Communalism in Kerala: A conversation with historian Michael Tharakan

Historian Michael Tharakan, who has extensively studied communal issues in Kerala, spoke to TNM in the wake of recent controversial anti-Muslim statements by some Christian religious leaders.
PK Michael Tharakan
PK Michael Tharakan
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For historian PK Michael Tharakan, the story of a Muslim porter rescuing his mother and siblings from rioting by Australian soldiers at Mattanchery halt railway station, comes rushing back amid all the anti-Muslim narratives currently emerging in Kerala. The incident took place after World War II, before Michael was born. His mother and siblings were caught in the riot that broke out at the railway station after an alleged drunken brawl among demobilised soldiers. With no one to help, his mother was terrified.

That’s when the Muslim porter rescued and hid them in a room at the station for nearly three hours. “The personality of the porter still lingers in my mind. There are stories criticising Muslims, but those don’t have the strength of the positive stories I have in my mind,” said Michael, insisting that Kerala’s history of communal harmony should be brought back to solve prevailing issues, including the recent incidents where a Bishop spoke about ‘love jihad’ and ‘narcotic jihad,’ while another priest in Kerala made anti-Muslim statements.

Michael Tharakan, who is the chairperson of Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), has studied extensively on communal issues in Kerala and published a number of studies on the topic, including ‘Behaviour of communal votes in Kerala Assembly elections’ (1987); ‘Communal influence in politics: historical background pertaining to Kerala’ (1987). In his latest study titled ‘Is Kerala more secular than other parts of the country?', the historian found that the inequalities in the state are increasing.

Kerala has witnessed communal riots in the past. However, the possibility of such incidents reoccurring in wake of discontent among certain sections is unlikely, especially taking into account the discord among various factions within all communities themselves. “Besides, in the case of the Pala Bishop’s ‘narcotic jihad’ comment, he was expressing this opinion though another Bishop may differ," Michael Tharakan observed.

“There was never a Christian-Muslim communal riot in Kerala as both communities never lived in the same areas,” said Michael Tharakan, who recalled how the Khilafat volunteers (Muslims)  rescued the Christians when they fled their homes as a result of the Christian-Hindu riot in Thrissur at the beginning of 1920.

TNM caught up with Michael Tharakan, who was also the Vice-Chancellor of Kannur University (2009-2013). He spoke on why people tend to have prejudiced notions against Muslims, Kerala’s communal riots history and how communal riots were less in some cities.

The Pala Bishop’s comment has invited widespread criticism from the Muslim community. Members of the community undertook a protest march to the Pala diocese headquarters. The Christian community countered this with another march, which was supported by the BJP. What is your take on these developments?

I don’t think the public is taking the issues seriously. People from both communities are anxious over the tension created due to ‘narcotic jihad' remarks. However, since people are suffering due to COVID-19 and hundreds have become unemployed due to this, the focus should be on rectifying that instead of engaging in communal confrontations.

What are some of the serious communal riots that Kerala has witnessed in its history, especially those involving Christians?

During the riots between the Hindus and Christians in Thrissur in early 1920, the latter realised they would not be able to survive in the region. A strike by the general public against the electricity tariff rate increase by a private company had snowballed into a communal riot. They reached the Khilafat volunteers in Malabar seeking help. The Khilafat volunteers intervened in favour of the Christians.

Riots or tensions between Christians and Muslims were quite unlikely since the former resided in central Kerala while the latter have been dominant in northern Kerala. It was only after 1940 that Syrian Christians migrated to northern Malabar. Previously, in northern Malabar, there were only Latin Christians, who were under the Mangalore Diocese. Though there were tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities, it didn’t worsen.

During their initial phase of migration to northern Malabar, Syrian Christians started occupying lands where Muslims were running their timber business. This led to a dispute between them. The British records mentioned a small brawl between the two communities. However, these disputes were settled during a peace meeting convened by the then Malabar Collector.

What, according to your observation, are the factors that have helped reduce incidents of communal violence or hate in the past?

In his book titled Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala (1972), historian MGS Narayanan observed that there is a cultural symbiosis in which people belonging to different cultural and social backgrounds are coexisting in the state. Even during the Middle Ages in Kerala, Christians, Muslims and Jews have engaged in the trade of oil, tobacco, and salt. Their economic products were needed for other communities and hence there was a need for mutual dependence. There was an economic interdependence among the communities, which cemented communal harmony.

According to the yardsticks employed by Home Department in India, if at least 15% of the residents in a town are belonging to minority groups and the rest belong to the majority community, communal incidents may increase there. However, that could vary. Take for example Meerut and Lucknow, the two cities in Uttar Pradesh. Hindus constitute most of the population in both cities, with a low presence of residents from minority communities. While Meerut sees bouts of communal tension, Lucknow doesn’t. There is economic interdependence among the minority communities and the majority Hindus in Lucknow. For making the Lucknowi kurtas, both communities are interdependent and hence there is an economic activity among them, which helps prevent the occurrence of communal issues.

In his book, 'Ethnic conflicts and civic life: Hindus and Muslims of India,’ political scientist Ashutosh Varshney noted that Kozhikode is among the towns in India with fewer communal incidents.

[Ashutosh Varshney, who conducted a study in some of the major Indian cities, found that in Calicut, Hindus and Muslims engage with each other via civic life, political parties and non-religious movements for social justice or land reforms to trade unions and business groups.]

What are your latest findings on communal aspects in Kerala?

In my latest study 'Is Kerala more secular than other parts of the country,’ I found that the inequality in the state is increasing. Due to this, they will accuse their immediate opponent of causing inequality. I also found there are caste and religious-based residential areas in certain parts of the state among the economically elite people. 

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