The CPI(M), which is wary of identity politics and has traditionally sought to organise around issues of labour and economic policy, now wants to address the Muslim question.

Person wearing sunglasses and striped teeMuneer Katipalla/FB
news Politics Wednesday, May 25, 2022 - 14:13

At a time when even non-BJP parties are looking to increase their appeal among Hindus, the Karnataka unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is gearing up for a Muslim convention in communally polarized coastal Karnataka. The event, which features some of the state’s top intellectuals as speakers, is scheduled for the last weekend of May at Mangalore. Nearly 2,000 Muslim delegates selected from different districts will attend the event, organizers said.  

This is a new kind of politics for the party which has traditionally sought to organise around issues of labour and economic policy. It holds particularly true for the CPI(M) in Karnataka where it has never had a significant electoral impact but still managed to consistently organise lakhs of workers for collective bargaining and demonstrations through its trade and farmer’s unions.

More broadly, the country’s largest communist party has also had a checkered history with the Muslim community as well as with other discriminated social groups such as Dalits, Adivasis and also women. The CPI(M) continues to be wary of what it describes as ‘identity politics’ even as it is often pilloried for the lack of diversity in its top leadership which continues to be overwhelmingly Hindu, upper-caste and male.

Muneer Katipalla, the main organizer of the upcoming Muslim conference and state committee member of the CPI(M), believes he is an example of change in the party and maintains that the question of identity is not immaterial to the communist style of organising. 

In this interview to TNM, he insists that the party is committed to questions of caste, gender and religious identity but at the same time wary of building people’s movements on the basis of identity alone. Excerpts: 

The project to typecast Muslims as a homogenous group threatens to erase from public view the great diversity within the community. It is clear that in the eyes of an Islamophobe, there is only only kind of Muslim. But there are also voices within the Muslim community who have spoken out against Muslim organisations for similarly reducing the community’s concerns to unitary narratives. How does your party see the community?

So everybody knows that Muslims face extreme persecution in coastal Karnataka, right? Do we know that two of the largest malls in Karnataka, which are located in Mangalore, are also owned by Muslims? Eight medical colleges and nearly 40 per cent of all hospitals here are owned by Muslim tycoons. This small business class has interests spread across education, construction, timber, fisheries, shipping. You name an industry in this entire coastal belt and you will find that there are Muslim capitalists in the mix. 

At the same time it is also a fact that a majority of the people who roll Bidis for living or work as labour in the fishing boats and in the ports are also Muslim. The overall socio-economic indices of Muslims in coastal Karnataka are abysmal compared to other religious groups. They are behind on education, employment, health and land holding. These are the people who are vulnerable when a fascist regime takes over. You will not see stories about millionaire Muslim businessmen attacked by rightwing goons on the street or fixed in false police cases.

Who are these two types of Muslims is a question that has to form the basis of any intervention that we make in these times of Hindutva fascism. It is clear that a micro-minority of Muslims is able to negotiate with the regime and their life doesn't hang in the balance like the majority of Muslims who live on a daily wage.

A small group of wealthy and influential Muslims who have generations of privilege behind them are exploiting the present political situation by speaking as community representatives.  

We contest the narrow definition of religious and political life that the Muslim elite want to impose on the Muslim working class. 

This coastal region has seen many successful attempts by the communist movement to forge class struggles across religions. Take for example the Ganjimutt area near Mangalore where Beary Muslim peasants and Hindu peasants from the Kumbhar community jointly fought for land rights in the early years of independence. Their resistance under the communist flag was met with brutal reprisals from landlords who formed small militias like the Ranveer Sena to attack the agitating farm workers. 

In the same village today, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has managed to mobilise some Hindus to agitate for a temple in the place of the Malali mosque. The 700-year-old mosque has some structures inside which are designed according to Tulu-Dravidian style. This is a symbol of the syncretic culture of Tulunadu. But the VHP claims this as proof of a Hindu temple. 

Now, it is understandable that the Hindu rightwing will try to erase this syncretic memory. But the interesting thing is that the Islamist political groups too are averse to this culture which developed organically by centuries of mixing. The role of a secular progressive force becomes crucial in this tinderbox situation.

With what message have you been going into the Muslim community and how have your efforts been received? At a time when religion-based organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) are becoming increasingly influential in the community, can an atheistic approach work?

It is wrong to say that we shun religious philosophies altogether. We are directly involved in a contest of ideas on the question of religion with groups such as the SDPI, Jamat and AIMIM. In a state like Karnataka, large sections of Sunni Muslims are part of the Sufi-Dargah faith system and do not subscribe to the narrow ideology of Muslim parties. 

This is particularly true of coastal Karnataka where liberal Islam is not just a loose cultural phenomenon but a central part of the faith because of the Sufi tradition. There are progressive principles here that the CPI (M) and all its mass movements have been associated with for decades. There is no contradiction here. 

Now, if the question is on Wahhabi-style Islam which promotes illiberal concepts about women, science, modernity and social relations, there is no question that our party will oppose it as vehemently as Hindutva.

In the course of organising this conference, for instance, we have been welcomed by Sunni neighbourhood-level groups. They represent a larger cross section of the Muslim population than the politico-religious organisations that seem to be the focus of media attention. Local mosque committees, units of the Sunni Students Federation (SSF), the Muslim Central Committee (MCC), which are liberal formations, have helped us at the panchayat and municipality level in the organising. 

They responded enthusiastically to our call to address Muslim marginality by building larger coalitions based on basic questions of livelihood, education, infrastructure and economic policy. 

If you are suggesting that groups such as the SDPI, Jamaat and AIMIM are irrelevant, then there is enough evidence to the contrary. Religion is one just one dimension of their ideology, their influence also reflects the genuine yearning within the community for autonomous Muslim leadership. There is a large section of politically conscious Muslims that is particularly resentful of Indian communists over the question of political representation for the community.

In the course of organising for this conference, we held a large meeting in Chokkabettu, a place with a large Muslim population, represented by a councillor from the SDPI. Why do you think there was such a large turnout in an SDPI stronghold? Muslims in Chokkabettu have political representation, right? Why did they turn up to listen to a communist like Muneer Katipalla or Imtiaz BK?

Our message to the community has been that the sum total of the impact of Islamophobia and Hindutva is ‘economic’; it hits people in the stomach. And the political resistance to this has to be built on the basis of a fight for the equitable distribution of resources, a fight for employment, a fight against neoliberal policies that favour the Ambanis and the Adanis. 

In the ideology of these parties which are focussed only on the politico-religious aspect of Muslim lives, where is the focus on the most crucial questions concerning Muslims today? Importantly, when we speak about the leadership of Muslims that has been created by these organisations, what is the composition of their leadership? Who are the leaders, what is their social and economic background, which are the powerful families and clans they are associated with? Are they only Muslim or are they working class or lowered caste Muslims who are the majority in the community? 

Which Muslim gets to represent all Muslims is a central question. It is a question that will embarrass all these Muslim political parties. My parents were daily wage workers and I studied only till Class 8. For me to emerge as a state-level communist leader means that I had to first spend years understanding the party programme for which I had to study hard economic theories, history and about ideologies and international relations. To build leaders from the bottom takes time, I have been with the movement for close to 30 years.

When it comes to the CPI(M), there is genuine reflection on our failures to create leadership among Muslims. But our approach has always been to build leaders from genuine working class backgrounds. We want to build Muslim leaders who can represent the interests of all communities. If a person from the Bunt or Brahmin community can provide leadership to all communities, why should Muslim leaders be restricted to minority wings of parties or indeed to minority based parties? 

These are the fundamental questions over which our party is focussed. If we had to simply get readymade Muslim leaders, we would have had to do what other parties do — share power with the Muslim elite. Look at the Muslim leaders in the State such UT Khader, Zameer Ahmed, NA Harris or Roshan Baig, do they represent the interest of the toiling Muslims? For us, the fight is not for short-term electoral gain but a fight for a change in the human condition.

But your statements itself beg the question, why then have a Muslim conference and not a workers conference? Why has the party, not just in Karnataka but also nationally, started organising with vigour among Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis?

Firstly, we see this as a conference ‘about’ Muslims and not a conference ‘of’ Muslims. Yes, because the focus is on the problems being faced by the community, a large section of the gathering will be made up of Muslims. But there are others too. In our campaigning, we have also been visiting Hindus and other communities saying, ‘Attend this conference to discover how your issues and the issues of Muslims are the same in this post-pandemic apocalypse created by the BJP government.’ 

This is an attempt to invite Muslims to participate in larger coalitions by exposing them to fresh perspectives and new social coalitions. And this is not just empty rhetoric, you will find many Hindus and other communities at the event. Our panel of speakers is also not just Muslim but a diverse mix.

But I am not going to avoid your question, yes, it is a special conference where there is a special focus on Muslims. This is because of the extraordinary circumstances that have developed in the country since the BJP government came to power. Earlier, they were under attack only from rightwing extremists. Now, these extremists have taken control of the state machinery. All the democratic institutions are being manipulated to target one community. Things in Karnataka have become only worse with the political instability in the state and there is a massive campaign to economically boycott Muslims.

This is forcing the community towards political organisations that promote militant ideologies based on religion. We saw this in the controversy over the question of the Hijab in coastal Karnataka. The mobilisation against the garment by Hindutva groups was met equally by Muslim extremist groups. 

The fact is that a majority of Muslim girls do not see the Hijab as an essential article of faith but wearing it now has become a symbol of resistance against Hindu fundamentalism. The real victims of this are the women who do not wear the Hijab. Those Muslim women who are against it, because they see it as restrictive or as a symbol of patriarchy, are now coming under social pressure to observe the Hijab. 

This is where we believe that a progressive party can play a crucial role within these communities. We are working among Dalit, Adivasi and other lowered caste groups for precisely this reason. On one hand these communities are as much under attack from the present regime as Muslims. At the same time, just like Muslims, they too are getting weakened because of identity politics.  

For instance, compare the organising capacity of pan-Dalit organisations such as the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti or the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with the capacity of organisations that represent individual communities such as the Madiga Dandora or the Bhovi Sangha. 

The organisations which we mistake as representing smaller, individual communities are in fact more influential and have more bargaining power than the pan Dalit organisations. People speak rhetorically about Bahujan mobilisation or Shudra politics but the so-called Bahujans are organised as Kuruba, Vokkaliga, Mogaveera or Billava. That is the problem with identity politics, it has no end, and it prevents us from building larger people’s movements.

 

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