“I have worn a hijab for a long time. I have never felt any anti-Muslim discrimination in my life. This is Kerala, sir. I have a dream job as a nurse in the best hospital of the city.”
Starting this way requires a preface. In the eleven-and-a-half years of this column’s existence, my analysis has typically been conceptual, comparative and statistical. Only a few times have I concentrated on personal stories — to ask questions or draw inferences.
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This column adopts the latter mode of narration. It is occasioned by my visit to Kerala last month. Initially planned as a research trip, an unexpected surgery turned it into a medical sojourn. Though headquartered in Kochi, I was also driven through Thrissur, Malappuram and Wayanad on my way to Bengaluru.
Kerala’s highways and town-roads did not have the customary scatterings of trash, which inescapably hit the eye on the Karnataka side of the same highway. Destitution was generally absent. Indeed, supported substantially by Gulf remittances, houses in Kerala revealed the emergence of a middle-class society. Over roughly two weeks, I not only observed but I also spoke to the hospital and hotel staff, taxi drivers, tea and coffee sellers, boatmen and migrants, while confining myself to only a few intellectuals. Collecting intellectually unadorned narratives was my approach to understanding.
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I have been visiting Kerala since the mid-1990s. Kozhikode was one of six cities covered in my book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India (2002). The research often took me to Thiruvananthapuram, too. In the current project on urban governance, I have studied Kochi. Over a long period of time, thus, I have not only done research, but I have also seen many parts of the state and heard a range of narratives. My Kerala immersion has become nearly three decades old.
My encounter with Kerala’s healthcare was something entirely new. Despite the time spent in the state, I was never before hospitalised there. While the surgical brilliance of doctors can only be assessed by peer groups, not by laymen like me, the post-operative care can be legitimately analysed and compared. My hospital experience more or less matched those I have had in the US. What I had heard about the world-class nursing standards of Kerala turned out to be true.
In my Kochi hospital, the post-surgery recovery was not simply about administering medical routines. Within the limits of time, wide-ranging conversations were possible as part of patient care. The hospital staff became some of my key interlocutors about contemporary Kerala.
The most enlightening exchange was with Aafia (name changed), one of my hijab-clad Muslim nurses cited above. When asked what she was most proud of in Kerala, Aafia’s response was unambiguous. “We have the highest literacy in India”. As we know, Kerala’s literacy rate compares well with most high-income countries. Not true until the 1980s, Muslim literacy rate has also caught up with the state average.
Aafia was also very proud of how Hindus, Muslims and Christians had lived together in Kerala. Kerala is 26.5 per cent Muslim and 18.5 per cent Christian. “Muslims not only face no discrimination, which they do in North India, but they are also some of the leading figures of our cinema. Have you heard of Mammootty, sir? He is the biggest star of Malayalam cinema. No one attacks him for being Muslim. Kerala simply loves him.” She was very aware of what had happened to Shah Rukh Khan and his family.
Aafia’s articulation of Muslim pride in Malayali culture reminded me of my interview, back in 1994, with M T Vasudevan Nair, a well-known literary giant. He categorically said that Vaikom Muhammed Basheer was “one of the greatest figures ever in Malayalam literature”, adding that the Hindu-Muslim-Christian categories were irrelevant to Kerala’s literary life. As for Aafia’s comments about discrimination, I was reminded of our project’s findings. Among the eight cities already analysed, Kochi reports the lowest religious discrimination.
I am only too aware that communal tensions have lately emerged in Kerala. Writing in this paper (‘Rising Islamophobia in Kerala: It’s time to de-radicalise the grown-ups’, IE, January 22), Sheji Edathara spoke of “the rising Islamophobia in Kerala”. Liz Mathew reported (IE, January 8) that in search of a larger state role, the BJP, currently a minor player in state politics, would like to polarise Kerala, seeking the support of Christian churches against Muslims, if possible. Analysts have also noted the emergence of the Muslim right. Organisations such as the recently banned Popular Front of India (PFI) have attracted considerable critical attention. But my recent conversations and prior understanding suggest that tensions have not reached a breaking point and, more importantly, they may not.
Consider two historical instances. In the 1990s — after the Babri mosque was torn down — an opportunity to polarise Hindus and Muslims emerged in Kerala. In an interview with me, Kozhikode’s BJP chief agreed that polarisation would benefit his party. But he was unwilling to initiate such politics, saying it was best to wait for the nascent Muslim right to commit a violent mistake. The Muslim right also believed that it could become a bigger political player if the Hindu right became violent first. Neither side took the initiative for fear of incurring popular wrath. With both the Hindu and Muslim right engaging in violence, this pattern has been broken, but the rupture has not been popular. Both the BJP and Muslim right have no seats in the current assembly.
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Consider, now, the Malabar rebellion (1921). Marxist scholarship presents it as a class war between peasants and landlords, but non-Marxist scholars have no doubt it was a Hindu-Muslim conflict, full of killings and attacks on property. The little-known letters of the then Kozhikode Congress chief to Mahatma Gandhi, which I read, presented it as a communal civil war. But despite the horrendous violence, the Malabar rebellion was unable to restructure politics. The earlier political narrative of social justice returned vigorously and defeated the attempts made by the Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha to cleave politics on communal lines.
If violent communal polarisation takes over Kerala, it will be a shocking historical novelty. Surprises are not unknown in politics, but Aafia’s transparent pride in Kerala’s communal harmony might well suggest a belief structure that has a mass base, a deep sentiment that the polarising political organisations may not be able to undermine.
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The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the Center for Contemporary South Asia at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for The Indian Express.
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