Sarkari Mussalman’ is the kind of pejorative term reserved for liberal Muslims by those taking a more hardliner approach. The likes of Shahid Siddiqui, Najeeb Jung, SY Quraishi, Javed Akhtar, and Naseeruddin Shah are often ridiculed as one. And it is instructive that Zameer Uddin Shah, with an illustrious career in the military behind him, named his autobiography just that — The Sarkari Mussalman. So it was surprising to hear of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, whose influence on the many hardliners taking potshots at liberal Muslims is palpable, starting a dialogue with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, mediated by the same ‘Sarkari Mussalman’.
That there was an element of mystery to it only made things more interesting. The talks, originally held on 14 January, remained under wraps till a report appeared in The Times of India ten days later. The JIH’s mouthpiece in Kerala, Madhyamam published a story in its inside pages on 26 January after it was reported in Delhi. But it wasn’t until 14 February, when The New Indian Express carried an interview of JIH’s secretary-general, T Arif Ali, that it blew up in Kerala.
The next day the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) mouthpiece, Deshabhimani, had it on their front page and the Marxists pounced upon it.
The talks were a continuation of the dialogue initiated by the RSS with prominent Muslim intellectuals back in August 2022. In the JIH’s defence, it was part of a larger group of representatives from other Muslim organisations, most notably the two factions of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, representing the community at large. The Darul Uloom Deoband, Ahl-i Hadith, Syed Salman Chishty of the Ajmer Dargah and the All India Shia Personal Law Board were also represented at the meeting moderated by Najeeb Jung, retired IAS officer and Delhi’s former Lieutenant Governor.
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JIH’s strident positions
The reason JIH-RSS dialogue spiralled into a major controversy in Kerala is because of the strident positions of the JIH itself.
It is not uncommon for JIH to ‘audit’ fellow Muslim organisations in its attempts to take the moral high ground. Despite being numerically insignificant in Kerala, JIH has always managed to punch above its weight with its news channel and other publications. It has also taken a very dismissive position on talking with the RSS in the past. In fact, as recently as December, the JIH’s publications had come down heavily on the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen for extending an invite to BJP leaders PS Sreedharan Pillai and V. Muraleedharan for its 10th annual conference held in Kozhikode.
The JIH, which has always positioned itself as an ideological counterpoint to the RSS, hadn’t bargained for the collective onslaught it received. Kerala Muslims, Sunnis by and large, owe their allegiance to the Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama (mononymously referred to as Samastha), split into the EK Aboobacker Musliyar and AP Aboobacker Musliyar factions.
Despite their orthodox ways, the Samastha factions have imbibed local traditions. And unlike their Urdu-speaking counterparts elsewhere, Kerala Muslims only speak Malayalam. They are, thus, better integrated into the Kerala ethos and by extension the ethos of Kerala is multicultural.
It is one of the many reasons why the JIH, with its more puritanical and revivalist approach, hasn’t been able to make much headway in the state.
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The JIH has traditionally supported the CPI-M and adopted a Left posture but changed tack in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Until then, it found common cause with the Marxists on its pet peeves such as Palestine and a shared hatred for the liberal west, the United States in particular.
When it severed ties with the Left, it managed to cosy up to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which derives its strength from the backing of the numerically strong EK faction of Samastha. The JIH’s influencing of the IUML’s political programmes had its repercussions on the Samastha. The latter’s harsh reaction in the aftermath of the JIH’s dialogue with the RSS is also a reflection of that.
As for the CPI-M exploiting the dialogue, apart from trying to deflect from pressing issues, it is very much a continuation of the politics that has played out in Kerala since the local body polls of 2020.
Casting the JIH as a threat to secularism by harking on its theocratic origins, and by attempting to paint the IUML with the same brush, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) had managed to sow the seeds of doubt in the secular electorate of Kerala — with consequences for the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) as evident from the results of the 2021 Kerala assembly election.
It is another matter that all this will be conveniently sidestepped if the JIH were to extend its support to the LDF tomorrow. It was only recently that the JIH-promoted Media One channel bestowed Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan with the ‘Face of Kerala’ award, upon receiving which he made common cause with them, despite political acrimony.
A case of sour grapes
The JIH sent Malik Motasim Khan, one of its 13 secretaries, in the initial round of dialogue with the RSS and there is an understanding to continue the talks with more prominent leaders expected to represent these organisations in future.
The reactions of other Muslim organisations in Kerala have been of note.
Howsoever minor the JIH’s presence might be as a representative of Muslims, it is the only such organisation to command a presence both nationally and within Kerala. Some of the reactions from the representatives of fellow Muslim organisations pointed to frustration at not being invited. Their collective sentiment is that the JIH should have at least consulted them before embarking on such an adventure.
There is also a sense of betrayal among them, especially with the confirmation that contentious issues like Kashi and Mathura featured in the discussion.
The JIH representative’s response that it wasn’t sure whether the RSS would stop at these two sites came for much criticism in Kerala, especially with the Places of Worship Act 1991 intact. Their main argument is: Who authorised the JIH to talk to the RSS on such contentious issues?
Apparently, the talks featured urgent issues such as mob lynching and bulldozer politics. The ability of the RSS to bottle the genie it has unleashed nationwide is being seriously doubted. Boxed into a corner, the JIH has been struggling to make its case.
Who in their right mind would refuse the opportunity to enter into a dialogue with the organisation that controls the government in power — this is the rationale put forward by the JIH.
In some quarters, the JIH’s explanation is being read together with the clampdown on the now-banned Popular Front of India (PFI) and the Union government’s ban on Media One — which has been stayed by the Supreme Court pending final judgment.
For now, it would become incumbent upon the JIH to stop looking down on liberal Muslims for being less doctrinaire and go easy on using labels like ‘Sarkari Mussalman’. It would also help if the JIH can reconcile its foundational goals within the framework of a secular democracy, and engage with the public on the same than deflecting the question.
The author is a Kerala-based journalist and columnist. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)