One of the problems with secularism is its tendency to raise such high walls of rigid identity that we often don’t know what exactly is going on within a particular community.
We know, for example, that the Moplah Muslims of Kerala are against a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), and, that their political wing, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), has come out strongly against it in the recent past.
But most of us don’t realise that within Kerala, the battle is not between the IUML and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but between the IUML, their ally the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI(M), and the Samastha — the principal body of Moplah clerics and scholars.
So, when the CPI(M) extended an invitation last week to the IUML, to participate in a seminar on the UCC, a number of old fault-lines which had simmered quiescently for ages, came rushing angrily to the fore.
Consequently, prime time television was filled this past week, with the rare sight of representatives from the IUML, Congress, Samastha (all three technically on the same side), and the CPI(M), bickering petulantly with each other over the admittedly-cheeky invitation.
What’s going on?
A little history first: neither the Moplahs of Kerala, nor their leaders, are a perfectly homogeneous community, even though it may seem that way to outsiders.
Their sole point of agreement is on their spiritual preceptor — a hereditary position held by the eldest male of the senior-most line of the Thangal family; Sunnis who draw their roots from Yemen, and practise the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence.
The Samastha was established under the guidance of the then Thangal, in the wake of the violent 1921 Moplah rebellion, after Mahatma Gandhi’s Khilafat movement degenerated disastrously into the massacre of Hindus by the Moplahs.
Its objective was to eradicate ‘progressive’ thinking which had been introduced into Kerala by Egyptian-influenced preachers, called ‘Mujahids’.
The Samastha pejoratively calling the Mujahids ‘progressive’ is a bit like the Maoists calling Marxists ‘bourgeoise’, but that is how it is in communities which perceive any sort of reform or change as an existential threat to their beliefs and practices.
This body successfully pursued its aims of purifying the clergy, with the Thangal’s role restricted largely to spiritual and community matters. But this expanded to the political domain immediately after independence when the Thangal formed a political party to contest elections — the Muslim League.
This merging of church and state went against everything secularism ostensibly stood for, but it was no contradiction to the Moplahs because, in Islam, the Ulema and the Ummah (the clergy and the laity) are supposed to be governed by a common crown.
The secular parties didn’t complain since they had already understood by then, the massive electoral benefits of allying with a large community which voted en bloc, for whichever party the Thangal sided with.
Then came the Gulf boom, and the first notes of dissonance between the Samastha and the IUML. In 1975, when the Thangal passed away, the Samastha elected its own leader, instead of letting the leadership pass to the next Thangal as per tradition.
The rift, as ever, was on ensuring that each successive generation of preachers was taught the Moplahs’ form of pure Islam, and preventing the ingress of deviations; in effect, it was a tussle for control of the madrassas.
That rift was somewhat healed only in 2009, when a new Thangal brokered a peace to assume leadership of the Samastha (which too, is faction-riven, and had split in the past). He was the first to head both the Samastha and the IUML since his father passed away in 1975.
But the peace collapsed with his passing in March 2022. An acrimonious contest soon sprang up, with Jifri Muthukkoya taking charge of the Samastha and the Coordination of Islamic Colleges (CIC) — a body which oversees around a hundred madrassas in India, and affiliated to the League of Islamic Universities in Cairo (note the old Egypt link).
The issue, once again, was over syllabus content for degrees awarded to preachers, with Jifri ousting administrators appointed by the late Thangal so that he could reverse changes made to syllabi, and the new Thangal hitting back by trying to oust Jifri from the CIC.
Nothing really changes in the vortex of rigidity: control of madrassas is vital because whoever controls the Ulema controls the Ummah.
But, control over how Islam should be taught to the next generation of preachers is not the only issue in play. This resurgence of old rifts reflects a fundamental confusion on how to counter or adapt to the erosion of identity politics from the Indian political space.
There is also growing disgruntlement over the Congress’s decline, both nationally and in the state, and with IUML’s consequent, dwindling ability to use the Congress as a tool to achieve their traditional objectives.
This has been exacerbated by the shift of the Kerala Congress — a party of the Christians in Kerala — from the Congress-IUML-led coalition to the CPI(M)-led fold, and the thumping victory that shift delivered to the Left-led coalition in the assembly elections in 2021.
In a nutshell, the question being asked is: How to live in a society you can’t control or modify to your theological liking?
But why has all that led to mud-slinging on panel discussions between the so-called ‘Secularati’?
Why are they bickering amongst themselves instead of attacking the BJP, who, lest we forget, were the ones who raised the issue of the UCC in the first place, last month?
Well, that’s Kerala today: fruitlessly ensnared in a contest of competing desperations.
The Congress is worried that the communists are out to poach the Muslim vote. Their fears are not entirely misplaced, since the wooing has been on for some time now (see here for courting efforts from April 2022, and note that they began soon after the last Thangal passed away the month before).
The IUML and the Samastha are worried that the Congress may not be able to thwart the BJP at the national level, and prevent the latter from bringing in a UCC; they need the communists (note who’s pushing for opposition unity, and why).
They are also in a bind because the Congress in Kerala has chosen to sit on the fence, and say that the UCC issue would be better addressed after a draft bill becomes available.
The IUML separately fears that their ongoing leadership tussle with the Samastha might split the Muslim vote in the communists’ favour.
The Samastha is worried about compromises the IUML might have to make if it cosies up to the communists (which is a contradiction, because it admits that only a united opposition can try to take on the BJP and prevent the UCC from becoming a reality).
The Congress and the communists are worried that sharing a common platform to fight the BJP over the UCC, for the sake of the Moplah vote, would be the end of one of them in Kerala.
The Left are particularly worried that the more the Congress dithers, the greater the chance that its remnant Hindu vote base might start gravitating to the BJP.
This would, in turn, affect the Left’s chances in some Lok Sabha seats like Attingal, where they lost to the Congress by a narrow margin in 2019 because the BJP polled 24 per cent of the vote; and where Union minister K Muraleedharan’s candidature is reportedly under discussion for the 2024 general elections.
The Left are worried that they can’t counter the UCC without discrediting their leaders like E M S Namboodiripad, who had advocated a UCC in the past.
Of course, Marxists being Marxists, they have already commenced efforts to circumvent this tricky bit by employing their usual postmodernist, sophist, doublespeak. The results are hilarious, and entirely without irony.
The Congress is worried that, having already lost a significant portion of the Christian vote to the communists, any departure of the Muslim vote, even if only by a smaller degree, would spell electoral doom for ‘India’s oldest party’.
So, perhaps better to kick the can down the road, at least in Kerala, and hope the rest of the country doesn’t notice.
This is the state of affairs today, and it has strong political ramifications, because, for perhaps the first time in Kerala, it is not just the Congress or the communists who are after the Muslim vote, but the Samastha and the IUML too.
Whatever the outcome, the BJP should pat itself on the back, because its raising of the UCC issue has ruptured visions of opposition unity, exposed the worst features of secularism, and sown the seed of doubt in Moplah minds on whom to support.
Now, it is up the BJP’s state unit to drive forward the message of unity, if they can.
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