North Kerala Muslim politics has reached a post-CH Muhammed Koya phase. Why is north Kerala Muslim politics specifically relevant? And who is this CH Muhammed Koya?
Though Kerala Muslims, 27% of the state’s population, are distributed across the state and support different parties, north Kerala (the Malabar region) is where about 70% of Malayali Muslims live, and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) is their main political collective. The Muslim politics of the state usually gets discussed around this region and party.
CH Muhammed Koya, or CH as he is referred to, is arguably the most effective Muslim mass leader in post-Independence India and the best icon of the IUML. He was very briefly the Chief Minister of Kerala, Deputy Chief Minister, and handled the portfolios of Home, Public Works Department in the state government for a long time.
Son of a poor muezzin from Kozhikode, CH started his political career with a community that was already lost in social and political domains. The political awakening of the subaltern Muslim peasantry of lower north of Kerala (Mappilas) had been abandoned after the anti-imperial, anti-landlord movements turning communal and being crushed by the British in the 1920s. The Khilafat movement, an originally Gandhian project, was dropped like a hot potato after it turned awry, leaving the Mappilas socially alienated – not just from other communities but also the coastal upper caste Muslims and the Muslims of south and central Kerala. Politically, after the partition of India, working with the IUML, founded in 1948, marking its differentiation from the pre-Independent north Indian outfit was both mandatory and difficult. There were some rich people of the community in the party but the macro-majority was financially poor and socially backward.
CH Muhammed Koya’s work in the community had four major aspects: community engineering, social development, public messaging and cultural vision.
In community engineering, he brought two religious groups together – the conservative, rural mass-religious sections and the then reformist, urban sections under the IUML, which gave the party a mass base, political currency and confidence. Kerala’s special kind of communitarianism, every community growing in socio-economic terms, could be taken up in the north Kerala Mappila Muslims only after such electoral critical mass.
Ever since CH became part of the government, a minister for the first time in the CPI(M)’s 1967 EMS Namboodiripad ministry, social development was his primary agenda. He went about it supporting the Left ministry’s paradigm-shifting land reforms (“the poor, subaltern peasantry is the mass base of the party,” CH reiterated), giving Muslim girls educational scholarships, establishing excellent quality university in Malabar, and encouraging education in the community. When land reforms freed the human resource of the state and the petro-dollar economy was getting established on decentralised, individual economic adventures by the poor people from the community, the much-needed coherence back home was provided by CH’s leadership. In a lot of India, social justice politics got stuck eventually due to the lack of any social development projects. CH’s work is an honourable exception.
CH always knew the importance of public messaging: communitarianism was never made to slip into hate speech or victim narrative. Even when there were attacks based on his community origins, he never retorted forgetting the larger interests of the people of Kerala. He always saw Malayali Muslims, in fact his support base of Mappila Muslims, as a segment of Kerala and communicated it unequivocally, while being aware of the rights and responsibilities of the community. He supported and mentored a number of cultural voices, with a vision of an enriched and harmonious future. He died in 1983, on the verge of personal property confiscation and literally penniless.
There is a running one-line about CH and IUML: “IUML’s vehicle still runs on the petrol put in by CH”. Such is his legacy. But there are symptoms and developments that signal its ending.
The north Kerala Muslim community is not the backward, poor community it used to be during CH’s initial decades anymore. Thanks to the Gulf remittances and the later integration of the community into the knowledge economy, it is one of the most politically and economically powerful communities of Kerala, along with Ezhavas, Christians and Nairs – perhaps the only place in the country where Muslims are a substantial part of the new, globalised middleclass.
The global and national scenarios have changed: after the 1990s, the cat and mouse game at the global scene is between Islamophobes and Islamists, both of whom understand Islam as a civilization, and this imposes silence and invisibility on the majority of the community. At the national level, the insistence of Hindutva on the monolithic Muslim community for creating a Hindu majority community is so blinding that regional concrete life realities have been exhausted in a national fear narrative, leaving the community confused and diffident.
Instead of drawing on and modifying CH’s legacy to address these new givens, the IUML seems to be evading the situation: hollowing out social development through commercialisation of and corruption in education, and dropping the baton in issues of social justice by being unwilling to see the problems of the community’s socially and economically weak were the beginning. The IUML has given an Assembly seat to a woman after 25 years, but in CH’s party which started work on female educational empowerment in the late 1960s this is woefully inadequate.
The IUML has neither the imagination nor the energy, not to mention a committed and visionary leader, to convert the CH legacy into a working project. IUML’s current leadership, under the all too powerful PK Kunhalikutty, has had no problem in an electoral adjustment, though short-lived, with the Welfare Party, the political outfit of the Jamaat-e-Islami, no qualms on political messaging and party’s theoretical foundation. In a symbolically significant development, CH Muhammed Koya’s photo wasn’t included in the backdrop banner amidst all the past and present luminaries at the IUML National Secretariat Meeting held on January 2 this year in Kozhikode. If the party had been stuck at CH for some decades, what is now witnessed is a total abandoning of the figure, in letter and spirit.
The IUML is likely to do well in the 2021 elections in terms of seats, thanks to electoral consolidation, but the party has already undergone a major shift in outlook and orientation. In the absence of a concrete social mission, will its communitarianism deteriorate into social antagonism, aided by ideas of politicised faith and essentialised identity? Will the party, due to the lack of a theoretical line based on awareness of regional and organisational history and a frame of constitutional nationalism, lose its specialties and end up Owaisi-like, neo elite-led community party with no social objective? Will it claim the inheritance of CH and become a parable of constructive political engagement? Or will it forget and end up being a cautionary tale?
These are questions with implications in the life of the republic. With the latter, the space for emergence into future, becoming a people with a shared destiny, will be an even more daunting task.
NP Ashley teaches English at St Stephen’s College, Delhi.
Views expressed are the author’s own.