Amity & Enmity – Part II

The Case of Calicut

I still remember that day, many years ago, as we were returning from Italy (my friend KP & I had gone to Rome and Genoa on business) when we heard about the plague outbreak in Surat. We were destined for Riyadh. The last plane allowed in from Bombay had landed ahead of us. We were confident that we would not have issues as our plane was coming from Rome, but the immigration officer spent ages checking all the passport stamps to see if we had connected from Bombay via Rome, which of course would be the most stupid thing to do (Obviously he had no inkling of Geography or knowledge of ticket fares) but well some of these guys are probably of different intellect, so we left it at that and waited patiently.

At the customs line, a Malayali laborer was standing ahead of me. The Saudi Customs officer took his meager belongings, an air bag with AIR INDIA or something like that painted across it and dumped the whole bag on the inspection platform., Out tumbled some old clothes and not much else. The moron of an inspector looked disgusted, then wrinkled his nose & eyes and asked with the usual arrogant air

Naam, Hindi ? (Hey - Are you Indian?)
Obviously our friend has only a general idea what the question is
He replies nonchalantly in English ‘No, Kerala, Malayalam’
The officer gets irate; he asks now ‘Kallam Arabi? Kallam Urdu?’
Translation – ‘do you speak Arabic or Urdu?’
Again our friend looks confused, but replies firmly – ‘No Urdu, not Arabi, I am Malayali, I speak Malayalam, English’.
The exasperated officer rolled his eyes and asked him to pack up and move on..

I smiled, as you could see, for our man in the queue; it was a simple world, his Kerala, his Malayalam. That was his life & identity.

Now what, a Malayali identity? Well, let us leave it here for a moment and get back to that later.

I have often studied the Calicut Moplah (Muslim). As a history enthusiast, especially Malabar history, I read quite a bit about this community of Malabar, their ways of life, their history and to a certain extent have a decent understanding of some of the reasons behind their frustrations and disappointment. Though many say that even today, Vasco D agama won’t get lost in Calicut, but for the Mappilas, it has been a long time since the days when Malabar shores hosted Islam as a new religion, probably the first place in the Indian shores where Islam was introduced side by side with the other cultures like Jews, Armenians, Turks, Arabs, Syrian Nestorians, Parsis and the Roman Yavanas.

The Arab traders had a habit of moving troubled spots soon, like they moved from Quilon to Cranganaore to Calicut. Noting this, the rulers were careful to ensure that they stayed and were not affected by stringent taxes or rules. The Arab seafarers who settled down in the Malabar shores married lower caste Hindu’s and later created the Moplah Community (they were also allowed to marry excommunicated women from various upper caste Hindu communities). Nobody was persecuted in the name of religion and it will be interesting for many to note that to this date Anjuvanam is recorded as the only place in the world that was formally decreed to a Jewish community and Malabar was probably the only place they were never persecuted (more on that another day) The children or the Moplah community were never persecuted and lived side by side with the other communities of Malabar. It is said that some even participated as Chavers in the Zamorin wars, giving their own lives in the process. The amity extended to the lords as well, look at the story of Lord Ayappan and Vavar that I wrote about some months ago.

As I studied the subject, I was surprised to note that there was segregation between the Paradesi Muslim traders and the local Moplah’s in the medieval times (Kerala Pazhama – Gundert). It was news to me that the local Moplah’s were kept out of the Indian Ocean trade while some rich Tharavadi Muslim families and the Marakkars kept at it. The minority that was by now composed of Moplah’s started to surge in population with the Rowther’s who came with Tipu and Hyder and concentrated on local, petty trade. Towards the 18th century the community had grown to about 25% of the population of Malabar. By the turn of the 19th century, the British had cast anchor in the Malabar administration and the last of the Paradesi traders and Yonka’s (i.e.the Yavana category of westerners e.g. Venetians, Spaniards…) were gone. A wedge that had been thrust into the Nair Moplah relationship during the Kunjali Marakkar fiasco was pushed deeper in but a number of succeeding actions. What were those actions?

I traced their fortunes from the good old trading times in Kayalpatanam (Tuticorin) & Quilon, their free reign in Malabar and movements through Caranganore, Ponnani and Calicut and the times friction first started between the Hindu & Muslim communities in owing to the death of Kunhali. The first was Zainuddin’s introduction of the concepts of Shahid’s and Jihad in Malabar as a method of community retaliation. Zainuddin Mukkadam of course made it amply clear that the Jihad should be directed at the Portuguese and not at the Zamorin and his people. Fortunately no misdirected actions took place, but the concept took roots. As the Portuguese rose in power and brought in quotas, fixed prices and Cartezas (permits) the Muslim trader felt his livelihood threatened. Some moved to the Far East and Ceylon, some went to northern ports.

However further marginalization by the entry of state organizations (both at Malabar & Travancore) into trade during the Dutch time, resulted in a dire threat to the trading community of Moplah’s. Small fracas and discontentment between them continued through the Dutch period and then it all got exacerbated during the Mysore Sultan’s march into Malabar when the Moplah’s initially sided with the Sultans in the name of religion.

The ‘nattunadappu’ was that land could be owned primarily by Nairs &Namboothiris. This resulted in the Muslims concentrating on the sea shore areas and never owning cultivable land. It was around this time (16th century) that rumors of Hyder’s aggressive move into Malabar started. Many Moplahs immediately felt that their savior was on the way. As the ‘padayottakkalam’ continued during the regime of Hyder and his tyrant son Tipu, many landowners fled Nediyiruppu – Malappuram areas of Malabar and took refuge in Travancore, selling or gifting their land to the Moplahs. This seemed good for the Moplah in the beginning, but when Hyder and later Tipu demanded that Moplah’s also pay land taxes, many Moplah’s found reason to rebel.

Soon the British took over the reins of governance and much to the consternation of the ill educated Moplah, found them siding with the ruling aristocracy. Without representation for their own castes, things went from bad to worse. British policies and land tenancy conflicts made it worse and the relationship soured further. Rebellions and various riots sprung up through the dark days of the late 19th century and early 20th Century, culminating in the famous Moplah rebellion of 1921.A small number of Moplah’s even migrated to Pakistan as Mujahir’s though most remained in Malabar joined hands in the fight against British rule.

Continuing into the 20th century, the Moplah’s had their representative political party, the Muslim league. Though the system of Madrassas and Arabic education continued, a minority stood up, got well educated and went on to become scholars, writers and representatives of their community in the mainstream life of Kerala. Once the oil boom and the exodus of the youngsters of the Muslim community to the Gulf started, the apparent ingress of wealth kept the community contended. The priorities had by now changed from trading to other matters. Muslim land ownership, spread into the city away from the earlier settlements at the beach, integration continued with other communities, intermingling and participation in each others festivities increased, the cuisine and language started to blend. Slowly Calicut as a focal city was starting to get back to its multi cultural and adaptive roots. Look at the customs of Calicut, nowhere else would you see so much intermingling of customs between the religions. Clothes, cuisine, celebration of festivals, marriages, inheritance rules…

So this was how the distinct Malayali or Keralite identity evolved, based on a common language, which unites the Hindus, Muslims and Christians of Kerala and sets them apart from other Indians. This also explains why in Kerala, unlike in large parts of north India, there are no separate Muslim ghettos. Muslims and others live, by and large, in the same mixed localities.

With the mismatch in the wealth status as well as education between the Hindus and Muslims of Kerala brought back on even keel by the 21st century, the situation should have started to look even brighter except for two things. The first was related to the status of Muslims in other parts of India and the touting of brotherhood & jihad. The second was the growing influx of Wahabism & Middle Eastern brands of Shariya rule channeled through some Gulf returnees. Many a youngster loitered around, away from the mainstream, and some got misguided by the talk of purported atrocities in Kashmir, Bosnia, Iraq and so on. The manipulators were at work and getting busier by the minute.

Well meaning people started to wonder and mutter, will we continue to have amity or are we going to have religious enmity & animosity in Kerala? Will we really handle religious diversity effectively? Will we have home grown terrorists? Though a small number of such termites and worms came out of the woodwork, and though there were rumors of ISI plotters in Malappuram towns, hiding amongst the populace, nothing dire happened. Many wondered why Ayodhya smoldered and Calicut did not. Many wondered why Ahmedabad smoked and cried but Calicut did not.

A brilliant scholar studied all this in depth (close to a decade) and wrote a book covering such matters and a layman like me laid hands on it. The scholar’s name is Ashutosh Varshney and the book is titled ‘Ethnic Conflict and Civic life’. In researching for 10 years before writing the book he visited certain towns and cities with high Muslim concentration and studied the reasons behind relative communal harmony between Muslims and Hindus of Calicut (in the book he compares Aligarh with Calicut, Hyderabad with Lucknow and Ahmedabad with Surat). While Varshney has not given the historic relations deep thought for they were instrumental in the original bond & relationship, he has also not explored the firm knot of the relations to the Moplah honesty in trade. Varshney has however focused on modern day pointers like education, communal relations, good politics, civic engagement etc.

In the otherwise fine analysis, he missed focus on two aspects, the original and deep rooted historic amity spanning many centuries (unlike Aligarh), and the second aspect of relations of religion & caste in trade. While in North Indian cities, the Muslims competed with Hindu Vaisyas for mastery in domestic trade, the trade in Malabar was always handled by the Pardesi Muslims and local Moplahs. Though there were minority communities of Tamil Chettys & Gujarati Banias, it was mostly in Moplah hands, until the Portuguese came. So as you can see there was no trade animosity as such.

I do not plan to get into great details of the thesis by Varshney, but will explain some basic conclusions in his comparison between riot hit Aligarh with peaceful Calicut. While there are ‘community splitters’ in Aligarh, there are ‘community joiners’ in Calicut. Calicut has an inter-communal structure whereas Aligarh has an intra-communal and segregated structure. In Calicut not only do inter-communal links exist, they also flourish. Calicut’s inter-communal civic engagement makes it hard for polarizing politics to emerge and thus checks political violence. Even though the exogenous shocks of the Malabar riots could have destroyed the relations, clamor for land reform and social justice repaired much of the damage later, if not all. Though there are still termites biting away at the base, the wall might stand the test of time. In the end the demand for social justice, civil rights for lower castes and education for all, became more important in places like Calicut as part of people’s life struggles and happiness. That was the victory of Calicut.

It is this special identity that is borne out in Varshneys figure – At Calicut, 83% of the community ate with members of the other, 90% reported that their children played with the other, and 84% reported that they visited each other on a regular basis. And that friends, is what amity is all about. Brotherhood or not, burning your house is not the answer to the world’s problems.

Reading it made me immensely happy, for I have never believed that one religion is in anyway better or worse compared to another. You are after all, born into a religion, respect it just like you should respect others. We are after all, small fry in the creator’s business of universe and there is much to be done, done just to lead a normal life, which by itself is a complex undertaking. Focusing on other things would only lead you into wrong & meaningless directions. Sometimes, mind you, but not always, I feel that the average Moplah boy also believes in the same, and I do not really believe that he wants to die a Shahid. I guess he also wants to live a stress free life without conflicts around himself and wants to remain focused on his own dreams. This brings me to the point, the Malayali identity.

The clear knowledge & belief of a Malayalee is that he has a purpose in life, that he has a place in this world and that he has a right to be himself is the basis of this concept. Today his primary interest would be running his nuclear family, making sure that he and his family are well educated, and in some small way becoming a contributing community member. He has a healthy interest in politics and participates in politics. I have even felt that if we had a Hyde Park like speakers corner in India; it will be full of Malayali’s talking. This quintessentially is the Kerala model.

Richard W. Franke, Professor of Anthropology states about the Kerala model - The key word is participation. In Kerala, more than in most parts of the underdeveloped world, large numbers of people participate in activities to better their lives. Malayalees are not just literate. More people in Kerala read the newspapers and discuss them. They also write letters to complain about problems and demand solutions. Malayalees do not just have the right to vote. In Kerala people vote in far higher percentages than in most of the rest of India - and more so than in the United States. Malayalees do not just benefit from the advances of modern science. In Kerala there is a mass organization called the People's Science Movement (KSSP) that tries to bring science education to the compound gates even in the villages. While science movements exist in other parts of India, none is as highly developed as in Kerala.

But I will definitely admit that there is communalism which waxes and wanes with the times, though we are now learning to adjust and live with it, becoming more objective and less reactive. We do make snide comments now & then about a religious practice, we may even jest about it in the open, but by and far we understand and live to let others live…This I believe comes from the many thousands of years of living together and understanding, that in the end, we all have identical goals, which is simply to better our own and possibly the lives of those around.

My friends tell me that there is increased stirring of religious fundamentalism in the Malabar region these days, fomented possibly by the brainwashed Wahabist’s and forces from across the border. I would like to believe however, that if some bright guy calls for Jihad from Kashmir, the Muslim in Kerala would at least will cast a wary eye at it and think ‘now what?’, instead of jumping out of his chair in frenzy, knife in hand, like some fanatics did during the Moplah riots. Those days are gone and I believe with confidence that such people cannot be found easily in Calicut.

And thus we come back to the belief our laborer at the airport queue had – the Kerala identity. I hope this survives many more generations and is broadly replicated as an Indian identity. For that to have a chance, politicians have to be responsible. Politics by nature is compulsive. One who enters it has to stay in the limelight. And to do that sometimes a wrong or mistaken utterance made in the heat of the moment is continually repeated for populism and never wisely retracted. Many a politician has fallen into this trap, it is not that he personally believes in harming people, but these political wheels once set to motion are difficult to stop. So the driver has to be a responsible person, and it is thus the duty of the people to select such responsible drivers.

Alas! That won’t happen if we tend to vote for the guy who buys you a bottle of booze.


Excerpt from Varshney’s interview by the Carnegie Council

The media plays a horrible role in violent cities. It's very divided itself. It can print rumors as news stories. When we were doing our research there, the illegal media printed a headline story that Harvard University, Ford Foundation, and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which was also supporting my work, were interested in spreading riots all over India under the instructions of the CIA.

The police, however, fully supported us and said, "If you believe the things that these rags write, you will never be able to do research." The police commissioner, the SSP of the city, stood by us, as did the district managers. So we continued, but we were interrupted because everyone was shaken by this news.

Whereas in the city of Calicut, which has twenty-six newspapers and magazines, for a city the size of about 600,000 at this point, when I went to interview one of the leading lights of the freedom struggle who was still alive in 1992, I found newspapers and photographers all around.

I said, "No, no, I came for a one-on-one interview. I don't think this will be a good interview if the press is there."

They said, "No, no. The newspapers say it's our beat to report on whoever comes to see him or interview him."

The guy said, "No, no. What I am going to tell you will not be affected by the presence of the newspaper reporters and photographers because I learned politics at a time when candor was practiced as a principle and I haven't given up on that."

So he gave me an interview. And the next day, what was the news item in the newspapers in Calicut? "A student of history interviews a maker of history." These newspapermen never believed that I was in Calicut to spread riots.

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life - Ashutosh Varshney
A critique – Financial express
Shahsi Tharoor’s take on Varshney’s book
Crossed Wires in Calicut – An article
An interview with Varshney

The immaculately attired Moplah – Ranganath Eunny (Google images - irfca)
Moplah from Medieval times – natural history series –


stupendousman said...


thanks for the wonderful article, I am a huge admirer of your articles.

I am Keralite born and bought up in Surat, Gujarat. We passed through the terrible riots in 92, plague in 94 and floods in 97,2005.

But the important thing to note about Surat , there were no riots for the past 10 years or so. None even during the Godhra riots.

I don't believe these were due to increased harmony but due to commercial reasons. For city thriving on business, i think the other calamities ( natural or man made) made businesses vary of another riot.

I don't know if this a factor in the riots, the fact that they might see the other community as more prosperous.
In Kerala probably this doesn't matter so much since the economic disparities are not that high.


Maddy said...

Thanks Dhiraj..

As you saw from the article, Varshney compared towns in pairs with a certain basis. Surat was compared with Ahmedabad. The reasons for calm in Surat were somewhat different from Calicut. I will give you a brief summary on that by email if it is of interest.

Indrani said...

Interesting read, Maddy, and you have connected so many different people and factors, finally ending with 'voting for the right person'. It is evident so much of study and analysis has gone in to this. Thanks for sharing.

stupendousman said...

Hi Maddy,

I am interested in the summary.



P.N. Subramanian said...

As usual a wonderful study. In the North till 1970 I remember Hindus and Muslims co-existed peacefully following the doctrine "live and let live". Thereafter relationships got poisoned. May be it was Wahabism which distanced the muslims from their Hindu brothers. Now-a-days we are wary of people sporting a beard and a cap clad in short pyjamas.

Reshmi said...

I'm back....!

And as usual, this post is yet another pearl of your narrative skills...


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. While we cringe about Wahabism and the islamic fundamentalism that is on the rise, we should also remember the equally vile and vicious Hindutva elements which are playing a very important role in increasing and aggravating the ridges that are already existing in our society.

Thes kind of elements have symbiotic existence and we cannot simply exclude them from the picture.

Our city has stood the test of time, even though there has been occasional skirmishes like Marad happening.

What we need is more and more articles like this available for our people to make them believe a tremendous syncretic past our city had.

harimohan said...

the amity between moplahs of malabar and hindus was a fact but is slowly eroding these days with the likes of fanatic politicians of the terrorist kind venting fumes and the youth falling prey to thier passions .
also the inculcation in madrassas as well as the money pouring in are not accounted for and malappuram seems to be a hotbed for terrorism as all this is supported by the cunning politician who eyes the vote bank alone ,the aam aadmi moplah is still the same but for how long ?

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Great piece.
Though I would firmly not like to believe,I heard from Shri Hormese Tharakan, (former DGP(Kerala) and ex Chief,RAW) that the religious camaraderie in Kerala has come down post the 1970s.
Hope he is wrong.

I personally have enjoyed the company of Malayalee Muslims as Malayalees.I still do.There was/is no religion in the picture at all.
I am not sure if there is any other community that is up there in terms of hospitality.

Let us not get into the details of a Nikah I attended in Calicut a month back.*drool*


Maddy said...

Thanks Dhiraj - pls send me a mail with your email id..I will work on the Surat summary in the meantime.

Thanks PNS - You have a point, but I think we are letting the splitters work their tactics, we should be part of the joiner network, I guess!!

Hi Reshmi - welcome back, hope to see many interesting blogs from you too...

Maddy said...

Yes Tushizap - you are quite right..
All kinds of religious fanatics belong to the set of splitters..the world will always be diverse..and we have to understand and learn to live with it..

Agreed Hari - so we have to ensure that cunning politicians don't rule the scene right??

Nikhil - thanks - actually the problems started much earlier, but they were well beneath the surface. With the surfacing of terrorism into the mainstream of our existence, word spread via the papers & news..I hope everybody sees sense and the positives..

Madhu Nair said...

Dear Maddy,

I am an ardent fan of your blogs. Your articles induce me into the study of history; compels me to look at history in a holistic perspective. Also resulted with a new shelf full of history books. This is an excellent article. And you said it correctly: “in the end, we all have identical goals, which is simply to better our own and possibly the lives of those around “. The sooner one realizes that the better it's for him and his neighbour. Thank you for such great articles.


Vijay said...

A wonderful two part post. You have deftly brought the role of trade in keeping the communities together in perspective.

The other side of the coin is conquest. The north went through a series of bloody wars of conquest and pogroms of many shades. Witness Ghazni's multiple raids, Tamerlane's decimation of Punjab and Delhi, Nadir Shah's wholesale loot and carry mission to name just a few. We also had, off and on, benevolent syncretic versions of state religion with a Sufi flavor, mixed with state imposed oppression and jizya taxes.

A lot of this culminated in the horrible loss of life, limb and property during the Partition. I'd suggest that there is a historic memory of pain that is seared into the collective psyche of many from all sides in the north. It doesn't take much to set that off.

In contrast, Kerala has not been subject to that wrenching an upheaval, except for the brief Hyder/ Tippu interlude and it's eventual reflection in the Moplah riots as you have pointed out.

It will just take more time and healing in the north for all that pain to subside. Let us hope that circumstances and the will and actions of many will get us there.

Nazgul said...

Hello Maddy,

I came across your blog when I was googling for critiques on William Shirer. I'm a history buff/student and occasionally indulge myself in books of world history. Your blog on history of the world is not only detail oriented but brimming with facts and references as well. Great write up! Your narrative skills are excellent.

Maddy said...

Thanks Madhu..I enjoy writing and studying people, just like many others. sometimes i believe that the only difference is I ask why and go after an answer..

Vijay - That is quite right. The pain of partition can only be understood by people who have really experienced it. It will take possibly two generations for that to get erased..

Nazgul - interesting name - now does yours have Turkish or Tolkein origins? Thanks a lot for visiting and hope you continue to do so..Shirer what a writer journalist he was...Just brilliant.

Happy Kitten said...

Maddy, Thank God we have you has an historian!

Your narratives are all hopeful ones.

In the end like everyone else even the "malyalees" want to live their lives and Kerala had it good all along due to many reasons. Pray that it remains so for the future generations too.

Maddy said...

Thanks HK..
Optimism is always a driver, pessimism is always the drag, in one's life. So, I write with hope, but I too have dreadful days when I feel miserable and curse humanity..

Jamshi said...

Nice Read.
you are criticizing the wahabi movements in malabar as a threat to communal harmony in the region. I am not sure whether you are referring to the wahabi movement in malabar known as 'mujahids'. If so you are terribly mistaken.
The founders of this movement were active freedom fighters.The likes of Vakkom Abdul Kader Moulavi, Mohammed Abdul Rahman Sahib, E Moidu Moulavi were its earlier leaders and were involved in mainstream politics and freedom struggle.
This 'wahabi' movement was started much before the oil boom and the exodus of the Mappila youth.The Mujahids are active participants in Kerala politics. Some of them are active members of many mainstream political parties in Kerala.They are also phenomenal in preventing the Muslim youth joining the 'jihadi' groups.
The manipulators can be attributed to the Islamic brotherhood, Suroori or Moudoodian movements and not the Wahabi movement in Middle East.

windwheel said...

The major fault with this sort of analysis is that it ignores the manner in which Delhi's fiscal policies adversely impact a region which has achieved demographic transition and differentiated its Social Preference profile from the rest of India.
The real story about 'communalism' and 'casteism' is that lack of fiscal subsidiarity and the dirigiste policies of a stupid, economically illiterate, Centre force young people to either physically emigrate or undergo a sort of internal emigration towards a source of values uncontaminated by Delhi's pi jaw.
Kerala is about Economics. It's a nice place to live and a nice Culture to be part of. But, a lot of very talented young people- over the last 40 years- have had to either emigrate physically or mentally. Why? Because of stupid fiscal policies inherited from Colonial times which set a limit to what collective action can do.
The Centre is very happy to perpetuate the myth of 'the squabbling Malyalees' or 'the squabbling Punjabi' or Bengali or whatever- so as to show that there is no over-riding Economic reason for subsidiarity- i.e. local politics which local people can benefit from as opposed to vote bank manipulators at the Centre.

But this is bad for India.

Look at what Anthony is doing at the Defence Ministry or Shashi Tharoor's great contribution. Talented people are messing things up because Delhi is not about reality but 'availability cascades'.

Alavudeen Rawther said...

Maddy said...

my article on Rawthers is posted