Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Poet and Friend, P Udayabhanu Passes

I WANTED to write this note yesterday itself. but I was too tired to do anything, after a day at the hospital and witnessing the last journey of a friend whose memory takes me back to a romantic and revolutionary time which seems to be completely lost to us.

P Udayabhanu's death was quite unexpected. He was the most unlikely candidate for a sudden demise. He was extremely careful about his health; he never smoked, never took drinks, never indulged in any of the vices of our generation. In fact his careful and frugal ways made him a success in a material way while most of his comrades who took up guns in the mid-seventies now live a wrecked and wretched life.

He was a poet of rare sensitivity, but beyond that he was a person who in his teens dared to dream big. When he joined the band of revolutionaries who went to attack the Kayanna police station, with the fond hope that they were very close to the Spring Thunder of revolution in the days of Emergency he was being led by this fire of idealism. He was only an undergraduate student those days. He spent a long time in the Kannur Central Jail and it was on his return, that he made a determined effort to rebuild his life. He was a success.

Many others were not. Yesterday, Madhu Master, who was part of the movement, was there in the hospital and at his home, and he was recalling the days when "we thought revolution was nearby." It wasn't. But still, there was something the movement left behind, its legacy: A sense of values, a glimmer of hope in the times of decadence, hopelessness.

I remember the long association I had with Udayabhanu who became a friend with me after he joined Akashvani. But I knew about him from earlier times, when one day P N Das, who used to edit Prasakthi, brought it to me in our college in those days of anxiety, excitement, hope and despair. I first came to know the power of poetry in this publication when I read KGS, Satchi daa and others there. That powerful impact left by Bengal of KGS still remains etched in my memory that never fades even after three and a half decades...!

I write this note just to say goodbye to a friend, a comrade and a person whose memory takes me back to a time when we had better dreams to dream of, better thoughts to think, and an immensely better world at least in our inner self...

How different it was from this insipid times we are going through in contemporary Kerala, where Swami Santhosh Madhavan and Baba Abdulla Faizi are leading our liberation struggles!


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why do Muslims Complain about a Conspiracy of Silence in the Indian media?

BJP president Rajnath Singh objects to the use of the term 'Hindutva terrorism' by the media: news

'Of course, we have no objection to using Islamic terrorism...!'

RECENTLY I had to take issue with some articles written by Praveen Swami of The Hindu which, I felt, were more tendentious and subservient to the interests of the security agencies who seem to take a partisan view of things as far as Muslim community is concerned in many recent terror incidents(except the Malegaon case in Maharashtra.) One of the grievances raised by Muslim leaders and masses is that the angle, whether their enemies do have a role in these incidents never get probed by these agencies.

That is why the complaint that terror inquiries are being converted into a witch-hunt. My experience is that there is some substance in this allegation. Here is a post l had made to a discussion group on this and some reactions to them:

Since we have plenty of western experts to tell us from where terrorists come from even in remote Asian villages, I do not know whether a local narrative could sell in this highly monopolistic market.

But I do have a story to tell, because I happen to come from a village from where recently a 'terrorist' came up. And his story would give us an insight into how they are made to order and how they are disposed of.

His name suddenly came in Bangalore newspapers as part of terror network with a sophisticated training in Information Technology. Yahya Kammukkutty, who hails from Mukkam, a few km from my village, was indeed working in some IT company in Bangalore and he was earning some good money too. He had married from Karuvanpoyil, a small village where I had my primary schooling.

So Kammukkutty was picked up and Times of India gave a front-page news that terror network in IT business had been busted. Check out Bangalore newspapers of a few months back and enjoy the kind of cock and bull stories they built up on the Islamic terror network to finish off India's Silicon Valley.

But this move backfired when they named a person called Sheriff, a highly respected IT businessman in the city, as one of the kingpins of the network. Even the global names in IT business who knew him pooh poohed at this story and put an end to the cynical attempt to destroy the few fledgling IT businesses set up by Muslim community in the city.

Now what about Kammukkutty, my village terrorist? His wife and her people say he had plans to set up a new company and it was business rivalries that caused his ill fate. The police worked in cahoots with his rivals. Of course, that's a point to be proved or disproved in a court of law. By the time, sure, his life would be destroyed.

And do we expect him to get a fair hearing in a court of law? After all we have a democracy here, that too a vibrant democracy...(Remember Madani trial. Didn’t he get off, after nine years in jail?)

After a series of brain mappings, narco tests and all that, some of these cases were to be taken up by some lawyers but when he went to the court to file some petitions, he was not even allowed to enter the court. The 'nationalist' lawyers in Hubli and other places, where cases are pending, had decided not to take up cases relating to terrorists.

The point here is that the due process of law is being upstaged and upset by the law enforcing agencies themselves. The police are taking a partisan line, the laywers are refusing to take up cases and even physically stopping a few who dare to do so, and what would a poor man do?

Is a kangaroo trial enough for the wretched and the poor of this country? What is eerily fascinating is the fact that they had to face the brunt of even the most cynical actions of criminal conspiracy as in the Malegaon case, where a group of Hindutva activists are now taken into custody for planting a bomb outside a mosque the day before Bakrid last month.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Here We Go to the Moon...!

India's Chandrayaan-1 blasts off; ISRO says will land an Indian on the moon by 2015: news.

Surely we would have loved a vehicle that would launch us to the seat of power...!

Monday, October 20, 2008

In Memory of a Departed Tree in our Neighbourhood…

from a letter to a friend:

LAST TIME we met I wanted to talk to you about my life, my work, my home and so many other small things which I wanted to say to someone who can understand me. But somehow we are all drawn uncontrollably into a huge current that is life and I was unable to bring myself to a mood where I could talk, without any inhibitions, fears, hindrance...

I hope one of these days I would be able to unwind myself and keep talking and talking and do nothing but talk. As you can see I am always keeping myself busy, doing so many things at the same time, engaging with so many tasks so that I do not have to think of myself and my life. Perhaps this is what they call a great escape. Escape from one's own shadow.

But still there are moments when I do get a chance to look at life, its simple beauties and wonderful colors that often escape me. Most of the days I used to wake up so early in the morning when I heard the cuckoo sing as a bird seems to have perched somewhere on a tree in my compound quite close to my bed room. It sings so well, it has a friend keeping him (I suppose the habitual singer is a male) company and I used to watch them play in the yard...

But I miss them in recent weeks after the rains and I don't know where they have gone. I thought they would come back once spring is here and I was looking forward to their company during the Onam days. However, they were missing. Now even after Puja, they are still not seen. Do you think they might have shifted somewhere, may be they found a better place to spend their lives?

The mango tree in my courtyard sheds its dead leaves in plenty and it keeps the terrace and compound full and people say my place looks a bit untidy. Our neighbour, who came from Chennai after a long career as a successful businessman who keeps telling me about the wonderful job his son has in Sweden as an info tech expert, has a fine jack tree in his front yard, a huge and majestic tree that is bigger than any in the lane, and I was pained to see that today workers came to cut it down. When I was leaving home this afternoon I saw them cutting it down branch by branch and I am sure, by the time I go back home tonight, it would no longer be there.

Somehow, this tree has been something more than a mere tree to me; it was a friend for over fifteen years when I lived there, my life going through many a twist and turn in the meantime; often I was alone, looking blankly to the world outside, talking to myself, ruminating about my life and this world, dreaming up the scenes and characters in my novel, watching the still and imposing figure of this tree in the twilight and in the gloomy darkness, which stood there like a magnificent presence of a celestial being, giving me hope and a sense of the immensity of our universe in my despair reminding me how small and insignificant a thing I was.

Well, now it is gone. This is just an ode to a departed friend written in a hurry...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Vanishing Hillocks in Kerala: An Ecological Disaster in the Making

SMALL AND medium-sized hillocks are a common sight in the midlands of Kerala. They are beautiful, giving a curvaceous shape to entire landscape, with plenty of vegetation, most of them covered with all kinds of plants and trees and providing rich grazing areas for cattle. Ecologically they are critical to the region, as they are the main repositories of water resources keeping the millions of wells well furnished, providing drinking water to the people.

Sadly, this is undergoing a fast transformation today. The growing commercialization of land, expanding urbanization and the consequent hectic activity of a booming construction industry has put a death knell for the hillocks. In the past ten to fifteen years, a substantial part of the hillocks in Kerala's countryside have been demolished and carried away for filling low-lying lands for the construction industry, say recent studies which highlight the threats posed by the massive excavation activity now on in various parts of the State. Recent micro-level studies conducted by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a people's science movement with widespread network in the State, point to the alarming fact that since 1987, more than 50 per cent of the hillocks in the various panchayats and municipal towns that came under their survey, had been subjected to heavy excavation and removal of earth; among them 10 to 15 per cent had suffered extreme levels of losses, if not complete eradication.

The destruction of hillocks can have very serious and long-standing repercussions for the state's drinking water availability, says Dr A Achuthan, an eminent hydrologist and conservationist who was one of the pioneers of the Sastra Sahitya Parishad movement. He said in the next decade, the most important ecological problem the people of the State likely to face is the drinking water scarcity as the State's traditional water sources are now being upset and no new sources are identified. Already in recent years, every summer the scarcity of water in local wells has become such an acutely felt phenomenon in most parts and the gram panchayat, corporation and municipal authorities are hard-pressed to supply drinking water in container lorries in those places, he pointed out.

the problems of water scarcity now being experienced in most parts of the State, the demolition of hillocks and the filling up of low-lying lands, paddy fields and water-bodies are interconnected. The alarming nature of this problem has been recognized by the authorities and has led to adoption of harsh measures like the recent legislation like the Kerala Conservation of Paddy fields and Wetlands Bill, 2007 passed by the State Assembly in July 2008. The Bill seeks to protect the remaining paddy fields for cultivation of rice and other food articles, as according to the State Planning Board, in the period from 1980 to 2007, the State has lost as much as 500,000 hectares of wetland and paddy fields for construction and other commercial activities including conversion of lands for cash crops like rubber.

Much of the low-lying lands and water-bodies were filled up with earth made available from the demolished hillocks that were excavated making use of JCBs, the ubiquitous excavator that is seen in every village today. Village roads are full of earth-mover vehicles which cause frequent road accidents because of their reckless speed to avoid authorities. In a recent accident in Malappuram, an excavator itself was crushed under the crashing earth from above, killing two people instantly. (See picture.) Such accidents are now quite common and go without much comments in local newspapers.

The seriousness of the situation has not been formally assessed by any official agencies though the non-governmental sector has done some studies to highlight the risk. The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad conducted its survey during May-June 2006, focusing on the changing land use patterns and the impact of these changes on environment and people's lives, selecting a number of panchayats and municipal towns in all parts of the State. Though the survey was of a preliminary nature, its findings point to the massive tendency to fill up water-bodies and for demolishing hillocks which are known as the major sources of water storage, say its activists who were involved in the study.

C M Muralidharan, secretary of the KSSP during the period of the survey, said that it was conducted mainly with a view to identifying the land use patterns in Kerala in order to finalize a strategy for campaign on these issues. He said after the preliminary results were compiled, the organization had plans to go for a multi-disciplinary study involving government agencies like the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kerala Land-use Board, etc, to assess scientifically how the changing patterns were going to impact the society in the long term. However, no such comprehensive study had been undertaken later even though the past few years have seen an intensification of the process.

The KSSP had conducted the survey in as many as eight districts out of the total 14 in the State and the district-wise data show that in comparison with the southern parts of the State, the north had witnessed a heavier assault on its land resources though the commercialization and industrialization has been much faster in the south. In fact the two districts which had witnessed the severest attacks were Kannur and Malappuram, both in the north. In Kannur, the survey had examined 33 gram panchayats and two municipal areas which had as many as 196 paddy fields and 163 hillocks. Of these paddy fields, 146 -- a whopping 81.6 per cent -- had already been filled up for either planting cash crops or commercial activities, building houses, etc. The study had included areas with a minimum of ten metres in height and 1390 hectares as base in the category of hillocks. Of the 163 such hillocks identified in the study, as many as 57.67 per cent (94) had been affected by excavation at various levels of progress. According to the study, 68 hillocks had lost as much as 25 per cent of the total area, while another 12 had been in the region of 25 to 50 per cent loss and 14 of them had lost more than 50 per cent.

P V Divakaran, a KSSP activist who was involved in the study, said that they had noticed 73 hillocks in the areas during the survey, without any damage. But since then, at least some of them had faced threat, he said. He said the eastern hill regions had experienced severe ecological damage because of the excavation of hills as proved by the fact that traditionally water rich areas like Iritty are facing water shortage these days. In this region, another ecological development causing concern is the frequent land slips that have destroyed property and lives. The instability created in the hills' landscape because of uncontrolled excavation has contributed to land slips, say local people. In a small village called Thillankkeri, which had six hillocks, all of them have been demolished giving the once leafy village a barren look.

Dr Achuthan, who had done extensive studies on the soil and water conversation patterns in the State, said the loss of hillocks in the north could prove to be a very serious hindrance for water safety in these regions as the laterite rich hillocks were the most important storage of water here. In fact, the rivers are fewer and far between in this region and even when they are full after rains, they take less than 48 hours to empty much of it into the sea. In Kasargode and parts of Kannur, a tradtional way to sourcing water is known as surangam, which is a unique way of collecting water dripping from the interiors of rocks and other laterite formations.

Compared to the north where the survey found loss of hillocks to the order of around 58 per cent, the actual loss in the south was much less, around 34 per cent, said K M Elias, convener of the environment sub-committee of the KSSP. They had surveyed 147 hills in Ernakulam district, one of the most industrialized areas in the State, and found that around 50 of them had been subjected to excavation, suffering moderate to heavy losses. Of them, 35 had suffered losses up to 25 percent; four had been in the region of 25 to 50 per cent damage; and 11 had been heavily damaged. However, majority of the hillocks, as many as 97, had not been as yet touched by the excavation lobby.

He said the situation was most likely to have changed since then, as new development projects in the area like the Vallarpadom Container Terminal, the Smart City project, etc, were now on full stream making construction booming. In fact as Dr Achuthan pointed out, recent data released by World Watch Institute point out that while the construction industry grows at five per cent globally and at nine per cent in India, it grows at 15 per cent in Kerala. Still one of the interesting facts borne out of the survey is the higher level of demolition of precious natural resources in the north. The reasons seem to be the comparative lack of public resistance and environment activism in the region, coupled with a higher level of poverty in villages, as most land owners have no option but to lease out their lands for construction purposes because of poor farm earnings. In fact, most of the farmer suicides were reported form the northern districts in Kerala in recent years compared to the southern parts.

The government action of preventing paddy field conversion with the recent bill providing for strict punitive provisions including jail term and hefty penalties as fine has been welcomed by a section of environmentalists, but many feel it could only aggravate the problems faced by farmers and land owners who are in distress. As the statistics on the damage to hillocks itself seem to suggest, the real issue behind this ecological disaster is not a lack of concern for environment, but the pressing problems of poverty and destitution.

(A version of this article is published at www.infochangeindia.org October 2008.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Laughing Gas

India's Election Commission announces five State Assembly polls; a run up to the general election next year.

'Need atomic energy for the country; and political energy for the polls...!'

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sister Alphonsa's Canonization and a Media Orgy in Superstition

YESTERDAY WE Malayalees and our Catholics got our first home grown saint after 2000 years. We do deserve this honour, being one of the first Christian communities in the world. The media played it up, in fact the media became so excited with the event that they went overboard in their coverage.

As I watched the live coverage of the events in various news channels, I could not but be concerned about the kind of message the media overkill might be sending to the world: The 24 hour channels had nothing much exciting to report for most of the time, as the holy mass is a long drawn, unexciting event and so the media got hold of anyone who had a story to tell; atKutamalur, Bharanangaanam and Rome. Yesterday being Sunday and sitting at home, I spent most of the time watching TV. Here are some examples of the coverage I witnessed:

1. A Malayali lady from Rome, on NDTV described about her relations with the saint; how she did a miraculous thing for some of her relatives. She said Sister Alphonsa was a close relative and one of the girls in the family had some disease and her aunt or grandmother or somebody came to Bhranangaanam, where the good sister is buried, and told Annakkutty: "Edi Annakkuty, this is our girl and you better do something to help her out, do it fast and I don't take no for an answer..."

No wonder, the terror-stricken Annakkutty, even as she was lying in her grave, lost no time to use her influence with higher ups and got it done.

2. Then at Bharanangaanam, where there was huge excitement, I saw on Manorama TV another young man, who said he too was related to Annakkutty. He too had a story of a miraculous cure:

His daughter had some problem and when medicine failed Annakkutty came to the rescue...

3. Then some channels showed the family of the boy who was miraculously saved by prayer because of Annakkutty's intervention, which led her to the sainthood.

There were so many such instances of sheer superstition put on air without even a question as to whether all these claims can be true, whether it was wise to keep peddling such superstitions in the name of faith. I realized that in this media-controlled world, God, as it used to be in the past, was not a distant one, so far away and talking in the voice of thunder and lightning any longer; but a real and tangible presence in our drawing rooms and He is available just as the veejays on TV, pick up the phone or send anSMS to Annakkutty or Mariyakkutty or whatever...

I am sure such indiscriminate claims of miracle cures could add a few more diseases to our society whether we like it or not. In fact I think the media excitement over the miracle cures done by the new saint may be of greater help to Pentecostals(who refuse medical treatment as they are sure prayer would do the trick), than to Catholics (who have set up some of the best super-speciality hospitals and run some of the medical colleges inKerala). Perhaps it might also help develop some new business avenues for those close to the saint as people were making such absurd claims as I cited above.

The point is that the Catholic Church used to be more prudent in the past making saints out of people only centuries after the death of the concerned ones. A faster canonization could throw up so many touts and small time enterprises in this world of influence-peddling and professional lobbying, I am afraid.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sainthood for Kerala's own Sister Alphonsa

WE MALAYALEES call her Alphonsamma, or Mother Alphonsa,and the world will know her as Saint Alphonsa of Kottayam.

As Pope Benedict XVI will declare her the first saint from an Indian congregation, at the historic St Peter's Basilica in Rome on Sunday, October 12, 2008, history will be rewritten and an ancient congregation which proudly traced its roots to Saint Thomas, the Apostle, will be honoured with such an exalted position for one of its own for the first time in two thousand years of Roman Catholic Church history.

Sister Alphonsa enters this august realm in ecclesiastical hierarchy somewhat fast by the Roman Catholic Church's standards. It is not even a hundred years since her birth, and just over 80 years since she took to the life of a Christian nun. She was born on August 19, 1910 at a small village calledKutamaloor in Kottayam, an abode of a famous deity in the Hindu pantheon, and she was christened Anna Muttathupadathu before she took to the church as a nun in her 17th year. She died aged 36, in 1946 and she was not known even outside her small town at the time of her death. She worked as a teacher in some convents and was living among her people in the most ordinary and mundane circumstances.

Most of her life was spent in the churches and convents in Kottayam, a town where one finds Churches of every denomination at every street corner and every village. Ever since her death people were holding her in high reverence and one can find her pictures in most shops and households in the region, a practice that became popular much before she attained high eminence in church hierarchy.

While Sister Alphonsa is raised to the highest rank in church hierarchy-- she is the first Indian to reach there while there are a few of foreign origins who have achieved sainthood from Indian Church-- a few others likeChavara Kuriakose and Mother Teresa are now at the penultimate stage, being recognized as the Blessed.

(Illustration:Sudheernath, New Delhi.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Down Memory Lane: MGS Narayanan on Discovery of Cera Inscriptions

THE BEST time to visit a Devi temple is the Puja season when they are decked up in memory of Durga's epic fight with the asura Darika, which culminates in the victory celebrations on Vijaya Dasami day. It is the time when people in most parts of south India take their little children for initiation to letters which is celebrated grandly in most of these Devi temples during this season.

So I was at the Panniyankara Devi Temple, Kozhikode, yesterday, the day of Maha Navami. It is an ancient temple situated on a small hillock on the banks of Kallai river and is a beautiful place to spend your time. It was the second time I was going there, the first time being many years ago when one of my children had the initiation ceremony there.

But last time, I knew nothing about this temple. This time, when I went there I was aware that I was in the presence of a deity that was perhaps one of the earliest in Kerala's known history. This temple's history dates back to the days of the Cera kings who ruled from Mahodayapuram from ninth century AD, and was most likely in existence even during the days preceding their rule.

Dr MGS Narayanan who has done some major works on this period in Kerala history had written extensively about the temple and about two granite inscriptions he had discovered from its precincts which are now preserved at the History Museum at Calicut University, where he had served for a long time.

MGS happens to be a person close to me from the mid-seventies when I was a volunteer at the 1976 Indian History Congress session that he had organized at the university. He was the head of history department there and also a well known authority in medieval Kerala history. I talked to him today once again, about his major discoveries that shed light on a less known period in our history.

It was some time in early seventies when the temple authorities digging in the area for a new mandapam in front of the temple, discovered a granite inscription, which was brought to his attention by a sister of former Parliament member K P Unnikrishnan whose family belongs to Panniyankara.

This inscription related to a land transaction for the benefit of the temple by a Cera king of 10th century. Later a second inscription was also recovered from another part of the temple which belonged to late 10th or early 11th century, again a land transfer deed for the temple. Both inscriptions are very important as they prove that Ceras who ruled from early ninth to late 11th century from Mahodayapuram had control over this region. It also proves that this Devi temple preceded even the origin of the city of Kozhikode, which is traced to 12th century, and the Samuthiris (Zamorins) who ruled it after the fall of Ceras.

MGS felt the history of the temple and the inscriptions that recovered from there were very important. They prove that many of the mythical stories that we read in the Brahmanical chronicle of Keralolpathi, which claims Kerala was reclaimed by Parasurama for them, were not without any basis. For example, the arrival of Samuthiri to the north from his original seat of Nediyirippu near Kondotty is described in the chronicle. It says the conspiracy to open the local ruler Porlathiri's gates from within to allow entry for the intruder Samuthiri was hatched at the vathilmatom, the door place, of this temple which was the only public place available in the region at that time. And of course the conspirators lost no time to put their plans into practice, thus helping the inauguration of the long reign of Zamorins in Kozhikode.

As the Samuthiri shifted his seat to Kozhikode and launched forth his rule, one of the key officials in his establishment was known as Pallimaradi, or the Eradi -official- in charge of guarding royal doors. Who could say the Samuthiri did not learn his lessons from history?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Laughing Gas

Tatas shift Nano car production unit from CPM-ruled West Bengal to BJP-ruled Gujarat: news.

A Change of Colours: Red Car Turns Saffron...!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

T Ubaid: A Mappila Poet is Remembered on his Centenary Year

THE BIRTH centenary celebrations of T Ubaid (1908-1972), Arab-Malayalam scholar and a Mappilappattu poet, begins in Kasargode today.

Ubaid, like Moyinkutty Vaidyar in south Malabar, was perhaps one of the first mappilappattu poets who came into fame in Malayalam, in an age when this kind of unique traditions were not taken seriously and were dubbed inconsequential in the mainstream social and cultural circles. But, for Ubaid, his time and his tenacious efforts to bring this unique tradition into the attention of the mainstream proved to be fruitful and ever since his death, there has been regular memorial meetings in his home town ofKasargode where he had built up a rich collection of followers and admirers.

He hailed from a village in this northern tip of Kerala where Kannada and Tulu are as influential as Malayalam. This area has a traditional Muslim population, most of them highly conservative Sunnis and they had their own unique ways of expressions. Arab-Malayalam, a kind oflinguistic pidgin with Arab script and Malayalam and Arab words, was widely in use and mappilappattus were quite popular. They were written in special meters and were sung by local bards attracting the generally illiterate masses.

It was in the Samastha Kerala Sahitya Parishad meeting, an all Kerala conference of writers, held in Kasargode in 1947 where Ubaid presented his major paper on the tradition of mappilappatus in northern Kerala. The session was attended by famous writers and scholars like N V Krishna Warrier and P Narayanan Nair, editor of Mathrubhumi, who published the work in the weekly publication of his newspaper.

Ever since, Ubaid was a live presence in almost all the conferences of the Sahitya Parishad where he entertained his audience with recitation of his own poems. In later years, mappilappattus became a major stream in our literary tradition and the adaptation of mappilappattus as film songs like kayalarikathu ...made it hugely popular.

Ubaid was not only a writer and scholar, he was dedicated teacher too who had received the state award for his contribution to his vocation.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sea Courts in Malabar Coast: A People’s Judiciary from Ancient Past

IS DEMOCRACY a modern concept? Nope, even ancient Athenians knew how to run a society on democratic lines though when they thought of demos they thought only about the elite. Women and slaves had no role in the demos' rule in Athenian city states. Neither the Romans thought they counted. For that matter, even the British and Americans accepted that women, blacks and other oppressed segments were part of the demos only recently.

Still, democracy has always been considered a Western concept thanks mainly to the fact that contemporary forms of parliamentary democracy are indeed a British contribution to the world. So those of us in the East tended to eulogize and even idealize our ancient monarchies, our caste ridden social structures that continued for centuries holding up progress and spread of universal human values in a decadent society that Karl Marx had described as Asiatic, especially with reference to Indian caste system. He felt it was a society that lacked creativity, that held up economic progress and prevented capitalist growth as, mainly, it was a social system promoted by and maintained for the status quo.

But the question whether democracy was alien to eastern societies has always been asked. Though it is generally agreed that it was colonialism that brought in modern technology to these societies, demolishing their status quo with introduction of railways, telegraph, speed boats and guns, recent studies have pointed out a variety of institutions that indicate a vibrant society at the grassroots which upsets the traditional understanding of Asian societies as generally static.

One of these unique institutions surviving even to this day is the sea courts or kadal kodathi, which used to thrive on the western coastal region of South Asia, mainly on the Arabian Sea coasts of South India. Recently, researching into the social customs of various traditional coastal communities in this long stretch of beaches extending from Kanyakumari, or Cape Comorin as the British used to call it, to the metropolis of Mumbai, which used to be a small fisher island around the temple of Mumba Devi when the British East India Company took it over three centuries ago as a trading post, I realized that in many villages, old customs still thrived, refusing to give in to oblivion.

A traditional justice dispensing system, which the local people describe as kadakoti or kadal kodathi, which means a court for sea-faring people, is one among them. It appears that these unique courts were prevalent in most coastal villages but I had occasion to examine their activities and history only in a limited region, extending from Ponnani in south Malabar to Kasargode at the northern tip of Malabar, a region which has seen quite a bit history in action during the past five hundred years.

Malabar has been a region widely known to Arabs and Europeans as it was one of the primary sources of spices which they coveted from the days of Romans who had a steady trade with this region. The Arabs knew it much closer and travellers like Ibn Batuta, Abdur Rahman and others who came to these shores over a thousand years ago, have extensively written about Malabar and its riches in their accounts. In fact, when Vasco da Gama set out from Lisbon in 15th century one of his main aims was to find a safe and easy sea route to Malabar. As he negotiated the African continent, he came into contact with Arab traders who were familiar with these routes and according to Portuguese contemporary sources, it was an Arab who guided him to Panthalayani, a famous port in Malabar those days.

Thus he reached a small place called Kappad in Malabar, under the local king Zamorin in 1498, seeking trade relations. But the trade and consequent disputes with Muslim merchants who had a monopoly over sea trade from Malabar pitted the Portuguese against Kunhalis, the sea captains of Zamorin, who continued to resist Europeans for over 150 years from early 16th century.

Thus life in coastal villages was not easy or dull even in those distant days. The ports were the first point of contact with external world and hence ever since the Arabs and Portuguese clashed, there were many others like the French, the Dutch and the English who came for trade and later on for colonial aggression. That put the local communities against newcomers, who had not only trade on their agenda, but their particular brand of religion too. The Portuguese were quite aggressive with their kind of Catholic faith, which they made an effort to force upon the local people, including the Malabar Christians who proudly traced their ancestry to the early days of Christianity, claiming they were first baptized by the apostle, St Thomas, himself. As the differences reached a boiling point, the traditional Syrian Christians who intensely disliked the Portuguese and their faith, held a big congregation at a place called Koonan Kurisu, which literally means the cross of the hunch backed, and pledged they would never ever accept foreign domination in religious affairs.

In this long stretch of land, which most foreigners knew as Malabar, there were people with different faiths, like various sea faring castes who were loosely held under Hinduism, the Muslims, Jews and others. Of the fisher communities, many were converted to Christianity, and hence most coastal fishing villages had an eclectic and pluralist society, with Hindu castes like Arayas, Mokayas, Mukkuvas and Muslims and Christians cohabiting and going to the sea together for their livelihood.

It was this heterogeneous nature of sea-going people that made it necessary and possible the development of organic forms of participatory democracy at grassroots like sea courts. The sea courts had their own procedures, jurisdiction, forms of petitioning, appeals, evidence taking, arbitrations, etc. They were democratic in their nature and functioning; those who came under its jurisdiction were those who went to the sea from the village in which it operated; its judges were elected by the community from among the boat-owners in the area and their decisions were binding on all those and their families who worked the boats.

Many old people I met said the sea courts were active till a few decades ago. Some remember that during the British rule, which lasted till 1947, the authorities did promote them because they helped them maintain peace and order in the beaches with minimum use for force. But the authorities in free India took a different view and slowly they withered.

Still, they continued to exist and V K Prabhakaran, who hails from a beach in north Malabar, recounts the proceedings of a court he had witnessed in his village. It was a case of assault in high sea and the complainant and the accused belonged to two different communities. It would have caused an ethnic clash, but for the intervention of the sea court. It came to the conclusion that the assault was a sequel to some family disputes between the two. It was a case of violation of a basic tenet: that no disputes in the land should be carried on to the sea and vice versa. Hence the complaint was dismissed without much injury to anyone.

Now that ethnic and communal tensions are routine in beaches, social workers and authorities are exploring traditional systems once again to build social cohesion. Many feel, sea courts could help find solutions for many ills that make South Asian beaches turbulent these days.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Brief Note on Humour and Politics of Humour

RECENTLY A friend was complaining that even innocuous humour was often being taken as racist slur. It is a question that requires some debate. There was one, and here are some of my notes on it:

What exactly is humour? Is there an innocuous humour which people misconstrue as racist? Then is it simply a problem of communication gap, that what one thinks as a piece of innocuous and humorous comment, hits the other person as arrogant and racist?

At the level of the individuals it might be so. A mere communication gap at times. But I feel, there can be something deeper at the level of the written word.

Even a casual comment can be so pregnant with meanings. When I was reading the biography of Frantz Fanon what struck me was the casual, indeed a childish, comment from a little girl in Paris as he went by: "Look mom, here goes a nigger..!"

Fanon remembered this till the end of his life and his first book on Black faces and White masks comes directly from these experiences. We know that this kid was unconsciously uttering something she had heard at home, which she thought was the universal truth, that black man is a nigger and he is someone quite different from ‘us’; a bit inferior; less than human.

Perhaps one reason why Fanon rejected France and took to armed struggle against France with the Muslim FLN fighters in Algeria might be this deep-seated racism in the French society. He discarded the white world, despised it and even upheld violence as a cleansing agent, arguing that it has a therapeutic value in oppressed societies. (Remember he was a great psychiatrist too.)

I have always felt there is something quite similar in our Malayali psyche too. As culture critic Dr T K Ramachandran argues, we Malayalis live a double life: A life that runs on parallel lines. We are progressive in public life, conservative in private life; we are secular in public life, we despise the other in private; we are socialist in public and we don't mind even the most cynical acts with a profit motive; we oppose dowry in public and we ask for the same when our sons get married...

So even a casual reference or an innocuous comment could mean a lot, could reveal much more than what it says.

When I say that we need to dissect work of art or a joke in its political and social context I do not do it to deny its artistic value or to say that a joke is per se vulgar. But the point is that a racial joke, when uttered on a specific context as derogation of a racial group, especially a minority, it can have other political meanings to it.

That does not mean that we can't laugh reading/listening to a joke. But a joke becomes a real enjoyable thing when everybody has a stake in it, I mean when everyone of us can heartily laugh when we hear one.

Or let me take another example, from writing. Joseph Conrad is a great writer and his works are some of the classics of modern times. I enjoy him and I value him very much. Most people do so.

But when Chinua Achebe read him, he saw the racial undertones in Conrad. His essay is very famous that critiques the Heart of Darkness. It portrays Africa as a dark place, a place where dark forces are lurking, whose people are mere shadows...Even the river becomes an image of the demonic. That is Achebe's reading of Conrads’s work because he happens to be an African who can see it from the inside, unlike others who look at Africa from outside including Conrad.