P. M. Jabir may have left Oman, but his social work continues unabated, including the Sultanate in his ambit
Basheer (*), from one of the interior towns of Oman and hailing from India, was desperately trying to make a WhatsApp call to the number (00968) 99335751. At one point, this was one of the most sought after numbers by those in distress in the expatriate community in Oman, especially among the Indians, and perhaps more among the Malayalis.
Basheer, whose brother was at a private hospital owing to a serious medical problem, was trying to raise the funds to pay this bill, which was rising every day. He was unable to get hold of the man at the other end of the line. But, the latter was no longer in Oman. Basheer never watched TV, nor read the news. He didn’t know that the man who had spent over 40 years in Oman and had made a “living” with the blessings earned from the help he rendered people in distress had packed his bags and left the Sultanate many months back.
However, Basheer was in luck. A few hours later, he had a voice message from P. M. Jabir, the former community welfare secretary of the Indian Social Club (ISC) and social worker and now relocated to his hometown, Thalassery, Kerala, India. Basheer was reassured that he would get all the help he needed to raise funds for his brother’s medical fees.
Still in action
The long arm of Jabir is still reaching out in Oman and despite having left the country, he is still very much in “action”.
“Yes, I am still getting many messages on my WhatsApp. I have attended to more than 100 cases since I left Oman. Even yesterday I had a call to help airlift two human remains of Indians, who had died in a road accident. We have also helped six people from the United Arab Emirates, five from Bahrain and three from Saudi Arabia – all with the help of my contacts, in Oman and the other three countries,” Jabir said, recently speaking to the Black & White from his hometown, Thalassery, in Kerala.
Jabir also noted that last month, he had helped arrange the transfer of the mortal remains of an Omani man from Kannur to Oman. “This Omani man was on his way from Muscat to Kochi for medical treatment but developed serious medical issues in the flight and the plane had to make an emergency landing at the Kannur International Airport. However, the poor man was declared dead and the officials were confronted with dilemma of sending the body back.
“Both the Mattanur police and the family of the deceased from Sur called me to help them. This was the first time that I was handling a case of airlifting mortal remains of the deceased from India to Oman. All this time, it was the other way around. But, anyway, within 48 hours, the Omani man’s remains were airlifted back to Oman. Even though it was a sad situation, I had deep satisfaction in being able to help.
The Kerala police and the Omani embassy in India were a great help. The deceased’s family were very thankful and besides sending me thank you messages, they have invited me to Sur, whenever I visit Oman.”
Quintessential social worker
In his eventful 40-plus years in Oman, this quintessential social worker has helped many thousands of people in distress and has left indelible footprints in the social service arena in Oman. Jabir has sent over 4000 mortal remains of Indians who have passed away in Oman; he and his efficient team of volunteers have been able to find over 200-plus Indians who were reported ‘missing’ by the members of their families and sent back to their homes. He was also the main ‘architect’ (*1) behind the initial amnesty in Oman, which succeeded in sending back hundreds and thousands of undocumented Indians (and others) back to their home countries.
“I really don’t know how many people have been benefited by the help or assistance we provided. I would presume that it could run to many thousands. But I have not kept a real count and you know it doesn’t really matter.
Generous members of the community
“Even with regard to sending the mortal remains, I would be quoting only an approximate figure and it could be more than 4000. There was a period when I was the only one helping in sending mortal remains back to the home country or cremating/burying their remains locally. Now, there are many,” he said. He noted that he was forever indebted to the kind-hearted people who were always there to help provide funds when and where necessary. “We were always successful in generating the necessary funds as there were many generous folks among the Indian diaspora in Oman,” Jabir said, noting that he paid all the incidental expenses.
Jabir came to Oman when he was only 22. The seventh child of Abdulla Kunhi and Nafeesa, he is part of the famous Maliyakkal family, which is an 103-years old ‘tharavad’ (ancestral home) with more than 1300 members, in Thalassery, in Kerala. The famous Mariyumma Maliyakkal, who was the first Muslim woman in North Kerala to get an English education, was his grandaunt. Mariyumma, 97, died in August last year (2022). She was considered to be an icon of English education among Muslims in North Kerala and was an inspiration for generations.
Although initially Jabir’s help reached mostly Malayalis, he has helped a cross section of Indians and even those from other countries. “I have helped migrants from other parts of India and even other countries, mainly those from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even some African states.
Hurt yesterday, stronger today
Despite the enormous body of work Jabir has done on the social front, especially in being a father-like figure in assisting deprived migrants suffering from untold injustices, there were many who tried to pull the carpet under his feet. But, he went on like a horse with blinders and never bothered about the barbs thrown at him, yet, it did hurt him, especially when it was being done by those whom he thought were close to him; those to whom he had lent his shoulders and those whom he nurtured. He reveals a bit about this in this interview to Black & White, yet, he quickly points out that he used the very same pain he felt when he was betrayed by those he trusted to catapult himself to positive growth. “I learnt quickly how to channel such pain and disappointment to growth. I was hurt, but that cracked me open and let light in. It taught me; it helped me to be stronger than ever.”
Those missing you in Oman today would be missing your presence, ready assistance, in short, your social work, what happens to all that now?
I believe social work has no borders and boundaries. I am continuing what I have been doing in Oman but in a different way. My work with the migrants will continue. The rights of migrants are a subject close to my heart, and I will continue to fight for them wherever I am. I hope to start an international migrants’ helpline – whereby anyone in distress in any country can reach and contact me through my network and I will try to help in every way possible.
I have always been an activist regardless of the borders I have worked within and will always continue to be. In fact, it is only my professional career and life that I have given up in Oman. I started off as a child activist, then became a social activist and then as a migrant, I became a migrant rights’ activist. One thing I know with certainty is that I will always have a role to play as a catalyst for change, regardless of where I am or who I am with.
Honestly speaking, leaving Oman was not something I was ever prepared for. I had always said I would leave only if I am asked to leave or in a casket, like all the ones that I have sent back in these past years. But circumstances were such, I had to leave. However, I have no regrets.
Any plans to reinvent?
I hope to be more active now. So far my work has been mostly confined to Oman and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, but now I want to take it to an international level. In Oman, my prime focus was on Malayalis and of course others from India. Now, I want to take it a step further and include people from other countries too. I am working on this plan and I am not sure how far it will succeed, but I will put in all efforts.
When you landed in Oman in 1982, did you think your life’s mission would be in helping the distressed people?
For me, helping people in distress is a natural instinct. And at that time there was simply no one to follow or emulate. It began slowly and then it turned into an all-consuming passion. It became very intense and there was no turning back. Looking back, I am proud to say that I created a kind of benchmark. The Indian embassy’s doors were not always wide open then. So, that was a task for me. I realised the need and I understood that many were relying on me and it was a huge responsibility. There were many desperate moments and I was on the brink of giving up but I couldn’t and I wouldn’t.
I lost three jobs in that early period. At one point, my then boss told me, “Jabir, you seem to be more inclined to social work than selling insurance.” Then, in the last job I had, it was okay as it was my own company but still the sponsor was noticing everything I did, but he was too much of a gentleman to ever interfere.
Was your family life affected?
Well, my wife was taking care of everything while I was attending to social work. She took care of the schooling of our two daughters; the day-to-day matters etc. But, I would always spend one evening of every week with the family.
I belong to the Maliayakkal family, which is quite a large one and wherever the members are they would gather and host family functions – mehfils – every week. Although I would dearly want to attend, I could rarely do so.
Even my holidays were planned according to my social work schedule. The ‘open house’ events at the Indian embassy were actually set as per my convenience, so a Friday was selected and that too, from 2.30pm onwards. I used to adjust my holidays and made sure I was in town. Everything revolved around my social work.
Have you fulfilled your life’s mission in Oman?
I guess I am happy with what I have achieved. I wouldn’t call it ‘fulfilling’, but I was able to create awareness and a network and a body of zealous volunteers, all of whom are motivated to work hard for those in need.
When I started there was hardly any media network. But slowly, support from the media trickled in and this helped in spreading the message of the need to help others; it brought about more awareness about the rights of the migrants; it brought in a better understanding about how the law works and how they could sort out their problems.
Creating awareness and being able to motivate others was a huge achievement. That was the benchmark. Now, the volunteers need only to follow that path.
Have you entrusted this responsibility to someone…?
I have not entrusted anyone in particular. There are many worthy volunteers and the network still exists. It is not an easy task to take up. And there are battles galore to be fought. I had to fight with embassies; embassy officials; with ambassadors, and this will not be so easy to handle. I even did ‘dharnas’ (picketing) in front of the Indian embassy. I sat before the embassy on four occasions. I took the related issues to the parliament and through my contacts there and with the help of the media brought out issues to light. There was a time when some embassy officials manhandled a worker and then I remember how a top official told me not to come to the open house, which was roundly protested by those who were attending then. It all seems like yesterday. I want to emphasise that I only fought for the rights of the diaspora and have never ever gone to the embassy with a personal request. Once an embassy official told me – during the Indian school board elections then – “Jabir, I am afraid you’ve missed the bus!” Apparently, someone had proposed my name for a post on the board. But, I told him, “Sir, in my life, I have never desired any such posts, so I guess I have not missed ‘the bus’.”
Tell us one happy and one sad moment in your social work in Oman?
I had helped an elderly Indian lady, who was stuck at the embassy’s shelter for over eight months, and thanks to the media and others I managed to send her back. When this lady reached her hometown, she told the media there that she “was totally indebted to me and would do anything for ‘Jabirikka’”! Of course, there are many such happy moments, but this one touched me. She also said she was going to give a special pooja for me at the Guruvayoor temple!
As for a sad story, I will recount Alosyious’ tale. Thursday was my ‘family day’ and we were all walking in Ruwi high street when a man stopped me and said it was urgent and he took me to Alosyious. That man, I think his name was John, said he was on his way to the church, but seeing the plight of Alosyious, he postponed the trip. He said he did not regret skipping the church session as he felt that what he did was equivalent, if not more. When we went to see Alosyious, we found another man, Unnithan, who was in an even worse condition. While Alosyious was okay about being helped, Unnithan not only refused help, but he was also quite abusive. Both of them were at a building under construction. Since Unnithan vehemently refused help, we reluctantly left him there and began working towards helping Alosyious. Soon, we got the papers ready for him to get back to his hometown and at this stage we approached Unnithan again. However, we were once again met with a volley of abuses. But within a short period the construction of the building where he was staying was completed and he had to move out from there. He took refuge in a spot near the Dubai Emporium and from there at the lawns next to the Sultan Qaboos mosque. By then he was very weak and ill and he had no strength to even protest when we took him to Badr Al Sama’a hospital. Since he had no papers, we worked on it from scratch and then after a long wait, we got it done. Finally, we got his ticket ready for a Monday flight. During this time, Unnithan also showed some signs of recovery.
Monday morning was his flight, but on Sunday evening he passed away. It was quite tragic. It was so close, yet it became so far. It didn’t end there as we contacted his relatives to provide us a consent letter so that we could send back his mortal remains to them. But unfortunately, his family refused to do so. For me, this was quite a painful and tragic story.
During your 40-plus-years stint in Oman, was there something or someone that hurt you?
Yes, and this is something that remains like a thorn on my side. Actually, over the decades, I have had my share of abuses and threats – even death threats. But, they did not affect me as much as the various attempts to destabilise my activities and destroy me by those whom I considered as my ‘own people’. Now, if the ones who attempted these were strangers, mere acquaintances and the like, I would not have been bothered at all. But, these were people who were the ones that I nurtured and grew; they were quite close to me. Yet, they ‘knifed’ me from behind. That hurt me as I had brought these people up like they were members of my own family.
The position as community welfare secretary and the Kerala wing was handed over to me by the ISC chairman, Dr Sathish Nambiar, because he had faith and trust in my social work and wanted me to pursue it on a bigger scale. And, I only acted in that sphere. Even if I did not have a post, I would have still served those in distress. I wonder what it was that spurred them to attack me from behind and try to harm and destroy me. I created the Kairali network, I pushed forward the ideals of the Kerala wing and I succeeded. So a readymade organisation, which is fully active and successful, is what they inherited. Yet, the kind of muck and dirt thrown at me and the vicious games played to demoralise and destroy me were unbelievable. I was always alone in these battles and otherwise. Of course, there was great public support so, it didn’t matter much and my prime motive was not fighting with them or settling the scores – there were so many others who trusted and looked up to me to assist them. That was my driving force. Somewhere along the line, I also realised that there was no point in protesting or fighting. I resigned myself to my fate.
“Some people will trample all over you with the shoes you bought them.”But, I have: “Smiled at the people who have said the most terrible things about me and they think I don’t know.” These two quotes helped me and gave me strength through the grim ordeal of the backbiting and backstabbing.
Yet, today, when I look back at it, I realise that it is just water under the bridge and perhaps it is not something that bad after all. In fact, each time they tried to harm or knock me down, each time I came back stronger than before. And if I look back, I am not a loser. The more they hurt me, the more determined I was to be better at my sphere of work and (laughs), I actually found this as a motivation to become better and better. So, in a nutshell, all that negativity; all that attempts to destabilise me made me better at my social work. I became a better campaigner against injustice. I passed all those ‘tests’ in flying colours.
So, these were some of the many storms that you encountered. But, you still went on…?
Look I do not want to portray myself as some super human being who could do anything – like any other man I had many limitations. The truth is that I was and I still am a very ordinary man. But, some of the circumstances that I faced were quite extraordinary – the challenges and the obstacles were beyond the means of an ordinary man like me but somehow by believing in myself and forcing myself beyond my means, I achieved the impossible. I pushed myself beyond all limits but then I felt that I had too many enemies. There were also some legal wrangles and death threats all the way.
To whom do you owe your life to and why?
This is a very difficult question – I would say: To the people who placed their faith in me and my family. I had no obstacles from the home front and I had a smooth sailing thanks to my wife and kids – But again, not only them, my mother, my siblings, and the leaders who inspired me like the first opposition leader in the Lok Sabha, AKG (Ayillyath Kuttiari Gopalan), current Kerala chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan and former leader, E. K. Nayanar. And how can I forget Kodiyeri Balakrishnan – former state secretary – CPI (M)? He was very close to me and encouraged me in all my migrants’ rights’ activities.
While all of them inspired me, AKG (*2) was my biggest inspiration.
But AKG and former Kerala chief minister E.M. S. Nampoodirippad; Pinarayi and his family and my family — all of them stood by me even when I felt everything around me was sinking.
What does the future look like?
Currently, plans are afoot to bring out the helpline. I am not sure how, but I have people around the world: Former officials of the Indian embassy in Muscat who are now working at various embassies across the world; social workers associated with Pravasalokam, Lok Kerala Sabha and from the Global Forum on Migrations and contacts at the International Labour Organisation (ILO). So, if there is any issue, like for instance in Malaysia or Croatia or Finland or East Africa, I have people to rely on and get their help. Again, officially, there is a system, NORKA (Department of Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs), but it has its limitations. My plan is that if someone contacts me (for help) I will use my network and provide whatever assistance is possible. It is too early to talk about as it needs to evolve. I have approached the Kerala government and the chief minister too. I have been working for the migrants for so many years and so I have the experience, the contacts and deep-rooted relationships with many people across the world, so, if the government assigns such a task and responsibility to me, it will boost my attempts to reach out too. But, let us see. I can only wish and hope.
(*) Name changed to protect identity
(*1) By raising huge awareness on the need to repatriate the undocumented workers back to their home countries
(*2) AKG – Ayillyath Kuttiari Gopalan (1 October 1904 – 22 March 1977), popularly known as A. K. Gopalanor AKG, was an Indian communist politician. He was one of the 16 Communist Party of India members elected to the first Lok Sabha in 1952. Later he became one of the founding members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – SOURCE – NET
Jabir with his grandaunt, the late Mariyumma Maliyakkal, the first Muslim woman in North Kerala to get an English education.