Kerala’s Radical Turn – cries the cover of the last issue of Tehelka (dated 9th October, 2010). The cover story by V K Shashikumar, that plays the familiar tunes of Islamophobia, hints at Tehelka‘s Populist Turn. It will be interesting to see whereTehelka goes from here, and what happens to its current reader base that distinguished the magazine from the likes of The Indian Express and The Times of India and India Today.
In the article titled “Here Come the Pious”, Shashikumar lists some facts and his personal fears, on the eve of the Allahabad High Court judgment on the Babri Masjid land dispute. What is missing in the entire article is reason. The byline says that “A new Islamist body, the Popular Front of India, is causing alarm with its religious overdrive in the south.” After one goes through the article, however, what one gets is a glorified picture of the outfit. Whether the author likes it or not.
The piece opens with the Rayana episode, where a young engineering graduate got threats for wearing jeans in the Kasargod district of Kerala. “They said they were from the Popular Front of India. Initially it was teasing and harassment. But harassment is worse than a threat to life. The comments and staring each time I ventured out, as if I was a criminal, was intolerable. They wrote to me saying they want me to wear purdah. They said what I did was blasphemy. But I don’t think it is a problem of Islam. This is an issue of the right over one’s body. It is sad that everybody is making it out as a religious problem, even those who support me,” says Rayana. (quote from the article). And without any guilt whatsoever, the author does the same: makes it out as a religious problem.
Many Muslim women in Kerala wear jeans and other modern outfits. So if one Rayana is getting targetted for what she wears, we as a mature society should extend our support to her and find out why she gets targetted. Sadly, all that the author sees is “Them” — the imaginative enemy. It seems the author has not even bothered to cross verify with women’s groups and feminist activists who have been involved in extending support to Rayana – nor has he done any homework or checked with other journalists in Kerala.
The article says: “They hated her jeans. They called her at odd times, men she didn’t know, and told her what they would do with her if she didn’t dump the jeans and put on purdah. Each time Rayana stepped out, they stared and said horrible things.. Then, four months later, she wrote to the Women’s Commission asking that she be allowed to wear what she likes. The state posted constables to protect Rayana so she could sport denim. Now, they stalked her. One day Rayana was returning after meeting her lawyer in Ernakulam, a town near the middle of Kerala. The constable got off midway. A group tried to block the car Rayana was in. She drove off. They chased the car and attacked her with stones. She had to drive to a town nearby, where the locals lent a touch of security. All this, because they didn’t like what she wore.” Who are “They”? Has the author cared to find out before flaring up this fear for “Them”? Are we forgetting the fact that in Kerala most women face these stares and hear horrible things if she chooses to wear what she likes or chooses to live the life she wants?
The article then cuts to : “The Popular Front of India (PFI), with its headquarters in Kozhikode, Kerala, is throwing up a curious test for India’s secularism.” Why? Here’s the answer: “In classified central government reports, the PFI is accused of introducing an extremist pan-Islamist movement to India. In submissions to the High Court, the Kerala police claim it is linked to the Al Qaeda. Achuthanandan suggested the PFI has a 20-year plan to Islamicise Kerala. And then, Keralites were jolted out of their secular somnambulism on the first Sunday of July when a bunch of PFI cadres chopped the right palm of a college teacher, TJ Joseph, for setting a question paper that allegedly insulted Prophet Mohammad.” The accusations of the central government reports and the apparent police claims of Al Qaueda links have not been proved, and the CM’s statement was arguably the most irresponsible statement a chief minister could come up with. So the author finds himself in need of some supportive data.
“Evidences” follow — in the form of opinions from some of the author’s caste Hindu and caste Christian friends who feel threatened that their supremacy is getting questioned. To quote the author himself; “Hindus and Christians are beginning to feel uncomfortable with this brand of assertive, militant religion-centred politics.” As if Muslims are not part of the Kerala society. Sample this: “They are the Indian Taliban, but they cannot overcome the syncretic culture of Kerala,” says Raveendran, a building contractor in Thrissur. According to him, the PFI is a temporary fad funded by petrodollars from Saudi Arabia. Mathew Nethumpara, a lawyer in Ernakulam, says he is not surprised because “intolerance has been brewing for several years”.
That these comments override Kerala’s Director General of Police Jacob Punnose who says “I realise the danger but I don’t want to exaggerate it” tells us where the author’s fears are founded.
Moreover, in an SMS message to the authors of this piece – B Unnikrishnan, the filmmaker and critic quoted by the author asserts that he has been either misunderstood or misconstrued.
Now comes some “historic” revelations. “Confidential missives of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and the Kerala Police accessed by TEHELKA suggest the PFI is the fastest-growing cadre-based Muslim organisation in India.” Enough reason for fear. Though one wonders what these confidential missives are. What adds to the fear is PFI’s Kozhikode Declaration (2009) that the article quotes:
“..The Muslims are the victims of the war on terror. The Indian government supports the WOT and makes available the county’s machinery for implementing the plan hatched by the US-Israel axis. It’s in the wake of this alliance that we witness the increase in bomb blasts in the country.
The Muslims, on the other hand, have been pushed down by inferiority complex created by peculiar historic developments. They are under the wrong impression that any political move of their own is wrong. While the national secular parties are anxious to use the Muslim votes, they have been reluctant to take them in as equal partners. They have failed to secure the rights of the Muslims as citizens and refused to give even legal protection to them during communal riots which are a byword for collective anti-Muslim attacks. When the administration joined hands with anti-Muslim forces it created fear in Muslim minds. There is strong suspicion that plans are being hatched and implemented deliberately to break the Muslims economically and socially.
The denial of basic needs and willful negligence of their just demands have imposed social slavery. No political party can shrug off responsibility for creating this situation. So it is imperative that Muslim organisations come to the forefront for the advancement of the community and to create awareness about their rights.”
Blasphemy! Are we supposed to speak this out? Will it not get the Muslims to think on these lines, and question the targetting of Muslims? Will they not react to the picking up of Muslim men in connection with any blast that happens anywhere in the world? Will they forget the Mecca Masjid blast where hundreds of Muslim youth were picked up and harassed? Yes, there is reason to fear. More so when PFI’s Kerala head says his organisation is expanding because there is a feeling among Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis that they have been cheated.
Then another friend of Shashikumar shares his concerns : “In the past few years I have seen more women, and more educated women, for instance my neighbour who has a Phd, take to the hijab.” Too sad. It is evident that here we are not talking about women who are forced to wear hijab. As the author quotes: “It is fashionable to wear hijab,” says Salima, a student of BSc, Applied Statistics, in Kozhikode’s Ferook College. This fear for any religious symbols that do not belong to one’s own religion needs treatment.
Another reason for fear is “their” faith in letters. “We see the media as a vehicle for political empowerment,” the article quotes NP Chekkutty, Executive Editor of Thejas. Then we see a letter classified as secret issued by the union home ministry on 25 November 2009 that states: “Thejas is part of a pan-Islamic publication network catering to the communal agenda of certain organisations. The publication invariably takes anti-establishment views on issues like plight of Muslims, Kashmir, and India’s relations with the US and Israel. Occasionally, it describes the government’s counter-militancy effort as state-sponsored terrorism, thereby endorsing the stance of militant elements. More importantly, contemporary developments and issues are invariably projected with a communal slant.” Incidentally, this particular letter has been a subject of speculation and debate in the Kerala media circles and its existence has been denied by the Government, and it is rather interesting that Shashikumar is blissfully ignorant of this fact.
Hasn’t Tehelka taken anti-establishment views and spoken up on instances where there was denial of justice? Isn’t the government’s counter-militancy and counter-Maoist efforts widely criticized by many people publicly? And what is a “communal slant”? As far as the Malayalam newspapers go, Thejas is one of the very few newspapers where one hardly gets to see reports attempting to malign any particular community. This is in a time when Mathrubhumi and Kerala Kaumudi and the likes have been rolling out Islamophobia in the form of headlines, reports and even cartoons day by day. Isn’t that communal?
As if to add insult to injury – another piece by Rajesh Ahuja screaming that Gulf Malayalis are falling prey to LeT compliments Shashikumar’s thesis. We are left clueless as to the relevance of this story that has been much written about by veterans like Praveen Swami in today’s context except to buttress Shashikumar’s fears of Muslims getting richer and funding their own publications. We really do not know and do not want to comment on the guilt or non-guilt of Nawaz or others mentioned in the story – but to calumny a whole community because of a few alleged miscreants is unfortunate – given that the Gulf boom has been in many ways responsible for the upward social mobility of the Muslim community in Kerala.
One has to keep in mind that Kerala has one of the most vibrant, diverse and political Muslim communities in India – one of the very few places in India where the community has a strong political presence. If anything, these kind of baseless reportage fuels insecurity amongst the community that they are being targeted and Shahsikumar, himself claims that is one of the tools that PFI is using in its mobilization!!
With all this and more, both the articles look like a fine example of the proverbial “seeing yellow”, going by the facts we are presented with. These facts are supposed to substantiate the fears expressed by the authors, but it instead tells us there is something terribly wrong with the way that people like Shashikumar and Rajesh Ahuja (and the Tehelka editors) think.
Both the articles say they are based on inputs from Shahina K K in Thiruvananthapuram. Shahina is someone we all know as a journalist of reason. We wonder if Shahina also shares Shashikumar and Rajesh Ahuja’s extrapolations and exaggerations.
(This was sent as a rebuttal to Tehelka – which Tehelka has not published)