The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) is in the news following Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from the Wayanad constituency, a stronghold of the party. Yogi Adityanath dubbed the League “a virus” sure to infect the rest of the country if the Congress wins. The decision also occasioned an unabashedly communal comment from the prime minister, who described Wayanad as a constituency where the majority is in a minority. Interestingly, statements from the Left, which is likely to face a major setback because of Rahul’s foray into Kerala, reflected an uncanny resemblance to the Sangh Parivar’s vitriol.
The colour of the IUML’s party flag and the insinuations about its purported links and nomenclatural similarity to Jinnah’s All India Muslim League did not help matters either, especially at a time when the ruling party’s pathological obsession with Pakistan and hatred of Muslims have coalesced into an expedient election narrative. The only solace for Muslims in India today is that the PM and his party have termed not only the Muslims, but also the entire Opposition as anti-national and sympathetic to Pakistan.
Is the IUML a communal political formation? The “Muslim” in its name may hasten judgements about it, but its work in Kerala over the past 70 years shows that the League never indulged in the politics of hate and divisiveness. If organising a religious community politically on the basis of antagonism to another is communalism, the IUML has never mobilised its cadre nor used its political and often administrative clout to create religious divides. On the contrary, whenever the state faced a communally sensitive situation, the party rose to the occasion and played a stellar role in dousing the flames. It is pertinent to mention that the decision to establish the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, for “the promotion and development of the study of Sanskrit, Indology, Indian Philosophy and Indian languages” was taken when a Muslim League leader was Kerala’s minister of education.
Interestingly, the several splinter groups, which quit the IUML and formed rival political parties, or the few Muslim political outfits that emerged with the sole aim of challenging the League, did so because they felt that it refused to toe a divisive line even when the “interests of the community so dictated. For instance, the late Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait, then national president of the IUML, rebelled against the party and formed the Indian National League (INL) in 1994. He rebelled because he thought the IUML was not politically strident enough to quit the then Congress-led United Democratic Front government in Kerala in protest against Narasimha Rao’s complicity in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The IUML leadership argued that their decision to continue in the government was in the larger interest of communal harmony, since an emotional decision by the League would have pushed the entire state into a communal frenzy. That the INL is now a constituent of the CPM-led Left Democratic Front is an irony of sorts as the IUML and INL are different from each other only in the sense that the Muslim in the former’s name has been replaced by the “national” in the latter’s.
So if not communal, what is the IUML? The founders of the party believed that the Muslims, in the volatile post-Partition environment in India, needed a political outfit to work for the empowerment and uplift of the community within the ambit of the Constitution. Although it did not succeed in attracting people in the post-Partition environment of fear and insecurity in the North, it took roots in Kerala, far removed from the Partition nightmare.
In Kerala, it pursued a carefully crafted politics, working for the representation of the Muslims in all spheres of public life in the state. It did so without pitting itself or the Muslim community against the other communities in the state. The Gulf remittances that began flowing in from the 1970s, Kerala’s remarkably harmonious social fabric for which the Left must get due credit, and the legacy of struggles by marginalised groups in Kerala from the late 19th century helped IUML’s unique brand of politics. By practicing a brand of politics that could be termed communitarian rather than communal, the IUML succeeded in actualising the constitutional guarantee of equal citizenship for the Muslims in the state.
In fact, it will not be an exaggeration to say that Kerala is the only state in the republic where the Muslims fully live out the constitutional promise of equal citizenship. The IUML’s brand of identity politics, with its unmistakable Malayali characteristics, created a language and idiom for articulating the legitimate demands of a religious minority without alienating the other segments of the polity. The distinctive feature of the League in Kerala is that it strove to keep the community at the centre of the state’s politics, unlike other Muslim political formations elsewhere in India that revelled in confessional isolationism.
While the ideal of different communities working under a pan-Indian secular umbrella is indeed still preferable, our history has taught us that downtrodden and marginalised communities tasted political empowerment only when they organised themselves. BSP, SP, RJD and so many other political parties across India testify to this fact. It is to the credit of the founders of the IUML that they had pioneered this kind of politics decades before others did.
The IUML has been downright conservative, often illiberal, sometimes corrupt, some other times opportunistic, but never communal. That is precisely why it remains an integral and highly respected component of Kerala’s multi-dimensional political fabric. That Atal Bihari Vajpayee had no hesitation in sending IUML MP, E Ahmed, to the United Nations to represent India should convince the UP CM that his utterances were widely off the mark.