Kerala-born, Karachi-based activist BM Kutty's demise further diminishes movement for peace between India-Pakistan
The movement for peace between India and Pakistan will be severely diminished by BM Kutty's demise, but his optimism and humour will remain as a guiding light. His life in Pakistan is also a reflection of a different relationship with our neighbour, of an era without visas and more trust and positivity, and that is the legacy he leaves behind.
One of the old guard, a man who knew no boundaries or borders, the likes of BM Kutty are rare now.
The movement for peace between India and Pakistan will be severely diminished by Kutty's demise, but his optimism and humour will remain as a guiding light.
His life in Pakistan is also a reflection of a different relationship with our neighbour, of an era without visas and more trust and positivity, and that is the legacy he leaves behind.
I met Biyyathil Mohyuddin (BM) Kutty for the first time at Mumbai airport in 2011; we were heading for Karachi as part of a delegation of the Mumbai Press Club. A short, grey- haired man, Kutty was carrying his newly-published memoirs with him — Sixty Years in Self Exile: No Regrets (A Political Autobiography) — and I bought a copy, little knowing what a treasure it would be.
During that week-long trip, we stayed at the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), at Gulshan e Maymar, on the outskirts of Karachi city, and met him every day. On one of the days, he asked us to visit a group of Malayalis who were stranded in Karachi for many years. As journalists, we jumped at the chance of doing that story. First, we went to Kutty’s modest home in the city. His study was full of old black-and-white photographs, and memories. His wife Birjis hailed from Uttar Pradesh; Kutty smiled and told us that he didn’t know a word of Hindi and neither did Birjis, but they got along and had been married 60 years.
Born on 30 July 1930, in the village of Chilavil Ponmudam near Kottakal — 10 years after the Mappila peasant revolt — Kutty grew up listening to horror stories of how the rebellion was suppressed. During his high school years, he gradually became influenced by the nascent communism in Kerala and later, the Muslim League. A sudden decision prompted him to leave for Karachi in 1949 where there were already a sizeable number of Malayalis engaged in small businesses and shops. Some even had beedi units. In his memoirs, he records that he went to Jodhpur and then to Munabao, walking to Khokrapar on the Pakistani side along with a friend. Passports had not been introduced then, and like Kutty, hundreds of other muhajirs were walking to the city of Karachi. He clarifies though that he was not fleeing from communal violence: “We were voluntary fugitives”.
Ever since, Kutty — who passed away aged 89 on Sunday, 25 August 2019, after a protracted illness — was besieged with queries about why he left God’s own country! There was already a Malabar Muslim Jamaat founded in 1921 in Karachi and soon he met and interacted with its members. The Jamaat functions even today and a small portion of Karachi’s Meva Shah graveyard is set apart for the burial of Kerala Muslims. We did try to visit the graveyard but were not allowed inside it.
At Kutty’s house, we met a few of the Malayalis who had been deceived by travel agents who had promised to take them to Dubai. Instead, they were dumped at the Karachi port in the dead of the night and told it was Dubai. Without Kutty’s and the Jamaat’s help, this group would be in dire straits. Kutty has been working ever since to get visas for them to visit Kerala; some have gone back and married, but had to return since the Indian government doesn’t recognise them as citizens anymore.
Later, when I was posted in Islamabad, he would call me about some Malayalis stuck in Karachi and I recall one very complicated case where we had to follow up many times for the family to be sent back to Kerala. That incident showed me how determined he was and while lesser people would have given up, he was dogged and ensured the young couple got safe passage to India, despite so many hurdles.
He was an eternal optimist and always hoped that relations between India and Pakistan would get better. He was among the few people who could visit India and his home in Vylattur in Malappuram district, and was unaffected by visa restrictions. I met him last in New Delhi at the Press Club some years ago, where — despite not being in the best of health — he cracked jokes and spoke of current politics over beer. We kept in touch via email until he became too ill.
In Karachi, he called himself an “educated shuttlecock”, travelling between India and Pakistan, and said he came to the city for no particular reason. He soon got embroiled in trade union activities and as a peace activist he was the secretary general of the Pakistan Peace Coalition, apart from being the secretary of PILER. His political activism landed him in jail for two years and 11 months during President Ayub Khan’s time. A close associate of Baloch leader Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo (whose autobiography he edited), he was active in the Awami National Party and later the National Democratic Party and other organisations.
I met members of the Malabar Muslim Jamaat, who said that a survey in 1986 indicated that there were 64,000 Malayalis in Karachi; among them those who fled after the Mappila rebellion in 1921. Now the figure could be around 10,000. But many of them are stranded there against their will.
Kutty was closely associated with the Gandhian activist Nirmala Deshpande, and called her “Nirmala didi”. He writes of how he made it to her funeral in New Delhi on 1 May 2008, a year in which all relations were to break down between India and Pakistan after the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai. “Nirmalaji’s vision knew no frontiers. It was her wish that after her death, apart from the rivers of India and other South Asian countries, her ashes should be immersed in the Sindhu (Indus) as a mark of her love for Pakistan,” he writes in his book.
On 5 May, Kutty and Karamat Ali brought the ashes to the PILER Centre near Karachi. Over the course of a week, thousands of supporters paid homage to Deshpande. People from many parts of Sindh came to Sukkur for the immersion of the ashes.
One of the old guard, a man who knew no boundaries or borders, the likes of BM Kutty are rare now. The movement for peace between India and Pakistan will be severely diminished by his demise, but his optimism and humour will remain as a guiding light. His life in Pakistan is also a reflection of a different relationship with our neighbour, of an era without visas and more trust and positivity, and that is the legacy he leaves behind.
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