Jinnah between Kerala and Dubai

WE can only guess how Bangladeshis regard Jinnah after some of his self-proclaimed followers subverted his dream in 1971. But there is an enclave in Kerala, in southern India, where his spirit lives on albeit in a palpably pre-separatist avatar.

And some of these partisans of the Indian stump of Jinnah’s Muslim League have carried the adulation to Dubai. There they collaborate and compete with Pakistanis for a living. With the Gulf economies in the doldrums, both will sink and swim together.

It no longer seems strange that many Pakistanis in the Gulf had become as uncertain about their founder’s worldview as their Indian counterparts were when they stayed back in 1947. There were, of course, more compelling reasons for both to come together in shared enterprise.

These have ranged between white- and blue-collared jobs, running eateries, plying taxis and what is intriguingly called re-export business. Indian and Pakistani customs officials see them as smuggling. A story in the 1980s, which I remember from my Dubai days, shone a quaint light on what such possibilities of collusion could imply.


As Jinnah’s sobering influence faded, as in Pakistan, for example, it also waned among his erstwhile Kerala groupies.


Pakistani watchmen, usually from the frontier region, and Malayalis, (the correct name for Keralites, although in Dubai they are usually called Malabaris) hit a bizarre jackpot in the 1980s. The Dubai police discovered that the Pakistani watchmen were involved with their friends from Kozhikode in Kerala in forging passports from various countries.

The burly watchmen had a natural access to the embassies’ blank passport booklets. Their Kerala colleagues, flaunting the highest literacy rate in India, made for good, clean writers or, shall we say, forgers.

There were excellent Malayali journalists, but I can’t remember any Muslims among them. As Jinnah’s sobering influence faded, as in Pakistan, for example, it also waned among his erstwhile Kerala groupies. Some of the Muslims from there, offshoots of the more liberal Muslim League, virtually took over the federal information ministry.

At the ministry, the Malayali renegades positioned themselves strategically as censors of publications that came into the UAE from different countries. They seemed particularly severe on Indian publications. Poor Moti Ram, the genial principal of the Indian High School in Dubai, was perpetually harassed about contents of textbooks from India.

If I remember right, one such book had a popular nursery rhyme about three little pigs going to the market. Pigs were haram, the censor declared, correctly. But in nursery rhymes? It is a different matter that large quantities of the haram stuff would be shipped from Dubai’s supermarkets to Peshawar-based foreign correspondents who had gathered there to ‘do the Mooj’, the lionised Mujahideen, some of them forebears of the Taliban.

A more mixed fortune awaited the Malayalis who strayed across the newly defined India-Pakistan border to eke out a living in Karachi, for example, though with scant reference to any quest for a new nationality. They wanted Pakistani jobs, not always the citizenship. Karachi preceded Dubai as a job market for the more needy Indians.

At least until early 1985, a picture of the Quaid had adorned the Malappuram office of what became the Indian leftover of Jinnah’s Muslim League. I last saw the striking portrait during the elections that Rajiv Gandhi swept and remember discussing it with the Congress party spokesman Vithal Gadgil. It was the right of every party to have the picture of its icons he had reasoned.

With the rise of India’s Hindu agenda, which takes a more staunchly adversarial view of Jinnah, I wasn’t sure if his portrait could remain intact at the office of the Indian Muslim League. The web didn’t say anything about the Muslim League’s current ties with the Jinnah portrait, but what it threw up instead was Pakistan’s other connection with Kerala.

Not too long ago, the Open Magazine had a riveting account of the chaotic identity crisis of Malayalis who went back and forth between Karachi and Kozhikode.

“A hundred odd people have one eye on the Indo-Pak border, even though it is thousands of kilometres away. Any action at the Line of Control has a direct impact on their lives. If there is an incursion in Kargil, they wait for the sound of police boots at their doorsteps,” the magazine said about them.

These men migrated illegally to Karachi in the late 1950s and 1960s to earn a living. Some ran teashops, worked as cooks and helpers at restaurants and hotels there, or so the Open Magazine’s account goes.

Driven by abject poverty in the pre-Dubai Kerala they were lured by the money they could earn in Karachi. When they wanted to visit their families back in India, touts suggested they get a Pakistani passport and then apply for an Indian visa. Oblivious of concepts like citizenship, they didn’t realise the trap.

One such person who returned home to a painful reception was a 69-year old Malayali. In 1969, according to the Open Magazine, he was working at a hotel but it was not enough to feed his family.

“Many people were going to Pakistan, where they were paid better. I joined three or four others, and headed for Karachi … When we reached the border, we were arrested by the Karachi police and sent to prison. I was imprisoned for six months and also beaten up severely.” Compatriots bailed him out but it was pointless to go home as “there was nothing to eat”.

In 1988, after a few short visits, the man from Kerala came on a short-term visa as usual, but did not go back. He was caught and deported. Salman Khan could make a more credible film of his walk to the Pakistani border, without food, without water for days. Though he came back he lives in fear. This could not have been how Jinnah imagined it, or Nehru.