Saeed Naqvi | North vs South: For Muslims, the experience is wholly different

Deccan Chronicle.  | Saeed Naqvi

Opinion, Columnists

In the North, manufactured daily incidents keep communalism on a continuous simmer and folks huddle and wonder what the future portends

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Poet Ghalib longed for “fursat ke raat din” (nights and days of doing nothing). He couldn’t have been familiar with the lucid expression in Malayalam: “Nalla Irippu” (agreeable sitting, doing nothing).  

This blessed state is a boon conferred on Aruna, my wife, and me at Kottakal Ayurvedic Centre, Kozhidoke. After subjecting ourselves to the magic of Ayurvedic herbs, oils, concoctions, decoction from all orifices, we’re too cleansed and delicate to resume our frenetic lives immediately. “Nalla Irippu” is mandatory!

Kottakal, in the heart of Muslim-dominated Mallapuram, symbolic in itself, gave us another bonus: a southern perspective on North Indian communalism.

One of the women masseurs told Aruna she’ll take a day off on Sunday; she must visit Muslim homes on Bakrid! It would be wrong to compare enthusiastic inter-religious participation on occasions like Id or Onam in Mallapuram to our South Delhi experience.

In New Delhi, ours is the only Muslim home in a mostly Punjabi colony, of those who came after Partition. I am usually an invitee for hoisting the flag on August 15. But there are no spontaneous Id visitations as Muslims are mostly not part of their daily experience as they’re of mine.

This obvious, little noticed fact is critical to understand Hindu-Muslim equations. The Hindu is part of the Muslim’s daily life -- from the newspaper delivery boy, vegetable sellers, shopping malls, restaurants and, above all, workplaces. The Hindu, on the other hand, has no occasion to come into contact with any Muslim. My friend for 60 years whom I must identify as a Hindu (a shame, as our religious backgrounds never mattered all these years) hasn’t ever known a Muslim except me.  

A Hindu without any Muslim experience is prone to be afflicted by an apartheid of the mind. For years I’ve been trying to persuade Hindu friends to accompany me to Jama Masjid during Ramzan to see Muslim congregations, milling crowds, authentic kebabs and not even an iota of harassment of women. Friends were reluctant. Politicians and TV channels have cast Muslims as such murderous monsters that friends make excuses and opt out.   

That communalism as a political project hasn’t had traction in Kerala isn’t not for want of trying by RSS cadres and Congress leaders like late K. Karunakaran. The Congress had two distinct approaches to the RSS-BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh fought the BJP tooth and nail; Karunakaran made tacit adjustments with the RSS to inject its one per cent vote for UDF candidates to thwart the Left. Like right-of-centre parties everywhere, the Congress too is more comfortable with Hindu nationalism than with Communists.  

In the North, manufactured daily incidents keep communalism on a continuous simmer and folks huddle and wonder what the future portends. For this lot, I have good news. They are guilty of extrapolating from their experience in the North and theorising for the rest of India. UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, part of Maharashtra and Bihar are in the BJP’s thrall. I’m not counting Assam and Tripura as a different set of circumstances operates there.

Even if you add the two, a total of nine BJP-ruled states, minus Rajasthan for now, is far short of a comprehensive saffron hue over 29 states and eight Union territories. If roadblocks in the BJP’s way in the North was caste politics, it will face linguistic and ethnic headwinds in the rest of the country. The federal spirit is a huge obstruction.

Political culture in the North is overwhelmingly conditioned by identity politics. Pardon my biases, but Kerala is truly God’s own country in every sense, including the charms of Kottakal. A deep-rooted Left movement gave the people a sense of dignity not seen in the North. To the Church must go much of the credit for the state’s saturation with education.  

One of the invigorating “treatments” at Kottakal is an oil massage. Four men in blue uniforms sit on either side of the massage table. An oil, laden with herbs, simmers on a stove. Hand towels, virtually cooked in oil, are lifted out of the vessel, shared by the masseurs who proceed to squeeze the tepid oil onto the body. They slide the hand up and down the part of the body which has fallen to the particular masseur’s share.

To break the rhythmic monotony of the massage, I asked if they were all vegetarians, the only food available in Kottakal. They protested. In fact, this was a prelude to a conversation on politicians and their favourite restaurants. It turns out that Rahul Gandhi, ostensibly on the way to Wayanad, his constituency, never misses a chance to visit Paragon, that has even my vote as the nation’s premier restaurant. The Kerala exceptionalism is not limited the masseurs’ knowledge of cuisine. They had even savoured Paragon food.  

The 14-day exemption in Kottakal from pollution, perverse politics and stories of police excesses in the North reminded me of something I had learnt during my five-year stint in the South, with headquarters in Chennai: the entire Muslim experience in the South is at a vast variance from the North.  

Muslims in the North came as invaders who set up empires. In the South they came as traders. Accepting local cultures was good business as well as excellent public relations. It was to facilitate traders to pursue their new religion that Cheruman Perumal, a Hindu nobleman, built a mosque for their namaz in 629 AD near Kochi, three years before the Prophet’s death, making it India’s first mosque and among the first six in Islam.

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