IUML: The Monsoon Islam


M G Radhakrishnan


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IUML workers celebrating the victory of party candidates at Malappuram in the Lok sabha election 2014 | File photo: Mathrubhumi

Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which celebrates its 75th year, has been praised as a successful model globally for a political party attached to a minority religion to function within a secular country dominated by a majority community. IUML has demonstrated how to work and wield power too, within the secular political mainstream (imbibing its positive and negative traits like any other party) and without giving up its communitarian identity. It stood up for the legitimate rights of the Muslim community without letting it be ghettoized or appear threatening to the majority community. It has also successfully campaigned against the extremist forces growing within the community and kept them within its margins. These ways of the IUML have also significantly contributed to Kerala’s Muslim community growing much faster than its counterparts in the last 60 years economically, educationally, socially, and demographically.

For IUML, entering the landmark of platinum jubilee indeed calls for celebration, considering the challenging circumstances in which it was reborn on 10 March 1948 at Rajaji Hall in Chennai. The newborn was looked down upon with suspicion and hate by most Indians as it was seen as the successor to the All India Muslim League (AIML), which divided the country that led to unprecedented violence and bloodshed. The IUML had found it difficult even to get a place to conduct its inaugural meeting in Chennai, and only one-third of the 150-odd invitees made it to the conference.

But the new party had some fundamental differences from Mohammedali Jinnah-led AIML, which was disbanded after it achieved its objective of carving out Pakistan. First among the differences was that the new party, despite its newly assumed name of the Indian Union Muslim League, was a South Indian Muslim League, although its leaders were part of the original party. Following AIML's dissolution in Karachi in December 1947, Jinnah asked its members in India and Pakistan to have their own plans for the future. But with the partition-related violence still raging, no League leader of northern India was ready to take any step. But League’s Southern leader M. Muhammed Ismail from Tirunelveli, and the Opposition leader in Madras Legislature took the initiative and called a meeting. But none from the north attended, including Uttar Pradesh, the original League’s bastion. Only 30 of the 147 League leaders Ismail invited made it to Madras. Of the 30, most came from Madras (including Malabar), Mysore, and a few from Bombay. Prominent Malayali leaders attended were KM Seethi Saheb, Kottal Uppi Saheb (Kannur), and Badekkandi Pocker Saheb(Thalasseri).

M. Muhammed Ismail | File photo: Mathrubhumi

The South Indian character of the new party, christened IUML at Madras, was significant because the Muslim community in the South had some fundamental differences from their counterparts in the North. Firstly, the South was largely immune to the north Indian tradition of centuries-long hostilities between Hindus and Muslims. Muslims came to the South not as aggressors but as traders, and they mixed peacefully with the Hindus and others (Christians in Kerala). They were never discriminated against by the rulers who granted them many privileges. Hence the Muslims of the South also were relatively better off economically and socially than their counterparts in the north. Very significantly, the AIML’s call for Pakistan never resonated much in South India, which also remained immune to the bloody partition-related violence. Except for one (Haji Abdus Sattar Sait), no League legislator from the South migrated to Pakistan with partition.

The Chennai meeting witnessed significant differences. A section even wanted the party’s immediate dissolution. A compromise was reached not to disband but to confine “principally” to work for the community’s social, economic, and educational advancement. Interestingly, P.P. Hassan Koya, a legislator from Malabar, led the camp that moved the resolution to dissolve the party with support from M.S.A. Majid of Madras. However, the camp which opposed Koya also was led by a Malabar leader, P K. Moideen Kutty.

However, despite the new IUML's swearing by the Indian constitution and its repeated disowning of the AIML’s pro-partition or Pakistan legacy, the new party continued to be seen as a Trojan horse by the mainstream parties, at least in public. Ismail’s attempts to ally with the Congress in Madras for the 1951 elections, though encouraged by the regional Congress leaders like P Subbarayan, were spurned by the High Command. But the alliance came true in Tiruchirappalli municipal elections, where a Congress-IUML candidate became president. In 1954, Congress’s Kamaraj Nadar sought and received IUML’s support to win from Gudiyattam to succeed Rajagopalachari as the Chief Minister. These two incidents marked the first instances of Congress-IUML alliances, followed by the two parties' first-ever formal links in Kerala when they fought together in the Malabar District Board elections in 1954.

Pattom Thanu Pillai | File photo: Mathrubhumi

Congress High Command’s opportunistic discrimination against IUML continued despite its alliance in Kerala. Congress's S K Patil had met Seethi Saheb along with PSP’s Pattom Thanu Pillai and secured IUML's support for the 1957 election though the Communists won the poll. Later, the three fought together to oust the Communist government and also contested the 1960 assembly elections in the alliance. Yet, after winning the polls, Congress High Command stabbed IUML again by offering only the speakership and no ministerial berths. When Speaker Seethi Saheb died a year later, Congress humbled the League again by making C H Mohammed Koya resign from the League Legislature Party to be the speaker. The mutual differences grew again, leading to the resignation of Koya as Speaker and League eventually withdrawing from the alliance. IUML’s political humiliation ended only in 1967 when it came to power as part of the CPI(M)-led seven-party coalition and secured three key ministerial berths, including the Education portfolio. The formation of the Malappuram district, the founding of the Calicut University, and several other gains for the Muslim community -all of which helped the educationally backward community to make its first advances- during that government’s time were credited to League’s account.

CH Mohammed Koya | File photo: Mathrubhumi

But the ruling alliance broke in 1969, and the second EMS Namboodiripad-government fell. League returned to the Congress fold, and since then, its mainstream has remained within the United Democratic Front. But during the last fifty years, from the much humiliated and harassed constituent by the “Big Brother” Congress, League has grown phenomenally in stature and has been dictating terms to the enfeebled Congress. In fact, IUML is the only party that could command a minimum of 20 sure seats in UDF in any assembly election. Even Rahul Gandhi had to leave Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, his family had held for generations to secure Wayanad in the 2019 elections, mainly counting on IUML’s backing. IUML survived an existential crisis post Babri Masjid demolition when it refused to sever links with the Congress even after the latter stood accused of having felicitated the tragedy.

Cover page of book Monsoon Islam

What made IUML thrive in Kerala even when its counterparts vanished long ago? According to Theodore R. Wright, an American political science professor, it owed it to the different way Islam spread in the South as against the North. Wright gave many reasons for the League's Southern success even as early as the 1960s.

  1. Islam came to the South, not by the sword but peacefully, for trade.
  2. They spread the faith through persuasion and intermarried with Hindu women.
  3. Most South Indian Muslims speak the local dialects of their Hindu neighbours, which forged mutual cultural bonds.
  4. Except for brief interludes of the Sultans of Mysore and Madurai or Nawab of Arcot, Islam was commoners’ faith and not associated with power and privilege.
  5. Absence of communal riots
  6. No significant migration from South to Pakistan ensured Hindu confidence
  7. Local Muslim majority pockets in Malabar ensure electoral success for IUML.
Recent writings on “Monsoon Islam” by scholars like Sebastian R. Prange also have reaffirmed the unique and peaceful ways Islam spread in states around the Indian Ocean, unlike in the north, where it accompanied invaders. He writes, “(This) movement along the maritime trade routes, however, was not predicated on military conquest, political hegemony or imperial design: the expansion of Muslim communities across monsoon Asia between 12th and 16th centuries took place haphazardly, incidental to the development of Muslim trade networks. The principal agents in this extension of the medieval Muslim world were not sultans, soldiers or scholars but ordinary humdrum traders whose main objective was not to spread their faith but to turn profit”. (Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Coast, 2018).

Postscript: IUML’s one remaining pan-Islamic trait -patriarchy- too may fall soon. Women outnumbered men among the 24.33 League members last year.

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