Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Loner’s Battle Against Slavery: Thomas Hervey Baber and Slavery in Malabar

Looking back at a single person’s historic battle against the practice of slavery in Malabar on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the release of slaves found in an English plantation in 1811.

IN the Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes a moment when the mist lifts unexpectedly, revealing a view of the mysterious surrounds: A momentary revelation of the interior of a Dark Continent, converted into an area of darkness by the marauding forces of Imperialism.

In Malabar, an area which had come under European powers much before Africa surrendered itself to the builders of Empire, such a momentary flash of lightning that revealed the miserable plight of the natives after the arrival of these civilizing forces came exactly 200 years ago, when a young and energetic East India Company officer conducted a search on the premises of a European planter to discover a large number of kidnapped people, forced into slavery. The incident of search on the premises of a European, discovery and the eventual release of slaves despite heavy odds, was one among a series of developments that finally led to the formal ban on slavery in British India three decades later, in 1843.

Slavery was widely practised in Malabar even before the British East India Company took power there in 1792; it was mainly in the form of agrestic bondage, with slave castes attached to the agricultural lands for generations being bought and sold along with the lands. The Indian Law Commissioners in their report on slavery in 1841 noted that castes like Cherumas [slave castes in Malabar] were treated as “absolute property; they are part of the livestock on an estate.” Traditional Hindu and Mohammedan laws had both accepted it, and the EIC’s own fledgling legal system refused to meddle with it, accepting the practice as normal and legitimate. But in the case of Europeans and especially British citizens, the laws were definitely in a grey zone: Most of them owned slaves and used them in their domestic employ, but trading in slaves and forcing people into slavery were treated as criminal offence. The order passed in 1793, by Jonathan Duncan, then Commissioner for the Bombay province, did not prohibit sale of slaves within the province, but disallowed “the practice of shipping kidnapped and other natives as slaves.” The early English approach to slavery is explained in an observation made by Sir William James, chief justice in Calcutta, in 1785. He said, ”It is needless to expatiate on the law (if it be law) of private slavery; but I make no scruple to declare my own opinion, that absolute unconditional slavery, by which one human creature becomes the property of another, like a horse or an ox, is happily unknown to the laws of England, and that no human law could give it a just sanction; yet, though I hate the word, the continuance of it, properly explained, can produce little mischief.”

Though the slaves in Malabar were generally attached to agricultural lands and were employed as agrestic labour, buying and selling of slaves and massive shipping of them for sale outside the province were quite common. Arab ships operating from Muscat and other islands in the Persian Gulf, and many adventurous sailors of European origin operating in the twilight zones of law and anarchy, carried out this lucrative business and various ports in the subcontinent were known to be hubs of such illegal activities. In the Malabar coast, the French-controlled Mahe was known to be a major base for such operations.

Post -1792, Malabar was going through a period of disturbances mainly because of the challenges posed by rebels like Pazhassi Rajah, which continued for more than a decade.The rebels were often in control of the routes that connected the spice-producing Wayanad hill region with coastal towns, making it difficult for the East India Company to procure hill produces like pepper, cinnamon and other spices for export to Europe. In spite of an EIC monopoly on spices trade, a huge network of shady traders and dealers had sprung up, a black market for contraband wares developed, and many EIC officials were making exorbitant amounts in such deals working in cahoots with local traders who operated these networks.

It was then an idea was mooted with the presidency’s rulers in Bombay (Malabar was under Bombay presidency till1800) by a private trader in Mahe called Murdoch Brown (1750-1828) who suggested development of a plantation to cultivate spices in an area closer to the coastal town of Thalassery. In 1797, Duncan, by then governor of Bombay, agreed to the proposal and a 2000-acre plantation was decided to be set up at Anjarakkandy, with Murdoch Brown appointed as overseer of the project. Later, the company transferred ownership of the estate to Brown on a 99-year lease agreement executed in 1802. This gave him the unique distinction of being the first English landholder in India and its first planter.

Brown was a very industrious and colourful character, who was born in Edinburgh in Scotland. He travelled to Lisbon as a young man and from there reached Calicut in 1775 as a consul for Empress Maria Theresa of Austria; served various European powers, then in constant conflict in the Indian Ocean region, and eventually became one of the most influential persons on the western coast of India. Duncan, with whom he had cultivated a close relationship, described him in 1792 as the most considerable of any British subject on that side of India.

But unlike Duncan, others in EIC service had different, and not that flattering, opinions on Brown. When Brown was appointed by Duncan as Malabar interpreter to the Commissioners, Walter Ewer, another senior officer, wrote directly to Henry Dundas, company chairman in London, in 1796: “He is said to be & really appears to be, a Scotsman... [though] he has lived in Mahe as a Dane, & an Austrian, & finished his career of countries, by defending the place in arms, as a Frenchman, in which situation he was taken; let him chuse (sic) his country; being found in arms, he is certainly a prisoner of war; it’s said he was concerned in the war before last, with some merchants of Bombay, in supplying the enemy [Tipu Sultan] with provisions & stores....”

But neither criticisms nor adversities affected the fortunes of Murdoch Brown: He is said to have lost 11 ships, East Indiamen, of 1000 tons or more in the war with France; and later in 1803, in an attack on his plantation by the Coteote [Kuttiadi] rebels, all his buildings and nearly all the productive vines and coffee plants were destroyed. In those days, the plantation was a constant target of rebel attack and Francis Buchanan, who visited Malabar in January 1801, writes in his Travels:” The plantation has of late been much molested by the Nairs, and the eastern part of it has fallen into their hands; so that for the protection of what remains, it has been necessary to station a European Officer, with a company of Sepoys, at Mr Brown’s house. The Nairs are so bold, that at night they frequently fire into Mr Brown’s dwelling: and the last officer stationed there was lately shot dead, as he was walking in front of the house.”

Brown was a highly innovative planter, experimenting with a variety of plants brought from various parts of the world and introducing commercial plantation of many items like pepper, coffee, cinnamon, cotton, etc, in those early days which involved many years of trial-and-error experiments. In a letter published in Asiatic Journal in 1844, his son F C Brown, who inherited the plantation, recalls that “coffee, originally termed Malabar coffee, was produced from seeds which my father obtained from Arabia, nearly half a century ago, years before Java coffee was extensively known in Europe as an article of import.”

Murdoch Brown used local labourers for his extensive and ambitious agricultural operations, his plantation having a large number of coolies, mainly Thiyyas and Mappilas, besides many slaves, mostly Cherumas, Pulayas and other slave castes. Brown had claimed that he was doing everything to help their uplift, “educating them and Christianizing them by native catechists and German missionaries,” giving them a weekly day off and setting up a school for their children, etc; but in spite of all his philanthropic pretensions, he was rumoured to have kept a large number of natives abducted from the southern parts of Malabar and Travancore as slaves in his estate.

Having come to know about slave-running ”by the merest accident”, as he put it later, North Malabar’s English magistrate, Thomas Hervey Baber (1777-1843), decided to investigate and ordered a team of officials to search Murdoch Brown’s premises at Anjarakkandy towards the end of 1811. He found 71 persons, many of them children, stolen from the southern parts like Travancore, in Murdoch Brown’s possession and altogether 123 persons were restored to liberty and were allowed to return to their country. But there was considerable resistance to such a firm action, not only from Brown who challenged it in court, but even from EIC’s own establishment, as Baber describes in his 1832 note to the Commissioners for Indian affairs. It was ”after a considerable opposition on the part of the provincial court of circuit, [that] I succeeded in putting an end to this nefarious traffic,” he points out.

There was nothing surprising in this response: Murdoch Brown, as overseer of the company’s plantation, had been receiving the active support and connivance of EIC’s European as well as local officers in procuring workmen, and also purchasing as many slaves as necessary for his use in the plantation. The tehsildars and their peons (armed persons with badges of office) were frequently used for such purposes and the evidence recorded after the search proved that even local police officers, called daroghas, were used for kidnapping and forwarding freeborn children as slaves to the north to work in Brown’s estates. Brown had been involved in this activity for over 12 years, from 1798 to 1811, under the authority of the Bombay Government as he had impressed upon them the need for official support as the “price of labour was more than what he was authorised to give.”

Magistrate Baber’s action, exposing the underbelly of the civilizing mission of Imperialism, in a remote part of the British Indian empire, turned out to be a huge embarrassment for the EIC establishment and a severe indictment of its own duplicity and double standards as it proved beyond doubt that the Company’s own officers were directly involved in the act of slave-running. Though there was an underlying tension between the Bombay and Madras establishments of the Company administration (Malabar was shifted from the control of Bombay presidency to Madras in 1800) that added a twist to the internal debates over slavery triggered by this incident, the Company’s governing council in India or the Board of Control back home could not ignore it altogether. First, Baber, though a lower ranking official then, his contributions had already been widely noticed with appreciation within the Company administration, as he was primarily responsible for the defeat and slaying of its principal enemy since the demise of Tipu, Pazhassi Rajah of Kottayam, in a remote and dense tropical forest in Wayanad in 1805, an action which earned him encomiums from the Governor in Council; and secondly, the most despicable practice of slavery in the western hemisphere had become quite an embarrassment for the British rulers in the succeeding decades forcing them to take firm and stringent steps to prevent such occurrences in its Indian possessions, especially at a time when more and more people were turning to plantation business in various parts of India that required huge numbers of cheap labour. Baber’s detailed replies to the questionnaire circulated by the Law Commissioners for their report on slavery in India had been extensively reported and quoted not only in Indian and British journals, and mentioned even in Parliament; but also across the Atlantic, in various journals and pamphlets brought out by anti- slavery campaigners and associations in the United States.

By the time of the 1811 search on Anjarakkandy estate, T H Baber had been for 14 years in the EIC service, having joined it early in 1797 as a 20-year -old writer in Bombay, after completing his course at the Haileybury College of the East India Company in London. The second son of a solicitor, the family had lived initially at Yorkshire, then at Lincolnshire and London. Like most of the early recruits to EIC service, he too had influential contacts within the Company administration, including his uncle Edward Baber who had been secretary to the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, in Calcutta. Thomas Baber was sent to Malabar, a newly acquired territory that has been experiencing high level of rebel activity and his immediate task was to chase rebels and restore peace in the region. His moment of glory came when he was able to trace the most powerful rebel, the Pazhassi Rajah, who was, for almost a decade, carrying on a guerrilla warfare against the Company rule with deadly effect, in his forest hideout and shoot him dead, a task in which even Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, had failed.

Thus the searches in the plantation brought two interesting personalities, who represented two distinct streams in the history of colonialism, face to face: One was described as a person among the last of the “rascally adventurous”, who always “looked after his pocket, whether as a Scot, Dane, Austrian, Frenchman or North Briton”, the flags of nationality Murdoch Brown had waved in his long career as a fortune-seeker. The other was a true representative of the new bourgeois, who had visions of civilizing the pagan lands, whose services were remembered by a native at the end of his 40 years of career, as “sterling and meritorious”, whose talents “entitled him to the highest estimation amongst the natives” and the “impartial manner of conducting his duties earned the unremitted (sic) satisfaction of the ryots and interest to the government.” But in spite of all these, Baber found himself pitted against an unresponsive and even hostile administration and he had complaints about the judicial system which put up “considerable opposition” against the release of kidnapped slave kids.

The hue and cry following the discovery of kidnapped people, forced into slavery, at an English citizen’s estate continued for decades. References to this incident were made in Parliament, and there were several articles in various journals and other publications. It was widely noted that the plantation itself was started by the Company; its official establishment was pressed into service to procure slaves and even to transport kidnapped people; and attention also focused on the miserable plight of the peasantry and slaves ever since the Company took the reins of power in Malabar. Baber contended that the practice of separating the slaves from their lands and selling them for revenue arrears of their masters, even splitting their families, was an “innovation” brought in by the British administration; he argued that the practice of kidnapping children for slavery had its origin directly in the ”impolitic action“ of permitting Brown to procure slaves; and Assen Ally, the agent of Brown, who had arranged most of these children, acknowledged at trial that during the time he was in Alleppey, in Travancore, in 1810, no less than 400 of them had been transported to Malabar.

The liberation of the slaves had other reverberations too, especially in those regions from where they were abducted. In 1812, Colonel J Munro, British resident in Travancore, wrote to Baber expressing gratitude of the rulers there for their release. He said, “I have every reason to believe that many of the unfortunate persons purchased by Assen Ally were procured in the most fraudulent and cruel manner, about the time when he was carrying on his proceedings at Alleppey. I received numerous complaints of the disappearance of children; but all my enquiries at the time could not develop the causes of them... I cannot deny myself the gratification upon this occasion of returning thanks to you in the name of many families in Travancore for your zealous and indefatigable exertions in restoring so many children to their parents and homes, and in checking a practise of a most cruel nature.”

During the trial, Murdoch Brown took the defence that it was a widespread practice in Malabar and there was no family among the Mohammedans and Christians in Malabar towns where they did not have slaves brought from other places. Later on, he blamed his agent, Assen Ally, for providing him with kidnapped children without his knowledge, though a few children, who were born high caste, had given evidence that they had been forced to eat with the low-caste boys by Valia Achan (Brown) with a view to polluting them so that they could be [legally] kept as slaves. With reference to the evidence produced before the court, Baber noted that these slaves had been ”kidnapped in Travancore, and sold to British subjects, and even the free-born children of various castes of Hindoos, subjects of the Cochin and Travancore rajahs, reduced to slavery in the Honourable Company’s dominions, who had been procured by the most fraudulent and violent means, and deprived of their caste by cutting off their lock of hair (the distinguishing mark of their caste), by making them eat prohibited food, and by otherwise disguising and polluting them.” The Advocate General in Madras, Ansthruther, who had examined the case more than once, refers to “Mr Baber’s perseverance in restoring the kidnapped children, in spite of very extraordinary opposition” and to the “extraordinary support Mr Brown appears to have received in these dealings in stolen children.” Ansthruther further remarks in his observations following a reference of the case to him in 1813: “The conduct of Mr Baber, in the whole investigation as to the slaves, appeared to me at the time to be highly praiseworthy... I see every mark of a strong feeling of compassion for the children who had been stolen from their parents, and a determination to restore them to liberty, zealously pursued in spite of very extraordinary opposition, without any symptom of that personal rancour which is strongly charged against Mr Baber.”(quoted in report on Slavery in India, Asiatic Journal, December, 1828.)

However, no one was surprised in the outcome of the case: In spite of the hard evidence Baber had marshaled, none of the accused --only the agents of Brown, who were persons in his employ, were brought to trial-- were found guilty and the case was dismissed on some technical grounds in Mohammedan Law, then practised in criminal courts in Malabar, as Baber himself points out in his deposition before the Select Committee of House of Lords on East India affairs in April 1830. He never concealed his bitterness about the provincial court of circuit-- to which he himself had been elevated later as a judge --taking a view that helped continue and legitimize a practice he thought reprehensible and nefarious; and he openly spoke about the considerable opposition he faced from the court in putting an end to this practice in Malabar. Even the report of the Law Commission on slavery, while praising the substantial work done by Baber for the “suppression of the trafficking in slaves” from the south to Malabar, refers to the fact that the court had an opinion quite different from that of Baber in the matter.

For Baber, this incident of discovery and release of slaves in an Englishman’s estate was not just a matter of a legal case; he considered it as an issue of principle and policies pursued by the British administration in India, and he had to take on a reactionary establishment; in the process earning himself powerful enemies that put his life and career at stake in the ensuing years. In his 1832 note, he says that “unfortunately the measure was not supported by those in whom the legislature had reposed the controlling authority, over the acts of the executive administration, but on the contrary, I had to contend even against their systematic opposition in those individual acts of violence and cruelty; the conspiracy that was formed against my life, through the machinations of the principal slave-owner,. ..but all this had no effect in deterring me from persevering in that righteous cause I had engaged in, and it was not until I found myself deserted by the Government itself, by an avowal of their apprehension of repeating the expression of their approbation of my conduct, lest it should aggravate this distempered feeling, as the struggle between the ardent zeal of an individual and the selfish views of a party, was called.”

One of the principal disputes Baber had with the Company administration was over the way the slaves were treated as commercial property; auctioning them off to recover revenue arrears of their masters, often dividing families in the process, separating parents from children and husbands from wives. As a judicial officer in the Company’s provinces, he took cognizance of such complaints and demanded explanation from the Revenue authorities which evoked considerable friction and enmity as the latter thought no action was improper in the pursuit of revenue collection as demands of taxation were exorbitant and hence called for every ruthless act on their part to realise it. In fact, James Vaughan, collector of Malabar, makes this view explicit in his comments when the issue of prevention of sale of slaves for revenue arrears came up for discussion in 1819. He argues for the continuance of this practice, saying ”that the partial measure of declaring them not liable to be sold for arrears of revenue, will be a drop in the ocean; though, why Government should give up the right every proprietor enjoys, is a question worthy of consideration.”

These larger questions of policy seem to have been underneath many of the disputes Baber had with his superiors, especially after the untimely death of Governor Sir Thomas Munro (1761-1827), with whom he had maintained a very cordial relationship and who generally approved of his views, until his suspension from service in January 1828, on an alleged charge of assault in Mangalore where he served at that time, and afterwards. It was S R Lushington, Governor of Madras who took over after Munro, that ordered the suspension, an action which Baber fought successfully in London, and was eventually reinstated as principal collector and political agent at Dharwar in the Bombay presidency a few years later. It is interesting to note how this battle went on uninterrupted, even years after. In 1833, on his return to service, Baber hits back at his detractors, keeping in mind a dig taken at him by Lushingtons’s brother in some official records, some time back, as follows: “...and here it will not be out of place to notice Mr C M Lushington’s most wanton attack on me, in his report dated the first of July 1819, (for no other reason that I can see, than that like his brother the late governor of Madras, he would prosecute every man who had not his political prepossessions--for I never saw the man in my life), wherein, after vindicating this custom of “selling human beings like so many cattle”, and “this system of perpetual labour,” (as he himself writes), he insolently observes, “it is however possible that the advocate of freedom may think with Cicero and the third judge in Malabar [a reference to Baber], “Mihil liber esse non videtur qui non aliquando nihil agit”[Only a free man can be idle], and this further calumny (instead of returning the letter as every authority that did not countenance these attacks upon character would have done) the Board of Revenue actually incorporate in their own proceedings without a single comment upon the impropriety of such personal allusions in official documents.”

These tussles, however, were not confined to official files and internecine sniping within the administration; but as Baber himself notes, his unconventional views and bold actions had earned him many enemies who were conspiring to finish him off. One of the incidents, widely discussed in official documents, refers to an attempt to provoke him into a duel, a practice that had been prevalent in colonial outposts in the early 19th century. Baber had complained to the authorities that Lt. F C Brown, then a young man with the 80th Foot Regiment of Her Majesty’s Army, came to his residence at Thalassery in October 1812 and demanded an explanation on the rumours that were allegedly spread by Baber against his father, Murdoch Brown. Baber denied he was involved in any false campaigns against Brown, but Brown Junior was not satisfied and he and his friends, all EIC servants, challenged him to a duel.

Baber refused to oblige, asserting he was not answerable to them on matters concerning his official responsibilities. Brown Jr, who accused him of being a professed enemy and persecutor of his father, proceeded to put up posters in the town accusing Baber as “a liar and a coward.”

That led to another round of troubles, and after an investigation, the Government resolved to remove from Thalassery the persons involved in the affairs, namely Lt. Brown, and his friends Douglas, Gahagan and Harrison. The Government also allowed Baber to proceed with criminal action against them, which resulted in jail term for all the accused. The sentences were as follows: “Brown Jr to be imprisoned for two months and two weeks, and pay a fine of 100 pagodas; Douglas, to be imprisoned five months and two weeks, and pay a fine of 1000 pagodas; Gahagan, to be imprisoned three months and two weeks and pay a fine of 100 pagodas, and all of them bound to keep the peace for three years.”

An interesting aside to this story is that F C Brown (1792-1868) later became one of the sharpest critics of colonial administration in India, and during his 1848 deposition before the House of Lords Select Committee on cotton production in India, he accuses the colonial rule of causing the complete destruction of Indian agriculture, anticipating and powerfully articulating some key arguments later developed by Indian nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji and Ramesh Chander Dutt. His long experience and intimate links with the natives as a planter and an agriculturist in Thalassery had made him acutely aware of the tremendous negative impact of colonial policies in India. In fact, after his return to England in 1838, he emerged as a pioneer in reform movements focused on India, associated with launching the first of such organisations, the British India Society, in London a few months later, in July 1839.

For Baber, despite his huge efforts and some minor victories against his personal detractors, it was proving to be an uphill task: As most of the first-generation EIC officials were leaving the scene and new administrators taking their place, the colonial policies were changing and attitudes getting harder. He found himself abandoned by the Government, in his pursuit of a humane policy towards the native slaves, when the Government in an official minute (Dated 22 January 1823) made it clear that it thought “the simple intimation that Government approves of the conduct of Mr Baber, might even increase these evils.” A frank and forthright declaration of its abdication of the rule of law!

Then he goes on to declare: “Since that time, I have confined myself to occasional notice of the condition of Malabar slaves, as often as my public attention has been drawn to the subject, but with little or no benefit to the unfortunate slaves, who continue the same reprobated people as ever, as their half-famished persons, their sieves of huts, and the diminution of their numbers, while every other class of people is increasing, abundantly testify.” In a recent study on slavery in colonial India, historian Tanika Sarkar makes an objective assessment of Baber’s disenchantment with colonial policies: Baber, a British officer, wrote in indignation that it was colonial rule that really put into practice the evil custom of selling slaves off the land they habitually tilled and of separating slave families by sale. Even though the Indian slave-owners did possess the right theoretically, they seldom exercised it….Baber strongly criticized the stock anti-abolitionist argument that forced labour ought to be retained because the higher castes would otherwise be totally helpless, being as they were traditionally divorced from the cultivation process. According to him, such rigid caste prescriptions were being steadily eroded, and the upper castes were increasingly drawing closer to production, a process that would have been encouraged by the emancipation of captive labour. Colonial policy then, not only continued the old hierarchy but actively froze it and choked the potential for change. A similar process was observed in the case of slaves: “I have observed amongst the slaves in the vicinity of large towns a growing spirit of industry and independence which, but for the countenance their masters have received from us [the British]…would have ripened into an assertion of their liberty long ago.” (Tanika Sarkar, Chains of Servitude: Bondage and Slavery in India, eds. Utsa Patnaik& Manjari Dingwaney.)

Thomas Baber signed off his historic note referring to himself as Late First Judge, Western Division, Madras territories, an office which he had held for a long time, bringing him into close contact with the lives of common people. A few years later, Baber tendered his resignation, and having been relieved on first of March 1839, he returned to live among the natives in Thalassery where he had started off his career four decades earlier. After the death of his wife Helen Somerville Fearon in 1840, the lonely crusader was practically alone-- as his only surviving son Henry Fearon Baber had shifted his base to far-away Kurseong in Darjeeling--and he died in Kannur in 1843. Now, two centuries later, his words remain a powerful testimony of the injustice done to a section of Indian people oppressed by a cruel caste system, and a harsh critique of the insensitive colonial policy towards these people, who, unfortunately have to struggle even today for their true emancipation in a liberal and democratic Republic of India.

(I am thankful to Dr John E C Roberts, New York, and Nicholas Balmer, London, for their comments on an earlier draft and support in the research work for this article.)

A version of this article has been published at www.infochangeindia.org, January 2011.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Media’s Selective Amnesia: The case of N M Siddique in Kerala

IT WAS on July 22 that my friend and one-time colleague N M Siddique was picked up by the police as he was going home in the evening. He was produced before the magistrate the next day, a Friday, around 8 pm and was remanded to judicial custody for 14 days.

Ever since he was incarcerated at the Ernakulam sub-jail, all his applications for bail being rejected till last week when the Kerala High Court ordered his release on bail on a series of stiff conditions. It was on September 2, Justice V Ramkumar of the High Court ordered bail for him, but curiously the order said he could be released only on September 13 as the investigations were still on.

Siddique, now a freelance media-person and a columnist for Thejas daily, was serving as the Ernakulam district president of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations (NCHRO), a national level human rights network headed by Justice Hosbet Suresh of Mumbai. He was charged under Sections 153 A, and 124 A of Indian Penal Code for his alleged activities creating communal tension and also for anti-national activities. The case is still pending and since the matter could be considered sub judice, I do not want go into the merits of the police charges. Let us hear it as and when the court is pleased to take it up.

But I cannot but shudder at the complete silence in the mainstream media in the matter of the arrest of a well known media-person, writer and a lawyer whose main mistake appears to have been filing a complaint with National Human Rights Commission over a series of raids and searches in various parts of Ernakulam district after the unfortunate incident of hand-chopping of a college teacher in Moovattupuzha. His complaint had alleged that these raids were often conducted in violation of the norms set by the higher courts for such actions and there were instances of police highhandedness and harassment in many cases. He had given a few specific cases as example for investigation by the NHRC.

Following this the NHRC did take some steps and had sent a notice to the Director General of Kerala police seeking their response. The matter is pending before the NHRC and in the meanwhile another search was conducted by the police at NCHRO office in Ernakulam north, which also became a matter of another complaint to NHRC by Mr Siddique as this operation was also violative of the norms and without any formal notice to him or any other office-bearer of the organization.

This is the background to the arrest which took place around 8 pm on July 22 and he was not even allowed to talk to his wife or any other friends or relatives as to what was happening to him. The news of arrest became known when somebody saw him in the police lock-up the next day and informed his friends and relatives. The police took him to the magistrate’s residence late evening and got his remand around 8 pm.

The police have charged him under serious sections of the IPC, for anti-national activities and creating communal tension, and the police report on the seizures at his office refer to a few copies of Thejas fortnightly, copies of his columns on human rights issues in Thejas daily and other publications, and a few CDs on Maradu and Gujarat carnage, etc, released by MRDF, an Ernakulam-based media research foundation.

What is surprising about the arrest and the more than six weeks of incarceration of a well known intellectual, writer and campaigner in Kerala, is the complete silence on the part of almost all the major regional media groups and their willingness not to question any of the police claims made in this case. This is really surprising even for a pliant and complicit media like Kerala’s regional press, because every time in the past when writers and intellectuals were put under arrest or subjected to state harassment, there have been voices raised in protest. Such protests were heard when P M Antony was subjected to harassment over his play on Christ, when a Surya T V reporter was arrested on a complaint from a Congress MLA, when an editor of a known yellow journal was arrested and his office searched, to cite a few examples...

But in the case of Siddique, no newspaper or T V channel made any effort to raise the normal questions that an independent media should have asked. What it points to seem to be a smug relationship between the media and the police in covering up the blatant incidents of rights violations when it comes to the members of the minority community. There are instances galore that prove this sad conclusion, and hence this conspiracy of silence in the case of Siddique is more than eloquent.

(A version of this note has been published at www.countermedia.in earlier this week.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

And that is justice for Bhopal...!

Huge outcry in India over the paltry justice delivered for the victims of Bhopal's Union Carbide gas leak in 1984.

Not satisfied with the verdict? Why not increase the fine by say another five rupees...?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trade, Religion and Politics: A Story from the Early Days of Colonialism

BUSINESS AND corporate rivalries in the Indian sub-continent are generally traced to the period when the British,French, Dutch, Danish and other East India companies started their operations in the Indies, with the launch of the British East India Company, known as the first multinational corporation in the world, in London in the year 1600. Ever since the Indian Ocean region, extending from the Near East to the Far East, has been a theatre of power struggles and business rivalries involving various European countries.

But historical records indicate that the global power struggles in the region date back much earlier, and even before Vasco da Gama launched forth with his fleet of ships that ultimately led him to the discovery of a new trade route to Malabar in 1498, rivals were planning to upstage and sabotage the Portuguese efforts. One of the very interesting, and less known incident connected with da Gama's visit to Calicut, was the mysterious missing of two engineers who came with him, who appear to have given the slip as they came ashore.

William Dalrymple, in his celebrated book, The White Mughals, makes a note of this incident: "Perhaps partly because of the Inquisition, a surprisingly large number of of Portuguese made the decision to emigrate from Portuguese territory and seek their fortunes at different Indian courts, usually as gunners and cavalrymen. Again this was a process whose origins dated from the very beginning of the Portuguese presence in India: In 1498, on his famous first journey to India, Vasco da Gama found that there were already some Italian mercenaries in the employ of the various rajahs on the Malabar coast; and before he turned his prow homewards two of his own crew had left him to join the Italians in the service of a Malabar rajah for higher wages." (The White Mughals, page 14.) Contemporary Portuguese chronicler Barros has said that by 1565, there were at least two thousand Portuguese fighting in the armies of different Indian princes.

Surprisingly, none of the major historians of Portuguese-Malabar relations like K V Krishna Iyer, who wrote The History of Zamorins of Calicut, makes a reference to the decampment of the two Gama crew during his first visit to Calicut in 1498. It is possible that the incident took place during a subsequent visit Gama made as he had returned to Malabar a few times in the next few years. In fact a book written in 1694, by an Anglican Church official on the history of Malabar Church, refers to this incident and enlightens us on the secret trade wars that went on from the moment Gama set foot on the eastern spice coast.

This book,titled The History of the Church of Malabar, is a unique contemporary record of the Portuguese efforts to tame the Malabar church and bring it to the Roman Catholic fold, dealing with the history from the "time of its being first discover’d by the Portuguezes in the Year 1501" to the incidents that led to the "Synod of Diamper,Celebrated in the year of our Lord 1599."

The book, written by MICHEAL GEDDES, chancellor of the cathedral church of Sarum, is printed for Sam.Smith, and Benj.Walford, London, at the Prince’s Arms in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1694.

The author who translates much of the records o the Synod of Diamper from Protuguese to English also provides "some remarks upon the faith and doctrine of the chieftains of St. Thomas in the Indies, agreeing with the Church of Engand, in opposition to that of Rome."

This 500-page book,which remained hidden in the storehouses of the Church of England for long, recently became available to researchers on Malabar history through the Google Books, which has photocopied a rare copy and made it available worldwide, to the delight of scholars.

Geddes traces the arrival of the Portuguese to the Malabar coast late in 15th century and goes on to describe the various incidents in the next one hundred years, when Portuguese power expanded in the entire region and their religious orthodoxy and methods of inquisition became a matter of great anxiety and violent confrontation with the local church and its laity, which they knew existed in Malabar even before they arrived here.

This ancient Malabar church was part the church in Eastern Roman Empire, and they claimed it was established by St Thomas, who they believed came to Cranganore in the early days of Christianity, and they adhered to the Patriarch of Babylon based in Antioch, who had the power to appoint their bishops. The tensions started as soon as the Portuguese discovered that the Malabar Chrisitians were in no mood to follow them and the Roman Church, which they were determined to propagate and impose upon the faithful in the east.

It appears that search for the lost church in the east was one of the primary concerns of the Portuguese as they landed at Kappad, near Kozhikode, on a summer day in 1498. As the ships had anchored off the coast, two moors were approached by a Portuguese sailor (most likely a convict who was serving in the ship) who came on shore and one of the first questions the moor, a person from Tunis who knew Castilian and Genoese and who was evidently in Malabar doing a brisk business in spices, asked was what brought them there. Then the Portuguese replied they came in search of spices and Christians...

The moor then ensured them that they had landed at a place they would find riches in plenty; as for the church, on their way to the court of Zamorin, they stop at a temple which they thought to be a holy place of worship dedicated to Virgin Mary. The Portuguese chronicler who accompanied Gama reports:

"The kutwal said it was a church of great holiness. These the general believed to be the case, fancying it to be a church of the Christians; which he the more readily beleived as he saw seven little bells hung over the principal door." (K V Krishna Iyer, The Zamorins of Calicut, Calicut University, Page 69.)

But there were people in the entourage who had their misgivings. The chronicler says: John de Sala, however. being very doubtful that this was not a Christian church, owing to the monstrous images on the walls, said, as he fell on his knees, "if this be the devil, I worship God," on which the general looked at him with a smile.

But the Portuguese very soon came across the Malabar Church as they built up contacts with various rajahs in Malabar, among them the Cochin king, in whose territories there was a large number of ancient churches with their special practices and ceremonies, which the Romans described as hedonistic. Micheal Geddes, in his book, describes the eventful half century from the mid-1500s to the end of the century, during which the Portuguese had a violent and tumultuous relationship with their religious brethren in Malabar, finally bringing much of the Malabar church under the Papal control, at the Synod of Diamper in 1599.

But the book is very important from another angle, as this is perhaps the earliest account of the Portuguese-Malabar relations and confrontations in the religious sphere, narrated from an outsider's point of view as so far what we have seen are the accounts left behind by the Portuguese as well as the Malabar church chroniclers.

Geddes is writing about the Portuguese aggression on Malabar church as a sympathetic chronicler, because his own Anglican Church was firmly opposed to the Roman dominance. He tells us that the first news of this ancient, but remote church was brought to Europe by Padro Alavares Cabral, who arrived in Cranganore in 1501. Cabral had set sail from Lisbon on March 9, 1500, and on his way to Malabar, a storm had driven his ships to the south American coast where he discovered Brazil. However, he got back to Cape of Good Hope and eventally landed in Malabar in September that year.

Cabral's efforts to establish profitable trade realtions with the Zamorin were a failure but he was successful in making contacts with the local chieftains of Malabar church in Cranganore where he arrived the next year. He persuaded two of them, who were brothers, to travel with him to Portugal. Writes Geddes: The eldest, whose name was Mathias, died at Lisbon; and the other, whose name was Joseph, went first to Rome, and from thence to Venice, where upon his information, a tract was published in Latin of the state of the Church of Malabar, and is printed at the end of Fasciculus Temporum. (Geddes, Histoy of Malabar Church, page 2.)

This was the first contact the Malabar church had with Europe and the next year Gama was in Cochin, in search of better contacts with the local rulers in the southern parts of Malabar, where the Cochin king was in perpetual conflict with Zamorins. The local Christian chieftains met Gama and told him that since "he was a subject of a Christian king, they beg’d the favour of him to take them under his Master’s protection, that so they might be defended against the oppressions and injuries which were done them daily by infidel Princes, and for a lasting testimony of their having put themselves under the king of Portugal, they sent his majesty a rod tipp’d at both ends with silver, with three little bells at the head of it, which had been the scepter of their chieftain kings."

Those were the early days of Portuguese contacts, and Gama, not in a position to do anything more, offered them all support and went his way. Soon, the Portuguese set up Goa as their headquarters and slowly built their pepper empire on the western coast; along with their rising power came the Inquisition and its powerful hold on the local church which became quite firm by the middle of the 16th century.

Still, trade and trade rivalries took precedence over religion in those early days, and Geddes gives very interesting insights into the various intrigues played by rival partners in the game. He reveals that planting a fifth column in the fleet of the Portuguese General was one of the strategies employed by their rivals based in the influential and wealthy European city of Venice, whose traders had been involved in a roaring trade in spices from the east with the help of Arabs.

In fact the first moor the Portuguese sailor met at Kappad in May 1498 had asked him the question, "Why do the king of Castile or the king of France and the seignory of Venice not send men here?"

And he replied that the King of Portugal did not permit them to do so. (Sanjay Subramaniam, The Career and Legend of Vaso da Gama, 2001, page 129.)

The King of Portugal, who had sent Gama to the east to find a route to Malabar to wrest control of the spice trade, had great powers over the waves because of his strong naval forces, but the wily Venetian traders were not fools either. Geddes reveals how they managed to plant their own men in Gama's fleet and get them to the east, to sabotage the Portuguese trade chances helping the Malabar princes to rebuff the Firangi guns:

"In the year 1505, two Christians, who were famous for their great skill in crafting great guns, and whom, for that reason, Don Vasco da Dama had taken along with him to Indies, ran over to Samorim, and were the first that introduc’d the use of artillery among the Malabars: For the Venetians foreseeing that their great Indian trade would be utterly ruin’d by the new passage that was discover’d to the Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, if the Portugueze shou’d once get any footing in those parts, are said to have sent those two Engineers, who were their natural born subjects, into the Portugueze service, on purpose to go over to the Indians, to teach them the use of great guns, and other fire-arms, that they might be the better able to oppose the Portuguezes." (Geddes, History of the Church of Malabar, 1694, page 3.)

The Venetians did their best to help their trading partners in the Indies to defend themselves against Portuguese aggression, but unfortunately that had little effect on the history of the sub-continent. But it is interesting to note that in the two centuries since then, most of the Indian princes did make excellent use of the skills these renegade engineers taught them, as we see in the naval skirmishes between the Kunhalis of Malabar and the Portuguse, the confrontation of the Travancore rajah Marthanda Varma with the Dutch, and the heroic fight of Tipu Sultan against the English in the Anglo-Mysore wars, though ultimately it was the western skills and superior firepower that carried the day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Looming Violence, Political Threats and a Dispirited Media: On the Media Scene in Kerala

THERE ARE strident calls upon the media to make amends for its omissions and commissions, its pervasive intrusions into the privacy of individuals and the havoc it has wrought in the lives of many unfortunate victims. As a media person, I have always been extremely worried about these tendencies on the part of the media and have expressed my views that the media should introspect, and try be a responsible player in our democratic polity.

But the media, at the same time, cannot remain a toothless entity. It has necessarily to be aggressive, it has to gate-crash into domains that are closed to public review, and bring an objective view of things and developments to the public.

This is a tricky situation. How to strike a fine balance between the concerns of the public's right to information and the individual's right to privacy? Who is a private individual and who is a public person? How to define them and how to strike this nuanced position while reporting on them and their activities? And what constitutes private activity and public activity and where does the line of private activity of a public person and public activity of a private person merges or demarcates?

For almost a quarter century I have agonized over these questions and recently when I saw these clamours for public apology from our media to an American academic for some reports against him, I was thinking about these things again.

Here let me say that I am taking up the case of Dr Richard Franke only as a case study and I do not in anyway wish to express an opinion on his personal or academic activity. I presume that he is a well-meaning academic genuinely interested in Kerala and its people and all the past calumny against him, enumerated in the recent book by Dr Thomas Isaac and Mr N P Chandrasekharan and known to us Malayalis through various news media in the past few years, are simply baseless and the figment of the imagination of a politically motivated media.

Now a few questions arise. I will take up only two right now. First, how far the demands for an apology are legitimate; and two, whether there is any substance to the charge that the reports in media against Dr Franke proved to be an infringement on academic freedom?

This plethora of media campaign against Dr Franke was launched by Patom magazine of Mr Sudheesh, which was later taken up by many other Malayalam newspapers and other publications. The motivated nature of these campaigns was self evident, and most readers remained un-persuaded by most of these charges levelled against Dr Franke, Dr Isaac and a few others. It was a political shadow-boxing within the CPM, to which most of those involved in this battle actually belonged.

That means, the entire episode was part of our contemporary political life in the past few years. All the players were public persons and most of them were in the game for gains of a political nature and are endowed with political power in various ways.

Still, they make a camouflage attack on the media as if there was an infringement on media ethics. Indeed there was twisting of media ethics because the media often failed to check the authority of news items fed to them, but that in no way could be a case for seeking an apology from the media or the launch of an Inquisition from politicians. If anyone had been injured in such a scenario, it was the media itself because they suffered in their credibility, but here again there is no way a media organization can cross check such items fed to them because the Communist parties work behind iron curtains. They will not respond to media inquiries, but they still expect the media to play by rules. That is a very funny idea about democratic ways of functioning, indeed. A similar example could be when someone say, "head I win, tail you lose...!"

The second aspect that needs probing is whether there is any infringement on academic freedom. Dr Franke appears to be a US academic with some long- term connections with Kerala and has done some serious works here. He has been generally enthusiastic about Kerala and its development models though many may have differences with his points of view.

The charge is that his explanations were not given its due and that the campaign had been continued without any hitch even after such an explanation was offered. But why did Dr Franke become an object of attack? Was it because he was from US or was it because he was inadvertently (or perhaps even deliberately) involved in the CPM inner struggles?

The fact of the matter is that Dr Fanke became a target not because he was an academic or he was from US, but because he was seen to be taking a big role behind the curtains; being close to leaders in one faction in CPM and was also seen to be working with them on certain areas of serious concern to Kerala society and politics. When you are in politics, you are bound to receive attacks. Here, you see nothing academic, but everything is political. And in a political society, if anyone wants to exempt themselves from public criticism, why not take a leave and go back to your ivory towers, gentlemen? Why blame media in an injured tone when you confront your own battered pubic image?

When I launched this series of thoughts on the need for critical engagement on the part of media, I was aware of the severe accusations launched by this book.

But now that even a normally sober Sajan joins the brigade of critics, I must respond. I know Sajan himself had some part to play in it because he was among those experts who had read the text before it was published. Hence when I go ahead with my comments I hope Sajan would not get hurt, like the good comrade Ramakumar who finds me weak and unconvincing

I must say I do share a large part of the criticisms raised against the media in the book by Dr Isaac and Chandrasekharan, though I am not convinced about the premises on which they do so.

First, what kind of a book is this? Is it simply a partisan propaganda work by a group of individuals who belong to a political party, or is it a sincere attempt to study the inner workings of the media and its limitations in our society?

It started out as a serious critique and then sadly ends up as a partisan propaganda work which falls flat in convincing the reader of the objectivity of the arguments and the sincerity of their purpose. They highlight issues that are convenient to them and ignore issues which are not suitable to their purpose.

I will take up just one or two examples from the book to argue my points. First, it says that after the days of 'liberation struggle' when media played a critical part in attacking the Communists, it was in 2000s that the media took up such a concerted role. The People's Plan and Lavalin reporting are two major points they use to drive home this argument.

What they conveniently refuse to discuss is the political origins of this media strategy. They are quick to deride the media while they are unwilling to discuss what were the reasons which prompted the CPM to set up a number of investigation commissions in the State and local level in these days? What were the findings of these commissions and what did it tell the party about its inner workings ?

Now the defence will come that these are internal matters of the party. But here they are attacking the media for reporting things based on internal information, and even in the cases where such official commissions were set up why can't the party reveal all that they came by?

That would put a question mark on the sincerity of purpose and the manufactured consent that the media is the villain of the piece. But the media has been mainly a tool in the hands of the two powerful groups in the CPM and both groups had made much use of it. But unfortunately such a complex scenario of cynical use and misuse of media in the internal power struggles and the naked fights for control of the party never gets any mention here.

In the study on People's Plan, they say it was the media which had destroyed such a major effort at decentralization of power. Then they go ahead with the Sudheesh-Patom sob story and says the media parroted all that ultimately killing the programme.

This is less than a half truth. They do not even look at the various steps in the evolution of the People's Plan and where it actually went awry. If they had, they would have seen that it was the inherent weaknesses in the plan implementation and its meagre results compared to the Himalayan hopes it had generated, that was the real problems for its failure.

This dichotomy of what is actually achievable and the insurmountable hopes it could generate, leading to inevitable disillusionment which the writers do accept as a fact, had been pointed out right from the beginning by experienced and sober critics as you can see from the critical articles in the anthology, People's Plan: An Experiment in Decentralised Planning, edited by me and published by Calicut Press Club in 2000 based on a workshop organized by none other than the media people who are now facing the music for its failure! One hoped at least almost one decade on, Dr Isaac and others would show a little more willingness for soul-searching on why it failed instead of the easy of option of media-bashing.

But the gem comes in a comment where they assert, it was a sense of guilty consciousness on the part of media people, most of whom were former SFI cadres, that led the media to this pseudo-left critique of the programme! What a cheek to rubbish people who had been in SFI, who had suffered much and at least some of whom had faced lathis, knives and even bullets, who had taken up work in the media instead of the much coveted full-time political work and tried to do their job of reportong of the goings on in the corridors of power!

I do not know whether this wonderful insight comes from Chomsky original or is a contribution from our neo-Chomskys to the critique of media in 21st century. I must admit, as a former SFI cadre, it left me gasping for breath as I too happen to be a critic of left politics now...!

I was struck by a phrase from Damodar on the contemporary media practice of media criticism familiar to us. He described it as third degree methods of criticism.

Most people would laugh it off as an exaggeration but those who are familiar with the way media-persons are forced to work these days in Kerala would know this aptly describes the reality that confronts us today. There is an atmosphere of latent violence in the every day life of a media-person and he/she has to face crude violence or abuses and threats almost on a day to day basis. Often they erupt into an act of physical violence on the person who represents the media in the field and in most cases he/she works fully aware of the threats to his/her safety. This is no exaggeration: ask any media person- whether male or female- and they would tell you how unsafe the profession has become in the most literate Kerala society. Very few of these incidents, which take the form of direct physical attacks, are reported in the media and most others like threats and abuses are hushed up or silently borne for fear of provoking further attacks or threats. This is a contemporary reality.

Some of these are so ugly and some really comic: When I watched the video of the threat to Vidhu Vincent, a female reporter, from a group of Church believers, I was horrified because the ugliness of mob violence on a feeble female was so evident in all its details. She later left the profession.

When I heard about a friend in Indian Express who was bashed up at a bus stop in Thalassery, I asked him what happened. It was a rally of a big political party there and the buses were all stranded in the roads and he said something to the person next to him about the way they were persecuting the public. Men from the jatha overheard and he was pulled out of the bus and bashed up. He refused to complain because he was afraid next day he would face a fresh bout of violence.

My worst days as a journalist were when I worked with a television channel and I remember with horror the continuous harassment, abuses and threats I faced. They were friendly fire, as they say coming from guys who had an ownership role in it! Some of the people who were abusive were men of some senior positions and one of them today happens to be a member of Parliament.

But the saddest part is not physical violence or continuous threats. It is the loss of means of livelihood which could completely paralyze a person. Most camera-persons are forced to buy their own equipment in small organizations and when they are attacked, the loss is huge. Once when I worked as president of the Kozhikode unit of KUWJ, there was an attack and around a dozen people were injured but when I went to the hospital to see them, the major complaint was not about the injuries or pain, but about the loss of equipment like cameras and lenses and there was no way they could get that back in shape.

Now what I suggest is that an atmosphere of fascist tendencies is fast growing in Kerala and politicians and local mafias are the main culprits. It is a fearsome thing that such attacks are now getting an official stamp as even senior politicians do not care when media people are attacked.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Media, Religious Minorities and Terrorism: A Case Study of Kerala

This the text of a paper I presented at the two-day national seminar on Globalization, Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorism: A South Indian Perspective, organized by the Political science department of Kerala University at Thiruvananthapuram on April 8, 2010:

I PROPOSE to examine the role of media in generating stereotypes in the same ideological mould of global campaign against terrorism, launched along with the new policies of globalization and liberalization in Indian society starting from the 1990s, in the regional media as well as in every other sector of society, which has become a matter of serious concern even in comparatively progressive regions like Kerala.1

Kerala has been, for long, known as a place of communal amity and religious tolerance, with its social fabric consisting of a seamless mingling of various communities, the tradition dating back to pre-colonial times. In fact this region has been a model for social and communal coexistence with almost all religions finding a place in its shores without causing much friction, and finding ways and means to contribute to the social and communal well-being.

But this has not been a natural state of affairs, a social atmosphere that came on its own; but actually it was the result of conscious and deliberate policies pursued by various communities, and ruling classes down the years. In a sense, Kerala’s history of coexistence and cooperation between various communal groups can be described as a result of conscious efforts, a negotiated social space2 for each community which had the numbers and resources to demand a say in the system. There are several historical reasons for the emergence of such a negotiated space, which had often been disturbed owing to a number of external factors, like the sudden influx of colonial powers. The response to colonial challenge from the time of Portuguese to the English is a very interesting study in itself, as it was mainly a few communities which actually engaged themselves in resistance at various times, for reasons of their own. At the outset, we must also recognize that this negotiated space was not a free for all, not all sections of the society had a place in it. First and foremost, it was an elite social club with the upper caste Hindu rulers being the central and unifying force, with elite segments in other communities like Muslims and Christians accepting their legitimate social and economic role in it. The first and primary condition for such a social contract was that none questioned the prevailing social system, based on caste discrimination.

Then came the colonial experience, which, to a certain extent, emerged as a challenge to this existing, ossified and rigid social hierarchy, which Marx described as the Asiatic mode in his writings on India.3 Look at the earlier instances of resistance to the colonial aggression and a pattern emerges: Protection of ancient faith and protection of trade and economic interests were two primary reasons for the resistance offered to colonial aggressors. I will take up here, only two cases in our history: The first is the resistance offered to the Portuguese by the ancient churches in Kerala, who opposed the efforts by the Portuguese Roman Catholic arch-bishop in Goa to bring the ancient churches in Malabar Serra under the Roman Catholic Church. The Koonan Kurisu pledge in the 16th century by the members of local churches was an example of the expression of independence against foreign aggression. But it failed as at the Synod of Diamper (1599), the Roman Catholics declared their dominance over the local churches.4

The second example is the revolt of the Kunhalis of Malabar against the Portuguese. Here again, we see the operation of both trade interests and religious sentiments getting mixed up in resistance to foreign aggression.5 The Kunhalis and their supporters did evoke religious sentiments in their fight against Portuguese as we can see from contemporary texts like Tuhfathul Mujahedeen by Sheikh Zainudheen Maqdum of Ponnani, which calls for a war against infidels.6

The resistance of the local Syrian churches to the Portuguese domination in ecclesiastical matters and the resistance of the Malabar Mappilas under the Kunhalis to the Portuguese trade domination were taking place at almost the same time in the north and central parts of Kerala coastline. What is interesting is the strategy effectively adopted by Portuguese to win both the battles: They took religion into the political realm and effectively waged a war against their opponents driving alliances with local rulers. Once the local rulers got alienated from their own people, their slow disintegration and demise was only a matter of time. Hence my point is that this mutual alliance of various social segments was inter-dependent and once this mutuality got disrupted, it resulted in serious social tensions and disturbances.

In Kozhikode the Portuguese had succeeded in forging an alliance with the Zamorin, against the interests of a powerful segment in his own court, which soon led to the downfall of the Kunhalis against the combined forces of Portuguese and the Zamorin, and the eventual loss of power and influence of Zamorins themselves. In Cochin, they had forced the hands of the Cochin rajah to order the local churches to accept the dominance of Roman Catholic arch-bishop of Goa, who took the initiative of calling the Synod of Diamper in 1599 which effectively sealed this dominance, but we also see that once this local trust was broken the local rajah also faced severe isolation and loss of power and prestige.

Looking back at the subsequent history of these regions, we see the decline of the prominence of the royal families who were reduced to the level of mere vassals of foreign powers who rose to become the principal powers in this region. In Kozhikode, ever since the sea power held by the Kunhalis was cut down by the Zamorin and Portuguese, the local ruler lost his power progressively and finally he had to commit suicide in mid-18th century, unable to withstand external threats.

The point I am trying to drive home is that the ruling establishments in this coastal region, which had the first contacts with global forces and influences at every turn in history, derived their legitimacy, sustenance and strength from the internal cohesion of various social and economic interests that subsisted in this region. It was a complex system, with various groups holding special interests and privileges and in this scheme of things various communities like Christians, Muslims and Hindu upper castes had their own positions, privileges as well as responsibilities. The Hindu upper castes were the rulers and their legitimacy was ensured and sustained by the others who controlled various powerful interests such as trade and commerce, developing a web of mutual connections, responsibilities and liabilities. Once this intricate social web was disturbed as in the wake of Portuguese invasion, what we see is a natural disintegration of this social contract.

It was a social contract based on mutual interests and it was arrived at after mutual negotiations over centuries. It helped reinforce the conservative social system and guarded against any revolutionary change in its conservative social set up.

Take for example the caste system: The ruling establishment and the elite society gained its vast powers on the basis of caste oppression of a massive section of people, the lower castes. Kerala, with its long association with Christian and Islamic ideas--who had never accepted caste as legitimate--should have been exposed to a great social movement against caste, but instead it remained the most ardent bulwark of caste oppression till the mid 20th century while most other parts of India had seen much stronger anti-caste reform movements taking shape much earlier. We see that this negotiated social space and the inclusion of various community interests in this scheme of things helped this region remain itself as a exclusive conservative base, immune to change.

This has been the major and dominant pattern for at least five centuries, as we can see from the days of colonial invasion from late 15th century. This pattern has been in operation in the long period of English rule in Malabar with their power and influence extending to the southern princely states of Travancore and Cochin, through their resident agents and standing armies. Those who were left out, were forced to rebel as we see in the case of the chieftains of Wynad in Pazahassi revolts of late 18th and early 19th century7 or the Mappila revolts in South Malabar in 20th century,8 who faced severe discrimination and oppression. The land owing and revenue gathering system devised by the British give a clear picture of how it helped develop a network of dependents effectively co-opted into the colonial system.

After Independence, this has remained the cornerstone of the political system that developed here. Cronyism and formation of cartels has been at the heart of it, and in spite of the Constitutional safeguards for the protection of weaker sections, a substantial chunk of public expenditure has been cornered by the same forces who had control over society even in colonial times. A quick look at Kerala’s public employment pattern9 and the fact that almost 60 per cent of the total state revenues are expended for the salary and pensions of this segment10 speak of the horrible story of a society that consistently denied the rightful due to those massive sections without any regard for a redistribution of public resources in a more equitable manner.

Kerala's opposing political fronts which alternated in power almost continuously ever since the seventies, did actually exacerbate this situation as, for all practical purposes, these political fronts served as refuges for these interest groups. Veteran communist leader E M S Nambodiripad used to castigate the United Democratic Front (UDF) as a conglomeration of caste and community interests, which indeed it has been, but the reality is that even the Left Democratic Front also served a similar social role going by the experiences of those sections who were kept out of the power structure. From an analysis of the representation in power structures, political establishments and leadership positions in ruling parties we may conclude that those who still largely remain outside are Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims who are now facing the shrillest criticism of being harbourers of terror networks and anti-national activities from a media controlled by the same social groups and interests who are dominant in all power structures in our society.11

It is in this context we need to understand the recent media campaign against terrorism, which largely painted Muslims and Dalits as villains in its dramatics personae. The media reports linking these communities with incidents of terrorism were often without any substance, mostly planted by interested parties and such stories were published without any verification for authentic y or veracity and mostly without any direct quotes or evidence. Even when proved baseless later on, there were not many efforts to make amends for such violations of ethical media practices.

One of the serious criticisms that emerge from an analysis of the recent media trends in Kerala, is that the mainstream media is willfully manipulating news and developments with a view to malign these communities and there appears to be consensus among them that normal and universally accepted ethical media practices like cross-checking of facts, attributing claims, assertions and allegations to clearly identified and verifiable sources, enabling a a platform for the victims to make their own claims and defenses, follow-up coverage with clear and specific norms for authenticity, etc,12 are not at all followed by any of these newspapers in matters vis a vis these marginalized and vulnerable communities. There are innumerable case studies on such lopsided and unethical media practices in recent days which included the frenzy over Love Jihad (a long time Sangh Parivar bogey against Muslim youths), the completely one-sided coverage in the Beemappalli firing incident, and the reports about rise of Dalit terror networks following the murder of a person in Varkala under mysterious circumstances and the censoring of the news of mass arrest and persecution of Dalit youngsters who were organized under a new Dalit youth movement called Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM). The pattern of reporting that emerged was so evidently unprofessional and unethical and the continuation of such practices without any hitch or introspection only strengthens the view that this has been part of a conscious and deliberate policy decision, arrived at the highest levels of newspaper industry.

Now the question is, why such a media fixation about the Dalit and Muslim terror bogey and a complete reversal of its own sacred norms and professional checks and balances?

The answer lies in the assertive new political movements and ideas for social justice and equitable representation that is coming up from the lower segments of our society. There are clearly new movements and a wider alliance among the subaltern classes for a better chunk of the cake and that explains much of the ongoing frenzied responses from the society and its own mirror image and conscience-keepers, the mainstream media. What goes on is a process of delegitimization, a willful misrepresentation of social reality to preserve the social, economic and political privileges these segments have so far enjoyed. But right now, it appears they have overplayed their hands and are facing a serous credibility-deficit crisis, which might prove to undermine the very legitimacy of these mainstream institutions which have remained the unchallenged opinion-makers for a long time in our contemporary history.

When we consider why the media has abandoned its traditional watchdog role and 'impartial' umpire image, we also need to inquire into the changes in media ownership, financing and control patterns. Though the news media's editorial control is still theoretically, and in a legal sense, remain with Indian nationals, in reality it is an integral part of a global business network and its main concerns are no longer national interests or national consensus; it answers to the global forces of finance and capital who have come to dominate the Indian media and other business activities. A very interesting indication is the astronomical figures some of the chief executives and media celebrities in India are drawing these days, though as businesses they are often in the red, still their pay and perks are ensued and underwritten by an intricate web of media networks and corporate arrangements that go much beyond our national boundaries. this dichotomy appears to be the root cause of the alienation of Indian mainstream media from the common people, and its declaration of war on a substantial sections of our people, dubbed conveniently as anti-national.


1 I would try to examine this issue mainly from my own experiences working in various Malayalam and English media organizations in and outside Kerala from 1983.

2 I am thankful to my friend Bobby Kunhu for suggesting this terminology to explain the present communal relationships in Kerala society.

3 See articles like Future Results of British Rule in India, in Karl Marx, The First War of Indian Independence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1974.

4 For an interesting early description of the Portuguese, Syrian Church tussles in Malabar, see Michael Geddes, The History of Malabar Church, London, 1694, now available in Google Books.

5 For details, see Krishna Iyer KV, The Zamorins of Calicut, Calicut University, 1999.

6 An English translation of the text has been recently published by Other Books, Calicut.

7 See Pazhassi Samarangal, Dr K K N Kurup, State Institute of Languages, Thiruvananthapuram.

8 There are various studies on the Mappila revolts; see for an authentic version, Dr K N Panikkar, Against Lord and State, (Mal.) DC Books, Kottayam.

9 There are no official figures available for the community wise break-up of government jobs, but a broad picture may be available in the studies conducted by Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) in its Kerala studies. The break-up is as follows in the order of community, percentage of population and percentage of government jobs approximately (in brackets): Nair: 12.5 (21); other forward Hindu 1.3 (3.1); other backward Hindu: 8.2 (5.8); Christian: 18.3 (20.6); Ezhavas:22.6 (22.7); Muslim:24.7 (11.4); SC: 9 (7.6); ST: 1.2 (0.8). It reveals that the Muslims, SCs, STs and other backward Hindus are represented below their population figures in government service, the biggest losers being the Muslims. The biggest gainers are Nairs followed by Christians.

10 According to final figures for 2007-08, salaries and pension accounts for 59.78% of total revenue receipts of Kerala. It will be interesting to examine people from which communities and regions are pocketing a larger share of the public cake.

11 For a serious criticism and analysis of the media practices in Kerala in recent days with regard to these social segments, see the press release issued by a group of concerned citizens including poet K Satchidanandan, human rights activist John Dayal and others in Delhi, 29 December 2009:

Some of us concerned citizens had issued a statement on 18th December, 2009, appalled by the mainstream media reportage of the anticipatory bail hearing of Soofiya Madani in the Kerala High Court in connection with her alleged involvement in a conspiracy that led to the burning of a Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation bus at Kalamassery, Kochi in September 2005. Many of these reports bordered on pronouncing her guilt with complete disregard for Judicial processes and the Rule of the Law. This kind of reportage can be understood only in the backdrop of a disturbing new trend in the Kerala media and civil society vis-a-vis representation of issues and concerns affecting religious and caste minorities. This press conference has been convened to present some of our concerns regarding this and to appeal to the media and civil society actors to be more sensitive and balanced in their coverage of various events.
Apart from vitiating the communal harmony of the state, this trend also encroaches upon the fundamental rights of people to fair trial, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association, freedom to practice and preach a religion and right to equality regardless of caste and religion; along with other fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India. In this context, we would like to enumerate a few of these media campaigns and the obvious religious and caste bias present in them.

Love jihad: It was 2 cases of inter-religious love affairs that the media took up and blew out of proportion to create the bogey of “Love Jihad.” In both these cases, what was involved was love and attraction between Hindu women and Muslim men, which led to marriage and the conversion of the Hindu women into Islam. Following this the mainstream media in Kerala went on a rampage, claiming that thousands of women were being lured into converting to Islam by Muslim boys who were doing this as part of “Love Jihad.” This led to Justice K T Sankaran's remarks on "Love Jihad" and directions to the police to conduct investigations on it.
This campaign not only vilifies women as being incapable of decision-making, but also portrays young men of the Muslim community as members of “Love Jihad,” without any proper investigation or proof for doing the same. This regressive campaign was not stopped even after the Kerala Police clarified that such a phenomenon does not exist. It has come to a temporary end only after another judge of the Kerala High Court put a stop to all investigations on the issue, saying that saying that one could not target any particular community and that "inter-religious marriages are common in our society and cannot be seen as a crime." .

Dalit Terrorism: Following the murder of a middle-aged man in Varkala, the media in Kerala came out with a new term called “Dalit Terrorism.” Regardless of the identities of the Victim and the offender, media reportage on this case very often appeared to have been written in the police station. The press bought into the police story that it was activists of one dalit organization who had committed the murder. They joined hands with the police in reproducing unsubstantiated reports of the existence of a "Dalit terror network". This legitimized the large scale persecution of the organization's activists by the police and also led to violent attacks on them by members of the local Shiv Sena. The media in Kerala is party to these atrocities as it had stood with the police in accusing the organization and its activists, failing to control the excesses of the police and reinforcing the existing prejudices against a historically marginalised community.

Beemapally: On May 17, 2009 6 Muslim men from a fishing community were killed and 47 others injured (27 of them had bullet injuries) in a police firing in Beemapally. Later studies by Human Rights organizations brought out “the extremely unjust and criminalized violence" committed by the police in Beemapally (NCHRO, Kerala Chapter). The government also suspended some police officers as a token measure. However, when the incident happened, most of the Malayalam media observed silence on this issue. A few others reported the police version of the firing, branding it as "communal tension". They promoted the assumption that it was the provocation by a communally charged mob that had made the police resort to firing, and it was wise to keep silence. There was no analysis or even proper investigation of the whole incident. In this way, one of the worst incidents of state violence in Kerala against Muslim fish workers virtually went unnoticed in the mainstream media.

All this shows the impunity with which the Malayalam media is treating issues related to caste and religious minorities. It easily communalizes every issue related to the Muslim community and works to spread hate and suspicion about them. Similarly, it also misrepresents caste issues and works to reiterate existing prejudices. Here, we would like to reiterate that we do not hold a brief for any individual or organization and would like to see the Law take its own course and we would urge proper investigation, trial and conviction of any person mentioned above, provided that the procedure established by law and Constitutional guarantees are upheld and they are not singled out by virtue of their religious or caste identities. We call upon the media to fulfil its role and check excesses committed by the State, its agencies or other formations that is likely to infringe upon the quality of our democratic polity and uphold values of plurality enshrined in the Constitution of India.

12 For a sample of how serious newspapers deal with such issues, see the New York Times guidebook for their staff, Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial operations, updated September 2004, available at nytimes.com.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Caste, Half-Caste& Outcaste, in India and Outside

CASTE SEEMS to be coming back to our lives with a vengeance. And sadly not only in India, but in other parts of the world too where there is an Indian connection. We made effort to remove it with the help of sour secular Constitution. But see what some of our learned judges in the Supreme Court had to say in a recent judgment:

“The murders were the outcome of social issues like a marriage with a person of so-called a lower caste. However, a time has come when we have to consider these social issues as relevant, while considering the death sentence in the circumstances s these. The caste is a concept which grips a person before his birth and does not leave him even after his death. The vicious grip of caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality. The psyche of the offender in the background of a social issue like an inter-caste marriage, though wholly unjustified would have to be considered in the peculiar circumstances of the case.”

In other words if a Brahmin murders a lower caste person because he married his sister, then the seriousness of the crime gets reduced because of the higher caste status of the criminal! Well, going by this, we can very well expect a day when our learned judges offering some special privileges for those involved in Dalit lynching in our wonderful land. After all, the Dalit, by his very existence, is a sinister presence that evokes a sense of nausea and anger among the higher castes, don’t they?

After reading from this Supreme Court judgment, I got a mail from my friend John who was traveling in the Caribbean islands where there is a huge Indian presence. He wrote from Guyana:

“Today I discovered about how caste perceptions are pushed to this society by the Indian Indians. Two very well-off guys here told me how they do not like the Indian diplomats here as they looked down upon people of Indian origin -- telling they were low caste coolies "shipped" from India. This kind of Brahminism and caste attitude of Indians is there deep inside, and they even impose it on those communities (like Guyanese) who have outgrown or escaped from caste.”

Then elsewhere in global discussion group I was talking abut the problems of Anglo-Indians, a group often described as half-castes by the English. I never knew it was a widely held practice all over the English-speaking world until Ainslie Pyne, my artist friend in Adelaide, Australia, wrote to me:

“Interestingly the term 'half-caste' was quite common in Australia and New Zealand for those who were the product of a Maori/white - Australian Aborigine/white liaison.

In the case of my mother's ancestry - I still used the term 1/8th caste to denote that Mum was part Tasmanian aborigine and 7/8th English ancestry and I think the term half-caste Maori is still common in NZ; but maybe they have bans on labelling NZ’ers based on the percentage of mixed blood they have.

I doubt it is any more debasing to say someone is 'half caste' or whatever percentage it happens to be, than saying someone is of 'mixed' blood.

As a matter of interest - what is the acceptable term in India for someone of mixed Indian/European ancestry?”

That meant I had to explain to her what caste, half-caste and outcaste meant to us India, especially to those who were at the receiving end of these social practices. Here is my note to Ainslie:

I think the Europeans took the expressions caste, half-caste and out-caste from their Indian connections and experience. Caste as a social organization actually came to exist in India and it got deeper and stronger as an institution here, that for the past 3000 years it defined the essence of Indian society and culture. It remains so even today, though caste oppression is now officially extra-legal and discrimination based on caste could get you a jail term, at least in theory.

Caste means a society which is divided on the basis of one's birth: If you are born to a Brahmin you are at the a top of the social hierarchy and if you are born at lower order, you are in the lower or middle order and there are out-castes who are outside the caste system and hence they are outside the social stream.

According to ancient Indian custom, there were four castes: Brahmin (priest), Ksahtirya (soldiers and rulers), Vasiya (traders), and Sudra (peasants, artisans.) and those outside were outcastes or Avarnas. There was a stiff social stratification and often untouchability was practised even among these sections. Hence if a Brahmin is polluted by a Sudra, he would have to pay a heavy penalty, and at times it even meant death to the Sudra, the polluter.

But the severest pains were reserved for the out-castes, Avarnas, those who were seen to be outside the caste system which was called Varnashrama or Chaturvarnya, as there were four main castes. (Chathur is a word which denotes four and Varna means colour.) Hence you can see casteism is something like racism, but more sinister as it goes very deep and is extremely complex and divides the entire society vertically and horizontally.

It has been a painful thing to India and most social scientists do agree that it has done immense damage to the social fabric. Still, it remains intact and strong because it gives a comparative advantage to each segment in the system (except the lowest underdogs), because they have people lower down whom they can boss around and despise. I think this system was devised by people who had a great insight into human mind, his venality and meanness.

Islam has been a religion which originally had no such social divisions, but once they came to India they adopted it in their lives. So had the Europeans and Christians, who seemed to have developed similar caste prejudices as they lived in India. But I never knew they carried it even to their homes as you tell me such expressions do exist even in Australia and NZ.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some Ethical and Cultural Questions with Regard to Mayawati Cartoon Controversy

I WAS seriously in trouble last week as I decided to publish a cartoon of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ms Mayawati, in a provocative posture, following the pubic outrage over her acceptance of a currency garland which is said to be valued anything between Rs 5 crore to Rs 20 crore. It was a disgusting scene, the chief minister of a state accepting such a garland from people who evidently had strings to pull. It was corruption through and through and a cynical expression of contempt for all norms of public decency by one who holds power under our Constitution.

That perhaps explains why our cartoonist Sudheernath decided to draw a very provocative cartoon with Mayawati in her toilet, asking for a bunch of 1000-rupee-notes for use as toilet paper.

I was in two minds as to what to do with the cartoon, whether to allow it to go or ask for a milder one. Finally I decided it to go in the paper, dated Wednesday, March 17.

Next day, there were severe protests from many friends, including Dr M S Jayaprakash, a long-time friend and a leader of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, Kerala unit. The points raised were that the cartoon was per se obscene, and secondly it put a dalit leader in a poor light and thirdly, by using the image of a lady sitting in a toilet, the cartoon was demeaning to women. In addition to the protest letters, there was also an attack on the Thiruvananthapuram office of the newspaper on Friday, March 19.

I was anticipating objections to the cartoon, but I never expected the kind of fierce protest that was witnessed after its publication. I think this incident, hence, needs to be reexamined, to draw its lessons.

First, was it obscene? I am not sure where lies the dividing line between obscene and not obscene in a piece of art, whether it is a cartoon, a painting or a poem. This is an age old question and I feel there is no final answer. But of course for an editor, there is always this question to answer, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in a particular newspaper. It is tough to arrive at a proper decision, keeping in mind the social attitudes, the readership's tastes and views, and the need for intellectual honesty, professional standards and ethics, artistic freedom and freedom of expression.

The second aspect was the allegation that the cartoon made a pointed attack against a dalit political leader. Why Mayawati was singled for such a demeaning treatment, was one line of criticism.

This, I realize now, is not a very easy question to answer. The evident and ready answer to this argument is that it was not because she was a dalit that she was attacked, but because she was a chief minister and she was corrupt.

This is absolutely true. A chief minister is holding a public office and hence under public scrutiny. The media cannot but criticize them in public interest. We cannot tone down the criticism only because one belongs to a weaker community.

But when I was deciding upon the cartoon one question I failed to ask myself was whether I would have allowed such a cartoon if it was, say Indira Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi on the seat of the toilet? And whether the cartoonist would have drawn such an image of them?

Well, here comes the cultural question; the question of middle class rationalizations of one’s preferences. I am sure no editor would dare to publish a cartoon of Indira or Sonia on the toilet seat because that would mean a massive public outrage on the part of their middle class readership and they know it beforehand. There the self censorship would work.

When I failed this test in Mayawati’s case, it is a reminder that I was insensitive to this cultural aspect. I was perhaps being dishonest intellectually as I failed to ask the right and most critical questions.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Yeah, Food Prices are Going North...!

Indian Parliament Adjourned amidst protests over the rising price of food stuff:News.

Well, let us have a five-star lunch today...!

A Guide to the Calicut City: Letters to a Visiting Friend

Dr Bina Thomas, a historian and archeologist, was visiting the city of Calicut, for the first time. As her host in the city, I kept worrying what could be of interest to her and what not; and hence I ended up writing a series of mails to her trying to introduce this city and its surrounds to her. Now that her visit has been successfully concluded, I suppose I could release these mails to my readers who might wish to visit our city:

Hi, I am glad finally you have taken the plunge and decided to visit Calicut. I am hopeful your visit could result in some good and perceptive notes on the city and its life for your travel series.

I do believe that this city has quite a lot to offer a visitor, though often visitors may fail to see even a fraction of it. I have lived here for many decades and even today I know there are many things which I have not explored.

Its history and its long and complex relationship with the external world-- Arab, Greek, Roman and modern colonial powers, is well known. But what is so fantastic about this city is that even at this moment it is in a constant flux and keeps on changing and its changing facets are visible to people who take a stroll around the city and its living quarters.

Go to the beach any evening and you see this for a fact. It is a mix of all kinds of people, colourful and complex: Young women in jeans to those in total veil are around and all of them seem to live in their own special world though without causing friction or irritation to the others. I have never seen another city which has taken this new-found fixation for full veil without much bother as I see here these days. It seems just another season for fashion shifts.

This contrast between perceptions of bigotry and religious fundamentalism ad the reality gets much more pronounced as one goes to a textile shop, where new fashions are eagerly examined, or a hotel where spicy hot biriyani is served and witness how voraciously people take to the pleasures of life from behind the veil. It is a celebration of life I see here.

As a woman traveller you might get a much better and closer view to their life behind the front door. Try to visit a Muslim family house and take a look at their Ara, or the inner room where their Puyyaplahs-- even a man married for decades to the family is still a puyyaplah here!-- are feted.

From Varakkal beach in the north to the South Beach road at the southern end, where the road turns east leading to the old city of Arab influence-- Kuttichria, Idiyangara, Kundungal and Kallai-- one comes across quite a lot of historical facets. Of course not in a chronological order, not in a clean vertical or horizontal perspective; but with plenty of criss-crosses and inter-junctions. But this confusion of street names, histories and connotations and historical connections illustrate the symbiotic relationship of these various groups of people who came and got entangled in its long history.

Varakkal is part of the ancient past, the place of Varakkal Nambi, vassal of Zamorin, and a sacred place for Hindus who pay obeisance to their ancestors. As one reaches Vellayil beach, Customs Road and Lions Park, one enters the nerve centre of civil life in colonial times as most of the civilian habitations in the British period were located here. You still see remnants of it, at the Kerala Soaps & Oils premises near Gandhi Road, which used to be a famous factory of sandalwood soap that was exported even to London, for the Crown's use, and the brand then was known as the Imperial Soap. Watch those old buildings and you see the influence of colonial patterns, as in the old Corporation building and the Beach Hospital nearby.

Towards the South beach, it is a wonderful mix of all kinds of racial and cultural heritages and traditions ranging from Arab, Jain, Gujarati, Marathi, etc. You see the pandikasalas or trading houses in plenty, on the Beach Road as well as the Big Bazar nearby, and the Gujarati Street and the Silk Street with living quarters of most of these ethnic groups tucked inside. There are mosques (the oldest dating back to 14th century, called Miskal Mosque), temples and a Jain temple besides a Gujarati school in this small area, and I am told there used to be a China town also somewhere there in the past.

This particular street reminds me of how history has been such a wonderful and unceasing process, with many people coming and going, getting closely interlinked and generating new energies and of course animosities in the process.

I do feel this particular street and its past is something that strongly revolts against the concept of uni-dimensional and exclusivist painting of history that is being attempted in our times. The very atmosphere, the very smell of these places do transport you to something quite different, something more cosmopolitan. I think Romila Thapar's book, Somanatha: Many Strands of a History, captures such an image of a place up north, but somebody should write about this street and its environs down south which is much more evocative in its assertive cosmopolitanism.

Well, I have other parts of this city to describe but I think before one embarks on a walk down there, the best thing one can do is to go to Google Maps and examine this part of the city to see how history has been made in such a small stretch of land.

Those who visit the city today will surely feel the Mananchira Square is the centre of the city. It indeed is, but only a decade ago the landscape in this region was completely different.

N M Namboodiri, the historian of Zamorin's city, has described the city and its main points as per the Calicut Granthavaries, the records of the local rulers, and it appears the main palace-- burnt down in 18th century as the last Zamorin committed suicide setting fire to the palace-- was somewhere on the eastern side of Palayam (where the bus stand is), the main market even today. Palayam is something like Chandni Chowk to the Red Fort in Mughal Delhi.

As a Hindu ruler, Zamorin had traditional architectural or Vastu patterns to follow. His immediate surroundings were set apart for his closest people, according to their ranks and castes. Thus, to the south east of Palayam, we have the Tali temple, the Zamorin's main deity of Shiva, and then next to it the Tamil Brahmin settlement. (The Namboodiri Brahmins stuck to their illams and settlements and never uprooted themselves for the convenience of even the king. Thus the tantris of Tali and Valayanad temples lived in their illams many miles away, somewhere in Nediyirippu, in the present day Malappuram district.)

The main vassals and chieftains also lived here, in Tali, Chalappuram and Panniyankara areas. These are Eradies and Nairs, mainly.

On the northern side of this area is a goshala, which used to give milk to the palace and today, if you take a trek to the interiors of Palayam you will see narrow lanes with old houses still keeping cows and buffaloes.

On the north-western side, we have the major centres of power and administration: the Mananchira tank, the Muslim mosque for military men, Kottapparamba (camp for armed forces), and city’s own the raj path that leads to Palayam. On the right side of the junction, just opposite the old palace, you have the Moideen Palli, the mosque (remember Zamorin's offer to Muslim chief Shah Bandar Koya that he would occupy the right-hand position at Mamankam), and on the left side, the Mariyamman Kovil (which almost shares a wall with another mosque) and then a number of other temples besides the famous Tali Shiva temple.

What is unique about this few kilometre-radius of land, is the seamless array of various sites that speak of the history through many centuries: The temples speak of the king and his vassals, the mosques of Arabs and their flourishing trade, the churches (the German style CSI Church is the most prominent in the heart of the city) of its dalliance with the west and the military mosque about the arrival of the Mysore powers to Kozhikode, which ultimately led to the suicide of Zamorin and at the far corner of SM Street the Parsi place of worship, and then a bit to the west on the beach, the Jain temple...