Blue Flower

(La Lettre du CIDIF n° 38 novembre 2008-  page 127)


         Religion and Society in South India: Hindus, Muslims and Christians

by J.B.P.More.

(Institute for Research in Social Sciences and Humanities, Meshar, Series -18) With a foreword by Francis Robinson, pp.xi, 277, Midas Press, Kuthuparamba, 2006

Doi: 10.1017/51356186307008: 39

The Muslim communities of Tamilnadu have been relatively neglected by historians, but in recent years J.B.P.More has made this field of study very much his own. As this volume demonstrates, his research, though detailed, is anything but narrow, with studies involving different communities in South India over the last three or four centuries. The opening essays in this collection bear the hallmarks of the author’s approach. His demonstration of Haider Ali’s origins, as a kannadiga of Kolar district from converts of the weaver or tanner castes, closely examines the sources and the historiographical traditions. These are put in the context of prestigious claims by converts to Arab or north Indian antecedents, and their solidifying importance in the era of modern censuses. In the case of Tipu Sultan’s persecution of Christians, the author, using French archives, local and metropolitan, presents conclusions related to Tipu’s different treatment of Syrian Christians and to precedents of violent religious persecution introduced by the Portuguese to south India.

In every essay there is an attempt to relate the detailed case study to the big questions of interpretation, especially testing those arguments worked out in the north Indian context. A brief but clear introduction to these debates is provided by Francis Robinson in his foreword. One essay explicitly and others in passing join the Brass/Robinson debate, showing that strong support for Pakistan came from southern Muslim merchants who had much to lose and from poor Muslims who had nothing to gain. More argues strongly against Paul Brass’ thesis of ‘elite manipulation’. He had developed his position, which both rejects the utility of the interpretation for the south and challenges its value on its own northern ground at book length: The Political Evolution of Muslims in Tamilnadu and Madras, 1930-1947(Hyderabad, 1997). In the present volume there is more material of great interest from the inter-war period, on the Hindustani controversy, on relations between Tamil Muslims and the Self-Respect Movement whose leader E.V.Ramasamy while promoting the idea of Dravidastan, even urged low caste Hindus to convert to Islam. This, too, relates to another book: Muslim Identity, Print Culture and the Dravidian factor in Tamilnadu (Hyderabad, 2004).

Other essays engage with relations between mosque-oriented and dargah-oriented traditions, and with the different social groups among Tamil Muslims. He rejects the view that Marakkayar and Lebbai can be regarded as quasi-caste names or even the names of clearly differentiated groups. Arguing against the work of Imtiaz Ahmad especially, More claims “conclusively that Tamil-speaking Muslims cannot be fitted into the Ashraf-Ajlaf categorisation or rather the Dumontian categorisation, as the Tamil sub-divisions were of approximately equal status, with some disparities in their economic situations.”

This raises the larger question of how the Muslims and the Christians fit into the wider south Indian environment. The view that they came to participate in one religious system, expressed in Susan Bayly’s influential Saints, Goddesses and Kings, is a consistent target of More. Some of the middle-level argument may seem inconclusive, for example his criticism of Susan Bayly’s treatment of conversion in the Karaikal region. The range of reference may give rise to an occasional slip, as when the Brahmo Samaj is put into the eighteenth century. But the cumulative impression is powerful. More is a ‘splitter’ not a ‘lumper’. He juxtaposes studies (the first of Leena More) on eighteenth century responses to western aggression. In the south Malabar kingdom of Attingal, Hindus and Muslims joined in a ferocious assault on the English East India Company station. Whereas, faced with the French threat to destroy religious buildings in Pondicherry, Hindus acquiesced with non-cooperation, while the Muslims saved their mosque by threats of violence. In his piece on the Sri Aurobindo movement, we are reminded that though nationalism may have primordial roots, it brings with it new and disruptive ideas. Above all, More believes in listening to the declared beliefs of individuals and group. In a secular context, he showed what could be done in his Freedom Movement in French India: The Mahé Revolt of 1948 (Tellicherry, 2001). There, with the Cambridge school in his sights, and using interviews as well as the Malayalam and Tamil press and the French archives, he argued that it was principally a lower class/caste Hindu revolt with the Mapilla quarter of the population still stunned by Partition. In the present collection, perhaps the most remarkable piece is his reconstruction and interpretation from oral sources of the life of an obscure Sufi saint of the seventeenth century, Sayyid Ahmed Moula Sahib of Pondicherry. Overall, More certainly fulfils the promise of his vehemently nominalist introduction. Names and claims are taken seriously, history is preferred to synchronic association and battle is joined with the leading scholars in the field. Even readers most attached to established orthodoxies will acknowledge that More’s work has changed the debate, and it is to be hoped will continue to do so.

Lionel Knight, Royal Asiatic society

(Review : Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol.18, Part 2, April 2008-05-06, pp.234-35)