Tamil Muslim identity

MUSLIM IDENTITY, PRINT CULTURE AND THE DRAVIDIAN FACTOR IN TAMIL NADU: J. B. P. More; Orient Longman Pvt. Ltd., 3-6-272, Himayatnagar, Hyderabad-500029. Rs. 550.

THIS BOOK is another important one on Tamil Muslim identity from the author who has earlier brought out a path-breaking work, Political Evolution of Muslims in Tamil Nadu and Madras, 1930-1947. This time his study pertains to Tamil Muslims in relation to print and Dravidian politics.

His first book focussed on Muslim politics in Tamil Nadu in the context of colonialism and their response to modernity in the two decades before India's freedom. Here the author recapitulates some of the themes and information but expands upon them in the backdrop of the spread of print in Tamil Nadu and in relation to Tamil identity politics as championed by the Dravidian movement under Periyar E.V.Ramaswamy and Anna.

The work begins with an extended account of the origins of Islam in Tamil Nadu and points to the differentiation within the Muslim community in terms of language and social background. He also draws attention to the dominance of Urdu-speaking Muslims in Tamil politics well into the 1920s.

This historical narrative is followed by two sketchy chapters, one on Muslim literature in Tamil Nadu before the advent of print, which dates back at least to the 16th Century A.D.and another on Tamil Muslim literature after print became available to natives from about the 1830s.

These three chapters are followed by a summary account of global Islamic resistance to print as it was seen to be the handmaiden of Christianity. Though More's account of questions of orality and literacy in Islamic culture does little justice to extant studies on these issues, his chapter on debates and controversies — pan-Islamic, pan-Indian and local — throws much light on the vitality and contentious nature of the world of Islamic culture.

In the last part More expands on his path-breaking article in Contributions to Indian Sociology a decade ago, and explores the intimate but ambivalent relationship between the Dravidian movement and Tamil Muslims. If the Dravidian movement provided the context for Tamil Muslims to assert themselves over Urdu-speaking Muslims and provided Muslims a secure place within a larger Tamil identity, the atheism of Periyar and the emphasis on an a-religious secularism bred insecurity in its turn.

Though More takes the story up to the early 1960s his narrative falls short of explaining the strong electoral support provided by the Tamil Muslims to DMK well until the mid-1990s. There is also a 100-page appendix where a catalogue, under various heads, of Tamil Muslim works up to 1920 is compiled.

This extremely useful work is not without its faults. While More takes misdirected pot-shots at Imtiaz Ahmad, Louis Dumont, Susan Bayly and others who have emphasised the indigenous nature of various Indian Muslims communities, he himself is unable to reconcile the specificity of Tamil Muslim culture to the idealised vision of a monolithic and homogenous global Muslim community (Perhaps this is the reason why he expects Tamil Muslims to use lithography even when Tamil movable types were freely available! p.84).

While the author cites a number of Tamil Muslim works, he consistently disappoints by not delving into the texts themselves. The chronological framework is also problematic because while the narrative part goes up to the 1960s, the catalogue itself stops at 1920.

For a book concerned with print culture, there is scarcely any mention of structures of print and publishing in Tamil Nadu, not to mention the complete silence about the surfeit of books published during the Khilafat movement which drew the surveillance of the colonial state to the Muslim literati. Also More does not see Tamil Muslim politics and literary culture in relation to the other religious communities.

However, all this is not to detract from the work that breaks new ground and is likely to trigger and enrich further studies on all the three themes mentioned in the title of the book.

Works such as these are likely to clear stereotypes about religious communities and foster better understanding among them.


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