No one stood up against it'

Published : Oct 08, 2010 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr K.N. Panikkar.

in Thiruvananthapuram

DR K.N. PANIKKAR, a historian known for his consistent commitment to secularism, democracy and human rights, is the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council and the Chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research. He is a former Professor and Dean at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a former Vice Chancellor of Sree Sankaracharya University in Kerala.

His initiatives in many communally sensitive hot spots in the country, including Ayodhya and Gujarat, and scholarly writings and interventions have contributed much to the campaign against communalism. He is a founding trustee of ANHAD (Act Now For Harmony and Democracy), an organisation formed in the wake of the Gujarat carnage to counter the menace of communalism. Also a campaigner for minority rights, he has written many books and articles on the dangers of communalism and on the need for a concerted secular effort to check it. He has edited a number of books, including A Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism.

In this interview in the wake of the travails of Professor T.J. Joseph, who recently became the target of an unsettling attack by a fundamentalist group, a rare event in Kerala, Dr Panikkar spoke to Frontline about the complex web of factors that are slowly leading to a steady process of ideological communalisation, hardening of communal prejudices and the rising spectre of fundamentalist attacks in the State. Excerpts:

Three events have occurred. One, a controversy over a degree examination question alleging that it denigrated a particular religion; second, a murderous attack on the professor who set the question paper; and now, the third, the dismissal from service of the teacher by the Church-run college management. How do you see this series of events in the context of rising fundamentalism in Kerala?

There is a general impression that Prof. T.J. Joseph had committed a mistake. I do not think so. I do not think what he has done is a wrong act. What he has done is to prepare this question paper borrowing from (film-maker) P.T. Kunjumuhammed's essay in which, of course, he has changed the name. This is understandable because instead of using a lunatic, a name has been given. But why I say there is nothing wrong in it is because there is nothing blasphemous or insulting to the Prophet in it. Using the name Muhammad is not an insult to the Prophet. I mean, if you go by that, Rama and Krishna are popular names among Hindus, as Muhammad is among Muslims. And if you accept the argument that you cannot even take those names, then it is a very strange situation. So the argument that giving the name to the character is an insult is not acceptable. It is those who looked at it (who interpreted it like that).

It is linked also to a question of the vulnerability of the academic space. It is a situation in Kerala. In other States and other universities, and so on, what you do in the classroom, how the question paper is set, and so on, is not a question of public concern. Not that the public should not take any interest in the universities or what goes on in the academic field. But in Kerala, even those who are not very much informed about it interfere in academic matters. So to me, as an academic, it is a matter of major concern that the academic space is thus vulnerable. It impacts on the general academic atmosphere, involving both teachers and students. It has not happened at all in India except during the BJP regime. [That] it is happening in Kerala today goes against the grain of the State.

Universities are places where new ideas have to emerge and existing ideas have to be questioned. So if we accept that the question paper set by him has to be vetted or approved or questioned by those who are not in the know of it, whose credentials are totally different, I think it is very, very dangerous for intellectual activity. So the assumption that you can proceed on the basis that a mistake has been committed is to be questioned on academic (not political) grounds. And I am very surprised that the academic community of the State, the intelligentsia, has not said a word.

Now, about the attack against the teacher.

It is a matter of major worry in Kerala. Whether one agrees or not that Kerala has become the recruiting ground for terrorists one does not really know the details about that. But this incident and some of the other incidents in different parts of the State are an indication that in Kerala society some sort of insensitivity has developed. Fundamentalism is on the rise in the country, no doubt. This incident is an expression of fundamentalism of the worst sort in Kerala. Fundamentalism is basically violent. Fundamentalists are prone to violence and, therefore, also inhuman. I don't think anybody with an element of humanism in him can act like that. It is a very cruel act. It is (a sign of) increasing brutality in our society. Look at the 18th or 19th century: communal clashes and violence have occurred. But if you compare the scale and intensity of both, what has happened in the 18th or 19th century is nothing, lasting for a day or two. But what happened recently in India in Gujarat, Orissa, and now in Kerala, is an extreme sense of brutality. Whatever the predicament you have, you don't chop off the limb of a person! This is a qualitative change in the whole mentality of people. This I think can happen only when dehumanisation takes place. Fundamentalism basically dehumanises people. So I look upon this as an instance of that. The society in Kerala has not stood up against it. And there was no collective expression or denunciation from any quarter, not even from politicians. I think it should have been a reason for a great upsurge.

But then the management goes ahead and dismisses him from his job.

I have not met this professor. But from various accounts, he was a popular teacher who took much interest in his job. There was no reported incident in the past of his communal propensity or instigation. He himself has said he is a believer and all that. Now, Christian managements, by their past record in education, are either philanthropic or humanitarian. These are the two pillars on which a Christian educational enterprise rests, and one would expect them to stand against fundamentalism. So when the teacher's palm was cut off it was very clear that it was an act of fundamentalism, so one expected the management to stand against fundamentalism and stand by the teacher. But instead, what they did was to compromise with fundamentalism. By dismissing the teacher, they condoned the fundamentalist actions.

The [college] inquiry commission's report had said that they are recommending the dismissal of the teacher, because otherwise it will lead to communal antagonism and communal riot. But no communal riot has taken place between Christians and Muslims. All that happened was a fundamentalist group that had gathered there decided to make a riot. It is they who rioted. It was actually a law and order situation and the government declared Section 144. So what they assumed to be the situation was not the situation at all. It was the fundamentalist groups that took out a procession to the college, attacked shops, and so on. Therefore, from both the academic point of view and the law and order situation there was no reason to dismiss him. Instead, the action of dismissing the teacher has shown that the college was prepared to compromise with fundamentalism, whatever the reason may be, they may have been afraid or whatever. That is most unfortunate as it goes against the grain of liberalism, which should essentially be part of college management.

Unprecedentedly, perhaps, on such an issue, the Church too played a role.

The Church has supported the college management in whatever wrong steps it has taken. Now the worst thing has happened because they have circulated a pastoral letter. The Church should not have interfered in this. By this the Church has shown that they have great stakes in the college. Obviously, they are controlling it. It is once again an action which, in an educational institution, should be unacceptable because one would like the college to be secular and act in a secular fashion.

Then, the college management has said they would take him back in two contexts: One is if the court orders it to and the second is if the other community condones him. What they have therefore done, for no reason, is to legalise an issue which is a matter of internal management. And, secondly, they have again communalised the issue. If the Muslim community I don't know how the community' can express it is given this option, then the college will find it very difficult to function in the future.

Can events like these, their happening in a State like Kerala, be seen as an extension of a worldwide phenomenon or are there major reasons to be sought from within the State itself?

It is a global phenomenon, the violence associated with fundamentalism. Generally, attitude towards religion has also changed the world over. More religiosity is now seen. In Kerala, of course, the public expression of religiosity is much more than in any other part of the country. But I think Kerala as a State has its own problems. If you look at the history of Kerala in the last 20 years, there are two trends. One, there is a process of ideological communalisation that has taken place. It is not political communalisation. But ideologically Kerala society has become communal, even if it is not expressed in any terms. But it has become a major issue. There is a clear division that has taken place between the communities, publicly, not in private. I think that has affected the general atmosphere in the State.

The second is, Kerala is an odd mixture of affluence and poverty, I think, much more than any other part of India. There is considerable affluence in a section of society and spending, acquisitions, and so on are rising. But at the same time, there is a substantial section of society which is really deprived. And I think the recruitment to fundamentalism is taking place from the latter. So when people ask me whether Kerala has become a recruitment ground for terrorists, I would say Yes' and No'. Yes', because there is this section from which people are drawn: but that there is a social sustenance in the State, of communal harmony, and so on, which has not really affected some sections of society.

The theory is that Muslim fundamentalism arises as a reaction to Hindu fundamentalism and that fundamentalism is also a manifestation of socio-economic differences in society. Are such reasons still valid or do you think religious fundamentalism in Kerala has acquired an engine of its own, something that drives it even without these factors?

The first two are very true in the sense that Islamist or Muslim fundamentalism really took root after Babri Masjid. That gave an impetus and young people, particularly, wanted to raise the questions, who are we?', what are we?', and so on. The second is also true as the Sachar Commission Report has shown. But I think the third point has substance in the specificity of Kerala. You know, the incidents of communal tension in Kerala have by and large originated in the coastal areas, throughout. I have gone to several places where communal tension has taken place, like for instance, Kodungallur, where I had to speak from within a police cordon. It was such a bad situation. The uncertainty of life in the coastal areas has given rise to communal antagonism. Take what happened in Marad, Vizhinjam, etc. Youngsters have taken not really to communal riots, but to a sort of fundamentalism and it is from that section that the organisers of fundamentalism in the country have been able to find recruits. So I think that is a specific situation in Kerala.

Is it not surprising that in a State known for its progressive political traditions the youth and the new middle class, too, are increasingly being lured by fundamentalist forces?

You may know the affluent sections, which are able to make their life on the basis of the Gulf connection they come back by and large not as modern men, but as Muslims' even though they went there as mere individuals', just as any Hindu going to the Gulf comes back as a communal person. At the same time, those who are left behind, their sense of deprivation is much more. It is not like the feudal times. Now young boys who have a smattering of education, or without even that also their ambitions and aspirations have gone up and with the type of life that they have, they have no way of fulfilling those ambitions. The other section is the affluent-dependent, the young lot if you go to Malappuram and such places they may not be doing anything, but they get money from family members who have gone abroad. For them, all these things are very attractive. So it is a very complex situation in Kerala today because now the fundamentalists in Kerala are not very much in Malappuram, but in the south, in places like Kollam, or Attingal, and so on. Possibly, I think it [the threat of fundamentalism] is not from where the Muslims are able to have a say in matters, where they are in large numbers, and so on, but in areas where they are not large in number, or where they are not able to lead a comfortable life. I think there the problem arises.

In what way does all this reflect as a failure of the mainstream political parties?

I think before that there is also another problem. Muslims have not produced, as in other parts also but much more here, they have not produced a modern intelligentsia. There are very few, and those who are there are not able to have any rapport with their community. That I think is a major issue and because of that the leadership is exercised by those who are conservative and obscurantist. And when you think about religious leaders, they used to play a progressive role in the past. But not now. They now move towards fundamentalism.

And, one of the tragedies of the [Kerala] Muslims is that after 1921, they did not move towards secular, nationalist politics, but they moved towards religious politics or politics based on religion. It is the Muslim League that emerged by the 1930s, and the Muslims generally kept away from the national movement maybe because of the memory of 1921.

In fact the Congress did not take a very serious interest in the Muslim areas during that time, because until 1921 they were not accepted by the Muslims. I think that is a very major factor. If you look at other major parties, like the Left, they were not able to reach out to Muslims in these areas and display their religious-political influence in these areas. In fact, in the last [Lok Sabha] elections, what was thought would be a turning point where the Left made substantial gains in the entire Muslim belt of Malabar did not turn out to be so. I think, the organisational strength, which should have emerged out of that, and the activity to bring these sections did not happen, and so we are now back to square one.

But at the same time they have not been able to influence Muslims to a large extent as these religion-based parties do. That is, the Muslims in these areas could be influenced possibly not through political activities alone, because they have highly entrenched beliefs and social relationships. So the politically progressive sections can enter those communities only through entirely different interventions. That is something that has not happened. Therefore, it is easy for them to move towards fundamentalism, because it is emotional and there is no emotional content in other rational politics that others present. [In this context] we should also look at where the Hindu communal groups are advancing in Kerala. Not in politics, but in social and cultural fields. It is the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] that has grown here, not the BJP, which is stagnant. I don't think the Bajrang Dal has grown. But the VHP has grown considerably, because the VHP's activity now is completely through the social and cultural arena. The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] has not grown, but the VHP has, because the VHP has now taken over what the RSS was doing here earlier. Now I think the VHP has got their units in every village. How do you counter that? You cannot counter that by having a meeting in that area or making a speech!

Coming back to the issue of the attack on the professor. In its aftermath, a disturbing argument was heard in the State, raised by leaders of some fundamentalist groups. They were asking why there was such a hue and cry over the attack on the teacher in a State which was every other day witnessing a political murder or the other.

The difference absolutely is that it is not political. Communal violence in a State like Kerala will have major repercussions. In the case of political violence, there are given structures and political leaders cannot encourage or justify murder or violence. Political murders take place in most cases in the heat of the moment and are not planned in that way. So such violence can be contained. But here are some people who do not follow any norms and are controlled by their fundamentalist mentors. Fundamentalist violence is planned and executed with the approval of the leaders and they are aimed at a particular community. So there is a qualitative difference, and fundamentalist violence is a much more dangerous phenomenon.

Why was the reaction to the attack on the professor so muted in Kerala? I think it is fear. They [the fundamentalists] are totally irrational.

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