As it has been his wont for the past few years, literary critic M M Basheer was set to write a series of newspaper columns on the Ramayana in the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi this August. But after promising the editor six columns, he had to stop at five because of a sustained campaign on the telephone by unnamed persons who upbraided him for writing on Rama when he was a Muslim.
Even the newspaper’s editors received a torrent of abusive calls every day after Basheer’s first column, titled ‘Sri Rama’s Anger’, appeared on August 3. Four days later, after the fifth column was published, Basheer called off the series.
“Every day, I would get repeated calls abusing me for writing on the Ramayana. At the age of 75, I was being reduced to just a Muslim. I couldn’t take it and I stopped writing,” Basheer told The Indian Express over phone from his Kozhikode residence.
“The callers would ask me what right I had to criticise Lord Rama,” said Basheer, a former professor of Malayalam at the University of Calicut.
“My series was on Valmiki Ramayana. Valmiki depicts Rama with human characteristics and does not shy away from criticising his actions. The callers were taking exception to the poet’s criticism of Rama, which was given in quotes.
Most of the callers would not hear out my explanation but just abuse me,” he said.
“To the few who showed patience, I explained that the previous year I had written on Adhyatma Ramayana (the popular foundational text of Malayalam by Thunchathu Ezhuthachhan) and I spoke about Rama the God… But few among the callers knew the difference between the two texts and very few cared. Most callers kept insisting that I tried to attribute human qualities to Rama because I was a Muslim,” said Basheer.
A critic of repute — his doctoral work on the manuscripts of Malayalam poet Kumaran Asan is considered pathbreaking — Basheer is a practising Muslim but has never been associated with any religious group or platform.
He is widely respected as a teacher, an Asan scholar, and an associate of the modernist movement in Malayalam literature.
The five Ramayana pieces he wrote for Mathrubhumi this year looked at Valmiki’s critique of Rama’s call to Sita to undertake the “agnipariksha”. The articles were more about the brilliance of Valmiki, the poet, and the insights he offers while writing about the human condition.
A source in Mathrubhumi confirmed that many abusive calls came to the newspaper’s editorial desk asking why the newspaper “got a Muslim to write on the Ramayana”. The callers didn’t disclose their names, nor did they take the name of any organisation, the source said.
However, a fringe Hindutva outfit, Hanuman Sena, repeated the charges in posters it put up near the newspaper’s head office in Kozhikode. This Hindutva outfit had earlier resorted to vandalism in the city when the ‘Kiss of Love’ protests were held a few months ago against moral policing in the state.
This is the first time a concerted campaign has been undertaken against a writer in Malayalam, on the basis of his religious identity, for writing on the Ramayana. In the past, sections of the Church and Islamists have accused writers and theatre activists of hurting religious beliefs and called for banning their works.
Local newspapers run popular columns on the Ramayana through the Malayalam month of Karkkidakam, which usually falls in July-August and is observed as the “Ramayana month”. Apart from Basheer, well-known writers such as the critic, Thomas Mathew, poet and popular lyricist, the late Yusuf Ali Kecheri, and poet and teacher, Veerankutty, have contributed to such columns in the past.
Malayalam, as most other Indian languages, has a vibrant Ramayana tradition spread across genres, including even a Muslim version called “Mappilah Ramayanam”.
So does the campaign against Basheer hint at the emergence of a new trend of intolerance in Kerala that wants to communalise a pan-Indian cultural heritage? M Kesava Menon, editor of Mathrubhumi, said there has been an obvious sharpening of the communal divide in Kerala because of which there is growing intolerance towards news and views.
“Those who rake up trouble in the name of religious beliefs are fringe groups from within the community. But then the mainstream organisations across communities seem unwilling to criticise them,” Menon said.