Have I Joined the Popular Front?
In the past few weeks, I have been asked over and over again, not always in jest, if I had joined the Popular Front. I am not surprised. The police investigation around the violence against the college teacher at Muvattupuzha has broken all previous records in not only the violation of human and civil rights, but also in the silence of Kerala’s enlightened intellectuals. If I recall right, only Nandigram evoked such a dense and deliberate silence from them. No wonder, anyone who speaks up against the manner in which the police is being armed and authorized against ‘bad muslims’ is immediately dubbed a supporter of the Popular Front. But I am intrigued by this simple question, by which the entire history of that person’s engagement with discussions around religion and the state is erased.
Many of the people who asked me this question know that I do have a fairly long and traceable history of engagement with emergent Muslim intellectual and political groups on the issue of re-forging modernity and democracy in Kerala in these times of globalization and Islamophobia. Some of them have read my writings on Muslim feminism, and my critique of the kind of gender reformism put forth by some of these groups, which I have argued, go no further than what was offered by the early 20th century community reformisms in Malayalee society. They are familiar with my case for Muslim feminism, precisely one aimed at criticising the kind of gender conservatism taking shape as reformism in these groups, which would only reinforce the high-Hindu reformist gender inequality rampant in today’s Kerala. In other words, they know pretty well that my dialogue with those interested in the so-called ‘Muslim question’was geared precisely in the opposite direction of that taken by those members of the Popular Front who committed the violence and now condone it indirectly. They are also aware of the fact that I am not alone in these efforts: I am only one of the many academics and intellectuals who identify with broadly left political perspectives and who have tried to initiate such dialogues. Why, then, such a silly question?
I am in dialogue with many organizations — for example, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat which is very close to the CPM. Close enough to write in their publications and speak at their forums. But no one has asked me if I have joined the KSSP!I think here is where hidden, tacit fear of the ‘Muslim’ surfaces. In the eyes of these folk,KSSP stands for ‘liberal’ and therefore, to them, Iam in no danger of absorption when I enter into a dialogue with them. But not so, for the ‘Muslim’. Whether they admit it or not, to these friends of mine, the ‘Muslim’ can only be illiberal in the last analysis. Such subtleties have been much exercised recently. Thanks to our wise and saintly Chief Minister, people are left with no doubt that while there are ‘good muslims’ and ‘bad muslims’, we need to cross-check that each of our ‘good muslims’ are indeed ‘good’. In other words, there seems to be a very high likelihood that the ‘good muslims’ are only bad-muslims-in-the-waiting and they must be warned sternly enough. There are easy ways to obtain a ‘good muslim’ certificate: follow an uncouth, foul-mouthed DYFI leader; join the hordes commanded by Congress strongmen with Muslim names; join Muslim League in the times of Kunhaalikkutty. These options are plainly evident to even the blindest bat in Kerala, but many of our muslims have not been forthcoming. Since they have not opted for these routes, they must all be secretly with the Popular Front!Therefore at present, the Malayalee Muslim (who is not of the left or the Congress or the Muslim League) = Popular Front. J Devika happens to be speaking with just this kind of (Illiberal-By-Implication) Muslim. And one cannot be in dialogue with illiberalism, one can only be devoured by it — and therefore J Devika has been absorbed ideologically by the (Illiberal) Muslim.
In fairness to these people who asked me this question, I must say that the general tone of the reporting of the ongoing investigation in the Malayalam press has been below silly-level,indeed, absurd. There is heavy talk of the ‘alternate courts’ that were allegedly set up by the Popular Front as if this were a menacing invention discovered by this group. Indeed, this is a society in which the many Christian denominations, community organizations, and indeed political parties runs parallel courts and this is common knowledge. The latest in the news was the ‘auto court’, proudly run by the CITU in north Kerala, which decided to punish the Dalit woman autorickshaw driver, Chitralekha! During that debate, there were so many who asked what was wrong with such an arrangement! However, all this excitement petered off when the Home Minister announced that the police had no news of these courts, and that his information was from the media! But no less a person than the IG,Intelligence, of the Kerala Police said on television (the show was Talking Point, aired in Kerala on 4 July 2010,on the Rosebowl Channel) that the discourse about terrorism in Kerala was a creation of the media! But who cares? Not the political parties, in any case. They have drummed up Islamophobia nicely, and might as well make the best of it to tide over the elections!
The police are discovering more and more links each day, on the basis of books and papers found in the homes of the accused, or the offices of the Popular Front. My worst fears are indeed coming true : this silliness is turning into vicious high-handedness. The arrest of the human rights activist N. M. Siddique of National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations (NCHRO) (he had filed a petition before National Human Rights Commission NHRC about incidents of police high-handedness in the investigation) on completely trumped up charges, and the raid at the office of Other Books at
Kozhikode show how malignant the scene has become. Today’s Hindu (Thiruvananthapuram edition) reported that “the raid was conducted on the basis of seizure of materials, including pamphlets, from an accused suspected to be involved … The accused, who was arrested in Aluva, was in possession of pamphlets and books published from Kozhikode.” It also admitted that
the police said that no incriminating content was found in the material seized from Other Books. Now, Other Books, which is well-known in Kerala for publishing the work of authors like Ziauddin Sardar, Fatima Mernissi, and Amina Wadud, can by no stretch of imagination, be collapsed into the Popular Front! They have represented an effort to initiate a dialogue on Islam and modernity that firmly rejects that kind of modernity that US imperialism has held up to its victims, but also firmly critiques models of Islam that freezes the interpretation of the sacred text.
Given that this dialogue is vitally important in the present context of the Muslim community of north Kerala, and given that the dominant left is infected by short-sighted political realism and hence incapable of postive action on this front, it is extremely distressing that those groups that seek to initate it are being hounded thus. The present of the Malabar Muslims resembles the opportunity that opened up to the lower-caste ezhavas in late 19th century Kerala. The opening up of the economy to the World System at that time brought great economic opportunities to section of the ezhavas, which then translated into community reformism, modernization, and community assertion. At present, the Gulf migration since the 1970s has brought much wealth to sections of the muslims, which is now being translated into community reformism and assertion. The ezhava community reformism happened in the context of the emergence of the discourse of the modernised and secularised savarna Hindu at the heart of the emerging sense of Indian Nation, and major strands of ezhava reformism drew heavily on the ideals and models of subjecthood given in it. This brought them some gains, but certainly not full inclusion within the high-Hindu fold. Andimportantly, it failed to address the problem of emergent class inequalities. Moreover, women and their bodies were now identified at the very heart of ‘community honour’ and respectability.
It was the communist movement that profited from these failings, and indeed, the ezhavas have been the reliable bulwark of the communist party. However, this did not mean that a more liberating modernity was thereby forged for women, at least — community practices were left more or less unscarred by this association. The Malabar Muslims of the present are similarly trying to draw on the currently powerful discourse of globalized Islam. This may bring them some gains, but given that global Islam is indeed infected heavily by Arab racism, it may not offer full inclusion to the Malayalee muslim (amply confirmed by the experience of Malayalee muslim workers in the Gulf countries). Nor will it address the question of emergent class inequalities. And the placing of women at the heart of the community’s honour seems to be happening quite rapidly. Clearly, this is a moment that calls for sensitive and respectful dialogue that draws upon the lessons of history, and one that must be initiated by those who are interested in mitigating inequality and injustice within and outside communities.
At present, the CPM has been working very hard indeed to woo the Malabar Muslims away from the Muslim League and it did seem that they were indeed succeeding. Yet it is doubtful, despite the fact that the CPM’s mass organizations have been intervening in cases of unfair divorce and other issues of Muslim women, whether they have, in this process, produced a more liberating modernity. Indeed, the modernity that these efforts have upheld are little more than the early 20th century reformist ideals which have coalsced at present into Kerala’s unique kind of subtle yet iron-clad gender conservatism. This is one of the reasons why there was such bonhomie between the CPM leadership in the north and many votaries of gender conservatism among the Muslim organizations there. For the kind of reformism that the latter espoused, that harped on women’ s sexual purity, inculcated a deep distrust of pleasure, espoused gender roles that were either procreative or pivoted on a very gendered notion of ‘social responsibility’, are not really different from the ‘actually-existing empowerment’ within the organizations of the dominant left. Thus the proponents of the CPM’s ‘Muslim identity politics’ were keen not to build a modernity that was more inclusive. They were quite content to recycle early 20th century modernity and use it to beat down emergent efforts to organize around issues of sexuality beyond heteronormativity. Maudany was wooed when it was time for the elections; there was no effort whatsoever to engage with his representation of Islam. The CPM which is led by people mesmerized by power and eminently short-term goals, who have no clue about the kind of social and cultural engagement necessary to sustain a movement that can claim leftist credentials,is hardly in a position to initiate a dialogue through which the Muslim community of Malabar may begin to forge for themselves a modernity that is robust enough the challenge both the hubris of globalized Islam and the effete, consumerist ‘modernity’ offered by U S imperialism. The least they could do, however, is to stop the police from persecuting people who are initiating precisely such an effort — like the team that built Other Books.