KM Shaji was at more than his usual best at the Kozhikode beach on December 9. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) former MLA’s oratory, packed with emotions, was well received by thousands in the crowd, who were equally emotional about the Left government's recent decision to leave Waqf Board appointments to the state Public Service Commission. The members of the Kerala State Wakf Board, a legal body constituted by the state government, are generally appointed by the Waqf Board.
More than a protest (against the latest decision), it was considered the biggest show of strength of the IUML in the recent past. However, the emotionally charged speech by Shaji, who is a crowd puller among the Youth League leaders, was the most visible manifestation of the crisis in the recent past.
"Religion is what matters to us,” Shaji reiterated thrice, with his hand on his chest. “Religion is our identity. That’s allowed for everyone else, right? Till our last breath, religion will be our base, too," Shaji blared into the mic.
Shaji was addressing the issue of Muslims and even IUML members joining the CPI(M), though these were isolated incidents. The crisis in the IUML party, to be more specific, started brewing after the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front retained power with a thumping majority in the 2021 Kerala Assembly elections.
The second-time rout sparked fears of IUML workers being lured by radical political outfits, such as the radical Social Democratic Party (SDPI), the political arm of the Popular Front of India. This has landed IUML in a dilemma. Its fear is founded on their belief that only radical and, perhaps, extreme viewpoints can take on the radical moves of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). A section within the IUML, hence, has become skeptical about its political image of being “moderate,” and whether it would do the party any good anymore.
A political party rooted and prominent in the northern parts of Kerala, IUML predominantly places the Muslim community at the centre of its politics. It has never embraced either the Left or right’s political ideology and its political moves have always been pragmatic, targeting vote banks and elections.
The IUML is the second largest constituent of the United Democratic Front, the major opposition alliance in the state, which is headed by the Congress. With the LDF’s successive win in the recent Assembly election, the Congress and ally IUML have been out of power for two consecutive terms.
If Shaji’s speech at the Kozhikode beach sounds like a fundamentalist, IUML state secretary Abdurahman Kallayi went a step ahead, making repulsive comments about Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's daughter’s marriage to DYFI leader and Public Works Department Minister Mohammed Riyas. He equated their marriage with adultery.
The speeches of Shaji and Adburahaman must be viewed as born out of the dilemma or rather a desperation; from the urge to be on the aggressive side.
The IUML is also confused about identifying its primary enemy — whether it’s SDPI, or other political movements like Jamaat-e-islami with their brand of Wahhabism or Communism. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist movement within Sunni Islam. This has made its fight against the enemy disorienting.
The Left has recognised this dilemma and is in turn trying to corner the IUML on the same. Reacting to Kallayi’s comments on his daughter and Riyas, Pinarayi Vijayan asked the IUML to decide whether they are a political party or a religious organisation.
His party colleague Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who recently returned as the state secretary of the CPI(M), had more scathing remarks. "The Muslim League, during the time of the partition of India, was an extreme fundamentalist. The IUML leadership has transformed into that now. The League is practising the same attacking tactics in Kerala. It's spitting extreme venom," Kodiyeri wrote in an article in Deshabhimani, the mouthpiece of the CPI (M).
The IUML has not retorted or responded to these comments yet, which hints at another factor that defines the party — leaders speak their minds out, instead of an orchestrated or strong response or reactions from the party.
In August, in a press meet in Kozhikode, Sayed Mueen Ali, Youth League national leader, alleged that the party fund was being handled by PK Kunhalikutty, IUML National General Secretary. This came after Sayed Mueen Ali, who is also the son of the party supremo Panakkad Sayed Hyderali Shihab Thangal, had to appear before the Enforcement Directorate officials in connection with the probe into the allegations of money laundering using newspaper Chandrika, the mouthpiece of the IUML.
While Sayed Mueen Ali’s public blaming became nothing more than a storm in a teacup, Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal, a member of the party High-Power Committee, got political mileage by organising the huge Waqf rally in Kozhikode. Sadiq is also most likely to become the next state president of the party, taking the baton from his ailing brother, Hyderali Shihab Thangal.
Despite the allegations, nobody in the party questions the supremacy of Kunhalikutty, who is considered the de-facto supremo. Even with all the clout of their legacy, the Thangal family relies on Kunhalikutty, and so does the party. This, many within the party, believe is because of Kunhalikutty’s financial power and because of the pragmatic politician he is. Surviving all adversities, Kunhalikutty has always enjoyed that liberty. During the current identity crisis of the party, too, Kunhalikutty has resorted to the usual silence, for taking a clear stand shouldn’t land him in trouble in the future. That way, he is flexible enough to switch sides.
Besides being a decades-old ally, Congress veteran Oommen Chandy, too, had shown utmost proximity to Kunhalikutty and has always hailed the IUML. The current power centres in the Congress (Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president K Sudhakaran and Opposition leader VD Satheesan), however, are yet to speak openly about the IUML and its stands.
The IUML has been confronted with another setback, too. The largest Muslim organisation, the Samastha Kerala Jem-Iyyathul Ulama (SKJU), took a diametrically opposed line in the Kerala government’s Waqf Board appointments. SKJU president Sayed Mohammed Jiffri Muthukoya Thangal opposed the IUML's stand, stating that mosques can't be used for anti-government protests. Samastha's stand has forced the IUML to withdraw its protest.