Photo: AFP/Sanjay Kanojia
Photo: AFP/Sanjay Kanojia

Awakening to the religious divide in Kerala

Idyllic summer holidays spent in a secular village in the southern Indian state have been replaced by life in a polarized society with regressive ways

November 22, 2016 1:17 PM (UTC+8)

“What was it like growing up? Did you ever sense a divide between the Muslims and Hindus?” My editorial assistant, a Kashmiri Pundit woman half my age, wanted to know.

The truth is I had no sense of religion as I grew up. In Avadi, the ordnance factory township in southern India, religion took a backseat to national spirit. Every morning at school we took a pledge: “India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters.”

As the hormones began stirring, we did wonder if it would be incest to fall in love with a fellow Indian, but curiously enough this pledge of national integration never had us wondering how on earth a Hindu could have a Christian sister or a Muslim brother.

In those wonder years called childhood, religion wasn’t something we dwelt on; nor did its strictures and norms have a presence in our home or in the manner in which I was brought up.

Even during summer holidays spent in Kerala, it never reared its ugly head. My grandparents had chosen to live in the Kerala railway town of Shoranur. My grandfather had been a railway man and even after his death, his colleagues and friends still dropped by.

My grandmother would hold court in an enclosed verandah on the eastern wing of the house and guests sat on chairs or perched on a low, wide wall that ran along the perimeter.

So, an Anglo-Indian nurse or a Muslim teacher would sit with my grandmother, while a Hindu porter would stand by the wall. The divide was more age and class rather than caste or religion. If tea was served, everyone drank from the same glass tumblers.

When my grandmother’s Muslim friends visited here she would offer some of her fragrant betel nut and chewing tobacco to them. I would hover listening to their chatter and drinking in the sight of the beautiful costumes the Muslim women wore: a full-sleeved, high-necked blouson with piping that ran down the front worn over a white dhoti and with a veil that framed the face and revealed the ears.

Then there was the distinct jewelry – hoops and chandelier earrings, the bangles and the broad silver belt around the waist. I imagined this was how Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights would look. Bejeweled and exotic with surma (kohl) around their eyes and the red tint of mailanji (henna paste) on their finger tips.

What’s the use of shutting the doors after a thousand Moplahs have entered your home?

The truth of their circumstances may have been something else, but I imagined these women with story book names such as Zuhra, Fatima, Khadija, Beepathu, Nabisa, cooking vats of biriyani when not nibbling on almonds and drinking rose milk.

As for the boys and men with their manicured hands and whiter than white shirts, dhotis and skull caps, they were to me Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad, travelers and traders and story book characters.

Once in a while though I would hear a strange phrase uttered in my family: what’s the use of shutting the doors after a thousand Moplahs have entered your home?

It made no sense to me. I thought the emphasis must be on the number, but instead it was on Moplahs, the Malayalam word for Muslims. Why not Christians or for that matter a thousand Nairs. A mob was a mob after all.

Eventually my mother explained it to me. During the Moplah Rebellion of 1921 in the Malabar district in Kerala, Hindus were attacked in an uprising by Muslim peasants against local landlords and British rule. The men were tortured and killed, the women raped or abducted as homes and granaries were plundered and the cattle stolen.

In an effort to safeguard family honor, the women would hide in the attic with the trapdoor barred and locked; money and jewelry would be stuffed into pots and tossed into wells and the men would stand guard with spears, daggers and sticks. Hence the phrase.

Strangely enough, the Indian history textbooks only make a fleeting reference to this period of turbulence in Kerala. The Moplah Rebellion is contained in one paragraph that says it was in direct response to the Khilafat movement in distant Turkey.

Indeed, on mentioning the 1921 rebellion to an eminent Indian historian, he shook his head and said he knew very little about it. To him and to a large part of the nation, it was an inconsequential event not seen as part of the national struggle against colonialism and thus had no real impact on modern Indian history.

But to understand the polarization that has crept into current Kerala society, there is no escaping the impact of this particular episode.

(See sidebar story: The Moplah Rebellion of 1921)

It was a bloody and ugly phase in Kerala history that was forgotten eventually, but never truly erased from the collective consciousness and memory of the Hindu populace.

For the Moplah Rebellion had other dimensions that continue to shadow the Hindu psyche. In 1921, for instance, the stated aim was not to just oust the Janmi system, but to establish an Islamic nation in Malabar.

The inhuman cruelty of the Hindu caste system and feudalism saw Muslim tenants rebel against Hindu Namboodiri and Nair landlords and attack them.

Dalit laborers, the lowest ranking members of Indian society, sought respite by conversion to Islam, a religion that promised equality and brotherhood, while there were forcible conversions of women and children to Islam following the deaths of many Hindu men.

Over the years a slow murmuring grew: Give a Muslim an inch and he will bring in 10 more till they take over the place. They will coerce or lure people into conversion. That is how they are.

In those childhood years, at family gatherings in Hindu homes in south Malabar, there would always be an elderly man or woman who would have an anecdote to share even if it was based on either hearsay or conjecture.

There would be tales of an uncle whose genitals were sliced off and stuffed into his mouth as he was led into the river to be drowned; an old bed-ridden woman who couldn’t flee and was eaten alive by ants, a young beauty who was abducted from her bed even as she and her husband were making love.

The stories grew wilder as the night grew darker and the level of alcohol in glasses fell. Mostly I thought of it as the exaggerated ramblings of feverish minds. After all this was the pre-television era and people found entertainment in stories. Or was it that my family who were from Valluvanad, one of the hotspots of the Moplah Rebellion, were completely unaffected?

Twenty-seven years ago my parents built their house in Mundakotukkurussi, a tiny village in what was once the feudal state of Valluvanad and where our family went back at least 400 years. You couldn’t throw a stone without striking kith or kin.

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If my parents had problems with the village, it had to do with its lack of amenities. I, of course, was deliriously happy. Everything about the village enchanted me. I felt like I had stepped into the pages of a novel.

The first inkling I had that this wasn’t a storybook land occurred when the Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya was demolished on December 6, 1992. As I drove into my village, I was surprised to see a blue police van and several flip flops strewn on the ground at the cluster of shops that was euphemistically referred to as Mundakotukkurussi city.

What happened? I asked my father.

An unnecessary and provocative remark by a bunch of young Hindu men about Hindu supremacy; an affronted Muslim man – that was all it took to trigger off clashes that resulted in the police being called in. The village had a 50:50 population of Hindus and Muslims and was regarded as a highly explosive zone.

I stared at my father: was this my Mundakotukkurussi he was talking about?

First flush of riches

It’s not the place you think it is. There is a great deal of subterranean animosity. He concluded.

In a few days, though, the villagers grew weary of having the police parked on their doorsteps and having their lives scrutinized, so peace returned to the green fields of Mundakotukkurussi. I sighed in relief.

Was it then that it began? Or was it as Kerala turned into a money order economy?

In that first flush of riches, homes were built and families looked after. Friends and relatives were helped to acquire work visas and a poor Muslim family became a rarity.

I saw young wives increasingly take to saris or salwar-kurtas while the older women continued to wear the traditional Moplah costume.

I also saw how Muslim girls were being allowed to finish their education while earlier they had been pulled out of school at 12 or 13 and married off. Women learnt to use computers, so they could email their menfolk working overseas. I also saw women learning to drive.

Increasingly the Muslim men sent back not just money, but perfume sprays, gadgets and blankets from the gulf countries. They also brought back the Arabic version of Islam. It was as if now that the flesh had been taken care of, it was time to feed the religious spirit. And so I watched my Mundakotukkurussi change.

I saw madrasas and mosques proliferate. The countryside echoed with the muezzin’s call five times a day and during the evening, the preachers drummed tenets of the faith into the Muslim brethren.

The hadiths of the prophet Muhammad were delved into and explained. Religion became more than just teachings and turned into what defined an identity. The men began sporting long beards and women took to wearing burquas. Even girls of six and seven now wear burquas when going to madrasas for religious instruction.

The Arabic version of Islam that has rooted itself in Kerala has shifted the axis of what was once a seemingly secular people. I see an increasing polarization in Kerala society.

I am unsure if it is because memories of blood being spilled in the name of religion have come to the fore, or an increasing consciousness of Hindu nationalism? Or is it because acts of terrorism in various parts of the world have tainted Islam as a religion that encourages extreme behavior.

The Hindus view the Muslims with something akin to suspicion. There is no knowing who is a potential terrorist or who has terrorist leanings. Meanwhile, the Muslims see the Hindus who have also taken to brandishing their faith by wearing saffron dhotis and smearing bhasma on their foreheads, as hostile.

If a Muslim woman is entombed in the blackness of a burqua as a sign of her faith, the Hindu woman smears vermilion sindoor on her forehead and wears her mangalsutra jewelry as if it were a talisman. (Ironically neither the sindoor nor the mangalsutra is part of the Kerala culture. These are imports through the adaptation of television serials from up country.)

Caution is only fear in disguise and no religion must fear another

Temples in Kerala have always sternly proclaimed “No Entry for Non-Hindus,” but now they wear the hallmark of a faith marking its territory.

The events of 1921 were a long time ago, but the memory of the rebellion seems to have risen to the surface. Suddenly in Mundakotukurussi I see drills by the RSS, the Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteers, I see the symbol of the lotus, India’s national flower, on roads, and I hear readings from the Bhagwad Gita (Hindu scripture) and bhajans (Hindu religious songs) blaring from temples at dawn and dusk.

For many years, once a week the butcher’s assistant would drop a choice cut of beef at my parents’ home. He once told my mother that we were the only Hindu home that openly admitted to eating beef. Everyone else asked for it to be delivered covertly.

Almost a year ago, in the wake of the Dadri incident when a Hindu lynch mob killed a man for allegedly eating beef, the boy said he wouldn’t be making any more deliveries as they would no longer be slaughtering cattle.

In a village like Mundakotukurussi no one wants to wake up the demons of the 1921 rebellion. But caution is only fear in disguise and no religion must fear another.

The Left Front political alliance has no religious tones and so increasingly, one sees Muslims aligning with with what they see as a sort of safe haven.

So, what does one make of this new Kerala, with its polarized people and regressive ways?

Even as the world strides ahead, I see Kerala taking a step back into a medieval mindset where dogma rather than truth prevails; where whispers of ISIS training camps and recruitment drives for terror groups in Afghanistan make the rounds; where Hindus worry about Muslims and where Muslims worry about Hindus.

I don’t like it. And neither do many others. This divisive society is not what Mundakotukurussi used to be, or what Kerala once was.

Anita Nair

Anita Nair is a critically acclaimed, award-winning best selling author, poet, playwright and screenwriter whose books have been translated into 30 languages.

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