Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jaswant Sigh and the Need for Examining the History of India’s Partition

JASWANT SINGH has paid a price for being an objective observer of the history of Indian sub-continent in its most crucial period. The division of the country has always been a matter of serious and grave disputes, but what has been most critical as far as historical inquiry is concerned is that all facts relating to the division were never made available to the public or even the scholars.

What we had, instead, was one version of history written by the winners in this game played out on the country in the run up to division. In this Nehru, Patel and the entire Indian elite, upper caste Congress leadership came out in flying colours and people like Muhammedali Jinnah and B R Ambedkar were the demons. This official history held good for almost five decades and our children learnt this history in their schools and colleges and we, the first generation Indian after Independence, also imbibed such a history in our younger days.

I was a particularly keen student of history from my school days and I had spent a lot of time for reading history. In fact, I remember reading such huge tomes like the History of the Freedom Movement by Tara Chand (a multi volume project launched by Government of India), and the History of India prepared by a few Soviet scholars, during the days of Emergency and curiously withdrawn from the market in 1978 or 79 when Indira Gandhi returned to power) and many others. What these volumes had in common was that they carried the official line of the freedom movement, the official version of what led to the partition of the country.

But it was definite that such a totally one-sided history would not stand scrutiny of the times, especially as historical inquiry is a continuous process and every generation would seek fresh answers to the questions that keep up popping up, like persistent ghosts from a long buried past.

And in the case of India’s division and what were the circumstances that led to it and who were the people responsible for it, there has always been so many yawning gaps in the narration, which were papered over by our official historians. It suited our ruling classes very well, as both the Congress and the right wing Hindutva forces shared in the benefits of such a demonisation project, painting the Muslims and the Muslim League as responsible and Muhammaedali Jinnah as the wily villain of the peace.

But politics has never been such a neat black-and-white business. There has to be elements of grey in it and there are forces which benefited out of such tragic events in history. The Muslims never benefited anything out of it and in fact hey became second class citizens in their own country. They were reduced to be a non entity in Indian politics despite the fact that they are the second largest Muslim community in the world.

And the Congress and Nehru family benefited with a decades-long grip on power in India. All other streams in our national movement, whether it be the socialist, dalit, minority or communist, remained in the periphery and what we have come to see is the sharing of power alternatively between the congress an the Hindutva rightwing in India’s independent history.

Not that there were no voices which feebly complained about this elaborate hoax that is called India’s contemporary history, and read carefully even Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s autobiography is a cry in the wilderness. If one reads accounts of the activities of people like K M Munshi, the man who launched the Somanatha temple movement, who was a major force in the Nehru-Patel administration in the partition days one cannot but wonder how effective were these schemes of these wily gentlemen who decided the destiny of this nation at its most critical hour.

Now a person like Jaswant Singh, who spent a lifetime in the BJP, has dared to question this sham of history and I am sure it would prove to be a great contribution to understanding modern India and its history in demystified context.

Friday, August 7, 2009

From SARS to Swine Flu: Who is Laughing All the Way to Their Banks?

The Epidemics Act is promulgated to fight swine flu situation in Maharashtra: news.

Even pigs should know how to respect the laws of the land...!

I WAS a dutiful parent, providing all the mandatory vaccinations to both my children as they were born: In the eighties when my children were born, these were primarily oral polio vaccines and the DPT injections against some scourges which used to take so many lives away and resulted in wastage of limbs.

Every parent I knew used to take all these precautions for the safety of their children, regardless of their background, their religion, etc. And the childbirth was mostly in hospitals and this helped the newborns to get the best possible medical attention and timely vaccinations which helped the eradication of these ailments.

But recent surveys seem to indicate that there is as resurgence of some of these ailments in some parts of Kerala, especially in Malabar. These reports were available for some time and it appears there is a regression in our vigilance against such childhood ailments which could cripple our kids for a life time. It is a dangerous tendency and needs to be curbed.

But why the slippage in our vigilance against such ailment? Some doctors say the media is primarily responsible as they highlight some stray incidents of extremely rare occurrence of side-effects of such vaccination, as a recent Malayala Manorama news report exemplified. They say these reports cause fear in the minds of people and cause them to keep away from vaccinations.

This diagnosis looks silly. As they say such side-effects take place extremely rarely and so reports of such side-effects also need to be extremely rare. And nobody in their right mind could claim that a rare report of a rare incident in one or two news media could have such a major impact on society.

Then what is the real problem?

To my mind, the problem is with our medical care system which has become completely commercialized and profit-oriented. They are looking for as money to make and even vaccinations have now become a good chance to mint money.

This had started in 80s itself when they started administering vaccinations for a large number of new ailments like Hepatitis B, for which I had to shell out a big amount of money. The vaccine was being promoted by a multinational pharmaceutical company and the pediatricians then recommended it strongly. Most parents accepted it, though the amount was often beyond their means. It is well known that a part of this money went directly to the doctors concerned.

Then a few years down the road, the vaccine became locally available and the prices came down drastically and now it seems there is no pressure on the parents to go for it. So what it means is that the medical profession was being a willing tool in the hands of the pharmaceutical industry and the losers were people who were forced to pay through their noses, but the ultimate result was the loss of trust between the medical professionals and their clients.

Of course there were other factors like religious fanatics, naturopaths and many others who kept up a campaign against vaccination for a variety of reasons. But I do feel that what proved to be the real tragedy was the loss of faith in the medical profession.

Now we see reports about a variety of epidemics from time to time from SARS to bird flu to swine flu, and naturally people are concerned. In Pune, where the first swine flu death took place the other day, it is more like panic.

But in spite of the seriousness of the situation, I do wonder whether some of these concerns are over-done, are we not being hoodwinked by a rapacious industry in cahoots with a profession which has lost its ethical moorings, looking for new ways to make a kill selling us cures for a flu which, as some reports say, is as harmful as a common cold in most cases?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Panakkad Muhammedali Shihab Thangal: Politician, Religious Leader and Human Being

I HAVE had a pretty long association with Panakkad Muhammedali Shihab Thangal, the president of the Indian Union Muslim League Kerala unit, who passed away yesterday. Today I was watching his final journey on the television channels even as I had to comment on his contributions to a few channels. I also had to comment in a cyber discussion forum, which provided me with an opportunity to see how ill-informed are sections of our mainstream society about the politics, culture and religious practices of the most dominant minority community among us.

It was in 1989 when I returned to Kozhikode as a reporter for Indian Express that I started seeing him and listening to him. Those were very tempestuous days in the League politics as there were sharp differences within the party and community about its approach to the Congress, its weak-kneed response to the rising Hindutva threat, and its compromises even with Congress which failed to uphold the secular principles of our Constitution.

He was not a tough leader or a person who aggressively pushed his line; instead he was a man of soft manners and affability. People used to complain that his mild manners had been misused by some of his close confidantes. But I do not believe that is true. In fact, on some occasions he did show his toughness, his decisiveness, though even that was expressed without raising his voice, without any externals show of strength.

I remember visiting him with Prasannarajan, senior writer with Indian Express in Delhi some time in mid-nineties during a Lok Sabha election. He was pleased with the visit, and treated us with tea and snacks in his room even as dozens of people came to visit him the morning; some of them seeking political recommendations, some for blessings, some with complaints to sort out…

There were a few new vehicles like jeeps and cars waiting in the courtyard of Kodappanakkal house, as the owners believed his blessings would keep them safe from accidents. After our meeting, we saw him walk up to them and then he got in the vehicle and took the driver’s seat and managed to ignite them ceremonially.

The last time I met him was only last year when Amrita TV was shooting a special programme on him with actor Siddique as the anchor. It was called Samagamam, part of popular series of celebrities’ meeting with old friends and relatives, and I was invited there as a journalist who had known him for a long time. In my few minutes with him at the set, what I recalled was his decisive actions to uphold peace and communal amity in Kerala in December 1992, when Babri Masjid was demolished and the Muslim community was seething with rage.

There are many more memories to write about, but I think they should remain for another occasion.

I reproduce a few paragraphs from my comments to some questions form friends at fourth-estate critique, in a discussion on Shihab Thangal:

Is he the head of a sect. or something like that? Is this more like the `Supreme Leader' of Iran type? Or is this more like RSS head?

These questions in a way point to the deep chasm in our society. Even the best informed, highly educated, mobile sections in pars of Kerala do seem to know precious little about another section who live in the same place, who have contributed immensely to our lives but still seem to live as far away as the South Pole, with no contacts, no understanding in between.

It has always troubled me, why do we allow ourselves to be completely ignorant about such vital parts of our own self?

Now what is Panakkad Syed Muhammedali Shihab Thangal?

Is he the head of a sect?

By a sect, if you go by the contemporary reality in Muslim Kerala, you mean some groups which are opaque, somewhat secretive groups like say Noorisha Tareequat, which has been in the news for some time with their association with characters like Thammanam Shaji. Sects are groups which revolve around some individuals and they are at the fringe of the society with their own rituals and practices. Shihab Thangal is far form it; he is the leader (both spiritual and political ) of a substantial section of our population which constitutes something around 24 per cent of Malayalees.

It would also be wrong to think Shihab Thangal someone like the supreme leader in (predominantly Shia) Iran either. Because he is first and foremost a Sunni religious leader who came to his position by way of his lineage and his deep roots and contacts among the people, the Sunni masses in Malabar. The IUML has always been a party which made clever use of the religious sentiments of the people and hence they were often putting the Sunni religious leaders at the helm of the party, (like P S M O Pookoya Thangal, Shihab Thangal, Bafaqui Thangal, etc) though it was basically controlled by the traders and other vested interests in the community.

Now is it a party of communal and exclusivist politics and ideology like the RSS?

I do not accept this view because I have always found the League willing (even eager) to accept the secular practices in a democratic politics and they never even dreamt of establishing a religious state in this country. They did in the past and Pakistan is the result of such a calamitous ideology. Ever since Partition, the League has been part of the Indian democratic system and they were a pressure group in our politics for the benefits of the Muslims, may be the richer segments among them primarily.

Is there any implied understanding within the community that such leaders should not hold parliamentary positions? Is this implied understanding that makes ML to readily take him as the leader?

I think the question whether there is a clear demarcation of the role of the leader and the people who wield power in IUML need a little more serious probe. As far as I can see, there is nothing that stops a leader from holding public offices, though it is not generally practiced. The reason seems to be in the social practices of Malabar Muslims as the thangals in this area had a temporal as well as spiritual role in the community for the past three decades or so. You will see they were directly involved in anti-imperialist politics, some of them had to face official actions and punishment like the famous deportation of Fazal Pookoya Thangal by Collector Conoly, and the call for jehad against the British by another thangal.

But the thangals are known to have taken public offices and there is nothing that prevents them from holding such offices and many have done so too. If you take a look at the list of MLAs from Malabar, you will see such names listed there.

In the case of Shihab Thangal, during the election to 14th Lok Sabha I had written an article in Madhyamam which called upon him to directly stand for election from Manjeri or Ponnani and come to Delhi so that he could see the real and sad situation of Muslims in other parts of the country.

I had no occasion to talk to him on it later on but after the polls, I met E Ahamed, now IUML national president (technically a position higher to the one Shihab Thangal held as state unit chief), at his home and he told me the party would be happy if Thangal accepted such a position, only that it was his decision not to go for such positions.

The IUML for all practical purposes is an umbrella organization of various Muslim groups, sects and interest groups like Sunnis (two dominant factions), Mujahids, (again two factions), Jama-athis, thareeqathwallahs, Shias, Ahmadiyyas, and so many others. The differences are ironed out through mutual consultations and normal democratic practices and I had witnessed the sharp rift in 1989 -94 when Sulaiman Sait and others left the party. I think being the senior-most leader and a dominant spiritual presence in the most powerful group that explains his special position in the party. It is far from the way RSS or Shiv Sena had set up their organizations.