When Muslims all over the world are being stereotyped as bigoted and as caught in a time warp which is not in tune with the so-called modernity of our times, it is an essential intellectual
and political task to foreground the fact that there were and are many ways of being Muslims. This is, indeed, a fact which is not only true of Muslims, but also of those who pursue other faiths. The book under review accomplishes the task of showcasing how no singular identity of Muslim can exhaust the multiple trajectories of their politics by exploring the politics of Muslims in Tamil Nadu during the period 1930 to 1967. The central question the book addresses is why “Tamil Nadu had a greater tradition of communal harmony than north India” (p 14).
The historical period explored in this book was marked by the emergence and consolidation of the non-brahmin Self-Respect (or Dravidian) Movement in Tamil Nadu under the leadership of E V Ramasamy. The book, based on extensive archival research, argues that the stance taken by the Self-Respect Movement on Islam went a long way in including the Tamilspeaking Muslims under the non-brahmin/ Tamil identity. Ramasamy took the Tamilspeaking Muslims to be former dalits who embraced Islam to escape the caste oppression of Hinduism. He also advocated the conversion of dalits to Islam as a means of overcoming untouchability. Being a rationalist, he criticised Islamic practices such as the purdah system, Muslim priesthood and pilgrimages. Instead, “the sayings of the Prophet… about the pursuit of knowledge and the use of reason were often cited to impress on Tamil Muslims the importance of rationality” (p 54).
Ramasamy and the Self-Respect Movement viewed Islam as superior to casteridden Hinduism. The absence of untouchability and idol worship, the ideology of equality, the practices of monotheism, divorce and widow remarriage were repeatedly cited to assert the superiority of Islam over Hinduism.
Tamil Muslim Ideologues
In response, Tamil Muslim ideologues, though wary of the atheism and socialism of the Self-Respect Movement, broadly courted the Dravidianist reading of Islam to present Islam as the “natural” religion. In illustrating this, the book gives a detailed account of the writings of various Islamic scholars from the Tamil region. A case in point is A K Abdul Hameed Baqawi’s Iyarkkai Matham (Natural Religion) which was translated into Urdu and English. The English version was endorsed by none other than Mohammed Ali Jinnah (p 55). Published in 1930, it demonstrated that Islam provided the blueprint for an ideal social order, economic structure, and political system. It showed how all the good characteristics of other religions and those of socialism were available in Islam (p 56).
In keeping with the Dravidianist reading of Islam and Hinduism, Iyarkkai Matham treated the category of “Hindu” as severely fragmented and confusing. It also, similar to the Self-Respect Movement, claimed that dalits would not achieve freedom as long as they called themselves Hindus and invited them to join Islam.
He had a six-point agenda which comprised the following: the end of purohit rule; the use of Tamil…as the medium for understanding their religion, Islam; the education of all Muslims in Tamil; the teaching of English and Tamil to all Muslim women to help them secure their rights; and the avoidance of brahminical positions on ‘national’ matters (p 70).
What is more, as the book shows, the Muslims responded to the conscious incorporation of them into the Tamil fold by the Dravidian movement, by asserting their own Tamilness. While Daud Shah (sic) “laboured to make Tamil the liturgical language of Muslims”, P Khalifullah donned the role of “the warrior devotee by leading the anti-Hindi agitations” of the 1930s (p 68). Tamil Muslims continue to use till today the slogan Islam engal vazhi, inba Tamil engal mozhi (Islam is our path, sweet Tamil is our language) (p 72).
Resistance and Othering
The incorporation of Muslims under an inclusive Tamil identity did not happen without resistance. Patronised by the brahmins and the north Indians, the Arya Samaj, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh attempted hard to forge a homogeneous Hindu identity in the region by othering the Muslims. Similarly, organisations such as the Jamaate-Ahamadiyya, the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamatt-e-Islami tried to wean away the local Muslims from their linguistic and regional afﬁliations and to calibrate a pan-Islamic identity.
However, the impact of both the Hindu and the Muslim fundamentalist organisations failed to have much of an impact in the region. As the book notes, it is basically due to the impact of the Dravidian politics:
The politics of mobilisation along caste lines in Tamil Nadu fragmented the categories of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’. Due to non-brahmin and Dravidian politics, there is a little scope for the construction of a single ‘Hindu’ community, and attempts by north Indian revivalist movements in that direction… were not successful. Similarly, the anti-Hindi agitations in 1938 and diverse Muslim responses to the Arya Samaj brought into sharp focus the contradictions and limitations in Tamil Muslims and Dakhni Urdu Muslims coming together to form a homogeneous Muslim community (p 15).
Stigma of Partition
The immediate post-independence period was a crucial time for the Muslims, both in the Tamil region and elsewhere in India:
When Muslims made any political demand as Muslims, they were frequently told that there was no place for ‘communal’ demands in postindependence India. The consequence of such an approach by the Congress was that neither were any of the demands of the Muslims met nor were they treated seriously (p 168).
Yet, the speciﬁcity of the politics in the Tamil region gave Muslims some extra political space compared to north India – even after Muslims were stigmatised by the nationalists and the Hindu right following the Partition of the British India. While the Muslim League, which was repeatedly dubbed as a communal organisation, was dismantled in north India, it found a home in Madras under the leadership of M Mohammed Ismail. Though Mountbatten advised Ismail in 1948 to dissolve the League, and Nehru, during a visit to Madras, threatened to crush the Muslim League irrespective of whether law gave place for it or not, Ismail nurtured it by employing different strategies.
Given the stigma of Partition, the Muslim League could not identify itself with the Dravidar Kazhagam (which was the new name for the Self-Respect Movement) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an off-shoot of the Dravidian movement. Both of them preached secession from the Indian Union. Given this constraint, the Muslim League collaborated with the Congress throughout the 1950s, the Congress calling the shots. It was only during the 1960s, when the DMK gave up their secessionism, that the Muslim League returned to it. In any case, though the Muslim League kept away from the DMK, a sizeable number of Muslims joined the DMK during the 1950s and became ofﬁce-bearers of the party. Within the new alignment, the book argues, “Muslims could speak for themselves and their political interests were accorded a place akin to that of other castes in Tamil Nadu” (p 169).
As a slice of regional history, the book offers a fascinating account of the politics of Muslims in the Tamil region, a theme which has not drawn adequate attention from social scientists and historians. But the signiﬁcance of the book goes beyond it being a regional history. Its larger merit lies in the fact that it shows with remarkable clarity that identity-formations are contingent and processual and they have to be treated as such if one needs to avoid identity politics sliding into violence.
[M S S Pandian (firstname.lastname@example.org) is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.]