New Internationalist

Crossed Wires In Calicut

Issue 241

new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

Crossed wires in Calicut
Meeting a mullah in Malabar does not prove that easy...

First it’s the increase in headscarves; then the Arabic colleges; then the pink, blue or green mosques; then the men rather than women selling fish along the roadsides. All these things tell me we are getting into Malabar, the northern part of Kerala where 35 per cent of the population is Muslim.

An elephant trundles down the road – it’s just an ordinary working elephant but it has a magical, benevolent presence. The landscape of fields and trees is gleaming in the sun. The rains seem to be over at last and people are out sowing seeds in the moist soil of this rich agricultural region. Cattle are drinking water, their horns inexplicably painted blue.

It’s early evening when the bus dips down into a hot traffic-jammed bowl called Calicut. The dust, pollution and spasmodically overpowering drainage problem come as a shock. What, I ask a man who turns out to be a bookseller, goes on in Calicut?

He proceeds to tell me that Vasco da Gama – the first European to set foot in India – did so in 1493 a few miles away from here. Er… yes…

He tells me that Calicut gave its name to the Calico cotton Europeans found here. It is also an old port for the spice trade, especially ginger, cardamom and pepper, coming from the nearby hills. As such it attracted Arab traders who brought Islam to the region in the seventh and eighth centuries AD.

‘Lots of tourists come here,’ says the bookseller.

‘Oh, yes?’

‘They stay one night, see there is nothing for them here and move on.’

5.00am in Calicut – also called Kozhikode – and the Muslim call to prayer. It’s electronic and very loud. Would it better or worse if I understood what they were saying, I wonder?

Muslims in Kerala were traditionally poorer, less well-educated and culturally more isolated than the Christians or Hindus. This isolation was partly to do with language. The Muslim hierarchy attempted to replace Malayalam with a new dialect based on Arabic. Meanwhile, English – the colonial language – was a complete no-no, being viewed by the mullahs as ‘the language of the devil’.

The first outbreaks of hostility towards Muslims came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Portuguese colonists and settlers set about wresting control of the spice trade away from them. From then on the position of Muslims in Kerala deteriorated. There were sporadic revolts by Muslim peasants against Hindu landowners, culminating in the bloody Malabar Uprising in 1921.

To get a sense of the position of Muslims in Kerala today I try to meet with community spokespeople – both secular and religious. One contact I am given is a Mr Aharmad at the Mojahid centre near the railway station. I am greeted by a smiling, bearded man, who offers me a chair, some tea, and asks how he can help.

Could he put me in touch with a religious leader? He nods, opens a cupboard and starts to dig around inside it. Funny place to keep a mullah… He reappears with a box full of pamphlets in Arabic and Malayalam and lays them in front of me. I stare at them helplessly. I begin to fear we might be having a communication problem.

I find his English hard to understand – he finds mine equally unintelligible.

My Malayalam, shamefully, amounts to 10 words taught to me a few days earlier by some patient children. My Arabic simply isn’t.

I try again, rephrasing my request. The ever-obliging Mr Aharmad says ‘yes’ and starts writing, in my notebook, the names of the presidents and secretaries of Muslim organizations in Calicut.

The Islamic Women’s Knitting Club, the Koran Reading Group, The Muslim Boys Organization. Every now and again he insists that I read out what he has written to confirm that I can read his writing.

After a while I begin to thank him – but he goes on. Name after name of every conceivable circle, group, club, organization, association. ‘Er…,’ I point to the names, ‘Are any of these religious leaders by any chance..?’

He shakes his head and goes on. I finally say thank you I think that’s enough – but no, the page turns again and on it goes. I am becoming very concerned with how much energy and good will is going into this completely pointless task.

Finally I halt him in his tracks with what is intended as a fairly innocent question but turns out to have a magical power: ‘Do you have any contacts with the ISS?’ This is the Islamic Service Society, an extremist militant Muslim fundamentalist group that stands in opposition to the extremist militant Hindu fundamentalist RSS.

The pen is downed, the notebook is handed back to me. ‘No, no! No connection! They are extremists! No connection!’

This sounds interesting so I start taking notes, alas, on the same page as the end of the list he has given me. At which point he points to the page and says: ‘No, no connection!’ I quickly turn over the page. Draw a line. Write ‘no connection’. He breathes a sigh of relief and explains: ‘We are cultural, educational. Not political. No connection. No connection.’

We are clearly neither of us linguistically equipped to debate on the definitions of ‘the political’ – and besides I have clearly stumbled into a minefield of sensitivities.

We part with smiles and thanks and I take an autorickshaw out of Calicut. Some roadside tents along the way remind me how unusual it is to see homelessness in Kerala. The homeless are often migrants from neighbouring states drawn by Kerala’s promise of higher wages – but less knowledgeable about the gravity of its unemployment problem. We climb out of the dustbowl and into a surrounding hillside suburb where I am hoping to find Mr MP Mohammed, journalist, novelist and editor of the leftist Kerala Kaumudi Newspaper. Mr Mohammed has a reputation as a progressive and outspoken Muslim – unafraid of angering the hierarchy.

He received death threats for supporting the right to publish Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (although he thinks it’s an ‘inferior’ and ‘derivative’ book). He was also excommunicated for supporting the feminist campaign for a single family law in India – not separate laws for Hindu, Muslim and Christian women. A single law would improve the position of both Muslim and Christian women.

I ask him about fundamentalism in Kerala. ‘I don’t call it fundamentalism,’ he says. ‘It is a corruption of faith. It is all to do with gaining political power. They take things out of the Koran that suit their patriarchal purposes. And for this Muslim women suffer greatly.’

The Indian Express has recently carried reports of Keralite Muslim girls falling behind at school either because they are being kept at home to do domestic work or because they have to devote several hours a day to Koranic studies.

I ask MP Mohammed whether Muslims feel discriminated against in present-day Kerala. He thinks carefully before replying: ‘Muslims cannot say they have been denied political power – and I have not experienced any discrimination’.    

Will this continue to be the case? Later I will learn that 16 people died in clashes between Hindus and Muslims here in Malabar in the aftermath of the destruction of the Ayodhya Mosque by Hindu fundamentalists in northern India.

It may take much energy and goodwill from people like Mr Mohammed and Mr Aharmad to convince unhappy Muslims that violence and militancy are not the way to counter the increasing aggressiveness of Hindu fundamentalists.

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