Sensitising to the ethnic dimension

Published : Dec 20, 2002 00:00 IST

Kaleidoscopic Ethnicity by Prema A. Kurien; Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 2002; pages 217, price not given.

ETHNICITY as a problem is seen usually as a matter of conflict or a problem of adjustment and/or assimilation. At a policy level there are many other ways in which sensitisation to the ethnic concept can be fruitful. A doctor may find different responses from persons from different ethnic groups to pain - some ethnic groups suffer pain with stoic grace, others with much display of emotions. Medication may have to take into account the cultural milieu of the patient. Nor has there been much research in India on ways in which ethnic attributes impact on the political economy, or indeed, the ways in which the political-economy suctions ethnic groups differentially into its dynamics. Aside from the basic disciplines, the professionals in the human sciences, the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher, the journalist, the marketing executive, etc., can be enriched by being sensitised to the ethnic factor.

Prema Kurien's research focuses on ethnicity as a process which impacts on the ways in which the Malayalee migrant from three different communities in Kerala copes with the lure of the lucre from the Gulf countries. The locales for this study are: a predominantly Muslim village in Mallapuram district, a Hindu village in north Thiruvananthapuram district and a Christian village in south-central Kerala (the name of the district, in this last instance, is not mentioned). The villages are given pseudonyms of Veni, Cherur, and Kembu respectively.

The story is of the Muslims of Veni, who turn inward to their cultural boundary under the impact of the Gulf migration; the Ezhavas of Cherur, who shake off their primeval status and cultural limitations with the challenge of migration to the Gulf countries; and the Syrian Christians of Kembu, who are enabled to adjust to the hardships of migration and to their new-found wealth with minimum stress on the family system. This book is primarily an anthropological documentation of the process of ethnicisation of these three communities. The comparative documentation of the Mappilas (as the Muslims of the Malabar region are known), the low caste Ezhavas and the Syrian Christians of ancient origin, enables analytical categories through which the kaleidoscope of ethnicity may be discerned.

Of the three communities, the Mappilas have had the most psychic and memory baggage to carry from historical events in India, and hence were the least enabled as a community to surf the opportunities presented by the gulf openings. However, they were the most tuned to the culture of West Asia and were the first to migrate. Indeed, it was a kind of return migration after many generations. Muslims came to Kerala's coasts on the wave of trade routes from West Asia as early as the 9th century. Many of them stayed back, marrying local women, and founding a prosperous community engaged in trade and the merchant marine. This prosperity slipped away under the pressure of conflict with and competition from the better technology and superior ships of the Portuguese and the British. The Mappilas of north coastal Kerala were particular targets of repression under the colonial regime; their 1921 rebellion was crushed ruthlessly. At the time when the saga of the migration to the Gulf countries began, the community was in dire poverty, and bitter against Western culture and institutions which brought such havoc in their lives. Predictably, migration opportunities to the Gulf came from Arab traders from West Asia, who gave support, sometimes even with illegal passage on their ships. Migration was facilitated through community networks. The migrants left their wives and children behind in their village, where they were looked after by members of the joint family and community.

The author skilfully articulates the ethnicisation of the Mappilas - consolidating social norms based exclusively on their religious identity, shedding common norms and rituals practiced earlier with other communities when they enjoyed a status as high as the Nairs. They began to adopt distinct types of clothing, hair styles, food preparation and rituals to demonstrate their separation from Hindus and completely rejected Western education and culture. Ethnicisation of the Mappilas enhanced patriarchy and rejection of modern education. This stance inward and back towards the past has not enabled the Mappilas to absorb the full benefits from the income generated by the migrants.

MIGRATION had a completely different kind of impact on the Ezhavas because their encounter with the British was very different. With the release of market forces and commercial activities and opportunities for modern education, the very low caste Ezhavas could shake off caste restrictions and participate in the educational and occupational opportunities. This was possible both because of the support from the colonialists and because of the reform movement against untouchability and caste led by Sri Narayana Guru in the region. In fact, with the exposure to modern ideas, reform movements gathered momentum all over India. It may be of relevance to mention here my contribution, albeit at a more macro level, on the implications of the non-synchronised entry of the different communities to the modernisation process (The Communal Edge to Plural Societies: India and Malaysia, Vikas, Delhi, 1981). The colonial impact was differential and uneven on the different communities because of their different ethnic and socio-economic attributes.

Motivational foundation for migration aspirations to the Gulf countries among the Ezhavas was laid during the colonial period. However, in spite of the stimulating encounter with Western culture, the Ezhavas retained their core institutions such as matrilocality and matrilineality. International migration strengthened these practices since wives were left behind in the village. Women of this community had always worked in the fields, in their own as well as outside, for wages and had control over their income. Migration of the men strengthened the independence and self-reliance of the women. The wealth which accrued from the migrants (who had both semi-skilled jobs like masons, welders, drivers, etc., and technical ones like electricians, auto mechanics, etc.) changed the life-style of the community at home. The detailed description of life-style changes in the community enables some very interesting insights into social change in the area. The Ezhavas' new attitude became a challenge to the traditional upper status rituals and practices, and resulted in, as observed by Prema Kurien, a gradual "decastification of status" in the area.

THE migration impact was the most positive on the Syrian Christian community in Kembu. Their absorptive capacity for new experiences and new opportunities was already created by close and positive interaction with the colonialists and patronage from Christian missionaries. Migration to the Gulf countries was less painful for the migrants from Kembu since their wives and children could accompany them. The Syrian Christian women, having been educated in the mission educational institutions, could find jobs as nurses, teachers, etc. In fact, the Christians from Kerala already had a tradition of migration to Singapore and Malaysia, to meet the demand for nurses, of course, and also for other professionals, such as teachers, accountants, etc. The point to be noted is that the Christian migrants to the Gulf were mostly professionals: doctors, engineers, accountants, nurses, clerks promoted to managerial positions, and so on. They earned good income and, compared with other communities, they did not have extensive commitments back home. Also, opportunities for migration were facilitated through networking with missionaries in India and abroad.

The Gulf migration had the impact of consolidating the ethnic identity of all the three communities in terms of the criteria of exclusiveness. Each community flaunted its new-found wealth and jockeyed for status. The most remarkable aspect in this study is the account of the Ezhavas, a community which was poor and at one time occupied the lowest end of the status hierarchy. The wealth from migrant income has transformed this community into an ethnic group competing for power and privilege equally with other status groups in Kerala.

Aside from the timely and interesting account of the kaleidoscope of ethnicity, the book contributes towards the understanding of the Gulf migration phenomenon. It gives an account of the pain, the hardships, the sudden and unforeseen losses, as when Saddam Hussein's army invaded Kuwait wiping out the jobs and bank deposits of migrants from India. At the end of the day, we find that the returns from Gulf migration are relatively small.

A little consumerism, a plot of land, a house, a little more education, but there are no mega stories of massive investments in industry or agriculture. The transformation of the Kerala countryside did not happen. The migrants' income was too little, too uncertain for these to be ploughed back in productive enterprises. Investments were mostly for enhancing family well-being: expenditure on education, marriages, rituals, entertainment (television and so on), and of course, gadgets. It was, it seems, for the communities, just a joy ride out of extreme poverty, the glimpse of a more comfortable world, but not enough productive investment for dramatic changes in the economy. But certainly, more powerful ethnic leverages in the polity have been created. The book may well be read as a case study for the understanding of "everyday ethnicity at work", for an understanding of the process of ethnicisation which is taking place all over India today.

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