Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Kerala, Violence, Piracy and the past

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books The killing of two fishermen by Italian marines on the High Seas has led to a diplomatic row between India and Italy. In spite of the Congress dominated UPA Government giving contradictory evidence, the judicial process is still on track. The recent killing of T P Chandrasekaran has brought home to large sections of the Indian public that God's Own Country is rife with violence and Kerala with the highest rate o9f suicide and literacy must reflect on its own past to understand the reality it faces. The so called Communist faction dominated politics has given the state a thin veneer of sophistication which is wearing thin every passing day. Kerala historians eager to please their party bosses create a history which ignores the reality of Kerala's past. Thus the very questioning of the senseless acts of violence indulged by the Mappillas of Malabar during their frequent outrages will be branded by the so called progressive historians of Kerala as a reactionary/communal interpretation. Indian historiography is still stuck in the prehistory or Jurassic park of polemic and abuse rather than seasoned discourse. I think al_beruni was absolutely right when he said that Indians do not have a sense of history. The killing of the two fishermen ought to provide a moment of reflection: Is the Malabar Coast piracy prone and what reputation does the coast of Malabar enjoy in existing historical sources. The Malabar region and the seas adjoining Calicut have the reputation of being the most pirate infested through out history. K N Panikkar and other Pannikkars following him do not want to admit that piracy was an important aspect of the Malabar economy through out history. Since Kerala did not have a highly developed Governmental institutions we can say that piracy operated in tandem with landed and merchant groups especially during the late medieval period when the price of pepper rose in the international market. Some even glirify piracy as resistance to the Portuguese naval power. During the so-called "Sangam Age" which is only a literary culture, Kerala is said to have had extensive trade with the rst of the world, particularly the Roman world. The Roman Empire had extended upto Egypt and Alexandria became an entrepot for Indian exports. Pliny the Elder whose statement about the gold being drained by India because of Roman thirst for luxuries from mthe Orient is known to every school boy, also lamented that Malabar was full of pirates. The records from the Cairo Geniza, the Jewish depository for paper containing the name of Jaw eh, has a document that record the plight of a Jewish trader who was robbed twice on the way to India and back. Both times he blames the pirates of Malabar. Marco Polo very eloquently records the presence of pirates in Malabar and cautions people from going there. From Maghreb, we have the famous Ibn Battuta who said that Malbari pirates were rife in the coastal region of Calicult where he landed. Ibn Battuta was attacked by 12 warships and the envoy to Vijayanagara from Moscovy, Nikitin also compalined of pirates in the seas around Calicut and Kochi. From the Portuguese period onwards we get the chronicles of Barbossa and Tompires which speak of pirates harassing the Portuguese shipping. Of course by this time Portugal had acquired virtual stranglehold on the pepper trade and the Mappilla traders were reduced in economic status as a consequence. It is in this set of changed circumstances that the statecraft of Zainuddin al Malbari must be viewed. He wanted a grand alliance of all India kings against Portugal. Instead of fabricating progressive history it would be far better if historians of kerala start looking at Piracy as a factor that shaped the social and economic life of people of Malabar.

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