Stemming Communalism - the Kerala way

Written by RB Sreekumar | Published on: June 22, 2019
Over the centuries,  Indian history and civilization have generated amazing diversity not only in the evolution of various facets of human activity but in the nature and character of engagement with outsiders as well. People from other lands have come here as traders, sanctuary seekers, immigrants and invaders.  While they could win battles against natives, and politically dominate patches of Indian geography, in the long run, all among them, who settled in India, did merge into a composite and blended Indian way of life, socio-economic and cultural ethos.

Kerala
 
Christians and Muslims from Middle East initially landed in Kerala for trade and commerce and also to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and message of prophet Mohammed (PBH).  Numerous reliable chronicles confirm the socially and culturally productive interface of Christians and Muslims with the elite of Hindu socio-cultural and political hierarchy.  This laid the foundations for a rare communitarianism, as distinct from competitive communalism elsewhere in India, despite the rigors of the caste system.  Over the years, the caste-centric graded inequality crept among the minorities also.  This resulted in their forging camaraderie with respective social groups among Hindus. Notably, the Christian ecclesiastical order and Islamic scholars did not make massive pugnacious and vigorous efforts to lure the lower caste Hindus into their religious order, lest this would jeopardize their solidarity with caste Hindus.
 
This scenario is in total contrast to largely belligerent, intensely hostile and confrontationist nature of Hindu-Muslim relations in rest of India where the message of Islam reached along with invaders, empire-builders and wealth seekers through sword and canons. Islamic preachers and Sufi Saints had enjoyed liberal patronage of rulers from the inception of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 CE to the decline of the Mughal Empire in 1707 CE, with the death of Aurangazeb.
 
Nevertheless, none of these Muslim rulers did accept the temporal or religious suzerainty of Khalifa or any other politico-religious authority outside India, nor was any tribute paid and recognition sought from Islamic rulers head quartered in Mecca, Madina, Baghdad, Damascus and Istambul.  However, none can deny that a small minority of over-enthusiastic de-spiritualized fundamentalist Mullas, Maulavis and Imams operating in vast hinder land of India, had vigorously pressed down a politico-religious agenda on non-Muslims, banking on patronage of a handful of fanatic rulers.  This posture of a fringe section of the Muslims had alienated the bulk of Hindus, who perceived themselves to be second class subjects. 
 
Imposition of Jazia Tax on non-Muslims, destruction of Hindu temples by a few exclusivist autocratic rulers, like Firoz Shah Tughlaq and Aurangazeb, injected a mind set of hatred against Muslims, in the victims of atrocities. Such alienated Hindus and Islamic fundamentalists were cleverly exploited by the British to further their imperialist agenda of divide and rule, by facilitating the inception of Hindu Maha Sabha, RSS and Muslim League, in the early 20th Century.
 
Remarkably, the character, tone and tenor of Hindu-Muslim interface in Kerala from 7th Century CE was cordial and inclusive, exhibiting vibrant mutual trust and complementarity, practically in all arenas of public life.  Metaphysical and doctrinaire obstinacy in religious dogmas took a back seat to the zeal for inclusiveness in socio-religious and cultural affairs.
 
Economic interdependence fostered by the spice trade between Kerala and the Middle East also played a major role in creating this harmony. Islamic preachers accompanying traders never degraded the religious, social and cultural ethos of natives in Kerala.  Practically, all mosques, dargahs, maqams and religious centers till modern times, were built on lands liberally donated by local kings, feudal land-lords and affluent people professing Hindu religion.  No wonder, so far there is no dispute about ownership of land where Muslim religious institutions are built in Kerala.  This is in sharp contrast to the raging conflicts over the property rights of Babri Masjid to Taj Mahal, and to Krishna Jammabhumi in Mathura (UP).  Even today, in annual day celebrations of many Mosques and Churches, the holy offerings are religiously presented to the families of the original land donors. Various reputed books like Tuhafatul Mujahidin by Shaikh Sainuddin-II have also highlighted there traditions of inter-community amiability, ignoring insular socio-cultural practices in the rest of the Islamic World. 
 
Both Hindus and Muslims consciously or as part of local socio-religious conventions practised spiritual secularism, viz.; equal respect to all religious faiths and beliefs, also known as Sarva Dharma Samabhavana.  Thiswas at variance with the post-renaissance European secularism of total separation of religion, its bodies and the State.  Creditably in Kerala, class, caste, social, ethnic, political, gender and regional distinctions and diversity could not damage inter-community synergy, despite many political vicissitude over the years.  Numerous examples abound of Islamic religious gentry declaring holy war (Jehad) against invading Portuguese for protecting a non-believer (Kafir) King Samuthiri, Mappila Muslims participating in Hindu socio-cultural activities and offering prayers during Deeparadhana (propitiation with camphor flame) with folded hands or Islamic scholars praising King Samuthiri and prominent Hindu leaders, whenever they visited Sultans of Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, which demonstrate this inter-community trust and bonhomie.
 
Unfortunately, since the commencement of Rama Janma Bhumi Liberation Movement, people are increasingly influenced by the toxic indoctrination carried out by sectarian radical elements among Hindus and Muslims.  Raising the bogey of threat to religious identity, these pseudo-religious radicals are advancing their own political agendas through spirituality-deficient, aggravated, competitive communalism.  Retrogression to medieval obscurantism by a minority in both the communities, is a major challenge to the letter, spirit and ethos of the Constitution of India.  Sangh Parivar and Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) are toiling relentlessly to destroy the long standing communal harmony among the people at the grass-root level.
 
In the name of  “Decontamination and Purification of faith”, Hindu and Islamic radicals are opposing many rituals, conventions and practices of geniality in the religious and cultural centers of both the faiths.  Funds flowing from Hindutva addicted NRIs and those electrified by pan Islamic concepts of Wahabism, Qutabism and Mehudoodism are pushing Hindu-Muslim communities in water-tight compartments and curtailing observance of inter-community camaraderie.  For example, there is a marked reduction in Muslim students joining in institutions like Kerala Kala Mandalam for learning performing arts like Kathakali and Classical Dances, reportedly due to objection from chauvinist groups. (Let us not forget the great doyan of Kathakali Music – the late Haiderali). On the other hand, fundamentalist Hindus are objecting the location of the Mazar of Vavar – the associate of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala.  In the golden panels affixed on the outer wall of Sabarimala temple sanctum sanctorum, no panel depicting the fraternity of Vavar and Ayyappa is fixed, reportedly, due to objection from Hindutva supporters.
 
Pan Islamic organizations are striving for Arabization of socio-cultural life of Kerala Muslims, ignoring the fact that Islam reached Kerala before its spread in many parts of West Asia.  Diversity in various aspects of the life style of Kerala Muslims like dress, cultural conventions (objection to Nila Vilakku), social interactions, artistic articulation, style of mosque architecture etc. is increasingly being curbed and delocalised .  Although the interests of Kerala’s Muslim community are well looked after by Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and other parties, the radicals are creatinf an artificial sense of alienation among a section of Muslim youth.  As a result, nearly two dozen youngsters joined ranks of Taliban and ISIS. Just as Sant Jarnail lSingh Binderwal belittled Akaali Dal, who traditionally protected the interests of Sikh community, resulting in the Khalistan movement, SDPI is trying to emerge asa polarizing force among the Muslims by denigrating the mature and sensible leadership role of IUML and Muslim leaders in UDF and LDF.  It is creating disaffection against government authorities and Hindu community through motivated and poisonous propaganda in their publications like ‘Tejas’.  Paradoxically, Islamic radicalization is producing a congenial ambience for Sangh Parivar to attract more Hindus to its fold.
In this context, real believers among Hindus and Muslims, who believe in the core spiritual values of their religion, should take steps to counter radical communal activists, who are trying to claim and monopolize both the religions.  The mission of law-abiding spiritual secularists should be to launch micro and macro level programmes to strengthen the Hindu-Muslim solidarity persisting in Kerala from 8th Century CE. 
 
Firstly, awareness programmes should be launched to educate people about the centuries old heritage of amity.  Later, these programmes can be extended to sensitive areas outside Kerala also. Short-lived trends of communal conflict like invasion of Tipu Sultan in the 18th Century and Mappila rebellion in 1921, should be downplayed while the various instances of friendship between Hindus and Muslims should be highlighted. 
 
Secondly, socio-cultural programmes should be actively encouraged. The tradition of participation of all communities in the religious festivals of an area should be revived.  Imaginative social and cultural programmes should be carried out to counter resistance from self-appointed sectarian and exclusivist religious leaders from both communities, who are for political capitalization of religious concepts.    Radicalized Islamic preachers could establish roots in Kerala in the fertile grounds of post-Babri Masjid demolition scenario.  Radicals in both the communities do not have any concrete agenda to improve the quality of life of their supporters or reduce social vices of alcohol, drug addiction, atrocities on women and so on. Programmes towards this end, which directly and jointly benefit people from both the communities, will help in weaning them away from the radical ideology.
 
Thirdly, spiritual scholars and intellectuals should educate people about inherent unity in the ideals of all religions. All the major religions in the world unanimously affirm that their objectives are (1) manifold self-empowerment and enlightenment of the individual, and (2) similar ennoblement of outside world, viz.; fellow human beings and environment in tune with divine order of nature. Actualization of these ideals will nullify the strife among misguided people fighting on peripheral socio-cultural and political issues related to materialistic aspirations of religious establishments.
 
Will the people of Kerala get motivated and energized from centuries long heritage of synergic harmony and take up this historic mission to counter the descent of the Indian society into retrogressive, belligerant medievalism, fast enveloping our motherland?.  Will genuine believers of all communities in Kerala wake up from their slumber and neutralize the activists of pan Islamism and the hierarchically sectarian pseudo-Hinduism of Sangh Parivar?
 
(The writer is former Director General of Police, and author of Gujarat – Behind the Curtain published in 2018)