Sangh Parivar outfits see Islamic hand in the death of poet Kumaran Asan — 99 years later

Claiming Islamists plotted to kill Asan over one of his poems, they are asking for a fresh probe into a century-old boat accident.

ByK A Shaji

Published Sep 14, 2022 | 12:00 PMUpdatedMar 14, 2023 | 4:27 PM

Kumaran Asan Memorial

Right-wing Hindu groups in Kerala see an “Islamic” hand in the death of celebrated Malayalam poet N Kumaran Asan in a 1924 boat mishap. So, almost a century later, they want the incident probed.

The Hindu Aikya Vedi, or the Hindu United Front, a Kerala group owing allegiance to the Hindu nationalist RSS, says “radical Islamists” of the time plotted to sink the boat and kill the poet. Aikya Vedi State General Secretary RV Babu even says “the boat crew might have been influenced” as part of the plot.

In the group’s opinion, the conspiracy was hatched in revenge for Asan’s poem Duravastha, or “Bad Situation”, which, in Babu’s words, “is a scathing expose of the ordeals suffered by Hindus” during the historic Malabar Rebellion of 1921.

The rebellion was both a resistance against the British colonial rule in Kerala’s Malabar region, and against the British-backed feudal system controlled by elite Hindus.

Propaganda overdrive

In recent months, the Aikya Vedi and other Hindu right wing organisations have reprinted the poem Duravastha, and portions of the work carrying adverse remarks on Muslim fundamentalists are being circulated through WhatsApp groups.

Celebrated Malayalam poet and social reformer N Kumaran Asan who died in a boat accident

Celebrated Malayalam poet and social reformer N Kumaran Asan. (Supplied)

The Vedi focuses on Hindu renaissance and temple protection in Kerala, and its leaders have been of late catching the public eye with inflammatory speeches. Its leaders say it is part of the broader Sangh Parivar umbrella at the national level.

After several campaigns, including going door-to-door in select localities and even public meetings, Parivar entities are now holding press meets in different parts of the state seeking a probe into the tragedy that occurred on 16 January 1924 — about 99 years later.

“Our demand is ensuring justice to Asan who upheld the real Hindu values and exposed the ugly communal dimensions of the Malabar rebellion. We want a detailed investigation into the boat tragedy revealing all aspects of the sabotage. We are sure radical Islamists of that time facilitated the mishap,” KP Sasikala, senior leader of Hindu Aikya Vedi, told South First.

Challenging the Sangh Parivar

But those who have studied N Kumaran Asan and his poetry challenge this version. According to them, the entire campaign is an attempt by the the right wing to appropriate the poet’s reformist legacy.

“It’s almost a century since the Kumaran Asan boat accident and there are dubious motives at play. They want to appropriate Asan’s legacy to reach out to the powerful Ezhava community. They also want to further cement their argument that the Malabar rebellion was a Muslim riot targeting Hindu farmers of the region and it contained no anti-colonial element,” says TT Sreekumar, writer and academic.

Death of N Kumaran Asan in a boat accident

N Kumaran Asan, one of the greatest exponents of modern Malayalam literature, died when Redeemer, the name of the boat he was traveling in, capsized in the Pallana river in the present-day Alappuzha district; the vessel was carrying 145 people including the crew; while most swam back to safety, 35 people died, the poet being one.

The spot where the boat carrying N Kumaran Asan capsized in an apparent accident leading to his death

The spot at which the boat carrying Kumaran Asan capsized. (Supplied)

“Asan was travelling in a suite, as befitting his stature,” Aikya Vedi’s Babu told South First. “He might not have drowned or sunk along with the boat if the doors were not locked.”

Pointing out that the poet grew up not too far from the backwaters of southern Kerala, Babu said: “From what we know, Asan was an able swimmer. He was also in good health.”

Babu quoted veteran journalist P Sujathan, who had studied the life and times of Asan, founder and general secretary of the reformist organisation Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, to back his claim.

“There have been allegations foul play ever since the accident,” he said.

The missing report

According to Aikya Vedi leader KP Sasikala, the report of the P Cherian Commission of Enquiry, instituted by the then princely state of Travancore to probe the boat accident in which N Kumaran Asan died, later “disappeared” from the government archives and other domains mysteriously. Cherian was a senior judge in the High Court of Princely state of Travancore.

“The police had not registered any FIR on the tragedy,” Sasikala told South First. “The Cherian Commission report had many points indicating it was sabotage.”

“We want to know what happened to the Cherian Commission report and why it disappeared. Different enquiry commission reports before and after the the 1924 mishap are available in the state archives, so we wonder why only this one is missing,” said Sasikala.

In support of her contention, she claimed the commission had found the locking of the suite from outside a “matter of grave concern”.

“A detailed investigation into Asan’s death will bring out the truth,” she said.

Death threats to N Kumaran Asan and corrections

The right wing groups allege that N Kumaran Asan was under pressure to remove specific portions of Duravastha once it was published in 1922.

Babu claimed Kumaran Asan faced death threats because he refused to make the changes.

“Round-the-clock security was accorded to him by the Travancore administration after the threats, which was withdrawn after two years when the poet objected to the inconveniences it caused,” he added.

But eminent literary critic KEN Kunahammad, who admitted there was “large-scale” resentment among the Muslim community about the adverse remarks in the poem, had a slightly different explanation of what transpired.

“Noted Islamic intellectuals like Vakkom Moulavi had objected to some of the references in the poem,” he told South First. “Then Asan expressed his willingness to correct them in the subsequent edition. But sadly, he died before he could do the corrections.”

References to Asan’s decision to make the corrections can be found in books such as Malabar Samaram: MP Narayana Menonum Sahapravarthakarum by KPS Menon, Kerala Muslim Charithram by PA Syed Muhammad, and Asan Silpasala Niroopanam by N Sathyaprakasam.

Countering the right-wing views

However, those who counter the Vedi’s allegations say the dynasty which ruled Travancore was a family of devout Hindus. Upper caste Hindus held crucial positions, including the post of the Dewan, with Muslim representation in administrative and police ranks at that time negligible.

If there had been such a serious allegation about the incident at that time, the Travancore rulers would have conducted a high-voltage investigation, said the poet PN Gopikrishnan.

According to Gopikrishnan, who has researched the works of N Kumaran Asan, while it is true that the Duravastha contained certain remarks on Muslim leaders who led the rebellion of 1921, the poem was, by and large, an attempt to question caste discrimination by Hindus.

Cover of the latest edition of Duravastha by N Kumaran Asan. Sangh Parivar outfits see Islamic hand in the death of Kumaran Asan in a boat accident

Cover of the latest edition of Duravastha brought out by pro-Sangh Parivar Kurukshethra Prakashan. (Supplied)

“It has more harsh remarks against upper caste Hindus than against Muslim leaders of Malabar,” he said. “The Parivar outfits are silent on those remarks.”

Gopikrishnan also noted that in the poem’s preface, Asan admits he never visited the areas where the revolt broke out and affirms that whatever he wrote was based on information available through newspapers at that time.

“There might be flaws in the news reports available from Malabar, almost cut off from what is now the rest of the state,” Gopikrishnan told South First.

Writer and critic TT Sreekumar also argues that Asan never visited the Malabar villages where the rebellion happened.

“Accuracy of information from areas outside Travancore remained a big challenge for Asan,” Sreekumar said.

“In all probability, Asan made some observations against the rebellion’s leaders based on newspaper reports. But to say he wrote an entire poem to denounce Muslim leaders is wrong. Parivar groups are quoting Asan out of context. The Malabar rebellion was secular,” said Sreekumar.

Kunahammad also said Asan did not have any first-hand knowledge of the incidents. “He wrote the poem based on the exaggerated reports in the newspapers. Such reports also misled Gandhiji and BR Ambedkar,” he said.