Osella’s ordeal, Our shame

M G Radhakrishnan


View From My Window

I am utterly saddened by the deportation order. This is not because it might come in the way of conducting future research in India, but because over the years, Kerala has become a second home to me, a place whose culture I love deeply and where I have countless friends. I have always been animated by a passion for understanding the fast-paced transformation of Kerala, one of the most dynamic and culturally rich states of India…Indeed I was relieved to be told that my deportation was decreed by an order from the government of India and not Kerala…To my great surprise, once I landed back in London, I turned my phone on to see that I received hundreds of emails and texts from Malayali friends from all over the world. Their utter disbelief and sadness for my deportation, together with their loving words, made me choke with tears…Filippo Osella, London, 25 March, 2022.

Filippo Osella

Amid the din over SilverLine, Kerala largely ignored the humiliation suffered at Thiruvananthapuram by an international scholar who dedicated his life to enrich the corpus of knowledge about us. He is Filippo Osella, 65, who in his four decade-long career has explored the myriad ways in which Malayali negotiated the twists and turns of modernity. Osella, Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at the Sussex University of UK, was summarily deported back to the UK by immigration authorities at Trivandrum International Airport when he landed from London at 3 am on March 24. He was to attend a seminar on Kerala’s coastal communities organized by Cochin University of Science and Technology, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, and the Universities of Kerala and Sussex.

According to Osella’s statement released later, the officials refused to reveal the reason for his deportation but repeated it was as per orders from the Government of India. He was treated in a “remarkably rude and unprofessional way” by them. Osella was not allowed to call his friends in Thiruvananthapuram or even access his medicines. Instead, they asked the respected academic to shut up or be restrained by security.

According to Osella, it was all pre-planned as an Emirates Airlines official was already present to arrange his deportation via Dubai. This was despite Osella holding a multiple entry research visa with one more year’s validity, issued after detailed official examinations. His current research project was nothing subversive but related to the risks faced by Kerala’s traditional fisherfolk. Osella suspects that the deportation had to do with his earlier visits to Pakistan, which were “always treated with some surprise every time" he showed his passport to immigration officials. Osella asks how could a South Asian scholar keep away from visiting Pakistan.

Kerala has long been a topic of high interest to scholars worldwide. The advent of colonialism through Kerala's coast, its ancient global spice trade, its embrace of different world religions since the days when they originated in their birthplaces, its role as the cradle of Indian Communism, the unique “Kerala Development Model”, its tradition of sending India’s largest number of expatriates around the world, etc. have been fodder for studies globally. Yet, about contemporary Kerala, not many international scholars have written more prolifically than the Canadian-born Prof Robin Jeffrey or the Italian-born Osella and his partner Caroline Osella. If Jeffrey’s interest in Kerala began in the 1970s, Osella discovered Kerala during the 1980s. If Jeffrey’s area of interest pans a range of topics like the media, modernity, social mobility, Communism and gender, the Osellas have extensively written on religion, migration, masculinity, identity, charity, economic and social progress of communities, etc. Both have analyzed the negotiations and transformations that occurred within a local community, caught up in the storms of global changes. If Jeffrey wrote the most comprehensive volume on the rise and fall of Nairs in Kerala, Osella chronicled the contradictions and conflicts the Ezhava caste encountered in their rise from its “backward origins” towards greater assertion and aspirations. (Social Mobility in Kerala Modernity and Identity in Conflict, Pluto Press, 2000).

“My research has also explored other aspects of Kerala life and culture from gender and masculinity to Malayali culinary traditions and fashion, and even film star fan clubs (I must confess that I am a great admirer of Mammootty)!” Osella's post-deportation statement said.

Another area of Osellas’ immense interest is the contemporary evolution of Kerala’s Muslim community in the backdrop of Gulf migration and the role “religion” played in their journey towards economic and social advancement. His and Caroline’s study on Kerala’s Gulf-based Muslim businessmen is regarded as the first that considered the practices and orientations of this community that “united the pursuit of particular business interests with efforts to produce a Muslim modernity”. They wrote that unlike businessmen from other regions like Tamil Nadu concerned with personal salvation, Kerala’s Muslim businessmen “have a strongly congregationalist focus and sharp sense of duty towards the wider Muslim community, towards contemporary reimaginings of the dar-ul-Islam”. (ISIM REVIEW 2007).

In a 2019 interview with Victoria Sheldon of the University of Toronto, Osella said that Kerala studies have suffered long from a lack of historical and sociological research. Lack of comparative angles made research on Kerala largely self-referential. But things were different from twenty years ago and it was no longer “overdetermined by political scientists writing about Communist party, development scientists looking for development projects, demographers looking at migration”.

To a question about the recent interruption of “the dominant popular rhetoric of the ‘egalitarian’ Kerala Model and its celebrations”, Osella said he has been skeptical about the Kerala Model and its claims. Yet he cautioned against underestimating Kerala’s impressive achievements in health or education. “Even among those with limited means (in Kerala), the discussion is not whether you send your daughter to school or not. The discussion is as to where your daughter should go to university and what degree and type of further education she should take”. Rest of India may still think, “my wife is pregnant, would I take her to a doctor or not. But in Kerala, that issue doesn’t exist- one just goes to the hospital as health is available”.

Osella’s latest focus is Kerala’s coastal community. | UNI photo

Osella’s latest focus is Kerala’s coastal community. He has deeply delved into the influence of the state, society, organizations, and most importantly, the Catholic church on Kerala’s fisherfolk’s daily lives and their socio-political perceptions. He has also explored a largely untouched aspect of their lives- the artisanal fishers’ complex relationships with the sea. Their fears of the sea as a “site of potential terror,” and how they try and address their sense of risk through mutual dependence. He had interviewed many Kerala fishers affected by the cyclone Ockhi of 2017. “You go to sea during monsoon, and there will be four-meter high waves, forty to fifty kilometer per hour winds, strong currents, thunderstorms, and sudden fog... You are there on your own, in the middle of the night, and you still find the wherewithal to keep it together and stay alive to be rescued. It is lovely to be on sea with your friends and all that, but there is risk and fear and that is why you drink”. He also spoke about how these fishers have been stereotyped negatively as ignorant, violent, and drunkards. (https://entangledworlds.utoronto.ca/index.php/interview-with-filippo-osella/).

On his deportation, Osella says he would rather be thinking that he was only “the object of plain paranoid bureaucratic foolhardiness”. But cautions that such arrogant and offensive ways should not be allowed to impinge on the pursuit of scientific knowledge and hoped that this was not his last (attempted) visit to Kerala.

Osella, however, notes that his unfortunate experience did not even come close to the predicament of many Indian colleagues whose freedom of academic expression has been severely constrained.

Let's forget how this would affect Kerala’s ambitions to become a global learning hub. Shouldn’t Kerala be agitated over the treatment meted out to someone from a distant land who helped us know more about ourselves and our history ?

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