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Digital Acceleration and the uses of Muslim Literacy: A local reading of Richard Hoggart

Digital Acceleration and the uses of Muslim Literacy: A local reading of Richard Hoggart


Umar N

umarThe Malayalam speaking Muslims of Kerala, often mythically trace their lineage to Arab merchants traveling to the West Coast of India, and evangelical sojourners in the post-Islamic phase, who won royal patronage and sometimes married local women and settled down. In the course of time, the community has been buffeted by the winds of change such as the Portuguese invasion in the medieval period following the arrival of the da Gama, and the ensuing commercial as well as political acrimony. Gulf migration and advancement in education, along with their unique culture and identity have granted the community space in the Kerala public sphere and the wider Indian democracy. The baroque social imaginary of Kerala has always succeeded in camouflaging its Islamophobia tinged with progressivism.

Kerala as a state with its high human development index and low per-capita GNP, economic and infrastructural development constitutes a unique model in India. The state is often called out as a hoax for its drum beating exceptionalism.  The state which claims 100% literacy, (since more than 90% of its adults can read, write and perform basic arithmetic) fares badly when it comes to understanding nuances of social inequality rampant in its traditional edifice, leading to the rise of hegemons such as the Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who would feel `squeamish’ in a fish market in his constituency.  

The Congress president Rahul Gandhi himself is contesting from Wayanad, a constituency with significant Muslim population, in the 2019 elections. A few weeks before his candidacy was announced after hectic parleying, on March 6,   a young far-left leader named CP Jaleel, was shot dead in an encounter with police commandos in Vythiri in Wayanad. This has been counterpoised by the extreme left with an indigenous land struggle in Thovarimala, a plantation that had till recently been held by corporate monopolies.  On the one hand, the powers that be, are promoting the clientilism of a local votebank and its vulgar elite and at the same time intently decimating dissenting voices from within it. As Hoggart would say, the literacy to read between the lines has become imperative.

Third World Literacy mission was undertaken after a meeting of third world education ministers in Tehran in 1969. The third world debate and its gradual demise have affected the impact of the movement, though, on April 18, 1991, Kerala became the first 100% literate state in India. Before that, on 4th February 1990, the then prime minister VP Singh had declared Ernakulam in Kerala the first fully literate district in India. The literacy movement in Kerala was a success and the accomplishment of this milestone was celebrated with an octogenarian Muslim woman at the center stage. The literacy though, as Hoggart would say with reference to popular culture, leaves certain blind spots, vis-a-vis mass produced culture. The Mappila heritage, rich in its musical and literary traditions has been assaulted by the marauding influence of popular television and hegemonic behemoths of mass culture. Post-independence, the radical and popular traditions of the west coast were subsumed under the more exclusionary scholasticism of the Bhadralok and Tamil Brahmin elites of the Eastern coast. The dumbing down of popular culture has dealt a most devastating blow to the traditional Muslim cultures of the western Arabian Sea coast of India.

The advent of mass entertainment sans cultural and regional nuances has led to an `unbending of the springs of action in the soul’ as Hoggart puts it pace de Tocqueville. The older generation of Gulf migrants and the legendary stories of their hardships have hardly earned a place in the popular cultural edifice, save some spoofs and comical caricatures of Islamic customs. The younger generation with dispensable income have found their lebensraum disrupted and themselves unable to cope with the onslaught of the culture industry in terms of gladiatorial sporting events such as the IPL and prime time news television as well as reality television that demands on the go improvisation sans scripting. The rewriting of the cultural codes has been carried out in clandestine without the participation of the stakeholders.

Ironically, the very education reforms structured to make the populace easier to govern would help inform the radical movements which later swept Kerala.  This gap between expectations and results shows most clearly in the selection of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery as a required text.  While educational authorities applauded “Washington’s emphasis on deference and slow, peaceful change,” low-caste Hindus read it as a manual for how to go about challenging their oppressive situation.  In this case, the maharajas were simply unable to fully understand the impact that the texts they selected would make, and because of this they never anticipated the revolutionary seeds their own purportedly placating school system would sow.

-Brown, Alexandra. Growth and Success in Kerala, Yale Review of International Studies,

The post-facto prominence given to the text of Booker T Washington’s autobiography in the above article of an evangelically spirited foreigner and also legendary uses of the same text for the birthday celebrations of an upper caste Nair Service Society elder, and its widespread circulation in school textbooks post copyright point at a wide malaise. The column on subaltern issues in the popular Mathrubhumi magazine was even called `negritude’ after the movement by Leopold Senghor and Aimee Cesaire, though laudable, without concern for local specificities and sensibilities. The insertion into the wrong cultural text has labyrinthine implications for these societies that are just emerging from a long period of suffering systematic oppression.

Hoggart speaks of the injustice of inequality, not just in terms of wealth, but also of cultural aspirations and connoisseurship. The advaitic mass culture of India that imbues its citizens sans divides, is often cited as an index of post-independence confidence in the nation state. Murkier reality belies such claims. The popular culture in its pornographic, scopophilic dimensions debases and dehumanizes the laity. This can be seen from the multiple assertions made on the behalf of the extreme right by leading lights of Bollywood film industry.

The digital public sphere in Kerala and Muslims:

The erstwhile subalterns are penalized for not having given into the upper caste hegemony in their past history. Kerala has been called `the most vibrant laboratory of print culture’ by the Canadian-born scholar Robin Jeffrey. This, in present-day parlance, segues into the digital realm, with the Kerala State IT Mission leading the way here.

The advent of the internet and cyber technologies have made the state government push for cyber literacy. This has indeed been the case with Kerala. The adoption of this new digital paradigm by conservative sections of the society has to be read in this context as Gary Bunt puts it in his book iMuslims’. The digital fold has largely excluded the Muslim populace, whether it be in the silicon valley of India, Bangalore, or the case of local initiatives such as NEST started by a Kochi based entrepreneur, Javed Hassan which wound up recently. The enunciative dilemma lying at the heart of society pertains to the perplexity surrounding the digital as a medium. Blockchain, pornography, internet-based MMORPG and such have changed the landscape of the imagination for the cybergeneration of individuals. Science and engineering have been given short shrift in favour of medicine and the humanities in the popular aspirational imagination. The repudiation of rationalist thought by society, in general, has affected the youth as well. The few groups such as the `Free Thinkers’ have been partisan and prejudiced in their outlook, thus distancing the vulnerable sections of society as the minorities.

Culture is immediately economic, not because it is traversed by ideological currents that a Cartesian pineal gland or dialectical miracle translates from intelligibility into praxis, but because it is the haunt of literary possibilities that constantly threaten to transform the energy expended in its inscription into an unredeemed negative at the level of production.

-Land, Nick. Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism

The remittance economy has profoundly altered the consumption habits of the middle class in Kerala. Nominal literacy has all the while been a zombie sapping the vitality of the public sphere in Kerala. Conservative thinkers like Nick Land have posited the concept of accelerationism in the anthropocene era, which while remaining life positive, vouch for an extractionist capitalism. The digital space in India has mostly been a pagan one. The currently dominant and affluent Salafist fundamentalist strain in Islam is incapable of joining this (apart from banal denominational debates on platforms like youtube and Facebook) due to the stress that it places on the absolute unilinear nature of their theology. This perhaps is the reason for the exclusion and exceptionalism of Muslims from the Indian digital public sphere. There are other causes too, such as the lack of connectivity and digital paraphernalia compounding the crisis.

There is no redemption through literature, but only a deepening horror and delight, which at some indiscernible mazing of the labyrinth crosses over…

–Land, Nick. Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism


Bunt, Gary R. iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam Hoggart, R (1957). The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life. 

Jeffrey, Robin. Testing Concepts about Print, Newspapers, and Politics: Kerala, India, 1800–2009 The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 68, No. 2 (May) 2009: 465–489.                                                                                 Menon, Nandagopal .R. What do polemics do? Religion, Citizenship, and Secularism in South Indian Islam. Journal of History of Religions. Vol58 No2.Nov2018. Land, Nick. Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism  Brown, Alexandra. Growth and Success in Kerala, Yale Review of International Studies, 



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