Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, the renowned literary giant of South India, in 1982, republished the collection of his short stories, Anargha Nimisham(Invaluable Moment) originally published in 1946. In the collection was a short story titled, ‘Unal Haq’, a Khalil Gibran-style retelling of the condemnation and killing of Mansoor Al-Hallaj, the 10th century Persian mystic. Basheer had drawn the parallel between the spiritual declaration of Mansoor ‘Unal Haq’ and Upanishadic Mahavakyas – not something novel in itself, as many scholars had done that already.
In the 1982 republished work, Basheer had made a clarification: “Now I believe that ordinary human beings who are just the products of the All Mighty saying things like “I am God” is a sin. I had also claimed that the work is based on a real story, but now; take it just as a fantasy.”
Was this a genuine change in the inner realm of the writer? Or was it signalling something sinister that has been going on in Kerala towards which the intellectuals had willfully shut their eyes to?
One is compelled to look at the reversal in the stand of Basheer with regard to his short story, in the larger context of the dark metamorphosis Kerala was undergoing in a systematic way. In 1985, the case of Sulekha Bibi surfaced. In Beemapally, very near the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, Islamic institutions in Kerala had tonsured the head of a woman, Sulekha Bibi, and had also awarded a punishment of 101 whippings. The event was only the tip of the iceberg. This was followed, by an Islamic court, again near Thiruvanathapuram, ordering that a divorced Muslim woman with two children be beaten till she was unconscious and that her head be tonsured. She was charged with adultery.
It was not just the Islamic fundamentalists who were implementing such systematic censorship and extra-constitutional authority with the support of the political class. In 1986, Kerala had banned the famous playwright P M Antony’s Kristhuvinte Araam Thirumurivu (The Sixth Sacred Wound of Christ). It was an adaptation of the Last Temptation of Jesus Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Even 20 years later the situation remained the same. The church could ban movies and books. Kerala became one of the seven Indian states that banned Da Vinci Code in 2006. This time the Christian organisations were joined by Islamist fundamentalists. The All-India Sunni Jamiyat-ul-Ulema declared its support for the movie ban.
The fundamentalist-Nehruvian secularist-Marxist axis in the state has had its internal quarrels, but the constituents were always able to join hands against the common enemy – the Hindus. In the wake of Shah Bano case controversy, EMS Namboodiripad then a veteran Marxist ideologue, suggested some reforms to Islamic laws in the mildest manner, but the retaliation was massive and vehement. Rallies were held and Islamists chanted “We would marry two or three, even the daughter of EMS if need be” (Rendum Kattaam Moonum Kattaam; EMS inda Ponnaiyum Kattaam). Even such humiliating insults would not deter the Marxists from entering into electoral alliances with Islamic fundamentalists. Forging an alliance with the same Muslim League, soon the veteran Marxist would gleefully exclaim, “We would cooperate with the League in Malappuram and they would offer cooperation to us in districts where we have majority.”
The events which unfolded in subsequent years would show that the cooperation that EMS spoke about was more than political. As virulent Islamist bodies like the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), National Development Front (NDF) etc emerged, there was virtually a competition between Marxists and Nehruvian secularists as to who would cater to the increasing demands of the fundamentalists. So the cadre of Communist Party of India (Marxist) youth wing, Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), joined hands with Islamist fundamentalist storm troopers of PDP and did moral policing in Malappuram. The cadre would enter houses, drag out the women whom they charged of doing ‘undesirable activity’ and indulge in physical violence as well as traumatic public humiliation.
That women should be modest or else violence as well as sexual assault against them could be justified, is a stand that unites the Kerala Marxist and Islamists. E K Nayanar (1919-2004), a patron saint in the Church of Kerala Marxism, had ruled as chief minister for 11 years. He repeatedly made vulgar jokes against women in public. On the increasing number of rapes of tourists in Kerala at that time, he quipped that for American women, rape was as common as drinking a cup of tea.
Today ‘Darul Khada’ or extra-constitutional Islamist courts flourish in Kerala. Their punishments are widely known yet whispered secrets of horror in the state. It was only because of the sordid episode of the chopping off the palm of Professor T D Joseph, the Malayalam professor in a Christian institution in the state, that their functioning received even the limited amount of media glare. Had the chopped hand belonged to a Kafir rather than a ‘believer of the book’, even this attention would not have been given. Most of these events of intolerance and passive muted submission to forces of fundamentalism happened in Kerala during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule at the centre or in the 1980s during the Congress rule. The build-up towards a Taliban-cum-medieval Christian state has been steady and inevitable. Most of the intellectuals kept silent or satisfied themselves with occasional outbursts against isolated events.
Bhashaposhini, a 125-year-old literary magazine from the house of Malayala Manorama, the largest-selling daily in Malayalam, which appeared in the stands in the morning of 16 December 2016, simply and silently disappeared. When it reappeared, a painting done by artist Tom Vattakuzhy for a play, was missing. The play was about Mata Hari, a dancer executed by the French for syping during the World War. The painter had depicted an image with nuns sitting around a bare-breasted Mata Hari in the style of the famous last supper scene. However the same magazine now had as its cover the photo of a sculpture of Sree Narayana Guru in not exactly an honourable way.
Now Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a political organisation with Ezhava support base, the community in which the Vedantic seer was born, took this as an insult. BDJS happens to be a constituent of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the state. Naturally, this has given a handle to the ‘progressives’ to see the entire event as part of the so-called ‘right wing intolerance wave’. However, the BDJS opposition is only an exception. There have been stray voices, sometimes purposefully created by letterhead organisations, to whip up a victim-hood market value. With such organisations, there are no real dangers, unlike the powerful church outfits, which can cost the political destiny of the party and the Islamist outfits, which can finish off both mortal and political destinies.
It should be realised here that the Nehruvian secularism and Marxism pampering fundamentalists is not mere vote bank politics. They both have ideological affinity to political Islamism and institutional Christianity. It is not uncommon for Muslim leftist intellectuals to become ideologues of Islamist movement when the latter becomes powerful. As early as 1942, a Muslim member of the central committee of the Communist Party of India asked its Muslim members to join the Muslim League in Punjab. One should understand that it was not opportunism. It is more because of the intuitive understanding of the synergy between Marxism and political Islam as totalitarian movements, which while making use of the existing freedom of speech for their expansion, strangle the same when they get their hands on power.
In Kerala too the same phenomenon got repeated. EMS Namboodiripad (1909-1998) carved out Malappuram district, after an explicitly communal demand made by the Muslim League, which would have disastrous consequences for not just communal relations within the state but also, over the decades, for national security itself. In 2006, the same year Kerala banned the movie Da Vinci code, Frederick Forsyth made an insightful observation on Kerala in his Al Qaeda-based thriller, The Afghan: “Once a hotbed of Communism, it has been particularly receptive territory for Islamist terrorism”.
In 2016, Kerala would notoriously lead other states in cases of radicalised Muslims being recruited for ISIS.