High rating on Human Social Development Index for Kerala has often misled people to believe that Kerala’s is an egalitarian society. The book under review by Prof. K. M. Bahauddin explodes many such myths about Kerala and etches to broad relief the continuing reign of injustices and inequities that reinforce tensions and divisions in the society.
Those who have read such seminal works as Mappila Muslims of Kerala by Rowland E. Miller may not find the book pretty much different inasmuch as the first half of the book is concerned, wherein the author tries to sketch the history of Muslims right from the maritime caravans of Arab merchants that landed on the Malabar coast dating back to the time of the Holy Prophet. Portuguese invasion started with fall of Arab Andalus in 1492. Columbus set sail towards the west ‘to discover India’ and reached the land that is America today. Vasco da Gama headed for the east in 1498 and arrived in Kerala to usurp the maritime trade from the Mappilas who had dominated the Arabian Sea for solid 900 years.
This led to both social and economic decline of Muslims. Coastal communities of Muslim became fishermen and those who moved inland, took to farming. The once prosperous community was pauperized and joined the ranks of drawers of water and hewers of wood. Though Muslims and Nairs had fought the Portuguese together, the advent of the British changed the equation around the dawn of 19th century with the end of the Mysore rule. Tipu’s rule had rekindled hopes of economic revival as land reforms began to make the tillers the owners of the land. But it was too brief and only earned them the enmity of the succeeding British rulers. Nairs (15% of Kerala population) who were fast replacing Brahmins took no time in switching their loyalty to the new masters. By 1830 the East India Company had changed its agenda from trading to ‘rule for profit’. Under the new scheme of things, plantations were introduced by the administration which spawned a host of new professions such as farm managers, accountants, clerks, writers, transporters, millers, shippers et al. As farming got organized, the need for such professionals led to mushrooming of schools, hospitals and skill centres. While Nairs took the early lead in equipping themselves, the Christian community which had reaped the demographic harvest through conversions, found encouragement from the new rulers.
Stuck in the memories of the past, the Moplahs failed to gauge the mood of the changing times. Defiance of the British authorities ran central in their attitude vis-à-vis the British. Pitted against the powerful jenmis (landlords), mainly from the Nair community, they rose in revolt 32 times between 1836 and 1921, losing 319 lives. They could little realize that British interest lay on the side of the landlord from whom revenue and cash crops were to come.
Even otherwise all the wars of the 17th, 18th and 19th century were fought in Malabar while Cochin and Travancore region remained peaceful and social and economic development kept its pace.
The British let loose a reign of terror against the Moplahs and more painfully agrarian causes of unrest came to be interpreted in communal terms. It led to passing of the highly partisan Moppila Outrages Act 1854.
Dawn of the new century raised hopes of all communities forging unity to fight for Independence. But intense ideological struggles within the Indian National Congress divided the focus. The dominant communities, mainly Nairs and Christians, strengthened their hold on bureaucracy, education, media, banks, plantations and other sources of power.
For a brief while, a new breed of leaders did some good work by identifying causes of social and economic decline. Noted among these figures was Vakkom Abdul Khader Moulvi who advocated modern education, shedding reluctance to learn Malayalam (Muslims mainly depended upon Malayalam written in Arabic script called Arabi-Malayalam till then) and schooling for women. Mahatma Gandhi’s Khilafat Movement and the disastrous Thirurnagadi revolt reversed the trend and socio-economic issues took the backseat. Administration came down upon the Muslims (who were mainly tenants on the land) with brutal force. Nearly 10,000 people were killed, 220 villages razed, 60,000 arrested and 17,000 booked and 1,300 transported to the Andamans.
Between 1891 and 1931, out of the 18,651 govt jobs created, 12,238 were cornered by the Nairs. The lopsided social balance led to serious sense of deprivation among other social components. The State of Travancore brought in reservations in 1936 when Habeebullah was Diwan of the Raja, and assigned 12% quota for Muslims. But by 1968, they had only 6.3% of the gazetted posts and 9.09 % of the non-gazetted posts in government services. Narendran Commission has pointed out that there was a deficit of 7,383 positions in the reserved category in Muslim appointments. Bahauddin has meticulously documented the marginalization of Muslims in Kerala with fund of facts and statistics painstakingly gathered over a period. But he fails to look inwards for causes that have contributed to stagnant social and economic status of the community. Extraordinary emphasis on identity related politics, channelisation of community resources on large number of Arabic madrassas, sectarian divides that subvert the political movements, lure of cheap and menial Gulf jobs and lack of apprenticeship in employing riches gathered in sun-baked Gulf deserved his scrutiny.
Post Independence, the dominant communities became more deft in controlling the levers of power and consolidated their privileges even while te political parties they controlled kept mouthing socialist platitudes. Seven ministries collapsed within a span of first 15 years of democratic rule in Kerala after 1947, some of them because dominant sections withdrew their support for mere refusal to sanction an engineering college. The author builds up a case for new premise for defining communalism, which, as he says should be ‘social and economic domination of a or a few communities’ rather than the voices raised against discrimination.
The book is a highly valuable addition to social history of Kerala and publishers deserve all encomiums. It breaks fresh ground in lending clarity to the vision required for raising a community out of the miasma held hostage to the tight communal federalism that Kerala is. It should serve as a blueprint for future priorities for Muslims in Kerala.