Malayali associations in the Gulf: Pushing Boundaries of political imagination- an article from jadaliyya

The migration of Keralites to the Arab Gulf region has generated various forms of translocal political moorings in the host countries. They are translocal in the sense that they are impacted by even the minutest currents within the political intricacies and specificities of Kerala politics, yet are increasingly identified and consumed by the migrants from Kerala—popularly known as Malayalees—in the Gulf. This article elucidates the ways in which Kerala politics, as a “translocal” entity, are being perceived and produced by expatriate Malayalees and their organizations within the political constraints of the Gulf monarchies. 

A plethora of organizations make visible the role Malayalees purportedly play in preserving the continuity of Kerala politics in the Gulf. By extending the scope of application of Kerala-centric politics in the Arabian Peninsula, these organizations produce a radical re-imagining of the conventional notions of territoriality associated with local politics. What is happening is not simply the extension of political discourse beyond regional and national boundaries, but also the production, through this extension, of an avenue of expression for the otherwise politically silenced Malayalee expatriates. With novel political explorations and community practices, they attempt to overcome the political insensibilities of the Gulf monarchies in a subtle manner. With politics in the host communities being hostile to foreigner participation and determined exclusively by citizenship rights, the extension of Kerala-centric politics becomes a gravitational force connecting up with a large immigrant population. 

Being connected politically to issues of the homeland, Malayalees have constructed a new political space into which they have clandestinely brought ideologies and political doctrines that are otherwise prohibited by the local dynasties. Interestingly, while most of these political expressions are not officially sanctioned or recognized, they do not invite unfriendly and intolerant reactions from the host in most of the GCC states. This is particularly significant when it happens in countries where all sorts of political organizations remain illegal, and political associations of any sort can result in imprisonment or immediate deportation. 

Although it is placed within an imaginative setting, the expatriate Malayalees now look to this re-fashioned politic to give themselves a coherent identity and a national narrative in order to compensate for the lack of space in the receiving countries’ politics. It may not directly address political alienation from the political process in host places, but it creates new forms of politics whose dynamics have, under translocality, brought forth a diverse set of innovative political practices in both the Gulf and Kerala. 

Malayalee politics in the Gulf, together with linkages with the home country’s politics, eventually metamorphose into specialized polities within the host countries with the capacity to create new forms of political space. Such political spaces exist outside formal institutions, thus allowing for the creation of important forms of popular politics. The state never fully understands the everyday experience of this popular politics. Operating from within permissible legal boundaries, their activities never pose any real threat to the state. In order to understand how translocal Kerala politics operate, attention must be paid to the ways in which the various sorts of formal and informal Malayalee associations and networks achieve this liminally potent position, with minimal encounter with the domestic political and social institutions. 

Re-figuring “Political Space”?

Translocal Kerala politics may be seen as an expression of political nostalgia that motivates ordinary workers to maintain affiliation with their homeland. Sometimes political nostalgia becomes a life-world, required for the social reproduction of a group in an inhospitable atmosphere. Malayalee migrants in the Gulf are largely composed of young males in their twenties or thirties coming from the underdeveloped but politically vibrant region of Malabar. Having this background, they carry forward its political legacies and create a replica of the political world from which they come, though it is one that finds no substantial resonance among the natives. As this politics is predominantly Kerala-centric, each political development in Kerala makes a ripple in the Gulf. This is very much evident from the popularity of new social movements, whereby single-issue-oriented responses revolving around particular social and political issues in Kerala have captured the popular imagination of Keralites in the Gulf. Kerala-centric environmental and human rights groups are active in creating new forms of politics that hinge on signature campaigns, protest meetings, and street plays in response to the sensitive issues taking place in Kerala, though the scope of such demonstrations may always be limited to the four walls of labor camps. Except on rare occasions—such as the 1992 staging of a play by Malayalee theatre activists in Sharjah that incurred the wrath of the regime for its allegedly blasphemous content—governments in the GCC countries are unaware of the serious political content of these demonstrations.

The problems that Indian workers in the Gulf face also find a place on the agenda of Malayalee organizations. Over the last decade, several movements have emerged that are covertly dedicated to fighting the exploitation of Indian workers, a central issue that the old movements have not been able to take up. While the old movements provide a venue for participating in diasporic cultural activities, the new movements tend to deal clandestinely with highly sensitive topics like human rights. These movements—especially after the recent South Asian labor unrest in the Gulf against exploitation and low wages—have begun to expand their scope of activities beyond ethnic and linguistic boundaries in order to address the common concerns of the South Asian laborers.

Apart from being organized politically, there is a burgeoning trend to organize along caste lines. Each identity-based organization in Kerala maintains frontal organizations in the Gulf. The caste-based networks in the Gulf often become a rallying point, especially for newcomers, as affiliation with these organizations may help one to obtain a position in government offices or in prestigious private organizations. Some of these networks may be informal in nature, but they have successfully taken the same route as the triumphant trade networks like Marwaris and Banias in running partnership business.

The Malayalee associations in the Gulf, whether nonaligned with regard to Kerala-based political parties or receiving patronage from them, serve as a bridge between movements in Kerala and the Gulf. Almost all the major political outfits in Kerala—ranging from the Indian National Congress (INC) and the ruling party at both the state and national-level, to the outlawed Maoists—maintain frontal organizations in the Gulf, operating secretly through unofficial and obscured modes that escape the censorial attention of the host. Regional parties based in Kerala, like the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress, enjoy more popularity than national parties such as the Indian National Congress. The Kerala Muslim Cultural Center (KMCC), a frontal organization of the Muslim League, is the largest outfit with the highest number of local units. The Communist Party of India (CPIM) treats its frontal organizations in different Gulf countries on par with district committees in Kerala. Interestingly, two warring factions within the CPI(M), led by two senior leaders, V.S. Achutanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan, have found a place in the Gulf politics.

Reverberations in Kerala Politics

Back in Kerala, Gulf Malayalee politics has a multiplicity of sites in which to operate. The state’s major political outfits increasingly seek the moral, financial, and political support of their compatriots residing in the Gulf. Politicians and politically motivated religious figures from Kerala are some of the frequent travelers who visit Malayalees abroad and appeal for monetary and moral backing for their organizations. They also motivate migrants to travel home for elections and become involved in Kerala politics.

At about the same time, the Gulf Malayalees also began to use their demographic power in Kerala politics.The result has been the emergence of a growing army of Non Resident Indians (NRI)-turned politicians, who are less inclined to associate themselves permanently with any political party. Thomas Chandy (known popularly as Kuwait Chandy) and Manjalamkuzhi Ali, two NRI-turned-Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Kerala, represent this new breed of politicians. Both depend less on state or party funds and gain an enormous amount of popularity and influence among the voters through a wide range of welfare packages being implemented through their private funds. Both act like parallel forms of local self-government and spend a lot on providing basic facilities to the people, seldom depending on government funds allotted for the MLAs for infrastructure development. Being the representatives of constituencies dominated by poor peasants, Chandy and Ali’s contributions, as well as the employment opportunities they provide to their compatriots in the Gulf, always reflect in electoral victory.   

The political connection serves as a form of social assertion and popular acceptance for the rich among the Gulf Malayalees. With their newly acquired economic status, they keep politicians across the left-right continuum in their pockets in order to advance their own economic and political interests. Malayalee Gulf businessmen have great influence in Kerala politics and their political tactics have been brilliantly pragmatic, switching support between the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front and the INC-led United Democratic Front at various times. In fact, the present developments suggest that Kerala’s political parties began to recognize the potential of translocal Malayalee politics. However, the actual degree to which the reproduction of Kerala politics in the diasporic set up finds substantial resonance in the host societies remains largely questionable.   

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