Friday, February 29, 2008

Laughing Gas

Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram turns philanthropic in his fifth budget. Well, general election is round the corner.

US Presidential Election Hot News in Kerala

The Mahatma has been an inspiration, says Obama: A cartoon in Thejas daily, Kozhikode.

SUPER TUESDAY was big news in newspapers across the world. The ongoing process of selection of the presidential candidate especially in the Democratic Party where a white woman and a black man are fighting it out for the first time in US history, has evoked considerable excitement all over the world.

But the Malayalam media seems to have gone many steps forward, as Super Tuesday and the subsequent victories for Barak Obama has been major news items in the regional papers for the past many weeks. The US contest is now keenly watched by the Malayalam media, especially the newspapers from the northern belt that serve a predominantly Muslim population.

In fact, compared to other south Indian regional language newspapers, Malayalam edia had played up the US elections to such an extent that it needs a serious study of the politics and sociology of the region to understand the phenomenon of the keen interest in an election taking place so far away from their homes. On Super Tuesday, among the dozen Malayalam newspapers that I read, I found almost half of them prominently displaying the news on front pages. The coverage, in comparison to Tamil and Kannada newspapers, was much more elaborate and extravagant, as I found in a quick survey.

The phenomenon of such a huge public interest in the US elections, at such an early stage in the long drawn process when even the candidates are yet to be decided, needs a thorough understanding about the social and political situation in a State that is keenly tuned to international developments. The Kerala media seemed to follow up the Hillary Clinton-Barak Obama battle as if they were candidates in a local election.

There are many aspects to this unusual interest in the global affairs. First, Kerala has always been a place that was more international in its outlook and contacts. Its Communist traditions partly account for it, as in the past every development in Soviet Union and China had set off serious debates within the State. Its literature is replete with references to these countries and their people and there has always been an interest in the global confrontation between the capitalist west and the socialist east. The Communist parties had, in their conferences and meetings in which large number of ordinary masses attended, made regular references to the international developments.

A second factor is that Malayalees have, for generations, strayed out of their narrow strip of land on the banks of the Arabian Sea for a livelihood, and they have such a massive diaspora in every part of the planet. The migration has been a regular phenomenon, dating back to pre-Independence days, and a 2007 December study conducted by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies (CDS) has found that the migration levels of Kerala had remained almost constant at around 25 percent in the past five years. This is one of the highest migration levels among all states in India. The survey also found that almost 26 percent of the households in the State have at least an NRK(non-resident Keralite) as a member, whether stationed outside or returned, while foreign remittances contributed to around 20 percent of the State’s total NSDP(net state domestic product).

Another interesting point revealed in the study is that Muslims have the highest number of NRKs, consisting of 50 percent of all NRKs from the State. In fact the largest migration levels are reported from the northern districts of Malappuram, Kannur and Kasargode, all with substantial Muslim population. The highest level of NRK concentration in the district is in Malappuram, with 71 percent of the households having an NRK member.

The NRKs are generally concentrated in the Gulf region, which has become a centre for global political confrontation between the West and the Muslim countries of the east. Perhaps, this explains the unusual interest the newspapers run by Muslim community in Kerala has been showing in the US election. In Kerala, there are as many as five major mainstream newspapers that cater to the Muslim community, a religious minority that comes to around 22 per cent of the population. As a community, Muslims in Kerala, mainly living in the northern Malabar region, are now showing a vigor unseen in the past. Just two decades ago, they had just one newspaper, Chandrika, run by the Muslim League, but recent years have seen a massive growth in the Muslim media. From the city of Kozhikode alone, five morning newspapers are coming out targeting the Muslims readers while there are around a score other publications including weeklies and magazines. Madhyamam, Chandrika, Siraj, Varthamanam and Thejas are the five major Muslim dailies and among them all but Thejas, launched only two years ago, have editions in various Gulf cities.

And reading their pages, one realizes that they are more international than any other major national newspapers which give scanty coverage to international affairs. The Bush administration’s attack against Iraq and its aftermath, Israel’s aggression against Palestine, the Iran nuclear imbroglio, etc, were followed up as eagerly as any local event by these newspapers. In fact unlike other mainstream newspapers, Thejas and Madhyamam, two leading Muslim newspapers, devote full pages for international affairs.

The fact seems to be that global events, especially attacks on the Muslim community everywhere is as avidly followed up by editors as well as their readers as any other local event. That explains the keen interest in Hillary-Obama tussle, as people here expect that an Obama victory would have a tremendous impact on the United States’ Iraq policy. There is also a hope that a saner attitude to the Muslim community would be pursued if Obama comes to power.

The same message is what one gets reading the letters to the editor columns in these newspapers. In a place where there are umpteen number of issues to write to the editor about, like the huge rise in rice price to the lack of employment to the increasing menace of mosquitoes in cities, one finds that almost half of the letters in the Muslim media are about global affairs, from the hanging of Saddam Hussein to the plight of the Palestinian children in Gaza strip.

(; cartoon courtesy:Sudheernath, New Delhi.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ayyankali & the Missing Chapters in Kerala History

Remembering the Dalit fighter on the centenary of his historic struggle for entry to Dalit children to schools in Kerala.

By N P Chekkutty

Ayyankali, the legendary Dalit fighter from Kerala, seems to be caught in a trap of history: On the one side his name is evoked by left-wing extremists who have christened themselves as the Ayayankali Pada, or the Fighters of Ayyankali, and on the other it was Sonia Gandhi who came to inaugurate the centenary celebrations of his historic struggle for the right to education to Dalit children.

Ayyankali was a fighter who took on the powerful upper caste elite as they prevented Dalit children by force from entering the school in his village. But paradoxically, the Naxalite group in Kerala who calls themselves the Ayyankali Pada stopped a European woman scholar and her Dalit associate from conducting an academic research work among the tribals in Iritty in north Kerala. The same hypocrisy can be seen in the traditional attitude of the Congress party towards the concerns of Dalits in this country.

Still, the question to ask today is why Ayyankali remains such a powerful symbol, for forces as inimical to each other as the left extremists and the Congress party? Perhaps, the great Dalit leader from Venganur in Travancore, who came to eminence in the Malayalee public sphere in the first few decades of the 20th century, represented both these trends: He was a fighter and an anarchist revolutionary at one level; and at another, a social reformer and institution builder who made use of the established pillars of society for seeking the right to education and social equality for his brethren who were the ones severely ostracized in our society for many centuries. Ayyankali was the leader of a band of Dalit youths who themselves called Ayyankali Pada and he was also the first Dalit member in the Travancore Praja Sabha, the Maharajah’s nominated Assembly.

This year marks the centenary of the year-long strike of agricultural workers that he had organized in various parts of Travancore in the early years of the last century. Of course there are differences among historians about the actual dates of the Pulaya farm-hands’ strike in the princely state, whether it took place in 1907-08 or earlier in 1904-05, the time when Travancore Dewan first gave permission for Dalits to enter public schools amidst stiff resistance.

Let the dispute among historians stay. Let us look at what happened in our history. What we confront here is a deafening silence of the mainstream historians, as precious little has been written on this critical part of our social history. It is a fact that even E M S Namboodiripad, veteran Marxist who wrote a people’s history of the land of Malayalees, had said very little about Ayyankali and his band of Dalit fighters acknowledging that he knew little about those developments.

Surprisingly, even after a century, Ayyankali remains a figure whose contributions are not properly studied or understood by the mainstream school of historians. Even the liberals in his own time, like the famous editor Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai, who was deported from Travancore for his critical writings against the dewan, failed to appreciate his effort to get Pulaya kids into public schools. This is how Ramakrishna Pillai looked at the Pulaya demand for common education: “We don’t find any reason to support those who demand complete equality in customs and manners and on that basis seek admission to schools without taking into account the respective caste merits. To provide admission to those from castes cultivating land on a par with those castes cultivating knowledge is worse than tying a horse and a buffalo under the same yoke to make them plough…”

Ramakrishna Pillai was a man who was familiar with liberal and even Communist ideas in those days preceding the Russian Revolution. In fact he was one of the first Indian journalists to write on the life of Karl Marx, in his 1912 monograph on Marx which appeared in Malayalam. The only other article on Marx, in an Indian publication, was published in Calcutta’s Modern Review, note P C Joshi and K Damodaran, veteran Communist leaders in their book on the origins of Indian left, Marx Comes to India. But neither they nor any of the recent historians of the Indian left movement who traced the origins of working class agitation in India, give any reference to the historic agricultural workers strike that Ayyankali launched in 1907-08, almost a decade ahead of the Russian Revolution. Nor do they ever mention about those frail and weather beaten farm-hands like Thaivilakkathu Kali and Moolayil Kali, Pulaya women who were in the leadership of the SJPS who led the historic agitation to a success conclusion a century ago.

That leaves the difficult task of reconstructing Ayyankali and the Dalit struggles he led a century ago, to a new generation of historians. This is no easy task. Ayyankali and his comrades had no initiation to the world of letters and the media of their times had largely ignored them. What we have today is largely the negative references in some publications of those days and the anecdotes in oral history passed through generations.

But the main facts remain largely uncontested: The Travancore rulers had issued orders permitting Dalits and other outcasts into the schools run by Government following severe public pressure. But the upper castes were firmly opposed to this and they used violence to stop lower-caste children from entering schools. That led to violent confrontations between these two forces. Such confrontations had been reported on a number of occasions, mainly during 1904-05, 1907-08 and 1913-14, according to historians like Dr M S Jayaprakash and T H P Chentharassery, biographer of Ayyankali.

The first of these clashes took place in 1904-05 when the Government first gave permission for Dalits to enter schools. The resistance from upper castes was fierce and the Dalits fought back. Since none of the Dalit children were allowed to enter schools, Government allowed them to start their own schools called Kutippallikkootam to teach Dalit children.

It was then Ayyankali launched a school in his village, Venganur, for Pulaya children. His task was daunting. He knew no reading and writing and so had to find a teacher for the school. No teacher was available as the upper castes threatened anyone willing to take up the job. Finally, Ayyankali succeeded in persuading a Nair youth to work in his school, but as the teacher entered the school with his Dalit bodyguards, he found the place burnt down.

It was in 1907 that Ayyankali and his friends launched the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (SJPS) on the lines of the Sree Narayana Dharma ParipalanaYogam (SNDP) started by the followers of Sree Narayana Guru, among the more progressive Ezhavas of south Kerala. The SJPS primarily worked among the Pulayas and its activities spread soon in most parts of south Kerala. The SJPS demanded that the Pulayas who worked in farms be given a weekly off day and all the members were advised to meet every Sunday to discuss their common problems.

The SJPS gave Ayyankali a powerful forum to address the Dalit question in Travancore: In 1910, as Dewan P Rajagopalachari and the director of education department, an Englishman named Mitchel, issued orders permitting Dalit admission to schools, Ayyankali went to the Uruttambalam school in Balaramapuram seeking admission for Panchami, a Pulaya girl. The headmaster refused, and that set of a series of clashes between Nairs and Pulayas in various parts of Travancore. According to one set of historians, it was then Ayyankali called for the farm workers strike that lasted almost one year, forcing the land owners to sue for a negotiated settlement.

These efforts did have a positive impact on the education of Pulayas and other Dalit groups in Travancore. According to the census figures in 1875, among the 188,916 Pulayas in the state only 183 had been marked as literate. But between 1913 and 1916, there is a five-fold increase in the Pulaya enrollment to schools. According to figures published in Mitavadi, a local newspaper, the admission of Pulaya children to school was only 2.01 per cent in 1913. But it had risen to 10.91 per cent by 1916. Still they were way behind the Nairs with 99.50 per cent children going to schools, and Ezhavas with 45.43 per cent. Another interesting point this statistics brought out was the comparative fall in Muslim enrollment during this period: They were 4.85 per cent (much higher to Pulayas) in 1913 but in 1916, their enrollment of 9.55 was lower than the Pulayas’s 10.91 per cent. Still, all these efforts together put the state on the road to its record of near total literacy by the end of the 20th century.

Illustration courtesy: Raghavan Atholi, Kozhikode.
(An edited version of this article is available at

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A River Returns to Life: The Story of Chaliyar

Walking on the banks of the river Chaliyar is a pleasant experience these days. The river that takes its life in the Western Ghats and meanders through the interior and backward villages lying between the districts of Kozhikode and Malappuram in north Kerala, is today full, its clean water a source of life for dozens of panchayats and the city of Kozhikode. On normal days one can see scores of fishermen in small canoes on the river, looking for a good catch.

As tourism industry is booming in Kerala, the banks of the river are now turning into a tourist spot in Malabar with resorts and pleasure boating yards coming up, giving a new lease of life and income to the people in these villages.

It is a wonderful transformation, because a few years ago Chaliyar was a stinking pool of dirty and blackish water highly polluted with chemical effluents and hazardous material like mercury that took the lives of hundreds of people in the villages around it. Often, large groups of fish could be seen floating upside down, as the effluents discharged into the water was practically exterminating the fish population in the river. Chaliyar turned poisonous as a highly polluting industrial unit, the Gwalior Rayons (Grasim Industries) was set up in on its banks at Mavoor, early in the sixties. When the factory started its production in 1963, there was no awareness about the harmful effects of industrial pollution. The industrialists freely polluted the environment leaving the poor people around with no ways to stop them as there was neither legislation nor any effective mechanism to stop industrial pollution.

Thus when the factory started its work, the people in villages like Mavoor, Vazhakkad, Vazhayoor and Areekkode, on both sides of the river, were at the receiving end. Those who visited Mavoor and other places in those days inhaled a highly noxious air, and the thick dark clouds hovering above the skyline was a regular feature burning one’s eyes and congesting the lungs.

Within one year of the operation of the factory, the villagers started protesting though it was yet to take an organized form. In the early sixties an action committee was formed with people like K Chathunni Master, a senior Communist leader, E K K Muhammed, a Muslim League leader, and others in it representing to the Government to take measures to control the air and water pollution in Mavoor. But instead of taking measures to control the factory’s pollution, the Government allowed the management to start a new division in 1972 that intensified pollution and the public agitation. It was in this phase that local people like K A Rahman, who later succumbed to cancer after almost three decades of relentless struggle against pollution, took over the leadership. As the agitation took a more aggressive turn, the Government started negotiations which led to a temporary settlement in 1974. As part of this agreement, it was decided to measure water and air pollution levels regularly for taking stricter action to control discharge of effluents into the river and air. As a result of this agreement, known as Ramanilayam Pact, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board was set up in 1974, one of the first such bodies to come up in the country.

But pollution did not stop and the public agitation became quite aggressive and even threatened to take a violent form. In December 1998 around 8000 villagers marched to the factory gates demanding its immediate closure. They also pulled down a bund that was built in the river at Elamarom, to enable the factory to take unpolluted water upstream for its use.

By the time, the environment movement had become strong in the country and there were stricter laws against polluters. Activists from all parts of the country like writer Arundati Roy came to Mavoor to join hands in the struggle of the local people. At the same time, the technology used in the factory had become obsolete and there was pressure from all parts on the Government and the management to take urgent steps: Either upgrade the technology that would ensure zero pollution level, or close down.

There was a hectic pace for the debates and discussions within the public at large and within the Government itself about the future of the Gwalior Rayons factory, owned by the Birlas, at Mavoor in the late nineties. All over the world a strong environmental movement had become very powerful and within the country the hapless villagers at the receiving end of pollution were being supported by powerful groups of concerned intellectuals and academics who had amassed a wealth of information and scientific data to prove the harmful effects of industrial pollution. From the seventies, the villagers and gram panchayats like Mavoor, Vazhakkad and others were raising complaints about rising incidence of ailments like lung diseases, cancer, etc, which had been abnormally high in these villages. According to the figures available with the Vazhakkad gram panchayat, which suffered the maximum pain because of the river pollution, there were 10 cases of cancer deaths in the village in 1993 which rose to 32 by 1998. Even the most important leader of the environmental movement, K A Rahman, a Vazhakkad peasant who had to sell out most of his properties for conducting court cases against the factory management and for frenetic public activities, was suffering from acute cancer to which he succumbed very soon. A survey conducted by the same panchayat in 1998 had found that during the period from 1993 to 1998, there were as many as 245 cancer patients in the village, undergoing treatment at the Kozhikode Medical College.

The going was getting tough for the management and finally in 2000 they chose to wind up shop and shift their operations elsewhere as they had set up more modern factories in places like Madhya Pradesh. Thus came to a successful end to the relentless struggles of the masses for almost four decades, who suffered immensely in those years.

Now, life is back in the river and in its environs. The fish life is once again plenty, and the traditional activities like fishing, collection of items like clams, etc, is thriving. The doctors in villages like Mavoor and Vazhakkad say that there is a drastic decline in chronic ailments that once haunted these villages.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What Keeps Me Worried These Days...

Here is a post I made to the WASHINGTON POST’S POSTGLOBAL discussion forum recently:


What kept me worried this week has been the way the Indian legal system revealed its weaknesses and elitist bias, through a series of judicial orders that went against the oppressed classes in Indian society like the dalits and the tribal population. The court says that the creamy layer, those who have a decent income in these sections, shall be denied access to the government postings through the system of reservation. But the fact is, in educational institutions and government posts, there are often less number of qualified people from these sections to fill the vacancies that belong to them. Now when those who may stand a chance to enter these offices are kept out because they are economically well off, it would mean the Indian administrative system will be filled by the upper caste sections.
Surely a recipe for disaster because already the backward classes are on the brink of revolt. They have taken up arms in many areas.

N P Chekkutty

And there were some responses like the following:

I suggest that you turn your tone to honesty.
as right now you look more primitive than those you attempt to stain with your bile...
at least I shoot at ugliness, you're like a cholera infected child.


Interesting, isn't it?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

First Chapter: Muhammed Abdurahman

Malabar at Crossroads

Mohammed Abdurahman was drawn into the freedom struggle when the Mappilas of Malabar were involved in an armed confrontation with the powerful British Army in the great rebellion of 1921. This rebellion saw over 10,000 people perish and 50,000 put in prison. Immense brutalities followed in the wake of their defeat. In the 48 years of his life, Mohammed Abdurahman spent nine years in jail and sacrificed everything he had in the course of the struggles. Yet he did not live to see the dawn of freedom. He died on 23rd November, 1945, of a massive heart attack as he was returning after a public meeting in a remote village near Kozhikode.

Six decades after his death, the name of Mohammed Abdurahman is still remembered with reverence by the people of his homeland. His life remains an undisputed example of selfless and courageous public service. Outwardly rough, ruthlessly outspoken, he had as many enemies as friends; he evoked great antagonism and fierce loyalties. He was a man of great courage. He challenged both the British authorities and the entrenched vested interests within his own community. His life inspired many literary works. Novels and poems by some of the most venerated writers in modern Malayalam literature have been inspired by the life of Mohammed Abdurahman.

Vailoppilly Sreedhara Menon wrote:

With our hearts full, we sing the song of Mohammed Abdurahman,
The man who is the pride of the land of coconuts,
The man who shed his blood on the sands of Malabar,
The man who fought bravely for our freedom…

Eminent Malayalam poets like Edassery Govidan Nair, P Kunhiraman Nair and G Kumara Pillai recount the heroic acts of Mohammed Abdurahman on the beaches of Kozhikode, where he led satyagrahis during the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1931, breaking the salt law and facing the brutal assaults of the British police, refusing to give up the little pot in which he had collected salt, in defiance of the law. As the poets recall, his uncompromising stance and his majestic stature, the power of his oratory and charisma brought the masses to the streets in the cause of national liberation. Abdurahman’s entry to the political scene at the first conference of the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee held at Ottappalam in April 1921 was equally dramatic.

The first conference of the KPCC at Ottappalam was an important landmark in the history of freedom struggle in Kerala. It was the first all-Kerala congregation of freedom fighters, who came from all parts of the state. The earlier Congress conferences had remained confined to the Malabar region, which was directly under British rule. The Congress movement was not active in the southern parts, in Kochi and Travancore principalities, ruled by local maharajahs. The conference, held between April 23 and 27, 1921, took place in the backdrop of the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement. The excitement it generated among ordinary Muslim peasants and lower caste people in Malabar was palpable as the Muslims took it as an occasion to take on the hated British regime.

The emotional bond to the khilafat and the feeling of injustice nursed by ordinary Muslims against the British was one reason for the massive turnout of poor people into the movement. But there were other reasons too. The extremely harsh tenancy regulations pauperized ordinary peasants, most of them Muslim. The peasants had no rights over the lands, and they had to pay back-breaking rents to the landlords, who were installed as owners of the land by the British administration. As a result of the tenancy system imposed by the British, all the cultivable, waste, fallow and even forest lands were declared the property of the janmis, mainly Hindu landlords who enjoyed absolute rights to evict peasants at their will. The poor tenants were no better than labourers on subsistence wages.

However, the problems of kutiyans, the verumpattom peasants who tilled the lands but enjoyed no legal rights whatsoever, were not issues on the political agenda of the national movement. The rich middle class professionals-- lawyers and land-owning classes--were at the helm of the nascent Congress movement in Malabar in the early twentieth century. K Madhavan Nair, one of the earliest leaders of the Congress movement in Malabar, noted that when a resolution on the problems of kutiyans was brought at the first Congress meeting at Palakkad in 1916, it had to be withdrawn following severe opposition from landowners who formed the majority of the delegates. It was only when tenants were organized under the Malabar Tenancy Association in 1919 that the question of land reforms became a mass movement in Malabar. At the Manjeri conference in 1920, a resolution on tenancy reforms was adopted in spite of opposition from the landowners. This indicated the growing mass base of the Congress. The khilafat and tenancy movements worked hand in hand in the Mappila belt of South Malabar. Both movements had the same leaders in many villages. Some of these leaders were ulemas, influential within the Muslim community and drawing more and more people to the national movement.

The Mappilas had a long history of anti-imperialist struggles. They had led a series of armed uprisings in the Malabar region throughout the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. The khilafat movement had an undercurrent of violence right from the beginning. The Mappilas who joined the Khilafat movement had made every effort to arm themselves. As a contemporary observer said, “it was not for the non-violent non-cooperation movement, but for real militant action of the masses, that the Moplah peasantry was being organized by their local leadership.” This organization was so thorough that the soldiers of the British Empire took six months to quell the revolt.

The police had let loose a regime of terror in the Ernad and Valluvanad taluks of
South Malabar, where the khilafat and tenancy movements were the strongest. Prohibitory orders had been issued against a number of leaders; in Ernad and Valluvanad the district authorities had banned public meetings. A large number of cases had been registered against the khilafat volunteers; many were arrested and fines were slapped on them.
Hitchcock, Superintendent of Police in Malabar, has listed 25 such cases. The offences varied from stealing a pen from a village official, to holding office as secretary or treasurer of the khilafat committees.

Historians of the freedom struggle in Kerala are united in their view that the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement were was responsible for the first massive public awakening in the region. It touched upon the most sensitive religious beliefs of the ordinary people of Malabar, mainly the Muslim peasantry. After the declaration of the movement, Gandhiji and Maulana Shoukat Ali had visited Kozhikode in August 1920. The public meeting they had addressed was attended by more than 25,000 people, a majority of them poor Muslim peasants from the remote villages.

There was a tremendous increase in the Congress and Khilafat membership. The feverish pitch of activities in even remote villages charged the political atmosphere. Khilafat committees were active in almost all the villages. Contributions to Gandhiji’s Tilak Swaraj Fund poured in. According to contemporary newspaper reports, the Congress committee in Malabar had been able to collect Rs. 20,000 in a few weeks’ time. When Gandhiji had arrived a few months ago as part of his nationwide tour, he had been offered only a paltry Rs. 2500. More than 200 Congress committees were established in various parts of South Malabar, with more than 20,000 members, within one year of the launch of the movement. Most of these new entrants to the political struggle were poor peasants reeling under a highly exploitative and unjust tenancy system.

The sudden emergence of the poorer sections of people on the political arena caused tensions within the movement. The urban-based, middle class people and the land-owing classes who controlled the Congress were not happy with this development. M P Narayana Menon, the driving force behind the Malabar tenancy movement, referred to the caste and class prejudices in the Congress movement in those days: “Many high caste Congress leaders were not happy with my identification with the Mappila cause and that of the lower caste Hindus. Caste Hindu leaders were unwilling to stay at my residence. Rajagopalachari and Kasturi Ranga Iyengar refused to stay with me when I was Congress secretary in Ernad because they thought my place was polluted by the presence of Mappilas and Cherumars at the dining hall.”

These internal conflicts in the nationalist movement came to a head at the Malabar regional conference of the Congress at Manjeri, in April 1920. This conference declared the rise of the new leadership, rejecting the Annie Besant-proposed resolution in favour of the Montague- Chelmsford Reforms, as well as calling for urgent reforms in the tenancy system. The Manjeri conference proved a decisive shift in political balance; there were over 3000 delegates, most of them from poorer sections. Among them were more than 1000 mappila delegates, many of them dressed in the traditional lungi and banians, coming straight from their fields, their ploughs on their shoulders.

Veteran leader EMS Namboodiripad describes the situation in 1920-21: “It was in Malabar that the distinguishing features of a national democratic movement—the combination in action of the middle classes in towns with the ‘million-headed peasantry’ in the villages—manifested itself. The political national movement in Malabar embraced all castes and communities and as a matter of fact, the fraternization of Hindus and Muslims was one of the specific features of the movement [there], while in other parts of Kerala it was more or less confined to Hindus, and that too, caste Hindus.”

It was in such circumstances that the first All-Kerala Congress Conference was held in Ottappalam, a small town in Valluvanad on the Palakkad-Shoranur rail route, from 23 to 27 April, 1921. There were different conferences meant for the khilafat and ulema activists, for kutiyan sanghams (tenancy activists), students and others. Senior leaders of the national movement like T Prakasam of Madras had come to attend the conference, which had the participation of over 4000 delegates, including members of all castes and communities. Marking the keen interest among the Muslims towards the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement, a large number of Muslims, including many Thangals (Mappila religious leaders) and maulavis had come to attend the conference. “The mappila volunteers came in processions from Ernad and Valluvanad, arousing an intense sense of patriotism and identity with the Congress Khilafat movement.”

Police authorities were also ready for action. They knew that the sense of patriotism aroused among the common people would mean trouble. They made every effort to strike at the rising popular movement. G.R.F. Tottenham, a senior police official, expresses the anxiety of the administration: “The non-cooperation is becoming a farce and is confined to the burning of old clothes and the nervous attendance of a few ex-students at toddy shops to prevent drinking eliciting only derision from the public. Khilafat, on the other hand, is more serious. Non-violence is not considered a serious suggestion or practical condition but merely as a party cry to hoodwink the government.”

Malabar had seen a series of violent peasant uprisings in the past decades, the administration expected more. K N Panikkar, whose Against Lord and State: Religious and Peasant Uprisings in Malabar 1836-1921, arguably the most authentic treatise on the Malabar uprisings, says there were 32 outbreaks in the Malabar region between 1836 and 1919. All of them, except one, had taken place in the Muslim majority talukas of Ernad and Valluvanad. The notorious Malabar Special Police(MSP), armed with sweeping powers under the Moplah Outrages Act 1859, was created specifically to face the violent Muslim uprisings that shook the region throughout the nineteenth century.

As the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement gathered momentum, the police and the MSP got themselves ready for action. Ottappalam conference became a scene of police provocation on nationalist volunteers, testing the discipline and commitment of the volunteers to the principles of non- violence and satyagraha. The conference was a big success. It was held in a peaceful atmosphere. However, on April 27, the final day, a khilafat volunteer was taken to the police station and beaten up. The public became restive; they marched to the police station shouting slogans and when the leaders at the conference hall heard about the developments outside, a team led by P Ramunni Menon, secretary of the reception committee, went to the police station to pacify the people. As they were talking to the agitated crowd, the MSP started a lathi-charge. Ramunni Menon was severely injured.

Ramunni Menon was carried by a Muslim youth on his shoulders into the conference hall and he was bleeding. The crowd became very angry and many were shouting for revenge and the situation was fast going out of control. Elder leaders like K P Kesava Menon, secretary of the KPCC, Kattilassery Muhammed Musaliar, leader of the Khilafat movement in Ernad, M P Narayana Menon, secretary of the Ernad Congress Committee, and others were struggling to pacify the crowd and hold them back. But rumours were flying thick and fast about police brutalities in the town and news came that many other leaders like the Congress volunteer captain C Madhava Menon and Khilafat leader Sayed Alavi Kunhikoya Thangal were also beaten up by the police, adding fuel to fire.

Mohammed Abdurahman, who had just arrived at the conference hall from Aligarh, stepped in: “We will hold a protest march,” he said, his voice booming and his manner authoritative and confident.
“He was a young man, tall and very energetic. His moustache was quite thick. Anyone who sets his eyes on the man would soon be influenced by his vibrant personality,” remembers K P Kesava Menon, who witnessed the scene.

Starting then, until his death 24 yeas later, Mohammed Abdurahman was a powerful figure in Kerala’s nationalist political firmament. His life was a tireless and constant struggle against foreign rulers as well as his own detractors within the community.

(This is the first chapter of the book, Muhammed Abdurahman, a biography of the freedom fighter published by National Book Trust-India, under the national biography series, 2006.)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weeekend.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why Hillary-Obama Tussle is Big News in Kerala?

A cartoon on Super Tuesday, published in Thejas, a newspaper from Kozhikode.

THE SUPER Tuesday showdown was big news in India. No wonder that the mainstream Indian English newspapers, from The Hindu of Chennai to Times of India of Mumbai to the Hindustan Times of Delhi front paged it and most of them led the day’s news with the neck to neck battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They are the voice of the upwardly mobile Indian middle class, who speak the language of the yuppie, eat his hotdogs and aspire to the life and style of the west.

But most of the regional language newspapers also carried the news item on front pages and many of them led their news with it. I read around a dozen Malayalam newspapers and I found that almost half of them had prominently covered the news on their front pages.

Why such an unusual interest in the election process in the United States, at a time when even the candidates are yet to be decided? What is unusual is the keen interest the regional newspapers, mainly those catering to the small religious and linguistic minorities, have shown in this election process. They seem to follow up the Clinton-Obama battle as if they were candidates in a local election.

One interesting aspect of this media interest seems to be the fact that the newspapers run by the Muslim community are showing an unusual interest in the election. In Kerala, there are as many as five major mainstream newspapers that cater to the Muslim community, a religious minority that comes to around 26 per cent of the population. As a community, Muslims in Kerala, mainly living in the northern Malabar region, are now showing a vigor unseen in the past. Just two decade ago, they had just one newspaper, Chandrika run by the Muslim League, but recent years have seen such a massive growth in the Muslim media. From the city of Kozhikode, five morning newspapers come out targeting the Muslims readers while there are around a score other publications including weeklies and magazines.

And reading their pages, one realizes that they are more international than any other major national newspapers which give scanty coverage for international affairs. The Bush administration’s attack against Iraq and its aftermath, Israel’s aggression against Palestine, the Iran nuclear imbroglio, etc, were followed up as eagerly as any local event by these newspapers. In fact unlike other mainstream newspapers, Thejas and Madhyamam, two leading Muslim newspapers, devote full pages for international affairs.

The fact seems to be that global events, especially attacks on the Muslim community everywhere is as avidly followed up by editors as well as their readers as any other local event. That explains the keen interest in Hillary-Obama tussle, as people here expect that an Obama victory would have a tremendous impact on the United States’ Iraq policy. There is also a hope that a saner attitude to the Muslim community would be pursued if Obama comes to power.

The same message is what one gets reading the letters to the editor columns in these newspapers. In a place where there are umpteen number of issues to write to the editor about, like the huge rise in rice price to the lack of employment to the increasing menace of mosquitoes in cities, one finds that almost half of the letters are about global affairs, from the hanging of Saddam Hussein to the plight of the children in Gaza strip.

A truly international community lives in this small part of the global south, indeed.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Salam Mumbai: An Elegy to the City of My Dreams

How Mumbai has changed: For Raj Thackeray, even Amitabh Bachchan is an alien!

FOR GENERATIONS of Malayalees, Mumbai, once called Bombay, has been their maximum city: It was the culmination of their hopes for a better life, the end of their aspirations of a world of glamour and glitter and for those poor ones who took a train there, often without a ticket, it was the only hope for survival.

It is surprising the way this city has changed: From a city of hope and asylum to a city of bigotry, hatred and racial oppression. In the forties and early fifties, there were huge number of people from Mabalar who took to Mumbai in the overnight buses and lorries, that returned after delivering their wares, and by the train that left Mangalore, and took the long and winding route via Coimbatore, Jolarpet , Vijayawada to Mumbai. There were thousands from the northern parts of Kerala who went there, worked their way through the life, made the city rich and enriched themselves in the process. Even today, when an election takes place in Kerala, candidates in northern areas like Kasargode, Uduma, Manjeswaram and Hosdurg take a trip to Mumbai to meet the thousands of voters who live there. During the 2006 State Assembly elections, I remember witnessing around a dozen buses, all air-conditioned video coaches, that took voters from Mumbai back home for the election-day and then toot them back, all five star comforts paid for by the candidates and their parties.

Bombay, in its earlier days, was a city known for its courage and progressive ideas: It was workers from this city who in early 1920s took to the street, for the first time in India, in protest against the arrest of a nationalist leader, Lala Lajpat Rai, an event that was taken note of even by Lenin. Then in 1942, Bombay erupted in a nationalist fervor as Gandhi made the historic call, Quit India, on August 9, electrifying the whole nation. Once again in 1946, workers of this city marched on the streets in support of the valiant sailors in the Royal Indian Navy who had taken control of the battle ships, a mutiny that shook the empire to its roots.

Mumbai has always been a center of Indian left wing, a place where socialist and egalitarian world view had an upper hand. It had a vibrant working class, a dedicated and highly motivated leadership, and a progressive mass base. It had some of the best progressive writers, theatre activists, playwrights, painters and other intellectuals that made the city India’s cultural capital.

But how things have changed, especially in the past two decades!

The left is no longer a force in Mumbai, thanks mainly to the decline of its strong trade union base. Even the progressive and liberal views, a tradition from the days of nationalist movement and for long held and supported by the middle class and secular forces like the Congress, are now facing severe threat. Instead, Mumbai has embraced the hard core, bitter, right-wing sloganeering and racial hatred that has become the hallmark of the Hindutva forces. Shiv Sena and the Sangh Parivar have taken over the soul of Mumbai. Mumbai today is a ghost of its past, a mute reminder of its glorious days.

Mumbaikars are now paying a price for allowing their soul to be hijacked by the forces of darkness and hatred. And the rude reminder came once again the other day, when a bunch of hoodlums who swear by Raj Thackeray, went on a rampage against Pratheeksha, where India’s cultural icon Amitabh Bachchan and his family live. It has been in the making when M F Husain, India’s best known artist, was hounded out of the city. It is going to be an unending tragedy, unless Mumbai of the past rebounds.

But is it possible? Is it possible that Mumbai would once again return to its former self; shedding its hatred, its bigotry, its racial mindset? Those who have watched the hounding of the Malayalees and other South Indians in the formative days of Shiv Sena by Bal Thackeray, witness the ongoing hate campaign against the Hindi-speaking North Indians, including even the Bachchans who through generations made the city proud, would think it to be a tall order. But for Mumbaikars, there is nothing impossible: They have proved it many times in the past the way they faced the agony of explosions on their trains, massacres on the streets, floods that stopped life for days…and came back with a smile on the face once again.

(Cartoon courtesy: Sudheernath, New Delhi.)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Plunder of Kerala's Rivers

A warm welcome to Vasco da Gama on his arrival to Malabar coast: But did he deserve it?

Travels in the Vasco da Dama Country: Part One

By N P Chekkutty

THE FIRST wave of globalisation started some time in the 15th century when the Portuguese sailor-adventurer Vasco da Gama landed in a small village on the Malabar coast near the port city of Calicut, thus opening the sea route between Europe and Asia. The 500 years since have seen immense changes, but people joke that if da Gama happened to come back again, he would not lose his way in the city he once walked.
Overall, though, the state has seen many changes. Kerala has recorded a growth rate equal to the national GDP growth, though in the past two decades it has slowed down, showing even negative growth at times. The economic growth came despite the fact that Kerala has no special economic zones, no Nandigrams or Singurs.
Economists used to call Kerala a ‘money order economy’ because for decades it depended on money sent back by Keralites who flocked to the Gulf countries to work. These remittances still come in, but the Gulf is no longer the El Dorado for the youth. Travelling in the footsteps of the bearded sailor from Portugal, I found that there is much happening in Kerala’s society and economy these days, not all of it positive.
Kappad, where da Gama landed with his armada of ships and guns on a fine morning in1498, is a small village 30 km from the city of Kozhikode (formerly Calicut), which looks as if it has not changed much from his days. Old-fashioned thatched houses with sliding roofs are given a modern touch by the ubiquitous television antennae jutting out, tea-shops do brisk business, and a reminder of the past still adheres in a small pillar inscribed ‘This is where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498’, a fragile memorial for the powerful pirate who inaugurated a long period of colonial tyranny and occupation.
Tales of Portuguese cruelty are still told, and resurgent Islamic forces have re-published the Tuhfathul Mujahedeen by Sheikh Zainudheen of Ponnani, who called upon his people to resist the invaders. A few years ago, on the 500th anniversary of the white man’s first voyage to these shores, I saw a group of young men marching to the beach, standing in front of the granite pillar, shouting slogans and then ceremonially spitting on it…
The train from Mangalore crosses over 40 rivers to reach the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram. Most of these rivers start from the rich bio-depository of the Western Ghats that extend from north to south encompassing such immensely valuable bio-reserves as the Silent Valley National Park. Rivers are a source of life and their banks are the sites of human settlements the world over. Most ancient temples are built on the banks of rivers. There were 64 original Brahmin settlements in Kerala, almost all of them on the banks of rivers.
In modern-day Kerala, rivers are once again centrestage, the focus of huge public agitations over livelihood issues. The protest movements are now focused on the issues of pollution of water-bodies and the alienation of lands and water-sources from original users like fisherfolk and farmers. Rivers are fast becoming commercial property. In the north, the Chaliyar River saw a three-decade-long agitation against a highly polluting industrial unit, Gwalior Rayons (Grasim). Now the factory is closed and life seems to have returned to the river.
“Yes, Chaliyar is now a river reborn,” says Elamarom Nazirudheen, who was convener of the action committee that spearheaded the public agitation in the villages in the Chaliyar basin.
The Chaliyar River that courses through Kozhikode and Malappuram districts used to nurture a large number of peasant villages. When the factory started operations in 1963, air and water became polluted, and the people of the affected panchayats like Vazhakkad, Vazhayoor, Areekkode and Mavoor, protested. It was the first public agitation against air and water pollution in Kerala and it led to an agreement between the people and the factory management in 1974 known as the Rama Nilayam pact, as it was brokered in the government guesthouse bearing that name.
It was as part of this agreement that the Kerala State Pollution Control Board was set up in 1974 to monitor air and water pollution. But the government and the company management reneged on the terms of the agreement, and the agitation took an aggressive turn with K A Rahman, a peasant from Vazhakkad, taking up the leadership. He once barged into the factory offices with dynamite strapped to his stomach, say the villagers who remember the heroic fight. The high point of the agitation was in December 1998 when around 7,000 villagers marched to the factory gates demanding its immediate closure.
However, by then, things had changed. Grasim’s technology had become obsolete and its pollution had started attracting severe criticism all over the country. Raw material had become scarce and the public extremely agitated, and the factory finally closed down in early-2000.
“There is tremendous improvement in the quality of air and water now and diseases such as cancer and lung problems that were rampant in those days have come down,” says a health worker in the small town of Mavoor. He pointed out that a survey conducted by Vazhakkad panchayat had found that during 1993-98 as many as 215 cancer cases had been reported only from panchayat.
Chaliyar is a success story of a people’s environmental movement in the state -- perhaps the only one. For the fight against river pollution in this land of rivers continues in other parts of the state.
At Kuttippuram, as the train crosses Bharatapuzha, the legendary Nila River that nursed generations of poets and writers comes into view. The river is full during the monsoon months but in summer it is a vast stretch of sandbanks. Sand is a highly sought after material for the booming construction industry and the sandbanks are being incessantly and mindlessly excavated. Local people say that a load of sand fetches around Rs 3,500 and there is huge demand for the material.
Vast stretches of paddy fields around Bharathapuzha, mainly in Palakkad district, once the granary of the state, have been converted into construction sites with dozens of designer villas coming up, scooped up primarily by rich non-resident Indians (NRIs) who buy them as an investment and as vacation homes. Meanwhile, rice cultivation has been declining and the latest report from the Department of Economics and Statistics, released in January 2007, says that over the past 44 years the decline in rice production has been an alarming 63%.
In 2005-06, the total area under paddy stood at 2.76 lakh hectares as against 7.53 lakh hectares in 1961-62, the report noted. Production, too, declined from 13.39 lakh tonnes in 1981-82 to 6.3 lakh tonnes in 2005-06. That means a drop of over 50% in a period of 24 years while consumption has been registering a huge increase, now standing at 30 lakh tonnes a year.
Despite this, the conversion of paddy fields continues and construction booms. Lorries move about on the river bed and the river resembles an industrial site. Farmers complain about the drop in sub-surface water levels as sand is removed. As cultivation becomes unviable, they sell off their holdings to real estate groups. In the Bharathapuzha basin region, the river protection committee is agitating for preservation of the sacred river, but the decimation of the river through incessant sand removal continues unabated.
In Alwaye, it is another river and another environmental disaster. The lifeline of central Kerala, the river Periyar is highly polluted with over 250 chemical units working in the Eloor-Edayar industrial belt on both sides of the river. “The situation is grim as a large number of families in the Eloor-Kadungallur area are denied even drinking water,” says Purushan Eloor who leads the action committee against pollution of the Periyar River.
C R Neelakantan, environmental activist and chairman of the Committee to Protect Periyar, said the heavy influx of hazardous material into the river should be stopped; a health survey should be conducted and those with serious ailments must be given medical aid, and facilities for providing clean drinking water should be made available. He pointed out that in many places local panchayats are distributing drinking water as wells and other sources are fatally contaminated.
The grim story has been in the making for a long time. As hazardous industrial units proliferated on the banks of the river, the Pollution Control Board took little action to stop them from polluting the river. In fact, a recent proposal to impose collective fines on polluting industrial units suggested by a Supreme Court appointed committee has been kept in cold storage as industrialists put pressure on the authorities to ignore it.
In July 2005, the Supreme Court’s Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes (SCMC) visited the area and in its report said: ‘The Periyar is an ecological disaster in the making.’
But most of the rivers here are ecological disasters, some of them because of uncontrolled industrial activity, others because of uncontrolled human activity. The river Pamba that nurtures the Sabarimala region, is choking to death: in the pilgrim season, millions of devotees visit the temple deep in the forest and the river has to absorb the huge accumulated wastes they generate.
“This is not only an ecological problem for the river; soon we will face a health disaster too,” said a member of the Pamba Action Committee which has been agitating against the indiscriminate use of the river as a scavenger, and the lack of effort to check the increasing number of people visiting every season. The water is highly polluted with e-coli and other bacteria that could easily trigger an epidemic. Dr B Ekbal, the well-known health activist, said that unless action is taken to control the number of people, the present facilities in Pamba will fail very soon and the consequences would be disastrous.
Ironically, in this land of rivers, bottled water is now big business. Packaged water started flooding the market only a few years ago, but today sales have overtaken even those of soft drinks, say traders’ organisations. Water has become a commercial property because, as recent studies have repeatedly proved, drinking water resources are fast dwindling in the state.
Most sources are polluted including the sub-surface water aquifers, say experts at the Centre for Water Resources Development & Management (CWRDM), at Kozhikode, which conducted a series of studies on the water situation in Kerala. They also found that sub-surface water resources are receding, posing a serious threat to water safety in this rain-lashed region. A recent study conducted by Malayala Manorama on the safety of drinking water, taking samples from all parts of the state, found that few safe water resources are left. More than 90% of samples they examined had shown excessive presence of contaminants like e-coli.
Commercial activity may bring prosperity to the state but it seems to be doing so at the cost of the environment and the health and livelihood of ordinary people. This is, surely, an unacceptable paradigm of development and least expected in a state ruled by communist parties for much of its modern history.

(This is the first of a three-part series on contemporary Kerala.), January, 2008.