Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Islamic movements and the Muslim press in Kerala

I am placing below thoughts I expressed in a group discussion in response to a note circulated by John Samuel, Editor of Infochange. He is a person whose perspectives on Kerala, Indian and world affairs merit attention. Kindly see the Infochange website ( and his blog (www.bodhigram.blogspot).

There is a reference in this piece to certain comments made by N. P. Chekkutty, Editor, Thejas daily, Kozhikode during the discussion. He is also a person whose views, in my opinion, deserve special attention. See his blog (

There is also a reference to a comment of Satchi -- the eminent poet N. Satchidanandan.

John Samuel has prepared the ground for a wide-ranging discussion on the developments in the Islamic world. Evidently a multilayered and multifaceted process is at work. It has social, economic, political and cultural dimensions. Muslim communities in various parts of the world are wrestling with various kinds of problems. Even a local or regional problem may be influenced for good or bad by what is happening elsewhere.

We must, therefore, examine the Islamic movements in our region in a wider context. Early Muslim reformers in Kerala and elsewhere in India were influenced by reform movements in the Arab world. There has been a change of direction in some countries to our west. To cite one example, in the last century, Kemal Pasha asked soldiers to stop women and remove the veil. Today in some countries women are stopped and made to cover their faces. The assertion of Islamic identity has social and political significance, which merits serious study.

To do justice to all the issues raised by John, it will be necessary to write a book. Maybe more than one! I shall, therefore, limit myself to just a few points here. If time and energy permit, I may take up some more later.

Before proceeding further, let me to assure Chekkutty that I did not equate RSS with Islamic groups, although I believe there are among them elements whose activities are as pernicious as those of the Sangh Parivar outfits. We must be able to deal with majority communalism and minority communalism on the same footing, because both pose danger to the democratic polity. My poser to Chekkutty was in the context of his statement that Islamic groups are able to provide a sense of security to CPI (M) defectors. I believe we must distinguish between majority/dominant community outfits, which use religion/caste for political mobilization, and minority/disadvantaged groups who come together to air their grievances and seek redress.

Incidentally, I do not subscribe to Satchi's view that today's Muslim League cannot be identified with Jinnah's party. Jawaharlal Nehru had advanced this view to justify the Congress' alliance with ML against the CPI. When Mohammed Ismail and B. V. Abdullah Koya were MPs they did not hide the fact that they were office-bearers of pre-Independence ML. (Please see Who's Who brought out by LS and RS secretariats in those days). Having said this, let me add that I do not consider the pre-partition League leaders a bunch of traitors. How can Allama Iqbal, who sang saare jahaanse accha Hindustan hamara be dubbed a traitor because he presided over the ML? I consider Pakistan an accident of history. A suitable opportunity presented itself, and Jinnah the politician seized it. But, then, many states are accidents of history and the world has learnt to live with them.

To come to the current Kerala scene, all the different strains that John identifies at the global scale -- reformism, renaissance, resistance and fundamentalism – are at work in the Muslim community. Access to resources is a factor that has contributed to the proliferation of Islamic organizations and institutions. External assistance to groups considered conservative or extremist has received much attention but my understanding is that those with progressive outlook are also getting funds.

I do not see any cause for worry in the appearance of the so-called Muslim press. I have pointed out in this group and elsewhere that all Malayalam papers have had sectarian origins. Yet they had always set their eyes on wider horizons. New technology has enabled newspapers to break out of their geographical confines. Yet only Manorama and Mathrubhumi have been able to break through the sectarian walls and reach out to all segments of society. All other newspapers still have narrow bases, the contours of which can be easily made out by a discerning observer. A party, a caste, a religion or a combination of little bits from all of them may constitute the base of an individual newspaper. Mangalam appears to be the exception that proves the rule.

John asks how do we rate a newspaper or journal -- from its content, editorial policy or its ownership or perceived identity? I don't think this is as complex an issue as the question suggests. The owner determines the editorial policy, and that in turn determines the content. Manorama and Mathrubhumi are commercially far more successful but professionally they stand far below some of the so-called Muslim newspapers. As far as I can see, the former's success is the result of carefully formulated and efficiently executed editorial and managerial strategies which bear an uncanny resemblance to the electoral strategies of political parties.

The Gulf Malayalee is (or at any rate was, before the advent of satellite television) an avid newspaper reader. This is understandable, considering that he was a first-time migrant with no exposure even to the rest of India. (During my visits to the region in 1980 to set up UNI presence, I had occasion to meet Malik, the Pakistani who was the largest distributor of Malayalam newspapers in Dubai. He told me: if you can send me more Malayalam papers I can sell more. Malayalam newspapers have a high selling price in the Gulf States. And Muslims constitute a large segment of the Gulf Malayalees. Against this background, Malayalam newspapers starting editions in the Gulf States is understandable. But non-commercial factors are also at work. For many years, Malayalam newspapers were unable to obtain permission to start editions there. Now they seem to adopt a more liberal approach at least in the case of the Muslim newspapers.

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