Social Base of Muslim Religious Organizations and Political Discourses
By NP Ashley
There are various notions about the Keralite Muslim community. Being a community with age-old mercantile relations, they had got assimilated to the indigenous culture and language, and only because of this very tradition of amalgamation over long centuries, they could grow much better compared to Muslims in other states, as some argue. According to some others, through their planned engagements with the mainstream political party called Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Kerala Muslims managed to make themselves successful. Otherwise, they would have remained on the last layer of under-development and backwardness. Some others argue, the massive migration to the Gulf, searching for better opportunities, obviously proved to be very influential for their economic boom, their productive awareness of regional politics, and their keen involvement in public education, along with their essential participation in the much celebrated Kerala Model, which wants every citizen to be endowed with personal skills. Undoubtedly, this helped the entire community to overcome every hassle that turned up their way.
All the aforesaid notions seem to view the community in a monolithic way. More dangerously, the various elements of faith, politics, societal feeling, and economic relations, which work under relatively different syntaxes, are modestly put under a single label of community. Quite unsurprisingly, it causes many theoretical and methodological errors in understanding the identity of a community in monolithic terms and in terms of communitarianism.
It seems to me that a study of the social base of the Kerala Muslims will necessarily help to construct a different view, inclusive of both political and social aspects. The E.K. Group (Sunni) is the strongest among them, in terms of the mass membership it enjoys. About 12000 educational institutions, out of total 17000, are affiliated to this group. Until recently, everyone was said to be a follower of the EK group by default, unless he/she personally moved out of the circle deliberately buying into a different ideology of a competing faction. Following a very flexible organizational set-up, this group exists in villages under the dominion of some traditional feudal families. Entirely assimilated to the local way of life, their organizational structure exhibits all the possibilities and confinements of the local culture. This new style of fusion of religious creeds with native rituals generating fertile native folklores, pregnant with religious supplements of new art-forms, helped much in turning the pastoral life of the people vitally colorful. Even now, they follow the same method. This group may be among the very few organizations that are the least funded from abroad. Among all religious groups, they alone kept abreast of the line to oppose all wrongdoers who radicalized and idealized Islam for fundamentalist purposes. Today they present a picture of unity of their supporters from the Dalit community with the feudal lordships. Though the conservatism they propagate in dealing with the harsh realities proved to be a wrong approach, E.K. group’s other qualities of reality and truthfulness to the life-experience are very helpful in engendering a notion of authenticity and in garnering a mass following in the wider religious geography of Kerala.
Some social features are seemingly comparable to the Catholics of Europe in a pre-Reformation period. Feudal support, hostility to social reformation and scientific change and, a social context which is very conducive for the advance of both the cultural and art aspects, are some of their features, to name a few. But unlike the Catholics, clergy here hardly dominate over the community. A Musliyar, as the teachers of the local Madrassa is called (also he is assigned with the duty of leading the compulsory prayers in the mosque), is literally the most exploited one in the labor sector and is expected to be involved in daily religious services, in exchange of a meager wage. A Musliyar even has to knock on the doors of the community to have his daily food. Unsurprisingly, he is expected to be very dependent on the feudal families in the villages, where he works. Born in a very poor Dalit family, a Musliyar is compelled to select this profession once he begins to explore the opportunities available. After his resignation from E.K. Group, A.P. Abubakr Musaliyar became a crowd-puller among Muslims by organizing this cluster of countless Musliyars, badly paid for their services, to raise their voice for the basic rights. His later emergence as an established leader of A.P. Group (named after his initials, in contrast to E.K. Group) is remarkably supported by the capital influx primarily caused by the Gulf migration. This group, which subtly used the facet of social mobility attained by the gulf migration for their organizational purposes, publicly advocated the Marxist ideology until recently.
Being strictly based on a particular faith and religiosity, the organizational skills of the A.P. Group and, its subsequent power of bargaining with the political parties, organizing Musliyars for their rights, their media literacy seems to negatively affect the society. To put it aother way, the popularity of the A.P. Group came with an appalling consequence of towering of an organization over the society to absorb their collective energy for its individual growth.
Mujahid Group evolved into a separate existence in the backdrop of reformation that took root among the Eazhava and the Nayar communities of Kerala in the form of resistance to colonial modernity. Later, structured into a full-fledged organization, Mujahid Group illustrates how a ‘Kerala Muslim’ got transformed into a ‘Malayali Muslim’. Unlike the reactionary ideas of orthodox Sunnis, the concept of thouhid (monotheism) propagated by Mujahids constitutes various agenda like translation of the Holy Quran and prayers in the local language, educational uplift of Muslim women, and providing women folk with a particular space in the Masjid to have their daily as well as weekly prayers. The group also resists the age-old rituals practiced by the Sunnis, including the sorcery and prayers at the tombs of some saints, believed to be sacred.
With the gulf boom, the reformist movements came to be reliant upon Wahabism and Salafism more in terms of funding and organizing power, than on their earlier ideological dependency. Of course, the urban people were supportive of the new ideologies as they were later with the organizational strength. Being somehow mechanical in their view, the Mujahid group absolutely failed in the sphere of art and culture and, also, in recognizing some common issues outside the organizational circle. In a partial fulfillment of their desire to get counted in the mainstream society, they oppose all those forces that are said to be disturbing the normal life of a citizen. Now they are split into two competitive rival factions. While one of them, as its existence is justified as a result of colonial modernity, lacked the financial base, the other mainly concentrated to strengthen its organizational power, causing a gradual decay of its social contents. But its followers are never supposed to be strictly affiliated to any particular political party as the organization hesitates to translate its strength politically.
Jamaath-e-Islami is the party that is the least followed by Keralite Muslims. Taking the records of madrassas run by various groups into account, one can simply conclude that the total followers of Jamaath amounts to not even one-fiftieth of the supporters of E.K Group. But undoubtedly, it is Jamaath that kept abreast of the time and made themselves visible in the printing and educational sectors, courtesy their corporate exploration of opportunities carefully utilizing the gulf money. Even after their solemn efforts to project themselves as the public spokesmen of the community, Jamaath is basically supported only by the middle-class of the society.
Similar to Mujahid Group, Jamaath also passed through two different organizational stages. At the first stage, it comprised of a group of men confined only to two or three panjayaths, who firmly believed in Islamism and Maududism (they were so naive that they even decided not to participate in the general election till an Islamic government takes up the rule). In the second stage, we find a pragmatism, where Maududi’s hostility to secularism was revised and newly re-conceptualized, comparing it with the hostilities of women and religious minorities to western liberalism. Obviously, this conceptual difference is glaringly evident now. Though the support of the majority is what matters in a democracy, Jamaath cannot be left out of the discussion, considering its conspicuous presence in framing the image of Kerala Muslims. Perhaps, this religious-political party can never be expected to have a sway on the Muslim majority of the state, until it emerges as the intellectual treasurer behind the basement already provided by Indian Union Muslim League.
The IUML stands as the political face of every aforesaid religious organization, except Jamaath-e- Islami. It simply means that IUML encompasses simultaneously all the social contradictions of feudal-expatriate, urban-rural, modern-traditional etc. That is why the party cautiously presents itself as communitarian. All the above mentioned contradictions are naturally swept under the carpet of this label. These paradoxes of rich-poor, upper-lower classes, and male-female, which are internal and inconsistent within the party, are deliberately suppressed through a conscious labeling of ‘communitarianism’ as the party crusades only for the vested interests of the upper class. More sadly, this labeling is helpful for other communal forces, too, to remain vigilant and attentive for acquiring influence among the masses. So, to me, it appears that the label of ‘communitarianism’ is applied both from inside and outside of the community to shrewdly negate all the contradictory social layers it involves.
Although Jamaath-e- islami Hind (Since 1948), I.S.S (since 1990s), and all other newly formed political parties like P.D.P and Popular Front of India (P.F.I), tried their best to break the support of Muslims that IUML enjoys as a political party, all their attempts proved to be in vain. Much to the shock of the regional political analysts, both Jamaath and P.F.I lost their seat in the last general election to the local bodies, despite their planned political propaganda against the League. In 2006, while the first level leaders of the IUML fared pathetically in the election, almost all the second level candidates recorded stunning victories. It obviously points to the fact that it was by the unanimous decision of the party supporters that the first level leaders were made to swallow the bitter pill.
There are two major reasons behind this phenomenon: first, the way the Muslim collective sense was shaped; second, the way its gradual evolution was appreciated by all other community leaders and the celebrated public sphere.
In northern Kerala, there are two types of Muslims: The coastal Muslims from the intermarriages with the Arab mercantile communities. Most of them are from the upper-caste of the society. The other is the hinterland Muslims, known as Mappila, who are the converts from the Dalit and low-caste Hindu families. Their conversion to Islam caused no ripple. With the Portuguese invasion, the coastal Muslim began to move inland as they lost their maritime power and royal comforts.
Because of their animosity toward colonialism, once they moved inland and got assimilated in the new society, the coastal Muslims used their wider exposure to gather people against the feudal-colonial axis prevalent there.
None of the mainstream political parties, the nationalionalist or the communist parties, adequately understood the social divergence of Muslims. Consequently, they failed to recognize the hurdles the community actually faces. Interestingly, Gandhi, who once related the regional agricultural protest to the Khilafath Rebellion, did no longer communicate with the post-Khilafath Mappila. The clashes between the Khilafath and Partition of India, between modernity and tradition are quite unfamiliar to the Mappila Muslims. Though Jinnah’s argument was not acceptable, it was not feasible for League, considering the then national and local political ambiance, to go with the Indian National Congress.
Both the Mappila Muslims and IUML are blamed not only for the violence of the Khilafath, but also in the debate related to the Partition. Everyone took it for granted and failed to conduct a deep analysis of the problem. Neither the Congress politics that equated nationalism with religion nor the Communist mechanical materialism on the basis of class analysis without considering social contexts seemed to find purchase with the Mappila community. Here, IUML came to play its role by gathering them under a communal platform. It explored its chance to become the political base for a group which was rendered marginal despite the majority being purely proletarians. Actually, this base is a failure of other political parties rather than the success of IUML.
IUML forcibly bears the historical burden of its political past. As criticized by A.K.G, it is E.M.S. whose generosity gave a positive political image to IUML. While Malappuram District was newly formed, the whole political atmosphere once again echoed the same language which was heard at the time of partition. Even the state assembly was abuzz with ‘Mappilastan’, a word already used by Joseph Chuzhikkodan. The Congress alleged that the government’s intention was to form a Muslim majority district. Quoting E.M.S’s work, Kerala: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, where the guerilla exercises of the Mappila farmers are closely examined and appreciated, Mr. K. Karunakaran said: ‘By forming a special district, if E.M.S dreams to get Muslim support for his revolutionary acts, I warn this assembly of a dangerous situation looming large in the future.’ It illustrates how much the IUML is haunted by the specter of the past.
To get rid of them wholly, IUML has to confidently structure a firm position regarding its political ends and social base. Moreover the party should employ an appropriate language to present them in the public, inculcating the essential media literacy. The party’s established policies of depicting the whole community in a monolithic way and of crusading for the vested interests of the elite in the guise of fighting for the minority rights, (especially in Kerala, where Muslims constitute 30% of total population) will only prove to be counter-productive.
To our absolute shock, the League overlooked the contributions, as well as the problems, of the unskilled common men like the servants, who have toiled to usher in the modern Kerala. Instead, the elite members of the community, along with the expatriate businessmen, hijacked almost all the agenda of the party. Whenever it came up with investment-friendly projects, the party forgot the whole unprofessional contributors from the community like the drivers, cooks, maids, room boys etc, to name but a few.
Quiet often, the party is seen to shamelessly exhibit all the progress particularly made possible by the tiresome efforts of the expatriates from the community. It is a proven fact that every political party and each alternate government have played only a superficial role in the development of the northern districts of the state over the last decades. A number of self-financing schools are seen mushrooming there in both districts of Malappuram and Calicut, largely because of the government’s complete failure in providing the essential and basic educational facilities. Though League has many positive contributions to its credit, like making Muslims feel part of the mainstream, the party itself is to be blamed for the educational backwardness that the community.
While all the charges leveled against the League as a rightist party must be discouraged, the party itself does not seem to take these allegations very seriously. The party never debates any issue from the perspectives of constitutional-human rights. That is why, while maintaining a firm opposition to the divisive visions of Maudani, the League does not break the wall of silence on the judicial and human rights violence meted out to him. To creatively respond to the rightist ideologies that reverberate in the public sphere, the League should allow the identities of the marginalized sections, like women, black, and poor to grow and freely surface without any confinement. Otherwise, the state politics is bound to be caught up more and more in stupid assumptions like communal balance.
The social mobility acquired by the Muslim of Kerala has gained a wider currency in the political discussions conducted nowadays. The productive position of the Muslim League in these issues will decide the future of the party in the coming years. It must document whether the League is a platform, or a mere leadership, or even a silly leech. For such a study, it is imperative to reassess the stereotypes regarding its communal aspects.
[NP Ashley is Assistant Professor at St. Stephens College, Delhi. He completed his post-graduate studies at the University of Hyderabad. This article is a partial translation from Malayalam by Manhar (Aligarh Muslim University).]
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