History, Faith, Tokenisms and Vote Bank Politics

Structure of old Cheraman Masjid                    Courtesy: en.wikipedia.org

Last year, 2014, we neither heard nor witnessed any Eid Greetings from the Prime Minister’s Office. Analysts speculated that a hurriedly planned program in BAARC was organized just so that he would not be required to answer questions on the notable omission. This is just a month after he had not only visited the Pashupatinath temple (Nepal) but gifted materials worth Rs 4 crore 60 lakhs there. While the news of attempts to get schools to work on Christmas (sic) and the overzealous efforts of the ministry of HRD in this regard made news, this silence did not. Three years before, the refusal to don the customary skull cap had led to much speculation, and heat. So what’s in a name, a visit, some words? Are these mere tokenisms for a head of government? Or are they ‘appeasement’ for the small minds of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)?  

It’s your good guess, which would be as good as mine. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander… 

So while it’s fine for the fine man at the top to indulge in his bit of isms, it’s not for Sanjay Joshi (remember the old animus between the two pracharaks) to wish fellow Indians, ‘Ramzan Mubarak.’ So to appoint an incompetent chancellor to a university, a man who is at best is a businessman of questionable practices (so what if he belongs to the Muslim minority?) is fine for the MHRD, but for self respecting Muslim professionals to demand a share in representation, in India’s police, administrative services, teaching fraternity etc borders on the defiant.

Now we hear that the spin doctors surrounding the man at the top, will help him perform the ultimate, a visit to a historic site, to India’s oldest and first masjid, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, in Kodungalloor in Kerala. This writer visited the area after the historic tsunami in 2004. As inscribed on the masjid’s stone marker, the mosque was built about 1,400 years soon after Islam’s arrival on India’s shores. The Arabian Sea has been the first waterway and connection between India and West Asia. Hence, Christianity, and Islam travelled with traders not through cruel military might as RSS-sponsored history teaches us.

Kodungalloor was the capital of the ancient kings of Kerala and from 622-628 CE the ruler of the realm was a great savant called Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi Varma. Cheraman Perumal was the title given to the senior-most of the kingdom’s rulers. Malik bin Deenar and 12 of his trade associates landed in Kerala and were engaged in trade there. Their way of trading however was distinct from that of earlier Arabs and attracted people beyond mere business relationships and this is what took the king and his men to the practices of Islam, a faith to which they had recently converted. Stories and accounts of the faith and the Prophet Mohammed enthralled the ruler, who eventually (historical accounts differ, converted to a faith, he believed to be revolutionary that spoke of equality and justice).

The Masjid, as such can be seen was designed and constructed according to principles of Hindu art and architecture. It is situated in Methala village, in Kodungalloor, barely 20 km from the Irinjalakuda railway station in Kerala’s Thrissur district. There are two tombs, that of Malik bin Deenar and his sister, within the masjid premises.

Until 1984 the Cheraman Juma Masjid retained its facade as a typical Kerala structure. In 1984 the local Muslim jamaat, which repaired the building, decided that the new structure should be more like an Islamic shrine with minarets. While retaining the inner configuration of the edifice, the exterior was changed completely. Referring to this, a member of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage reportedly said that in 1984 the trust was formed to protect Indian heritage from such radical alterations. But by 1984 the Masjid had been given a new exterior. Otherwise the trust would have appealed and ensured that the 1,400-year-old facade of the structure (although repaired many times) was kept in its pristine grandeur.

The renovated Cheraman Juma Masjid       Courtesy: Shahinmusthafa, wikipedia

Following an exhaustive historical scrutiny, one thing however is certain. Muhammad bin Qasim or Mahmood Ghaznawi were not the originators of the Islamic faith in India; they were only some of the Muslim rulers associated with the rise of Islamic governance in the land. Yet popular lore (laced with hatred for the ‘Muslim’ other) prefers the narrative of the sword wielding Bin-Qasims or the marauder Ghaznavi (there have been similar marauders from the ‘Hindu’ side wherein Buddhist stupas have been razed) so that contemporary politics of supremacy and division can reign supreme. 

So if the spin doctors, do plan this move, could an Open Letter go out please to the premier? Ensure that due respect to ‘how faiths travelled’, the origins of Islam, and Christianity are given sanctity not just in PR token isms but in the taught history in our schools especially now that the ICHR/NCERT are being overtaken by men of a blighted vision.

A version of this appeared as the author’s weekly column in the daily, Rashtriya Sahara





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