The enigma called Abdulla Kutty

The Muslim Marxist

Modi’s communist admirer is contesting a bypoll on a Congress ticket. If anyone understands AP Abdulla Kutty, do write in

K A Shaji

Till recently, AP Abdulla Kutty was a rare species in Indian politics. A man who described himself as a ‘God fearing Muslim communist’, this two-time CPM Lok Sabha member from Kerala was seen as an ardent fan of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his school of development.

Being God fearing was fine, it seemed, for his bosses at the avowedly atheist Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), and they even looked the other way as he gleefully defied party diktats on religion to evolve his own theory of ‘Muslim Communism’. But asking the party to adopt the Modi model of development was a bit too much. And so it was that the CPM suspended Kutty from the party, denied him a ticket for the 2009 Lok Sabha election, and then expelled him.

Narendra Modi tried his best to defend his Marxist fan. The Gujarat CM detected signs of “pushing democratic values in the country to danger” in the CPM’s expulsion of this martyr to the cause of aggressive industrialisation. “Despite being a Muslim and a communist, he praised me and my policies, and that deserves admiration,” Modi had said in February this year. But Kutty was not ready to join the BJP in Kerala, the saffron party’s chances in the state being as dim as ever. So, what did Kutty do?

He joined the Congress.

There has been a price for the 42-year-old to pay. Kutty does not wax eloquent on Muslim Marxism anymore, forget praising Modi. But there’s a prize: Kutty is now contesting a by-election on a Congress ticket to the Kerala Assembly from Kannur, a volatile town which routinely tops lists of the National Crime Records Bureau. The constituency is a Congress stronghold. It should be an easy victory for Kutty but for the effort being put in by Marxists—no pushovers in Kannur—to defeat a man they see as a traitor.

The CPM, known locally for its muscle power, has already bullied the district administration into populating the voters’ list with at least 10,000 bogus names, which could turn the count against Kutty—since the difference between the CPM and Congress’ votes (in the last election) was placed at around 9,000. Kutty’s election managers may fear rigging, but he himself is confident of an easy win in the election scheduled for mid-November. The CPM candidate is MV Jayarajan, who was Kutty’s election agent when he won the 13th and 14th Lok Sabha elections here.

If anything worries Kutty, it is the burden of his own past. Aruvapalli Puthiyapurayil Abdulla Kutty had first made his political mark as the firebrand state president of the party’s youth wing, Students Federation of India (SFI), some 15 years ago. His ideological ferocity is still remembered. “I had to share the dais with Abdulla Kutty at an SFI seminar on Gandhiji and Godse in those days,” recalls Malayalam writer VK Adarsh, “Some of my observations infuriated him, and at the end of the meeting, he threatened a physical assault if I repeated myself in any other forum.’’ Under Kutty’s leadership, the SFI conducted violent agitations against computerisation and self-financed colleges. But once his equation with the CPM came under strain, he became a big votary of a ban on agitational politics.

That’s quite a legacy to live down. Anyhow, Kutty’s expulsion from the CPM instilled him with an equally feverish patriotism. He said he would take a break from active politics to safeguard the country’s borders as a soldier of the Territorial Army. But he dropped that plan; the test and interview were just too tough to crack. Joining the Congress was easier, but only just. His local-level rivals were dead set against his entry, but a few local satraps helped him win the High Command’s confidence. Now it’s Sonia and Rahul who have taken the place of Modi in his eulogy canon.

But if Kutty wins his by-election, some of the credit should duly be assigned to a bunch of astrologers living far away in a village called Vaitheeswaran Kovil in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. The village is famous for nadi jyotisham, the art of reading a man’s destiny by studying his thumbs. Two years ago, Kutty had flouted the CPM’s strictures against superstition to have his thumbs reveal his past and guide his future. Astrologers there proved their merit by citing his exact date of birth (which his family had neglected to record) and divining a bright political trajectory for him. A man conferred with a new birthday is a man given to celebration, so he took the liberty to publish these divine findings in a popular travel journal. His CPM superiors were not amused, but reproachful mumbles were all they could come up with. And now, as a Congressman, the foretelling of his thumbs seems on its way to inevitable fulfilment.

Of course, as he reassures supporters, it’s not just about a digit at the end of his hand. It’s about his conscience. “I have joined the Congress only to wash away the sins of my past political activities as a CPM leader,” Kutty tells Open in earnest tones, “I too was part of their foolish and unrealistic policies. Now it is a purification pilgrimage.’’ He is relieved to be able to perform religious rituals openly. But on Modi, he is mum. It’s a Muslim majority constituency he must woo. This consciousness seems to have grown along the campaign trail. The CPM, he thunders, opposed his right to go on an Umra pilgrimage (a sort of off-season Haj) to Mecca and attend Ramzan prayer meetings. Kutty also accuses the CPM of confiscating the entire salary and benefits he got during his two tenures as an MP, as a party levy.

“That is a big lie. The party told him to pay a small levy which is applicable to all leaders,’’ counters CPM central committee member EP Jayarajan, who heads the campaign of Kutty’s rival. The CPM, which once sought an explanation from Kutty for running a business partnership without the party’s consent, accuses him of amassing enormous wealth through dubious means. “Look at the income statement he has given along with his nomination papers. An increase of around Rs 1 crore can be seen over his previous declaration. How it is possible for a full-time politician who claims his salary was taken away by the party?’’ asks Jayarajan.

Kutty rubbishes the allegation, attributing the income to a larger family enterprise. “The CPM disliked me for demanding an end to bandhs and hartals,” he says, “I wish the overall development of the region I represent. Only the Congress can ensure that.” Quite.

Marriage Portal for Transgenders

Ek Vivaah Aisa Bhi

A matrimonial website for transgenders launched in Chennai is getting queries from men in France and Italy

K A Shaji

Thirunangai in Tamil means respectable women. So when Kalki Subramaniyan decided to launch a matrimonial website for transgenders, she felt thirunangai.net was apt. The site, in Tamil and English, began operations a month back but the idea germinated a year ago. “Some transgender friends tried to post profiles on a popular matrimonial website. When they wrote their status, the site refused permission. That’s when I decided to design an exclusive matrimonial website for the third gender,’’ recalls Kalki.

As of now, there are six transgenders featured on the website. “They are from Tamil Nadu. But we are getting responses even from men in France and Italy. I too wish to get married if a suitable proposal comes. It has already received 262 mails from hopeful grooms. Of them, 150 are genuine. Shortlisting is on,’’ she says. She hopes the first transgender marriage via the site will take place by January next year.

Kalki is a Chennai-based graphic designer and transgender activist running the social organisation Sahodari. Before starting the portal, she edited a Tamil magazine Sahodari for the transgender community but it ceased publication after a few months due to lack of funds. She also has a theatre group to sensitise people about her community. Transgenders, she says, have traditionally had two living options—begging or prostitution. “Even those begging are sexually harassed. Those in prostitution are harassed by the police,’’ she says.

Transgenders are also exploited in relationships. She says some of the queries being posted on the site now are related to the conjugal aspect of such marriages. But she is talking about a wedlock that is based on the spirit of friendship and understanding rather than on sex. “Quite often, men fall in love with transsexual women. However, owing to the social status of transsexuals, they do not recognise these relationships as genuine and only use it as a source for sex, money and exploitation. Hundreds of transsexual women have been exploited by men this way in our society,’’ she says.

A five-member committee, including a lawyer and a writer, is assisting Kalki in screening responses on the site. Prospective grooms will have to undergo a direct interview by the committee. “I am trying my best to get transgenders respected by all sections of society,’’ says Kalki. She played a significant role in compelling the Tamil Nadu government to float the first welfare board in the world for transgenders. Now, forms and applications have the third option of transgender where one has to indicate gender. “Empowerment is the ultimate goal,’’ she says.


Jayalalithaa's long walk in the political wilderness

Anyone Seen Her Lately?

The Lady of Poes Garden has vanished from Chennai to a little known tea garden in the Nilgiris. Tamil politics awaits her return, stars willing.

K A Shaji

Wilderness has its attractions, they say. About 75 years have passed since Lord Erskine, British governor of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, visited a remote village located on the eastern ridge of Blue Mountains in the present Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu. Stunned by its beauty, the British Lord termed it a princess among hill stations. Since then, much water has flowed down the Moyar and Bhavani rivers which pass through the village, but Kodanad remained desolate and overshadowed by Ooty hardly 30 km away—till J Jayalalithaa made it her summer retreat.

The former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and supreme head of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has a white mansion in Kodanad on a sprawling tea estate acquired some years ago. If anything is splendid about it, say her critics, it is her isolation at the moment. For the past four months, she has fortified herself there in near complete solitude—far from the bustle of Chennai politics.

Assuredly Jayalalithaa wouldn’t like the sound of the allegations being made in the state capital by her arch rival and current chief minister M Karunanidhi: that she bought that tea estate with 800 acres of land using ‘benami’ tactics (use of dummy names for land registration), that she violated several laws to construct the palatial bungalow, that she is guilty on many counts. As it happens, all this is in the news because the cases against her in the matter are awaiting their judicial verdict. The estate also hit headlines recently when poor locals came out in protest against being prevented from using a public road passing through the plantation.

Yet, Jayalalithaa remains a political force to reckon with, a clear sign of which is the rising reverence with which her fans regard the tea estate in question: all the publicity has only given it the aura of an alternative power centre. In a state given to over-the-top iconography, her presence as opposition leader in the state Assembly is less important than her occupation of some sanctified space or the other, wherever it might be. An element of mystique adds to it. According to a political observer, her retreat has already stretched as long as the UPA’s second reign at the Centre.

There are no clues emerging about when it will end either. Jayalalithaa vanished behind the gates of her Kodanad mansion soon after the humiliating defeat her party suffered in the last Lok Sabha election. The Chennai temperature, both political and atmospheric, was high at that time and so nobody found anything strange in her decision to head for the hills. But now that the plains are no longer quite as hot, people are wondering when she will return to her famous Poes Garden abode in Chennai.

As for AIADMK party members, they have had to satisfy themselves with her long-distance musings from the hills. Journalists have been kept supplied with photocopies of her statements faxed across from Kodanad. These address a plethora of issues—from national security and the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils to Union Minister MK Azhagiri’s poor command over English and Hindi. But other than the all-round amusement caused by Azhagiri’s attempts to get Hindi/English speaking bureaucrats in Delhi to respond to him, none of Jayalalithaa’s observations have had any impact lately.

Despite her fluency in English, she is acutely aware that the trail of snickers that Azhagiri is leaving in the north does not translate into a fan following for her in the south. In June, she ordered her party to boycott the three recent by-elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly. To observers, it was just a way to avoid campaigning in places too far from Kodanad, while posturing against the possibility of a free-and-fair election under the Karunanidhi regime.

Murmurs of discontent have risen in decibel level since. “She expelled me from the party through a small statement issued from the Kodanad estate to the media—no meeting of party higher ups or other democratic proceedings,” complains SV Sekhar, the Tamil comedian and Mylapore MLA who was once her close confidant. “Look at the iftaar party she supposedly ‘hosted’ [in Chennai during Ramzan recently]. In response to her invitation, top leaders of AIADMK’s allies, MPs, MLAs, highly respected Muslim leaders and business magnates all participated in it,” he adds, “She was the only absentee.”

Jayalalithaa could not make it to the event on account of ‘unavoidable circumstances’, according to a message read out on her behalf by the AIADMK’s minority wing secretary Anwar Raja.

It’s how the Iron Lady operates nowadays; party functionaries are summoned to the hills for diktats every now and then, and that’s the word until the next audience is granted. This modus operandi makes Jayalalithaa the only directly elected leader in the country running her party by remote control. “Even whenever she is in Chennai, Jayalalithaa is not easily accessible to both public and party workers. How long can she run a powerful regional party like the AIADMK with just press releases and sermons?” wonders political observer C Lakshmanan.

Chennai, in the meantime, is abuzz with tales of Amma’s political exile. According to a top source close to her, she is evading direct politics only because of astrological advice. According to him, she has long gotten over the electoral debacle, and is plotting a powerful comeback very soon. It’s just that various heavenly bodies need to be in perfect alignment for the auspicious moment. “A Kerala-based astrologer told her to stay away from the Chennai house and active politics for a certain period of time,” says the source, “Now, she is just waiting for the date recommended by the astrologer to return to Chennai.”

So far, astral dictates have done little to relieve Jayalalithaa of the bad press she’s getting. That she has sought refuge in Kodanad in the company of her controversial close friend Sasikala Natarajan, who is also accused in many corruption cases, is fuelling a frenzy of speculation. Pictures have surfaced of the two women socialising with tribals in hamlets they have apparently visited lately, leading to sarcastic comments about such ‘revelry’ by her critics.

The more charitable say that her long hibernation must surely be meant for some serious purpose. Provoked by the decision of Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corp to carry couplets of poet-turned-politician Karunanidhi in all buses, they surmise, she is busy penning her own couplets in bulk for use during her next turn as CM.

Whatever her plans, her well-wishers want her back. “A comeback is not easy without her active presence. But Sasikala is more powerful and influential than us. She is the unofficial second in command and she dictates terms,” laments a former minister and senior party functionary.

Her allies, the CPM and CPI, are certainly not pleased with her behaviour, especially not her poll boycott, ‘citing flimsy reasons’. With the opposition gone, the DMK is having a field day, her communist allies groan.

“She must immediately come out of the Kodanad cocoon,” advises her old friend and famous political commentator Cho Ramaswamy, “People in Tamil Nadu now have a feeling that there is no real opposition party here. AIADMK cadres and people in general are seeking her active presence.”

Party members spy a threat in Karunanidhi’s younger son and deputy chief minister MK Stalin’s growing popularity as an easily approachable leader. At another level, there’s the possibility that Rahul Gandhi might actually pull off the seemingly impossible—revive the Congress in Tamil Nadu. The Gandhi dynasty scion’s Chennai press conference was noted by the literati for his eloquent words on ‘bridging the two Indias’ (words which would have resonance far beyond the state), even as the Congress woos popular cine stars like Rajnikanth and Vijay to sign up. No matter how loyalties shape up in the months to come, Jayalalithaa might find that the enchantment of tea plantations in Kodanad is not preparation enough for the electoral battles ahead, let alone what the stars higher up in the night skies might have to offer.

Guardian angel of Kerala Mangroves

Mangrove Man

Disillusioned with the communists, he planted 100,000 mangrove saplings to protect Kerala’s wetlands.

K A Shaji

When he was born in a Kerala village in the early 1930s as an untouchable Pulaya, a caste of agricultural labourers and fisherfolk, his parents named him Pokkan. His umbilical cord was like a blown-up balloon, or as the metaphor now goes, the bloated seed of the common mangrove tree. His nickname became Pokkudan, which refers to infants with such umbilical cords. Later, he would become Kallen Pokkudan. It’s a name now synonymous with mangrove conservation. The man, who failed to complete elementary education due to extreme poverty and caste discrimination, has so far planted over 1,00,000 mangrove saplings in the wetlands of his region. As many as 22 species of mangroves that grow over a man’s height welcome you to his village in Kannur.

Pokkudan started planting mangrove seedlings late in life, in 1989 when he was 52. Till a year before, he had been an ardent communist, a member of the Karshaka Thozhilali Sangham (the agricultural labourers’ union of CPM). He says the association strained when he raised his voice against caste discrimination in the CPM. For almost a year, Pokkudan observed the land. He saw the monsoon winds unleash their fury in the wetlands and storm waves destroying embankments in paddy fields. When he was young, he had seen mangrove seedlings being planted along the chemeen kettu (mud-bunds that protect the traditional shrimp fields) in the kyppadu (brackish water wetlands where wet paddy and fish are cultivated). Over the years, land reclamation, garbage dumps and deforestation started threatening the existence of such forests. He started planting saplings. All by himself, at first.

After Pokkudan became the guardian angel of Kannur’s mangroves, the department of forests set up a nursery under him with around 30,000 seedlings. Several arts and sports clubs began to organise campaigns about the need to preserve mangrove forests. Nevertheless, nearly 10,000 mangrove trees, including many that Pokkudan had planted, were cut down in the name of development. In its place sprung up modern hyper markets and private hospitals. But in several areas of the district, people began to oppose such destruction of wetlands. Local self-government institutions (LSGIs) began to book cases for mangrove destruction.

“Mangroves do many things: they buffer erosion, enhance bio-diversity, minimise high tide and even tsunami impact,” he says. Environmentalists say that over four decades mangrove forests in Kerala have dropped from 700 sq km to 17 sq km. But of the remaining wetlands, Kannur has 45 per cent. Largely thanks to Pokkudan.