The Tamil Muslim & Liberalism

That the internet makes dichotomies starker is truism worth repeating many times over. Except in India, that effect spilled over beyond the interwebs and got a crassness amplifying effect to make the internet appear nuanced. One can despair at the state of affairs and feel smug and superior about mathematically illiterate pundits and history-ignorant narrative pedlars on print and television, in the other places of popular culture and worse even in academia.

Yet, the wonder of such a highly populated place is that there are still enough people who truly make one proud of others’ thought in a way Rabindranath Tagore aspired. Sometimes one meets them when interviewing for a job or attending a conference. At others, a remarkably original paper or an auto driver. Or, Kombai S. Anwar. As Anwar mentions in his documentary, he is Tamil, Muslim and many other things. Among them, a man of that old City called Madurai. The most endearing aspect about his presentation is usually the thoughtful helplessness he displays when some opinionated blowhard tries to assert a certain view point.

The documentary itself is fascinating and you should buy it simply for the reason that as a society we need more Anwars doing even better historical research and they should see a way to sustain themselves doing that. As a frill, you get to listen to MS Subbulakshmi reciting the Alhamadhu Sura and that sort of indicates the tone for much his documentary — an honest and proud Tamil son’s exploration of his Muslim identity[1].

The relevance of Anwar’s research and exploration to Puram is slightly different, however. And that begins with his wry observation that when he travelled to a large Indian metro, other Muslims there asked him “You don’t know Urdu? What kind of a Muslim are you?” And how he struggled to explain that he came from a family that was a serious participant in the anti-Hindi agitations and that they were Tamil. That and his wonderful use of temple scriptures to point to how Muslims were integral to the village fabric in the Tamil country from the 10th Century on makes it apparent that unlike many of India’s Muslims in northern parts, Tamil Muslims[5] did not come from invasions. Their presence, as noted by the temple inscriptions, came about in order to take pepper in return for gold. Later, they were settled close to the temple in every Tamil village, next only to the priests in many cases, because the Muslim brought in the horse for Tamil kings[2].

Anwar in reaffirming the closely interwoven nature of the social fabric in Tamil country, made one wonder about an uncomfortable question he did not raise: but what if that person isn’t as much a Tamil and is just Muslim? Does that make that late entrant any less worthy of celebration[6]? The political loyalty of the Tamil Muslim, as Anwar mentions, is with mainstream Tamil parties and often indistinguishable from other social groups. In other parts of India, this is often not the case and their loyalties may strictly be against one group, if not for another. Whether this is attributable to later entrants being seen and invaders initially and not being woven into the social fabric early enough or if it’s simply attributable to Muslims forming a larger proportion of population in states like UP and Bihar is a question one then grapples with.

In the same Lit Fest, Rahul Pandita spoke about the silence of the majority Kashmiri Muslims in driving the minority Pandits out of Kashmir. That made one even more uncomfortable. Whatever errors of silent omission that are attributed to friends, neighbours and colleagues among the Muslims of Kashmir in 1991 is easily attributable to ordinary Germans in Nazi era, ordinary Serbs in Bosnia, Hutus in Rwanda and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka[4]. And the silence of ordinary members of the majority, not in commission but in omission, is what seems to always be a sufficiency criterion of violent oppression. And the necessary one — a sense of majoritarian victimhood. It’s deeply disturbing to think that is precisely what the BJP’s political rhetoric tends towards in recent times; more among their loud mouthed and astro-turfed Twitter gangsters than actual office bearers, though that distinction is fast eroding with a constant feedback loop that has resulted in more of the absurd M Lekhi and less of affable Nalin Kohli.

Whatever one may think about these questions, it simply is clear that the burden of cosmopolitanism is simply not on the minority. And is always on the majority. So the expectation of assimilation from the ‘other’ is idiotic, illiberal and chauvinist. And this especially when the minority in question, on average lives atrociously poor lives with appalling social indices[3].


[1] — Here you can listen to Kumari Aboobacker sing the Thirupugazh on Prophet Muhammad! His rendering of ‘kaapi raagam’ was quite good, too.

[2] – The mosque in Kilakkarai is beautiful and as Anwar points out, it’s built in Dravidian style.

[3] – Muslims as a group are worse off than the average in most measures.

[4] – Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour cites a slight variant where middle class residents of Delhi looted shops in the aftermath of 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

[5] – These are Muslims from the southern part of Tamil Nadu. As Anwar indicates elsewhere, some Muslims in Tamil Nadu from the northern part came in with Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah as the Mughal Empire’s foray and thus descend from the same stock that Mulsims from other parts of India do.

[6] – And as a coincidence one such bleak and hopeless portrayal won the prize.

3 thoughts on “The Tamil Muslim & Liberalism

  1. hemen parekh

    Transforming India

    Here is a PARTIAL list of initiatives that may transform India – if successful

    But let not ” Fear of Failure ” prevent us from undertaking a ” Out of Box ” thinking

    In a democracy , people have a right to differ

    Hence , many will not agree – but they must have their say

    In the end , there is only ONE WAY to find what works – and what does not


    MY LIST ( not in order of importance or priority ) :

    > Food Security Bill

    > Connecting 2.5 lakh panchayats thru broadband

    > Aakash Tablets for 220 million students

    > Lokpal Act / Delivery of Services Act ( ” Magic Wand ” App ? )

    > Bank Transaction Tax / Demonetization of Rs 1000 currency note

    > Aadhar Identification Card

    > Electoral Reforms / Right to Recall ( ” VotesApp ” mobile App ? )

    > CAG audit of Private Companies using Government resources

    > 4G Wireless Internet all over India

    > Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor

    > Amritsar-Delhi-Kolkata Industrial Corridor

    > Natural Resources Allocation Policy

    > Political Party’s Funds under RTI scrutiny

    > Social Media based marketing

    > Liberalization in FDI ( Entire economy – not just retail )

    > Direct Transfer of Subsidies to poor

    > Government funding of Elections

    > Interlinking of Major Rivers

    > ” India Post Bank ” with 139,040 branches in Rural areas

    > Bank A/C for every adult by 2016

    > Divestment / Closure of loss-making / bleeding PSUs

    > Imparting skills to 500 million youth ( NSDC )

    Here are my own suggestions :


    * As incomes climb ( for an individual or for a corporate ), reduce taxation
    rates for each higher slab ( reverse of present system )
    Eliminate incentive for tax – evasion
    Reward honesty / efficiency / productivity

    * Introduce Amnesty Scheme for black money declaration
    No questions asked ( re Source of funds ) for investment in specific
    Infrastructure Bonds , with tax – free interest for 10 years

    > JOBS

    * With ever-increasing mechanization / automation in every sector of
    economy , there is no way , we can create 12 MILLION new jobs ,
    either in Organized or Unorganized sectors , year after year

    Our only hope lies in creating ” SELF – EMPLOYMENT ”

    To generate massive self – employment , provide generous , low interest
    loans and ” Tax Free ” income (up to Rs 5 Lakh/ year) for self-employed

    * Create an ” Online Job Exchange ” to replace 943 existing physical
    Employment Exchanges , with 42 million current registrations

    Call it ” GLOBAL-RECRUITER ”

    Require ALL job-portals of India , to RSS feed into Global-Recruiter ,

    # Every single job advt posted everyday( including current )
    # Every resume posted everyday ( including current )

    Make these jobs and resumes ” searchable ” from ALL the job-portals ,
    irrespective of , on which job portal , these were posted

    After matching ” JOBS ” with ” RESUMES ” , Global Recruiter to send out
    daily Job – Alerts on the smart phones of the jobseekers , thru a mobile
    App , ” MY JOBS ” – against which , candidates can apply from mobile

    Make it mandatory for every Smart phone and Tablet sold ( or given away
    free ) in India , to pre-install ” My Jobs ” App

    And , most certainly , those 9 million Aakash – 4 tablets for which tender
    opens on 28th Jan 2014

    Will Narendra Modi / Rahul Gandhi / Arvind Kejriwal etc , incorporate these , in their poll manifestos for April 2014 election ?

    * hemen parekh ( 15 Jan 2014 / Mumbai )

  2. Afridi

    தங்களின் முற்போக்கான கறுத்துகலும் துள்ளியமான ஆறாய்ச்சியையும் ஆவளுடன் தினமும் எதிர்பார்த்து படிப்பேன். அப்போதெல்லாம் மணிதநெயத்தின் மீதான நம்பிக்கையும் மீண்டும் பெருவேன். வாழ்க வலமுடன்.

  3. Vikram

    I am very happy to have come across this blog, and this is an excellent post. I always felt that the Muslims of Tamil Nadu identified very strongly as Tamil Muslims, and have not fallen victim to the communal politics that plagues much of India, apart from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and its good to finally get a clear explication of this.

    And you are also absolutely correct in pointing out the absurdity of the majoritarian feeling of victimhood that many in North India have internalized. Otherwise, the on the ground syncretism between Hindus and Muslims is/was(?) as deep and widespread as that of Tamil Nadu (see for eg: Sharing the Sacred by Anna Bigelow).

    If there is one thing I would add to this discussion, it is the attitudes of the North Indian Muslim elite. It remains a fact that they followed a caste system much like the Hindus. They mostly saw Indian society with the foreign born Muslims at the apex, upper caste Muslims next, upper caste Hindus below them, and then everyone else, Hindu or Muslim at the bottom. When these elites started losing political power through the 1700s and 1800s, their response was completely inadequate. Faced with growing Hindu mobilization and the reality of a large Hindu majority, they eventually turned to separatism.

    It seems that the elite Muslims of North India could not make a decisive switch to thinking of their period of dominance in cultural/social terms instead of political. Hence the elusive search for political dominance by this elite, which led to them using the mass Muslims as a bulwark, even though they shared little in common with them, disinterest and even hostility from elite Hindus, which has led to the current impasse.

Comments are closed.