An upsurge of social conservatism is visible in Kerala even as old shibboleths about gender, family, and marriage are challenged by a generation less burdened by custom and tradition.

A 23-year-old mother’s protest in Thiruvananthapuram demanding the return of her one-year-old son, who was illegally given away for adoption by her parents, is raising larger questions in Kerala. Last week, a family court stayed the adoption process and the district Child Welfare Commit tee (CWC) ordered the Kerala State Council for Child Welfare (KSCCW) to bring back the baby from its foster parents who are said to be in Andhra Pradesh. The CWC also directed that a DNA test be conducted to ascertain the baby’s biological parents. Mean while, the young mother is demanding action against KSCCW and CWC officials, who allegedly facilitated the adoption under pressure from her parents who are influential CPM activists. The case has brought to light three faultlines that threaten the gains Kerala is widely seen to have made in the past few decades. One, the imperilled right of an adult woman to choose her partner and raise her child. Two, the influence of institutions such as caste and family in shaping society’s attitudes towards choices made by individuals. Three, the ability of a ruling party to dictate the functioning of public institutions and subvert due process.

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Anupama S Chandran and her partner, Ajith Kumar, have been knocking on doors to help them trace their baby taken away by her parents and given for adoption three days after his birth in October last year. They pleaded their case initially in CPM forums since both of them, and their families, were party associates. Child welfare officials ignored their pleas allegedly because Anupama’s parents, who refused to accept her choice to bear the child of Ajith, a 35-year-old Dalit Christian who was still to divorce his estranged wife, had prevailed. While Anupama’s parents have contested her version of the story, it seems clear that public officials ignored procedures and due process to support the conservative view that an adult woman must necessarily obtain her parent’s consent for her choices. Disturbingly, Anupama’s case is not exceptional. Reports of honour killing over caste and family status are now not so infrequent in Kerala. This needs to be read together with the low participation of women in the workforce, despite their relatively higher education levels, and the near absence of women in leader ship positions in political parties and public office.

An upsurge of social conservatism is visible in Kerala even as old shibboleths about gender, family, and marriage are challenged by a generation less burdened by custom and tradition. Unfortunately, the political leadership seems to be letting down the young. Anupama Chandran’s assertion of her rights as a mother and her fight for agency as an individual and woman resonates beyond Kerala’s borders.

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