Sunday, March 22, 2009

Muhammad Abdurahman: A debate on His Legacy and Contemporary Relevance

MY BIOGRAPHY of Muhammad Abdurahman (Muhammad Abdurahman, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2005), written on the occasion of the 60th death anniversary of the freedom fighter, has been in public domain for more than three years now.

It did not raise any storm, and I never expected any, but I was a bit sad no one really took note of the book, writing on which I had spent quite a lot of time in Delhi, where I began it after my friend Rubin DCruz of NBT asked me to do it, and then in Kerala where I researched much of it.

Recently, at the discussion forum, fourth-estate critique, the book received a critical attention. In a discussion on electoral politics and appeasement of religious fundamentalism in Kerala, it was M G Radhakrishnan, special correspondent for India Today , who first mentioned my work, which helped generate a debate based on the book.

Here is what M G Radhakrishnan said:

It runs counter to the great tradition and history of the proud secular stream of the community symbolized by Muhammed Abdurahman Saheb et al (Chekkutty can revisit his own brilliant book on the legend) which has fought the fundamentalists and communalists among them for long.

To this I responded, thanking him for referring to my work on Muhammad Abdurahman. I reproduce below an edited version of the text of parts of the debate:

N P Chekkutty: I am extremely thankful to my senior colleague M G Radhakrishnan for inviting me to my own work on Muhammad Abdurahman. I am not speaking with even an iota of irony, because I am sincerely thankful to him for referring to this work mainly because though this book had been available for almost three years in English, there has not been any serious critical reference to it in any forum.

Hence my gratitude to MGR for referring to this work. It happens to be the only English biography of Muhammad Abdurahman, a freedom fighter who has been generally forgotten in recent years though some Congressmen do conduct some programmes in Kozhikode and Kodungallur.

But the point to remember is: What is Abdurahman's legacy? Is it right to paint him as a 'Non-Talibanist' Muslim leader who fought all kinds of 'regressive' tendencies in the community, a la our beloved Hamid Karzai of Kabul or Abbas of West Bank?

It would be simplistic to isolate Muhammad Abdurahman from his times and transplant him into our own and making him a windbag which could serve our own purposes. Let me say that Abdurahman was a fighter and he was a fighter deeply religious and he never abandoned his faith for political purposes. His commitment to his own community one can see at the moment when he went to the house of KPCC president K P Kesava Menon who had shut himself inside his office at a time when rebellion broke out in Eranad. Abdurahman decided to go to Ernad alone, in the company of E Moidu Maulavi.

But he did fight the regressive forces in his community, and he did it valiantly. But who are the representatives of the Attakkoya Thangals of his time in our own days? I thought the legacy fell on the shoulders of those who are the comrades in arms of our own CPM gentlemen like Pinarayi Vijayan.

If anyone needs a refresher course in history of Malabar 1935-40 these days, I think they are Comrade Pinarayi and his team of Jayarajan triumvirate, who seem to have no clue about history.

M G Radhakrishnan: I have also wondered why the book hasn’t received its due attention. But I have read only the Malayalam version and not the English. I think it easily merits to be one of the best bios in Malayalam. Particularly liked the warmth and details of the narrative through which the Sahib comes through as humane and as heroic as ever. So palpable are the passion for secularism and the concern about sectarianism not just of the protagonist but the author too. And I really want my friend to introspect on his present positions on these issues. Hence I feel a far greater urge to join issue with you than any one else on this forum too. Take it as a desperate attempt to retrieve a distancing compatriot. You really don’t belong to where you are now.

I haven’t de-contextualized Saheb in any way. On the contrary I have tried only to re-contextualize him. I think he is what he is because his relevance goes much beyond his time. Why should you pin down him to his time alone? For me he is not a windbag but a whistle-blower for our troubled times.

Surprised you don’t see him as a non-talibanized Muslim! I have not equated him with the other names you have mentioned.

I also don’t agree with the way you have condemned Pinarayi and others. With all its warts, the Organized Left still remains more than anybody else, the rightful legatees of Saheb. My difference with them is when they digress from this legacy -which often they do- though that doesn’t make them on par with the NDF or such others which represent everything contrary to what Saheb stood, fought and died for. Sure the Left needs a lesson in history but strange to see that you think they need it more than the fundamentalists about any of whom you don’t have a single word to utter for long. (Haven’t you seen in this forum too Saheb being portrayed as not the "real" Muslim but an "imagined" one as was done to him years ago? )

N P Chekkutty: Good and kind words do make people feel happy and make them less combative, I suppose.

Hence my difficulty in crossing words with my senior colleague MGR. Though I have not had the privilege of working with him, I had the benefit of being very close to his father who was the person who took the initiative to translate a work on Nilakkal I did in Mainstream Weekly way back in 1984 giving me the first major break in serious media studies. I will always be indebted to PG for the kind of support and encouragement he gave me, like many others, in those times when I was a simple non-entity from a remote village with no claims to intellectual pedigree.

Having said this, I would request MGR to introspect about his own positions of late. It has appeared to me that he is not really tuned to the changing perceptions among Muslims, dalits and other backwards in our society in the post-90 period. I had the fortune or misfortune of being not only a witness, but a part and participant of these events and changes. That surely would have had an influence on my world view and perceptions.

Now the questions to ask is: Why did we change the way we changed? What forces did play in these events and why is our once homogeneous left partisans are now divided into such disparate, mutually antagonistic positions? I do really hope MGR would think about it, just as all of us need to go for a period of introspection now.

Here a person like Muhammad Abdurahman can be a great guide.

I think we need to take a few very interesting aspects in his career here. One thing is that in his own time, he was dubbed an extremist by the entrenched forces in his community and his detractors in Gandhi Sangham. The left then did not buy this argument because people like P Krishna Pillai and EMS who worked with him were also dubbed extremist those days. So labels do not tell us much, neither then nor today.

The second aspect: Can religious faith and left convictions see eye to eye? People like Pinarayi dub the new forces in Muslim community like Popular Front of India as a mix of LTTE and Taliban (here I quote from his 1998 speeches) and he seems to to keep the same views now. But he has no problems having alliances with Madani or Kanthapuram.

If you look at history, you will see Abdurahman was part of a new emerging middle class in his community, mainly coming from Kodungallur those days. He had to fight the pro-British elite segments among Muslims and later the Muslim League, a party launched by Talassery traders with a lumpen cadre base.

If historical parallels are to be drawn, I would think the new social forces in Islam now represented by groups like PFI do inherit much of the progressive and forward-looking legacy of Abdurahman.

But here we may have to agree to disagree, perhaps.

Dr B Ekbal: Muhammad Abdurahman was one of the greatest secular politicians of Kerala. Apart from Chekkutty's excellent biography both in English and Malayalm, N P Mohammed has written a biographical novel about him and his son has written a biography of Abdurahamn for children as well in a literary style. Along with these books the biography of KA Kodugallor by C P Rajashekran also throws light on the life and time of Muhammad Abdurahman. There are also a few lesser known biographies of him.

nfortunately, none of the present organisations carry or imbibe the secular values expressed by Muhammad Abdurahman. Nobody can claim his legacy.

John Samuel: Thanks Chekkutty and MGR for this serious dialogue. The tone and content of it is much appreciated. In fact such serious dialogues (as distinct from scoring a point or throwing a stone)- with mutual respect- are really helpful to explore the various historical perspectives to understand and appreciate the emerging realities in Kerala and elsewhere.

I too enjoyed reading the excellent biography ( published by NBT) of Abdurahman sahib by Chekkutty. In fact I have learned a lot by reading the book and also through discussions and observations during my recent trip to Calicut.

So my sense is that the political and social landscape is shifting- and this will have impact on the present day "Left" politics in Kerala. I also think that newspapers like Thejas cannot be equated with Organizer or such entrenched fascist propaganda. From whatever I read, Thejas is liberal in its outlook and it has relatively better editorial quality than many other newspapers. I have not seen it spreading hatred or violence or lies. I am willing to be corrected if any furnishes such evidence. We need to evaluate a newspaper or book based on its content and real performance- rather than sweeping conclusions based on prejudices or perceptions.

It is too early to make a conclusive statement about the new modes of social mobilizations, communicative expressions and media experiments among the Muslim community in Kerala. There is indeed a shift from the old politics- and there are many social, economic and political reasons for that.

In fact, I am more optimist than pessimist in the evolving scenario in Kerala- many of the present formations and formulations will be challenged. But that is a part of any process of substantive change in politics and society.

The political landscape of Kerala ( and elsewhere) is beginning to change. I also think the present phase of binary political formation (LDF and UDF) may not be able to survive in the long run.

The shift in sociological and economic conditions of various communities in the last fifteen years would also influence the political perspective and choices of Kerala. My sense is that the present NDF/PFI, PDP, BSP etc will become a part of the political mainstream and the new power arrangements in Kerala in the years to come.

We have had several discussions in this space about the various streams of reformations, renaissance and reactions that happen within various communities in Kerala. So it is important to see these changes and shifts beyond the usual binaries and black/white formulations.They are much more complex shifts than what we see on the surface of it.

K Satchidanandan: At times I wonder: can a party, an organisation or a nation be secular at all? I am aware of the Secular Collective, Sahmat, Anhad, the Kerala Secular Forum... with some of which I have had associations at various levels; still ultimately perhaps only individuals are capable of being secular as it has deep kinship with individual life-practices. I know this sounds an individualistic position, but an organisation can claim to be secular only when all its members practise secularism in their everyday: is this happening in any organisation today, left or right? What about their alliances? Let me immediately add: I do not posit the secular against the religious or the sacred as I do not equate the secular with the atheist or the rationalist: I would posit it rather against the communal, the bigoted, the insular, the hierarchical and the mono-logic. I am posing this not as an ultimate position, but a genuine doubt.

S Sanjeev: Since we are into biography and minority positions let us look at a significant discussion regarding the ‘impossibility’ of 'Muslim autobiography' in India. While comparing the unfinished autobiographical fragment of Maulana Mohammed Ali with two other autobiographical projects of the time – Gandhi’s and Nehru’s - M T Ansari notes, “Maybe even now, for Muslims in India writing an autobiography remains a fraught exercise” in the sense that “autos or the self is somewhere, the bios or life is elsewhere and the grapheme is nowhere, in that it does not work as an intersection point for the other two”. (See his brilliant doctoral dissertation, CIEFL, Hyderabad, 2002).

We could list major examples closer home such as Vakkom Moulavi or Basheer.

Speaking of Vakkom Moulavi it would be worthwhile noting that while the editor of Swadeshabimani has been etched in the Malayali consciousness as the epitome of courage, its founder publisher never figures in those hagiographies. Let me quote Joseph Mundassery referring to Ramakrishna Pillai in his autobiography Kozhinja Ilakal: “that Dheera deshabhimany was honored as a Janasevakan, his statue was erected and the stuff [confiscated by the Travencore Government] was returned. Its owner was a karanavar of Vakkom Abdul khader.” (Current books, 2004, p301, translation&emphasis mine).

N P Chekkutty: Sanjeev's note on Vakkam Maulavi reminds me about the vanished heroes of our struggle:

It is very interesting to think about how some of our freedom fighters simply disappeared from public memory through a conscious amnesia on the part of our mainstream society.

Muhammad Abdurahman has never been a big name in our textbooks, though he has been one of the very few freedom fighters who inspired our poets. Not only our Satchi daa, but a number of great poets like P Kunhiraman Nair, Edassery, G Kumara Pillai and Vailoppilly had written about him in glowing terms. Perhaps poets are greater visionaries and truth-tellers than historians.

But where did you see a mention about a person like M P Narayana Menon, who spent 24 years in jail, in our school textbooks? And anyone heard about E Kannan, a dalit freedom fighter and political activist who was a member of the Kuttikrishna Menon Committee on land reforms in 1937along with EMS and Abdurahman?

No. They are all gone. What else we could say about it but our conscious collective amnesia?

M G Radhrsishnan: Chekkutty says NDF is the true claimant of Saheb’s legacy! What I have learnt (from Chekkutty’s book too) is that Saheb’s life was devoted to further the cause of secularism and also to fight the conservatism within the Muslim religion. Can you cite any example to prove NDF is doing any of these to claim Saheb’s legacy ? Except Muslim League, at least in a minor way, does any of the religious group among Muslims ever talk about the rising fundamentalism or the need for social reformation inside the community ? Or do you think fundamentalism does not exist at all or there is no need for reformation?

N P Chekkutty: I need to add a few brief points here by way of clarifications:

1. When we try to understand the life and legacy of a person like Muhammad Abdurahman, whose public life spanned from 1920 to 1945, we must confront the fact that there is a big chasm that divides that period from that of us. The concepts like secularism, human rights, etc, of which we speak now, were not fully developed in those days.

2. If you try to understand the life of the Saheb, you will see religion has always been the primary fountain of his political life. In the Indian nationalist politics in the post-first world war period, people of the minorities could not hope to find any other catalyst to drive them into action other than religion.

3. This need not be a hindrance for eventual development of secular, modern politics and social thinking in such communities. They can't remain backward or fundamentalist for ever. New ideas would always seep in and that would have a natural churning effect in such communities.

4. Watching the Muslim community in Malabar, I feel such a deep and highly transformative churning process is now on. For example I have a colleague who had to leave his home recently because he refused to accept dowry from his willing father in law. While his parents demanded money and a car, he refused to take it risking the anger of his father. Poor boy had to walk out of the home with his young wife because his organisation, in this case PFI, had asked the young members not to accept dowry at any cost.


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