Some very curious events took place in Kerala this week.
On 25 June, a few hundred members of the Indian Union Muslim League’s (IUML) youth wing, the Muslim Youth League, conducted a march in support of the people of Manipur, though the coastal town of Kanhangad in North Malabar. It was called the “Manipur Solidarity Day” march.
But the slogans they raised instead, were chilling death-calls to Hindus. It was an odd sight — hundreds of men in orderly columns warning that people would be strung up inside temples and burnt; and, that people wouldn’t be able to read the Ramayana.
As expected, the provocative march was hardly reported in mainstream media, and swiftly exited the news stream after a Muslim Youth League leader in Kanhangad was expelled from the organisation.
Over 300 men were booked the next day (including members of the IUML), and five were formally arrested and charged by Kerala Police, although only after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) youth wing, the Yuva Morcha, filed a complaint.
Leaders of the Muslim Youth League were quick to express regret at the sloganeering. But the IUML has yet to address the issue in public, or face media scrutiny.
Perhaps its leadership believes that silence, one symbolic expulsion, and a media whitewash, will let it sidestep this deeply inflammatory situation of the Muslim League’s creation.
It is what the Muslim League has always done in the past: either stay silent, sit on the fence muttering useless homilies about communal harmony, or play the victim card.
But the Kanhangad episode is different, as are the times, and for multiple reasons, it will be difficult for them to escape public censure, disassociate themselves from the sloganeering, or prevent being shown up for what they truly are.
First, this is a departure from normal Muslim League behaviour. Its leadership and its cadre are usually very careful about their public utterances. Ever since they allied with the Congress party many decades ago, it has been the IUML’s standard practice to pose as secular angels of religious harmony, and make the Congress do their talking for them.
However, their slogans at Kanhangad have put the League in a tight spot, because it is now the Congress’s responsibility to explain why they are allied with a party which threatens to hang and burn people inside temples — especially after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi recently declared that the IUML was a secular party.
Second, these death chants are reflective of an ongoing churning within the Moplah community in general, and its leadership in particular. This flux has both a theological and a political aspect. It is nuanced, played out behind curtains for the most part, and fairly complicated (see here for more on the churn.
Third, and before we get to the details of these push-pull dynamics, League-watchers have sensed for some while now, that many of the issues started to rise to the surface after the leadership of the IUML changed hands in March 2022.
Here, readers may note that the theological leadership of the Moplah community is the hereditary preserve of the Pukkoya Thangal family of Malappuram.
They are also ‘ex officio’ hereditary leaders of the IUML, and bear the colloquial title of ‘Thangal Sahib’. The current incumbent and spiritual preceptor is Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal.
By and large, this flux has five principal components, in varying degrees of intensity and influence: the Samastha, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, the Popular Front of India (PFI), the IUML’s political alliance with the Congress, and Muslim Marxists.
The Samastha is the primary body of Moplah clerics and scholars. Led by Jifri Thangal, it is presently engaged in a bitter battle with the Pukkoya Thangal family for control of numerous Islamic colleges in Kerala, and over the right theological syllabi to be taught to student clerics.
The Jamaat-e-Islami Hind is an Islamic organization which believes that it has the best approach to instituting an ideal, pure, Islamic way of life. Although it commands a much smaller base than the IUML, the Jamaat actively vies with the Pukkoya Thangal family for leadership of the Moplah community.
Presently led by P Mujeeb Rahman, the Jamaat consistently punches above its weight because is an extremely media-savvy group. It runs a Malayalam news channel called Media One, which pushes the Jamaat’s line, and is popular with the Moplahs. One of its ‘favourite’ targets is Kerala’s governor, Arif Mohammed Khan.
It also controls the Welfare Party of India (WPOI), a registered political party which contests elections (thus far with nil success), and cuts marginally into the IUML’s vote. Thus, the Jamaat poses theological and political challenges to the IUML, which could mount if the Pukkoya Thangal family’s sway over the Moplahs declines further.
The PFI may have been banned for its extremist acts, but the appeal of its puritanical views continues to gain traction among those in the Moplah community who feel that the IUML has become electorally moribund, socio-politically ineffective, and generally cowed, with time.
The PFI’s political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), regularly cuts into the IUML’s vote base more than the WOPI does, and sometimes impacts results.
It is yet to be banned by the Election Commission of India. The IUML is worried that if the SDPI is banned, that vote, no matter how small, could shift to the Left in frustration.
This is linked to a fourth aspect — the IUML’s declining returns on an alliance with the Congre-ss.
While the League will continue to win a dozen-odd seats, on its own, in its heartland of South Malabar, the party’s larger concern is that this alliance will still not be able to wrest a popular mandate from the people of Kerala in assembly elections — or sweep the state in general elections — as it has routinely done in the past.
Much of this has to do with the Congress losing significant ground to both the Left and the BJP. If so, then the IUML has to somehow reverse its declining political relevance if it is to not stay stuck on the opposition benches, and out of power.
That is where the fifth aspect comes in — the Left in general, and the Muslim Marxists in particular.
In unprecedented fashion, they have shown that they can shake off anti-incumbency by successfully consolidating the identity vote, secure the mandate, and, most importantly, take the secular fight to the ‘big bad BJP’.
Simply put, the Left have shown that they are more capable of thwarting the BJP in Kerala than the Congress is; and, that Muslim representation flourishes in its ranks. A recent example proves both points:
AN Shamseer is a Muslim, and the Speaker of the Kerala legislature. There was much outrage when he made disparaging comments against Hindu deities earlier this week. But when the BJP’s Yuva Morcha announced that it would take out protests against Shamseer, the Left’s P Jayarajan retorted that if anyone tried anything funny, he would send the Morcha to the mortuary.
How many leaders in the Muslim League truly believe that the Congress is capable of defending Muslims this aggressively? Probably very few, which is also probably why the Left has been assiduously courting the IUML (deniably, of course, as is the Kerala style!) ever since the last Thangal Sahib passed away in March 2022.
This is the intricate, nuanced, complicated dynamics of the ongoing churn in Kerala, a portion of which spilled out as death chants. It is a battle of the puritans at one level, and a battle against irrelevance on the other, and both pose a cleft-stick situation to all involved.
If the IUML allies with the Left, the League returns to the corridors of power; it regains relevance, bolsters the Thangal Sahib’s position, wards off pretenders to the throne (like the Samastha, the Jamaat, or the PFI), strengthens it politically, and permits it to implement its Islamic way of life more fully, and with less competition.
The Left would become invincible in Kerala, its position in Tamil Nadu would improve, and it would prove its claim of being a more successful defender of minority interests than the Congress.
Of course, if this radical shift ever transpires, the Congress would cease to exist in the state, its proposed ambitious national opposition alliance, the I.N.D.I.A, would be dead in the water before it formed. It would struggle to win even 30 Lok Sabha seats, Rahul Gandhi’s chances in Wayanad seat would plummet, and the BJP would become the principal opposition party in Kerala. Who wants that?
Consequently, the greater chances are that the present flux will remain unresolved till after the 2024 general elections, festering in a transitory limbo of frustrated Hindumisia and existential angst.
Yet beyond the 2024 general elections, at a broader level, the truth remains that the winners of these twin battles, over puritanism and relevance, will be those who break out of the victimhood vortex, and the losers will be those Moplahs who didn’t.
In the interim, the Muslim League would do well to note that if death chants at Kanhangad was the best it could come up with, by way of solutions to the problems in Manipur — then it had better stop trying to help, not least because, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
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