On 10 March, 1948, prominent Muslim leaders from South India met at Rajaji Hall in Chennai to announce the formation of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a minority party with an inclusive vision.
The occasion was hardly a year after the formal disbanding of the All India Muslim League, which facilitated the formation of Pakistan.
Those who met at the Rajaji Hall pledged allegiance to the Indian Constitution, and the new party declared that it would stand for the unity and integrity of the country and promote peaceful coexistence.
Over the last 75 years, the IUML has become the third-largest political party in Kerala, and the second-largest constituent of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the state.
In Tamil Nadu, it is part of the DMK-led Secular Progressive alliance.
The party has units in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Puducherry.
The party now has 15 members in the Kerala Assembly. While two of its Lok Sabha members hail from Kerala, the third is from Tamil Nadu.
It also has a Rajya Sabha member from Kerala.
As the IUML celebrates its platinum jubilee, South First talks to its Kerala unit president Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal — who has the last word in party matters — about Muslim identity politics in the country, Islamophobia, militancy among Muslim youths in areas where IUML is not strong, and the hate politics of aggressive Hindutva.
In this exclusive interview at his residence in Panakkad village on the outskirts of Malappuram town in north Kerala, Thangal advocates a larger unity of secular forces to protect the country’s pluralistic character. He also refutes Sangh Parivar’s allegation that IUML is a communal outfit.
Interview with IUML’s Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal
Q: The IUML is different from other political formations. The Kerala unit controls the party in India, and the national president is a namesake. For the last 50 years, members of your family have been holding the presidency of the party’s Kerala unit. And you are the last word on crucial matters. Is it democracy or authoritarianism?
A: Our party has a clear constitution and an all-India committee. Former Lok Sabha member KM Khader Mohideen is the present president of the party. It is merely an allegation that I am the last word on party affairs. We have a collective leadership with representation from across the country.
Even in the case of the Kerala unit, the two Lok Sabha constituencies allotted to us by the UDF were represented for a long time by Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait of Karnataka and GM Banatwala of Maharashtra.
My family is respected by all in the party. But you must understand that it is not because we flexed muscles. My family never contested elections. We always stayed away from power and positions. We always respected others and preferred the mode of conciliation in the face of revolts.
Our ethical and moral positions, so far, have won us respect inside and outside the party. We are fundamentally democrats and never supported militancy or anything that breaches communal harmony.
Q: You live in this obscure Panakkad village. Your extended family holds crucial positions in the party. Are you remote-controlling India’s largest minority party, which has roles at the state and national levels?
A: It’s not our decision to occupy crucial party posts. Cadres and leaders of the party have faith in us. They are compelling us to hold such positions to ensure unity within the organisation. They know we are not power-hungry or money-minded.
Many people consider us as descendants of Prophet Mohammed. But we always used that consideration wisely.
The Panakkad Thangal family had always played a crucial role in the region’s political and social activities. The family has always remained an integral part of the IUML. While the party is celebrating the 75th year of its formation, it’s for the 50th consecutive year that my family members are holding the party’s state leadership.
My father, PMSA Pookoya Thangal, was elected president for the first time on 25 February 1973. After his death, my elder brother Muhammed Shihab Thangal led the party for over 34 years.
A post-graduate from Egypt, he was selected for the Indian Foreign Service after returning to India. But my father told him to work for the people. His strong secular and democratic vision enriched the party and Kerala a lot.
After his death, my other brother Hydarali Shihab Thangal became the state president. The party told me to take up that position when Hyder Ali died last year. We consider the position as a social obligation.
Q: You say your party is a secular formation championing identity politics. But the party’s name itself indicates that it’s a communal party. Its flag is a poor imitation of the Pakistani flag. During elections, the BJP targets Congress, accusing it of aligning with a communal outfit like IUML. How do you counter these allegations?
A: The party has been in power or Opposition ever since the formation of Kerala in 1956. At times, we were part of the CPI(M)-led LDF, too. If we are communal and rigid, how do the secular formations of the state accept us?
We had members in the Union Cabinet in the past. Our leader and Lok Sabha member E Ahmed was a preferred choice of the then prime minister AB Vajpayee to speak at the United Nations, exposing cross-border terrorism promoted by Pakistan in Kashmir.
We always used international forums to champion the cause of secular India. We were happy to associate with successive Union governments to engage in anti-Pakistan campaigns denouncing terrorism and militancy. We played a role in bringing Muslim countries closer to India and convincing them against the evil designs of Pakistan.
On occasions like the demolition of Babri Masjid, we decided not to be provoked and helped the governments (at the Centre and in states) to maintain peace. Whenever communal harmony was breached, we were at the forefront, bridging communities.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin greatly appreciates our constructive role in that state. He is the chief guest at the valedictory of our jubilee celebrations on 10 March. We always took a strong stand against Islamic militancy and terrorism.
We fought and defeated militant organisations and persons with aggressive stands within the community. Don’t judge us by the party’s name or our flag’s colour. We are committed to the pluralistic and inclusive character of the country.
Q: Despite IUML’s active engagement in Indian politics, its strongholds are confined to South India. Why are you failing to win the confidence of Muslims in the North? Compared with you, the Popular Front of India and its political wing SDPI expanded their bases across India within a short time. Leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi (of AIMIM) are making their presence felt across the country, even in rural Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Why are you failing to have a strong national presence?
A: I told you already that we believe in peaceful coexistence. The IUML is not a Muslim party. It stands for all minorities, Dalits, and other marginalised communities. We have Christian and Hindu members.
Other than addressing the social backwardness of Muslims and bringing them to the national mainstream, we have no Muslim-specific interests. In Kerala, we will not be able to win even a single seat without the votes of Hindus and Christians. This is the case in Tamil Nadu as well.
Extremism is a reality nowadays. There are extremists and fanatics in all religions. There are Hindu fanatics and Muslim fanatics. We have to fight them to uphold democratic values.
In the case of Popular Front and SDPI, our initial observation turned out to be true. Minority communalism and terrorism are not answers to majority communalism and terrorism. Taking up arms is not a solution. They might have attracted some misguided and disgruntled youths.
In the case of leaders like Owaisi, they are turning spoilers of secular politics. They are toeing the BJP agenda. They are splitting the secular votes to facilitate the BJP’s victory.
I agree that we failed to grow as expected. Our absence might have prompted Muslim youths elsewhere to opt for militancy. But we do not prefer shortcuts. We are in the process of strengthening secular politics. Only secular and democratic forces can take on majority communalism.
Q: Any plans to expand the party’s base in North India?
A: We have units in many states. In this jubilee year, we will initiate the process of strengthening them. We already have a strong pan-India network coordinating charity works among the deprived minority community members.
We are constructing houses for those who have lost their residences in communal riots. We have formed a network of lawyers, and there is a continuous effort to ensure legal help to those who lost everything in communal clashes and riots like those witnessed in Muzaffarpur and Delhi.
Across India, we started many educational institutions to empower vulnerable sections of society. We hope the goodwill we created over the years through philanthropy will help us revitalise the party activities in North India.
We aim to empower Muslims and other sections facing discrimination. Mobilising all Muslims with political goals is not our agenda. Take the case of Kerala. We had a chief minister and several deputy chief ministers over the years. Our ministers held crucial portfolios. They catered to the needs of all people. Their focus has never narrowed down to Muslims.
Q: So the IUML is averse to aggressive politics and mobilising people on communal lines?
A: Exactly. Aggressive minority politics has never survived counter-attacks anywhere in the world. Look at the Khalistan movement in Punjab. Look at the separatists in Kashmir. They made the survival of ordinary Muslims even more miserable there.
Our adversaries have always criticised us for not being militant. Now, the world knows the importance of our role during crucial times like the Babri Masjid demolition. Unity among various segments of society is of paramount importance.
Q: Aggressive Hindutva poses a threat to India’s pluralistic and inclusive society. Islamophobia can be seen everywhere. Anti-Muslim sentiments are evident during elections. What is the alternative you offer?
A: India can safeguard its democratic foundation only by strengthening the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The Congress is the only national-level alternative. We have great faith in Rahul Gandhi, who completed the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
The country needs leaders with strong secular credentials like MK Stalin. We will do our best to avoid secular parties contesting against each other, which would facilitate an easy walkover for the BJP.
Leaders like Owaisi and Mayawati are implementing the BJP’s agenda. Leaders like Mamata Banerjee need to be more accountable to the larger secular polity of the country. We also appeal to the Left parties to join and strengthen the UPA.
Q: In Kerala, the ruling CPI(M) changed its earlier stand that the IUML is communal. Now it approves your secular credentials. Is there any move to leave the the UDF and join the CPI(M)-led LDF?
A: Not at all. We are a party with principles. We are having a trusted alliance with the Congress for a long time at the national and state levels. It will continue. We will not do anything that will destabilise the Congress, the largest secular formation in the country.
Q: On the occasion of the platinum jubilee, which are the areas where the IUML has made significant contributions?
A: We stood solidly with Dalit organisations to espouse the cause of social justice. We fought for community and caste-based reservations and helped create a national movement disapproving the economic reservation. We always stood with the Dalits to address common concerns.
In Kerala, we had Dalit MLAs. Now, there are many Dalit party representatives in local self-governments. In the education sector, we established six universities in Kerala through our ministers. Across India, we started many educational institutions to empower minorities. We never infringed on the rights of others. And we never took up arms. We never treated political rivals as enemies.
Q: Malappuram is South India’s lone Muslim-majority district. It is also the IUML’s stronghold. There is a huge campaign in North India that Malappuram is a land of terrorism where Hindus are getting prosecuted. How do you view it?
A: A Malappuram village was on the verge of a communal flare-up in the early 1990s when dried coconuts dropped from a coconut tree. The falling coconuts — and they dropped frequently — damaged the tiled roof of a mosque in the neighbouring compound.
The tree belonged to a conservative Hindu family, who rejected the mosque managing committee’s repeated demands to cut down the tree. The issue soon became communal, and before it went out of hand, the village elders intervened and advised both parties to take the matter to my elder brother, the late Shihab Thangal.
After hearing both sides, Thangal gave some cash to the mosque authorities. He asked them to reconstruct the mosque with a concrete roof. He told them to treat it as the first contribution towards rebuilding the mosque.
The clay roof tiles must be replaced, he said. Both sides returned. Thangal’s decision, however, embarrassed the matriarch of the Hindu household, who admonished her children for trying to divide the society on communal lines.
The same night, she met Thangal and apologised for her son’s behaviour. My brother pacified the woman, saying the tree should not be axed, terming it the elixir of life.
Some years ago, anti-socials set fire to a famous temple at Tali near Angadipuram. My brother quickly reached there and helped the temple committee to douse the fire and raised funds to rebuild the temple. That is our legacy.
Malappuram has huge Hindu and Christian populations. We are winning elections since they, too, vote for us. We never allowed any communal riot. We never allowed anti-socials to spread hate and create tension.