Kerala Muslim politics is rooted in pragmatism - Hindustan Times
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Kerala Muslim politics is rooted in pragmatism

Apr 15, 2024 10:08 PM IST

The politics of minorities in Kerala is constantly evolving, with multiple issues forcing a reset at unexpected moments, and because of unexpected reasons.

The electoral politics of Muslims in Kerala, who constitute about 28% of the population, has followed a distinct trajectory in the past three decades. What makes it interesting is the presence of a pan-Indian line of thinking that identifies certain seminal national issues and sets them as political equalisers fitting into every context cutting across regional lines. These political equalisers aid in shaping Muslim politics in the state, but the circulation of each of these national — and international — issues produces different meanings, motivations and aspirations in the local context.

Two Muslim men greet each other after offering Eid prayers at a mosque on the flood affected island of Kunjunnikkara, outskirts of Kochi in the southern state of Kerala, India, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.(AP File Photo) PREMIUM
Two Muslim men greet each other after offering Eid prayers at a mosque on the flood affected island of Kunjunnikkara, outskirts of Kochi in the southern state of Kerala, India, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.(AP File Photo)

The rise of Hindu nationalism and the resultant insecurity and humiliation that the community feels at the national level have been perennial sources of mobilisation in Parliament elections, especially since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Internationally, acts of Islamophobia, instances of attack on the Muslim States of West Asia by western powers, the question of Palestine and issues of Malayali Muslim migrants in Gulf countries also influence Muslim choices in politics.

Locally, issues like the under-representation of Muslims in governance, stereotyping of their images in the media, and violation of minorities’ rights serve as the raison d’être for Muslim organisations to mobilise people politically. There are also occasions when the response of political parties to these issues matters more than the actual impact of these issues for Kerala Muslims.

Let me give two examples to highlight the exceptional nature of the political response of Kerala Muslims. In 1991, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) won a landslide victory in the district council elections thanks mainly to its symbolic ideological support to Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War I.

More recently, in local body polls, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)’s position favouring the conversion of the sixth-century church in Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque by the Erdogan administration in Turkey upset many Christian groups, which, in turn, affected the poll prospects of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF)’s chances. The IUML is the second largest party in the UDF after the Congress, and the Christian groups predominantly back the UDF.

The political tactics of Kerala Muslims have now become pragmatic as they switch support between the LDF and the UDF. The one notable trend visible in the political opinion of the Muslim voters in the 2021 assembly elections was a trust deficit in the Congress, which many among them increasingly believe can’t tackle minority issues effectively. Interestingly, there was a major tilt towards the Congress two years earlier in the 2019 general elections out of hope that the party would regain office at the Centre.

The anguish and anger felt by Muslims over the tactical silence of the Congress on many important issues such as the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), temple consecration at Ayodhya, and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) could spell trouble for the party in the state. Unlike the 2019 general elections, only the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), among various Muslim organisations, has announced support for the UDF this time. On the other hand, the stance of the Left Front on issues such as reservations for forward communities in higher studies and employment and the state police’s conduct of cases involving Muslims have invited the displeasure of the community.

The pragmatism of Kerala Muslims is in large measure a result of the confidence and the power of bargaining that the community has gained in state politics owing to their deep involvement in governance, chiefly through the IUML. The IUML, or League, holds 15 seats in the state assembly and is represented well in local self-governments and cooperative societies. The party enjoys a “sought after” status among both the UDF and LDF, in sharp contrast to the sense of alienation Muslim political parties generally feel in the rest of India.

The Muslim migrants to the Gulf are the other force that contributes to the influence of the community in Kerala politics. At times of need, state units of major political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), turn to them for support, including funds.

The Muslim migrants play a key mediatory role in Kerala politics and their voices are now increasingly heard in the public discourse. Engrossed in global politics, the issues pertaining to the politics of West Asia create substantial reverberation in the migrant circles including their families in Kerala. The CPI (M), which employs the rhetoric of anti-imperialism (read anti-United States) for political mobilisation, has a distinct edge over others among the Gulf migrants.

The subtle entry of the Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama (known popularly as Samastha E K faction), an outfit of tradition-oriented Sunni Muslims who make up around 60% of the Muslim population in Kerala into mainstream politics is another major development. Traditionally backers of the League, the present move from Samastha points to disillusionment with that party for what it perceives as indifference towards the majority Sunnis and the newfound enchantment with Salafi ideology among its leaders.

Meanwhile, the rising polarisation makes it tough for both the Left Front and the UDF to capitalise on each other’s frailty vis-à-vis Muslim issues. The latest contentious issue has been a row over the screening of the Hindutva propaganda flick, The Kerala Story, by a section of the Catholic clergy. The screening was justified as being aimed at educating women in the community about alleged “love jihad”. Though the Congress and CPI (M) agree on the movie’s potential to polarise, both parties engage in delicate balancing by presenting it as an attack on Kerala’s secular identity.

Meanwhile, another set of priests from the Catholic community have started screening documentaries on the Manipur violence against the Kuki Christians in their parishes as a political counter. Clearly, the politics of minorities in Kerala is constantly evolving, with multiple issues forcing a reset at unexpected moments, and because of unexpected reasons.

MH Ilias is professor, School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. The views expressed are personal

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