The Moulavi who defied the orthodoxies of politics and religion
Vakkom Abdul Khadir Moulavi
ON A JULY afternoon when it was raining hard in Thiruvananthapuram, I drove past the heart of the city, Palayam, where a church, mosque and temple sit close by each other. As I was driving past the Martyrs’ Column, I looked towards the opposite side. I always do whenever I am in this part of the city. Next to the statue of Swadeshabhimani K Ramakrishna Pillai is a granite plaque of the front page of the Swadeshabhimani newspaper, which was confiscated by the then king of Travancore in 1910. The editor of the historic newspaper is known by its title while its owner, Vakkom Abdul Khadir Moulavi, my grandfather, who gave his editor unprecedented and unconditional freedom to run the paper as a weapon to fight corruption and nepotism which were rampant in those days, is, sadly, sidetracked in the act of remembrance.
The acclaimed Kenyan writer Ngũgĩwa Thiong’o says what the colonisers did was ‘replace memory’: erasing a people’s traditional memory and replacing it with the colonisers’. When they change the names of streets, roads, railway stations, airports, cities and towns, it is a way of erasing memories associated with them and creating a new realm of memories. Thiong’o says that in the present we rely on our memories of the past to prepare for tomorrow.
Omission is also an equally effective tool to alter the narrative.
Since my early childhood I somehow knew that the photograph of the old, bearded and stereotypical ‘moulavi’ in the textbooks was not my grandfather’s. The family stories and the many anecdotes I have heard from my childhood did not fit the man the textbooks carried. We had written many times to the government departments saying that the photographs (there were two or three different photographs) were not of Vakkom Moulavi’s but no one cared to listen. They just needed a photograph which looked like a ‘moulavi’. My grandfather died at the age of 58 and the photographs were those of an octogenarian’s, but as long as it looks like a ‘moulavi’, who cares for facts?
My sister and I used to say, looking at the smudged, poorly reproduced photograph in our social studies text, that he was not our grandfather. Our father, his youngest son, used to smile—a wry, helpless smile—as he had no memory of his father, who passed away when he was just a toddler.
It then became the need of the family to replace the photograph of the ‘unknown moulavi’ with the real photograph of Vakkom Moulavi, lest it be an injustice to the very identity of a man who had worked hard and spent all his bequeathed wealth for the uplift of society and his own community.
But the challenge was that there was not a single photograph of my grandfather with any of his 10 children or grandchildren. AK Suhair, my paternal cousin and chairman of Vakkom Moulavi Foundation Trust, took it up as a challenge and a mission. He spoke to people across the state, and after a long and winding search, he unearthed a rare and perhaps the only photograph of Vakkom Moulavi (1873-1932).
We fixed the image. Now, we have to appropriate the man’s work, his legacy.
My grandfather’s reformation efforts can be categorised mainly into two: social and religious/communitarian. And the tool he used to reach out was journalism.
This is what Jose Abraham writes in his book Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modern India: Socio-political and Religious Thought of Vakkom Moulavi: ‘Vakkom Moulavi is known as the ‘father’ of the Muslim socioreligious reform movement in Kerala. He effectively used communication networks to promote his ideas of patriotism, modern education and religious reform. The son of an educated and wealthy merchant, he received a well-rounded education, characteristic of the children belonging to the ‘noble’ (ashraf) class. Like his contemporaries, he was shaped by discourse on modernity, nationalism, and socioreligious reform movements in Kerala, North India and Egypt, spearheaded by Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida through the periodical al-Manar. He was a staunch patriot and began his career as a journalist. In 1905, he started a Malayalam newspaper named Swadeshabhimani (patriot) to educate people about their rights and responsibilities and campaign for a responsible government committed to public welfare in Travancore. He used his journals—two in Malayalam (Muslim in 1906 and Deepika in 1931) and one in Arabie-Malayalam (al-Islam in 1918)—to motivate Muslims to pursue modern education and to bring them to the forefront of the nationalist movement. He also initiated a religious reform movement among Mappilas condemning popular religion and rejecting the authority of ulama.’
Vakkom Moulavi was a man of many facets. But eight decades after his death, he is remembered more, selectively though, as a religious reformer who led the Islamic renaissance in Kerala than as a fearless journalist who had strong convictions of nationalism and a visionary understanding of the power of journalism.
Vakkom Moulavi was a man of many facets. But eight decades after his death, he is remembered more, selectively though, as a religious reformer who led the Islamic renaissance in Kerala than as a fearless journalist who had strong convictions of nationalism and a visionary understanding of the power of journalism
It has always amazed me how a man who had never travelled outside Kerala had such a progressive worldview and a futuristic and contemporary outlook. His thoughts and ideas had never gone down well with the Muslim orthodoxy in Kerala. Little wonder he still is a thorn in their flesh.
MA Shakoor, Senior Assistant Editor of Dawn and later London Correspondent of Pakistan Times and one of Vakkom Moulavi’s nephews, once wrote: ‘Maulavi Abdul Qadir did not accept the puritanical excesses, petty intolerance and the violent methods of enforcement often associated with Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and his movement.’
On the other hand, he believed in a secular society and worked hard to reform the Muslim community in Kerala because he knew unless minority communities were reformed and developed, India as a country could not make any real progress.
At a time and in an India where religious intolerance and jingoism have taken to violent and weird methods of expression where a moulavi should by all means be ‘an enemy within’ and a ‘patriot Muslim’ is an oxymoron, Vakkom Moulavi’s story should be told in a different light.
He was a man with a beautiful mind, with dreams of a secular and united India where people of different faiths lived in harmony. He also dreamt of his community devoid of all puritanical excesses and bigotry and superstitions.
He had once written a lead under the title ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity’ in his Al Muslim magazine that Muslims should abstain from slaughtering cows and buffalos even during Eid el Ad’ah if it hurts the religious susceptibilities of the Hindus! Imagine, a century ago a Muslim scholar from a small southern corner of the country urging his own community to do their bit for Hindu-Muslim unity.
He also had a sharp mind. Born into a wealthy family in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, he was trained in languages and subjects by hand-picked scholars. His wide reading and quest for knowledge helped him shape a national outlook and realise the importance of education for social development. Through foreign publications and books, he was in touch with what was happening around the world, be it matters to do with Islam, science or geopolitics.
Unlike most religious scholars, he encouraged students to study science and carried articles on photography and films. He believed they were powerful mediums.
Growing up as the children of his youngest son, Mohammed Iqbal, my sister and I were frequently told about our grandfather’s staunch belief in communal harmony and humanity and how he had opposed and written against the utter foolishness and wrong teachings of the clergy. Early in life our parents taught us the values of humanity, religious harmony and how important it is to love one another. These values were what ran in Father’s blood. It is the same with almost all of my uncles, aunts and cousins. Almost of all us are into reading, writing and teaching. My early memories are of dinner-time discussions between my father and uncles about world literature, philosophy and politics. Russell, Koestler, Burke were as familiar as dosa, appam and stew.
Academic Charles Kurzman has listed Vakkom Moulavi among one of the 52 scholars from across the globe who made up the early modernist Islamic movement in his edited book Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook. The entry on Vakkom Moulavi reads: ‘He was indefatigable in organising local Muslim organisations dedicated to secular education, including women’s education.
Influenced by Mohammed Abduh, Mohammed Rashid Rida’s Journal al-Manar and reformers of earlier centuries, Vakkom Moulavi launched his own call for return to what he called genuine islam which included the centrality of the Quran and Tawhid (unity), reinterpreted in the light of modern needs. This return included the overcoming of ignorance, taqlid (limitation of past scholars), the veneration of saints, and other popular religious practices.’
No wonder even today the popular clergy finds him a bitter pill to swallow.
BY THE AGE of 30, he had a patriotic heart beating fervently within him. He believed in the critical role of media in social reformation and in achieving and protecting civil rights and liberty. He questioned the ‘divinity’ of the royal and stood up for the rights of the people as citizens and not as mere ‘subjects’ of a king.
When he started Swadeshabhimani, as a weekly, in 1905, it was to empower the citizens of Travancore, and he was indeed championing the democratic rights of his countrymen at a time when civil rights movements had not gained any momentum across India.
When Vakkom Moulavi started Swadeshabhimani, as a weekly, in 1905, it was to empower the citizens of Travancore, and he was indeed championing the democratic rights of his countrymen at a time when civil rights movements had not gained any momentum across India
He imported an automatic flatbed printing press through Pierce Leslie from England more than a century ago at a cost of Rs 12,000—when an acre of land in Thiruvananthapuram could be bought for Rs 100! That Swadeshabhimani was the first newspaper in Kerala to subscribe to the Reuters news agency shows that Vakkom Moulavi was abreast of the latest trends in the industry. He named both the printing press and the newspaper ‘Swadeshabhimani’ as the leitmotif of his activities was patriotism, not business interests.
He knew it well that publishing a newspaper was not a lucrative business and when some of our relatives tried to dissuade him from launching Swadeshabhimani, he said: ‘I am not a businessman. What I want to achieve with the newspaper is social service and patriotism. Money is not the ultimate profit I need. I firmly believe that my country will get what I am looking for. That is enough for me.’
He also had a brave heart. He knew it well that it would not be an easy task when he had decided to use journalism for public welfare and prosperity. One of the mission statements of Swadeshabhimani was that the paper would not ‘conceal any public grievances fearing danger that may happen to us’.
In the editorial of the first edition of Swadeshabhimani on January 19th, 1905, its editor CP Govinda Pillai wrote: ‘We don’t declare that Swadeshabhimani will perform great things for the Muslim community and other communities, who desire their well-being. Our primary objective is that Swadeshabhimani’s work should promote public welfare and prosperity. To achieve this objective we will do our utmost. We will not conceal any public grievances fearing dangers that may happen to us.’
Jose Abraham writes: ‘When people’s rights and privileges were not respected by state bureaucrats, no one dared to raise voice against it and bring it to the attention of the Maharaja. Moreover, no journals in Travancore were ready to carry out this challenging responsibility. This was the gap that Swadesabhimani promised to fill. Through editorials and columns, people’s rights—where these were challenged or denied—were highlighted even by risking everything and always living up to its ideals. Therefore, taking into consideration the political and social structures of Travancore at the beginning of the twentieth century, Swadeshabhimani was the medium to express public grievances to the government, and indeed to challenge its responsibility.’
‘Fear, crookedness and greed will not build a country,’ he printed under the masthead of Swadeshabhimani and practised a brand of journalism no one had till then dared to do in India, let alone in Travancore. Influential nationalist newspapers like Leader (1909) from Allahabad and Bombay Chronicle (1910) began publishing only after Swadeshabhimani was suppressed, the press confiscated and its editor Ramakrishna Pillai sent into exile through royal decree.
Today, when we mention Swadeshabhimani everyone immediately relates to its editor, K Ramakrishna Pillai. The story of Vakkom Moulavi or Swadeshabhimani does not start or end with Ramakrishna Pillai. Both men were unique as journalists, and both had their own stories.
Be it the quirkiness of history or the narratives that recreate history, Vakkom Moulavi’s journalistic contributions—both before and after his association with Ramakrishna Pillai—have not been given the credit they deserve.
When he decided to launch the weekly, he had not met Ramakrishna Pillai, who, in fact, was the second editor of the newspaper. Vakkom Moulavi himself was competent enough and his pen sharp enough to make Swadeshabhimani a spearhead in political journalism but he had other calls in his life.
SHAKOOR WRITES: ‘The dual task of running ‘The Patriot’ (Swadeshabhimani) and leading the Muslim reformist movement at the same time soon proved unmanageable and Maulavi Abdul Qadir looked for an editor for ‘The Patriot’ who would measure up to the high standard o£ integrity, courage and political principles he had set for his journal.’
When the king of Travancore, on the recommendations of the dewan, suppressed Swadeshabhimani, confiscated the press and sent the editor into exile, Vakkom Moulavi refused to apologise for what he stood for and reportedly said that he did not want the press without the editor
In Ramakrishna Pillai, he found a young journalist with uncompromising adherence to principles, something he was looking for. ‘Ramakrishna Pillai was equally lucky to have found just the right man to work with. Maulavi Abdul Qadir placed implicit faith in Ramakrishna Pillai’s integrity, patriotism, and political ideals, which were identical to his own. Not once throughout the stormy life of the journal did Maulavi Abdul Qadir find the need to interfere in the editorial policy of his journal to keep it on course he had charted for it. This political collaboration which began in 1906 between two young radical democrats forms a glorious chapter in the political history of Kerala,’ writes Shakoor, my uncle.
It is crisis that brings out the true character of a man. We, his family, are proud of what he did when he was faced with adversity in the form of a royal decree to shut down the press. When the king of Travancore, on the recommendations of the dewan, suppressed Swadeshabhimani, confiscated the press and sent the editor into exile, Vakkom Moulavi refused to apologise for what he stood for and reportedly said that he did not want the press without the editor!
Losing the press meant a huge financial loss to him but he went on to publish Deepika and Al Islam in his efforts to ‘clean up’ the Muslim community which was steeped in superstitions and to argue his case for the need to educate Muslim women.
The only journalist by profession among his grandchildren, I have seen in my career many stories being spiked and suppressed due to the intervention of the management.
‘While Ramakrishna Pillai, editor of Swadeshabhimani, remains a hero today, it is highly unfortunate that Vakkom Moulavi, who founded the newspaper, has not been given his due place and recognition in the journalistic history of Kerala,’ writes Jose Abraham in Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modern India.
In his own right and by the merit of his sharp and incisive writing, Vakkom Moulavi was a shining example of a journalist and a media entrepreneur, whose knees did not jerk nor did his spine bend in servitude to the powers that be but who had the cold-blooded courage to fight rampant bureaucratic corruption and to stand up for the democratic rights of the people. Moreover, he did not fire from anyone else’s shoulder and spent almost all his wealth for the sake of society and his community.
It is rather unfortunate, if not an injustice, that Vakkom Moulavi has been neglected or pushed into a single column in the annals of Kerala’s social reformation as a mere religious reformer. He was the man who sowed the first seeds of democracy and civil rights in Kerala society.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rightly says, power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. It will be a gross injustice to Vakkom Moulavi and his visionary journalistic attempts if we do not tell his story in right earnest: that he was not just a generous newspaper owner but was himself a fearless journalist, well-read and with felicity of language and moral honesty and intent to spend even his last penny for its cause.
When he died at the relatively young age of 58, he was in debt. The story of Vakkom Moulavi is not, and should not, be an appendix to anyone else’s story.
It was raining hard on that July afternoon, and I saw the granite plaque of Swadeshabhimani, next to the bust of K Ramakrishna Pillai, fallen off the wall.