriliny, as opposed to other Hindus who followed a matrilineal system. Only the eldest son could marry a Nambudiri woman and inherit property; the younger ones generally had morganatic marriages (sambandhams) with lower-caste women.

It is not entirely clear why this custom evolved: perhaps when the Nambudiris arrived in Kerala (some say around 600 CE) there were too few women amongst them, and so they took on local wives; but they wished to keep their landed property to themselves rather than fragment it. Anyway, this was their tradition.

There was an unfortunate and unexpected consequence to this custom: the eldest son in the family ended up marrying more than one Nambudiri woman. In many cases, young women were married off to old men, becoming their third or fourth wives. Often they were widowed in the prime of their lives. Some young women were tempted to have illicit sexual liaisons.

The Nambudiri community viewed this as a grave transgression, and would hold a smarta-vicharam, or a trial in the family compound in the presence of the local rajah. The accused – now referred to derisively as ‘the thing’ (sadhanam) —would be pressurised to confess her infidelity or adultery. If convicted by the smarta or judge, the woman would be ritually ostracised and banished from the household and community: she would literally be thrown out of the gates of the house, where waiting men would pounce on the now defenseless, excommunicated woman and ‘capture’ her. Her jaaran (paramour) would also be cast out and exiled.

This is what happened to Kuriyedath Savitri Antarjanam. According to accounts I have read, she  was a beautiful, spirited and educated girl, married off at 18 to an old man. On her wedding night, it was not he who came to her conjugal bed, but somebody else. Shocked and disgusted, Savitri decided to take revenge on the system. She methodically seduced scores of important men and kept records of intimate details and identifying marks which only a woman having sex with them would know.

During her Smarta Vicharam, Savitri boldly described, in unmistakable detail, 64 men, including some of the most illustrious of the Nambudiri community, all of whom had apparently carnal relationships with her. It is said that when she started describing the 65th man, the local rajah commanded her to stop, and terminated the trial, because he felt that too much damage had been done to the community already. Some eyewitnesses, more skeptical, suggested that Savitri had begun to describe the rajah himself as the 65th man.

All 64 were excommunicated, and so was Savitri. But she had her revenge: a wrathful angel of destruction, much like Kannaki of the Silappathikaram destroyed Madurai, she had decimated the Nambudiris. They, a small community to begin with, declined precipitately thereafter, losing their lands and becoming impoverished.

This whole thing was a patriarchal abomination, brutal and appalling. Many enlightened Nambudiris were revolted by it, and, as a result, these orthodox Brahmins changed the rules – today it is possible for any Nambudiri, not only the eldest in the family, to marry a woman from his caste. And Nambudiri women, largely illiterate a century ago, are now educated.

That is one of the under-emphasised things about Hinduism – malpractices are sometimes recognised, and remedial action taken. Reform happens, even if slowly.

But let’s go back to the situation in Kerala a century after Savitri. It is true that Kerala has ‘progressed’, in a fashion. But traditional values have disappeared, and, as Nobel-Prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz said about his own country, we are ‘condemned to modernise’. Apparently we are all much more ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ now, thank goodness!

But many good things have been lost in this headlong rush towards ‘modernity’. For instance, the matrilineal system of yesteryear had many advantages for women, and is undoubtedly one of the reasons – another being the enlightened monarchs – that Kerala women have been relatively emancipated.

Yet a proverbial Martian who landed in Kerala would be bemused. Are we really treating today’s Savitris any better? There is the Suryanelli case, where, as I write this, a senior politician rejects the accusation of what amounts to statutory rape of a minor, and fights for his political life. The usual suspects in the media have rallied around him, never mind the rights of women they normally shed copious crocodile tears over.

There is another current case, the ‘Ice Cream Parlor’ case from 1997, where minor girls and young women were trapped with drug-laced ice-cream and blackmailed into sex and prostitution. A sitting minister in the current Kerala Cabinet is being accused by, of all people, his estranged brother-in-law, of having sex with under-age girls.

Are these anonymous women facing a less patriarchal society than Savitri did a century ago? Do women have any more rights now, even with all our ‘progressiveness’ and ‘liberalism’? Haven’t we thrown off the yoke, in leftist-speak, of misogynist traditional values and religion?

There is more. In 1992, 19-year-old Sister Abhaya was apparently murdered by a blow to the head and then chucked into the well of a convent. Under sodium pentathol, two padres and a nun confessed to Abhaya having come across them in – how do I put this delicately – ménage a trois in the kitchen, whereupon she was summarily bopped her over the head with the blunt side of an axe. But the courts ruled, conveniently, that sodium pentathol confessions are unacceptable, so they walked free.

In 2011, Sowmya, a 23-year-old shop-assistant travelling alone in the ladies’ compartment of a commuter train, was pushed out of the running train, had her head bashed in with a stone, was raped on the tracks, and was left to bleed to death, by a one-armed vagrant. That vagrant is on death row, doubtless awaiting a pardon on the grounds that he is a cripple.

In 2012, Shruti Menon, a college student, was stabbed and set on fire in her own home by a classmate, who apparently wanted to marry her. He apparently felt entitled. He had come to her house armed with a jerry-can full of kerosene.

So it is clear that patriarchy has gained ground in Kerala, supposedly a ‘woman-friendly’ state with its hordes of leftists, all of whom criticise allegedly misogynistic Hinduism and reject it out of hand. One would have thought that the continued eclipse of Hinduism in Kerala and the rise of semitic religions, including Communism, would have made Kerala a paradise for women. No such luck. The Communists, for instance, left no stone unturned to deny not one, but two, deserving women leaders the Chief Ministership: so much for equality.

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