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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

Tribute: Dr N.A. Karim

Saturday 12 March 2016

by K.M. Ajir Kutty

Dr N.A. Karim, a prominent public intellectual of Kerala, breathed his last in the afternoon of February 4, 2016 at Manjari, his residence at Peroorkkada in Thiruvananthapuram. He had been ailing for some time and had just had a bout of viral fever after which he refused food and grew very weak. The end came at 2.15 pm on the fateful day. People from all walks of life, among them were a number of well-known personalities including Ministers, political leaders, writers and social activists, paid homage to Dr Karim both at his residence and at the Palayam Jum’a Masjid in the city where he was laid to rest in the burial ground attached to the mosque in the forenoon the following day.

N.A. Karim was born in 1926 in the village of Edavanakkad off the Vypeen islands near Kochi. Had he been alive he would have been 90 on February 15. He leaves behind his wife, Meena Karim, a son from his former marriage and a daughter.

Although Dr Karim is hailed as a public intellectual, the appellations that have defined the colour and tenor of this multi-faceted personality are many. While studying in the intermediate class at the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, he plunged into India’s struggle for independence and later played a very active role in the ‘Quit India’ movement. Consequently he was expelled from the college. At that time he was the General Secretary of the Akhila Kochi Vidyarthi Congress. His expulsion from the college triggered a spate of student unrest. But the college authorities did not relent and never took him back.

Freedom fighter and activist N.A. Karim now turned to journalism, clinching a job as a correspondent for Express, a noted Malayalam daily of that time being published from Thrissur. Later he took up the editorship of Navodayam, the organ of the erstwhile Kerala Socialist Party. N.A. Karim soon launched his own magazine called Navayugam (New Age) for which Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon, a prominent poet of Kerala, wrote one of his much-quoted poem Panthangal (Burning Torches). N.A. Karim, right from his school days, was a critic of the British rule in India. At school once when he was asked to write an essay on the Benefits of British Rule in India, to the shock of his masters he wrote about the negative effects of the foreign rule in scathing terms! When the essay was finally shown to the school inspector, he privately chastised the bold boy and asked his masters to keep an eye on him!

 Having been forced to discontinue his studies in the Princely State of Kochi, he moved to Malabar, northern Kerala, where the Farook College had just come up. Karim took a degree from there and returned to a career in journalism with Chandrika daily. However, it did not last long as he went on to do his Masters in English Language and Literature at the Aligarh Muslim University. After Aligarh, N.A. Karim started off as a teacher of education in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. It was while working in the Jamia that Karim landed the job of a lecturer in the Institute of English of Kerala University when the department was first begun at the renowned CMS college of Kottayam in Central Kerala. He later took his Ph.D from the University of Kerala. Dr Karim made his stamp as an efficient teacher of English, at the same time guiding a number of scholars to their doctoral degrees during the course of his career.

Dr N.A. Karim was an able educational administrator. It was as the Dean of Students of the University of Calicut that he first proved his mettle in educational administration. Later he was appointed the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kerala on two terms, a rare distinction indeed, for this record still remains unbroken. Meanwhile, he also lost the Vice-Chancellorship of the Kerala University, between the cup and the lip, for having openly sided with those who demanded that timely changes be made to the Shariah, the Muslim personal law. But Karim never regretted losing the plum post on account of his stance on Shariah, so was his position when he decided, along with friend, college mate and intellectual, the late P.K. Balakrishnan, against applying for the freedom fighter’s pension. Interestingly, ‘Karim Sir’, as he was endearingly called by all those who knew him, had in 1995 unsuccessfully contested a by-election as a Left Democratic Front candidate against the Congress-led UDF’S A.K. Antony, the then Chief Minister of Kerala. Needless to say, it was a consolidation of Muslim votes against Karim that ensured the victory for A.K. Antony.

All said, what endeared Karim Sir to all those who knew him, whether of an academic, activist or literary frame of mind, was his untiring willingness to listen to them and contribute creatively to their cause as and when the situation required. No wonder, Karim Sir headed a host of committees and institutions working for the emancipation of the society at large. He was the All India President of the Save Education Committee apart from being the President of the Kerala Chapter of the All India Anti-Imperialist Forum and the Vice-President of the Kerala State Democratic Resistance Council. Appointed by the government, Dr Karim had also served for a long time as the President of Mahakavi Kumaran Asan National Institute of Culture, Thonnakkal. It is amazing to think that it was an aged and ailing Karim Sir who was willingly associating with all these movements. When, the All India Save Education Committee convened an educational meet in front of the Kerala Government Secretariat on December 15, 2015, against the backdrop of the Central and the State governments moving towards commercialising the Indian higher education sector, it was Dr N.A. Karim who inaugurated it making a memorable speech on the occasion.

The label of ‘educationist’ has stuck well with him. Karim Sir had also played a stellar role in the much-talked-about total literacy movement of Kerala. Dr Karim had reminisced that his experiences as a fellow in the Aligarh Muslim University’s Psychometric Unit had helped him much to read upon, experiment with and explore into the field of education. He has given lectures, written widely, and given interviews on the topic and question of education. In the Mainstream of September 26, 2009 Dr N.A. Karim had an article entitled ‘The Ever Elusive Goal of Education for All’. Written against the background of the government of the day at the Centre getting ready to implement the Right to Education Act, the article discusses in some detail India’s various attempts at universalising elementary education and voices concern whether the new Act will be able to achieve the coveted universalising of elementary education throughout this vast country within the stipulated time-frame. Although Dr Karim had always spoken out against imperialist designs and neo-liberal manoeuvres, in the article he made bold to say that the government move at Public Private Partnership (PPP) for universa-lising education was a welcome step provided it was implemented without diluting academic standards! Such was his zeal for bringing education to all.

Towards the end of his life, under friendly compulsion perhaps, he had serialised his memoirs in a Malayalam weekly under the title Kalaghattathinte Kaiyoppu (The Signature/Stamp of an Era). In one of its instalments he rues the idolising by the West of Malala Yousufzai for her espousal of the cause of modern education among the backward Muslim women of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In his criticism of the Western countries, particularly the USA, Dr Karim exposed their double standard of indiscriminately bombarding and drone-attacking the Muslim lands thereby depriving the children of those countries access to education while at the same time blatantly moving about by showcasing a young Muslim woman who had risked her own life for the spread of education!

As an educationist and progressive social thinker, Dr Karim was well aware of the liberating roles played by the reform leaders of Kerala Renaissance in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That is why he fully associated with and served as the President of the Thiruvananthapuram-based NGO, the Vakkom Moulavi Foundation Trust, established to perpetuate the name of Vakkom M. Muhammad Abdul Qadir Moulavi (1879-1932), a stalwart of the Kerala Renaissance. A prolific writer both in English and Malayalam, Dr Karim has written a great number of articles and essays on education, social issues, literature, criticism, politics and the like. His public lectures and radio talks were also quite memorable. But alas, much of his creative output remains uncollected and published in book form. Dr Karim and the founder editor of Mainstream, Nikhil Chakravartty, knew each other. Karim Sir once told this writer that Nikhilda used to compel him to write for his weekly; so also was the present editor of Maistream. Not only for Mainstream but also for all those who loved and looked up to him, the demise of Dr N.A. Karim is an irreparable loss indeed.

The author is a bilingual writer, poet and an award-winning translator.