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Explained: Why INL has imploded, and its impact on Kerala’s Muslim politics

The INL is at present divided into two factions led by state general secretary and former journalist Kasim Irikkur and the state president AP Abdul Wahab, respectively. What is behind the feud, and what happens next?

Written by Vishnu Varma , Edited by Explained Desk | Kochi |
Updated: July 28, 2021 7:28:10 am
A flag march on the party's foundation day.

The Indian National League (INL), a minor partner in the LDF government in Kerala, suffered a vertical split Sunday into two factions led by the party’s state president and general secretary, respectively. The nearly three-decade-old party, tasting power for the first time in its history, is facing its gravest crisis yet.

What is the history of INL?

The INL was founded in April 1994 by Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait in Delhi as a breakaway faction of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The party’s formation was necessitated by the stand of the IUML to continue its association with the Congress party in Kerala post the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The controversial monument was razed to the ground by right-wing karsevaks in December 1992 when Congress leader PV Narasimha Rao was the prime minister. Sait, who was the national president of the IUML at the time, staged a revolt and walked out of the party with a significant chunk of followers in Kerala who felt let down by the stand of the IUML.

The INL was thus born and claimed to represent the rightful interests of the Muslim community offering an alternate vision to that of the IUML. It nurtured ambitions to become the principal choice for Muslim voters especially in the north Kerala districts of Kasaragod, Kannur, Malappuram, and Kozhikode.

Since it was born at a time when Kerala’s politics had started to become coalition-driven, the INL soon realised that it needed to hitch its wagon to bigger parties in order to find success electorally. The Congress was unacceptable as the Babri Masjid memories were still raw and the BJP an untouchable for its core votaries. And so, the CPM-led LDF was the natural choice. But the strident opposition raised by veteran CPM leaders like VS Achuthanandan, who saw the INL as a ‘communal’ party, ensured that the latter had to stay outside the gates of the LDF for over two decades. Though the INL was not formally inducted into the LDF during this period, it allied with the CPM unofficially in certain seats in the Assembly elections over the years and at the local body level.

The INL had to wait until 2006 for its candidate to get elected to the Assembly when PMA Salam won from erstwhile Calicut-II (now Kozhikode South). In 2018, the party was formally inducted into the LDF and in the Assembly elections earlier this year, the party’s national secretary Ahmed Devarkovil was elected as MLA from Kozhikode South.

As a gesture of appreciation for its unrelenting support over the years, the CPM gave Devarkovil a ministerial berth for the first two-and-a-half years. It was also a thank you note to the Muslim community for its support in the party’s return to power.

What are the reasons for the feud within the INL now?

The INL is at present divided into two factions led by state general secretary and former journalist Kasim Irikkur and the state president AP Abdul Wahab, respectively. A state secretariat meeting of the party held at a private hotel in Kochi on July 25 had culminated in a street brawl between workers of both factions, leading the police to file cases for rioting and breaking Covid-19 protocols.

The meeting had purportedly turned violent when Irikkur announced that two members of the secretariat will face disciplinary action, prompting the faction led by Wahab to walk out of the meeting. At the same time, outside, workers of both factions turned against each other.

Photo of Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait, the founding leader of INL, and the party flag.

Subsequently, the two factions held parallel press conferences to hurl allegations against each and claim they were the official wing of the party. While the Wahab faction ‘expelled’ Irikkur from the party, national president Muhammad Suleman ‘expelled’ Wahab. The national leadership and the party’s lone cabinet minister Devarkovil have sided with the Irikkur faction.

The reasons for the factional feud boil down to corruption allegations surrounding the party. A secretariat member, now expelled, had alleged that the party had ‘sold’ the post of the member of Public Service Commission (PSC) for Rs 40 lakh. The post had been offered to the INL by the LDF as part of coalition formula. The Wahab faction has also alleged that the Irukkur-led faction were taking decisions unilaterally without consulting other members of the party. In return, the Irikkur faction claim that Wahab and his followers have tacit connections with the IUML. With the party finding a seat in the cabinet for the first time, the rush for spoils of power is believed to be the root of the problems.

What happens now?

Both factions of the INL are engaged in an exercise to garner support of a majority of the organisation’s leadership and cadres so as to present its strength before the LDF and eventually the Election Commission. The rift between the two groups is said to be so wide that a reunion is out of the question. The CPM, while publicly asking the INL to sort out its internal issues, has privately told the two factions that they cannot exist within the coalition as two entities. Both groups have meanwhile lent unconditional support to the LDF.

If the two factions are unable to come to a compromise soon, the CPM may be forced to keep them out of the LDF until the issues are sorted. There has been past precedence of that nature, with respect to the factional troubles within the RSP in the 90s. It is unclear at the moment if Devarkovil will lose his cabinet post if that happens.

How important is INL for LDF and what will be the impact on Muslim politics in Kerala?

Arithmetically, as a one-MLA party in the 140-member Assembly, the INL is dispensable for the LDF. The party was always viewed by the Left as a vehicle to make inroads into the Muslim vote-bank in northern Kerala and break the stranglehold of the IUML especially in Malappuram, Kozhikode districts. But that experiment has not been a success.

“The CPM made the INL stand outside the gates of the LDF for nearly 25 years. If they had been brought in formally long ago, it could have led to strengthening of the INL organisation and attracting workers and leaders from the IUML. Over time, the old experienced leadership of the INL such as Sait and PM Aboobacker were replaced by a younger, inexperienced leadership who are only looking for spoils of power. The leadership is weak right now,” said Ibrahim Kottakkal, former deputy editor at Madhyamam newspaper who has observed Malabar politics closely.

“The INL was formed as a consequence of the Babri Masjid dispute. But that issue is not relevant now. So ideologically, even they might not know what they stand for. The CPM wanted to use the INL to get access to Muslim outfits and religious groups. But the truth is that the INL doesn’t command a vote-bank to single-handedly rival the IUML. It’s a weak organisation.”

The reasoning for keeping the INL outside the LDF for so long, said Kottakkal, is that the CPM only wanted leaders and workers from the community. It didn’t want a full-fledged party. “That’s how they got people like KT Jaleel and KPM Musthafa,” he said. Jaleel, a former member of the IUML, has won from Thavanur as a CPM-backed Independent multiple times and was a minister in the last cabinet. Musthafa, who was in the IUML till December 2020, switched to the CPM and contested unsuccessfully from Perinthalmanna in the Assembly elections this year.

“After the induction into LDF, there were possibilities for the INL to grow as a party and bring in leaders and workers from IUML. But they have messed everything up,” he said.

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