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Tamil-speaking Muslims re-discover ties

world Updated: May 31, 2007 15:55 IST
PK Balachandran
PK Balachandran
Hindustan Times
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Tamil-speaking Muslims from Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Malaysia are now re-discovering and re-establishing linguistic, cultural and religious ties which had weakened considerably over the last 400 years.

Islamic literature in Tamil has provided the rallying point for the new hands-across-borders movement.

There has been a series of conferences and workshops on Islamic literature in the Tamil language in Colombo and Chennai over the last few years, with Chennai having held the seventh between May 25 and 27.

"It was a roller coaster ride, with workshops on a number of subjects," said Rauff Hakeem, Sri Lankan litterateur and cabinet minister.

"The quality of the presentations was quite good. We were glad to find that a number of non-Muslims in Tamil Nadu were doing research on Islamic literature in Tamil. And it was good to hear them praise the Muslims' contribution to Tamil literature," Hakeem said.

One of the major resolutions passed was that universities in these countries should establish Chairs in Islamic literature in Tamil. The Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu is the only university having a Chair in this now. Sri Lankan Muslims proudly state that the first occupant of the Chair was a Sri Lankan Muslim, Prof MM Uvais.

The Chennai conference provided opportunities for Tamil-speaking Muslims to rediscover their roots and interact with a Tamil-speaking Muslim Diaspora.

"We were constantly running into Indian and Malaysian Muslims who had owned businesses in Sri Lanka before the ethnic conflict in the island. They were in shipping and gem trading. Some broke into Sinhalese on seeing us!"

"And in Ervadi (Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu) local Muslims showed us Portuguese-style mansions which their ancestors had built with money earned in Sri Lanka," Hakeem recalled.

In the 1960s, a good chunk of the Indian Muslim community in Sri Lanka took flight because of the communalisation of politics. In 1915, the anti-Muslim riots were directed mainly against Muslim traders from India, called "Coast Moors."

When the Portuguese and other European powers persecuted the Muslims of Sri Lanka and India from the 16 th.Century onwards, many fled to South East Asia where they became petty traders and artisans.

"During the dark days of persecution by the Portuguese and the Dutch, Muslim poet-preachers from Tamil Nadu helped Sri Lankan Muslims keep their faith. Over 2,000 literary works were produced at that time," Hakeem said,

The Portuguese introduced the "cartaz" or a permit system, which in effect, prevented Muslims from using many ports in South and South East Asia. In Sri Lanka, they were driven away from the prosperous Western coast. Under Dutch rule, they were not given government contracts.

The Nayak rulers of Tamil Nadu favoured the Portuguese over the local Muslim traders. The British favoured the docile Hindu Chettiars. The British also developed Madras as a port and neglected Muslim-dominated ports in the South, like Cuddalore (then known as Islamabad), Nagapattinam, Thondi and Adhiramapattinam.

Because of their conflict with the Sri Lankan Tamils and a new found fascination for the culture of the Arab world, the Muslim elite of Sri Lanka began a movement to shed religious, cultural and linguistic links with the Tamil Nadu Muslims. The emergence of new states after 1947 created new barriers between the Tamil-speaking Muslims of the region.

But as the Islamic Tamil literature conferences are showing, ties between the Tamil speaking Muslims across borders had not vanished.

And there is hope that they can be salvaged and nurtured.