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Chief’s death puts focus on IUML’s crisis in Kerala. But here’s why it can’t be written off

There have been fears about IUML's declining prominence in its bastion, Kerala, following a poor performance in 2021 assembly elections as the Left gains ground among Muslims.

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New Delhi: Following the death of the Indian Union Muslim League’s (IUML) Kerala chief, Syed Hyderali Shihab Thangal, his younger brother, Syed Sadikali Shihab Thangal, has officially taken the reins of the state unit. The former state president succumbed to cancer Sunday. 

This comes at a time when there are fears about the party’s declining prominence in its bastion, Kerala, following a poor performance in the 2021 assembly elections as the Left gains ground among Muslims.

Sadikali, who is also the party’s Malappuram district president, has held additional charge as state president since Hyderali was hospitalised a month ago. 

The IUML is a long-time ally of the Congress and part of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a Centre-to-Centre-Left alliance in Kerala opposed to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). After the death of Hyderali, senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited the family to offer his condolences.


Speaking to ThePrint, the Congress’s V.D. Satheesan, Leader of the Opposition in Kerala, discussed how his party has been in alliance with the IUML for several decades, and how the latter is very different from “Jinnah’s party”.

“The IUML is a cadre-based party and is very sincere and loyal to the Congress and the UDF. They have always held a very secular position, and, even during the time of Babri Masjid, when all Muslim parties were participating in communal activities, the then IUML president said that communal harmony had to be maintained, and prevented any violence in Kerala,” he said. 

Talking about the relevance of the party in Kerala — which many argue is fast diminishing — Satheesan defended his ally and said that the IUML is extremely important because it is the main bulwark against minority communalism in the state. “If they were not around, then this would have been a big issue,” he added. 

Rubbishing any analysis of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) — the political wing of the Islamic organisation Popular Front of India (PFI) — potentially replacing the IUML in the state’s politics, Satheesan said there was too much good will towards the latter for this to occur, as the party does a lot of charity work, especially in the Malabar region. This ranges from accommodation and free treatment for cancer patients to arranging dialysis units for kidney patients.

Also read: How Kerala’s Left hopes to benefit from polarisation of Christians and Muslims

History of the IUML

The party is often confused with the Muslim League that was headed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but the two have completely different histories. 

The All India Muslim League, which had led the movement for Pakistan, was disbanded soon after Partition, while the IUML was founded the year after Independence in 1948. 

The IUML has contested elections within India and has always had a small presence in the Lok Sabha. A party largely concentrated in Kerala — especially the Malabar region — it also has a small presence in Tamil Nadu. The party has given Kerala one chief minister, C.H. Mohammed Koya, who served briefly in 1979. 

The Panakkad Thangals (Syeds) — an influential family among Kerala’s Muslims — have exercised great influence on the party throughout its history, with Hyderali’s father and elder brother, Pukkoya Thangal and Syed Muhammedali Shihab Thangal, having served as its state presidents before him. 

Declining prominence, CPI(M)’s counter

Fighting under the symbol of a ladder, the IUML suffered a rude shock in the 2021 state elections, when it only won 15 of the 27 seats it contested. This was a significant decline from the 2016 assembly polls, when it won 18 of the 23 seats it contested. The party’s winning percentage fell to 55.55 per cent in 2021, from 78.26 per cent in 2016.  

Suresh Kumar, professor and head of the department of political science at the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, explained that the LDF was swiftly gaining much ground in many of the IUML’s traditional footholds, such as Kozhikode and Malappuram.

He attributed this to the CPI(M) emerging as a viable option, causing confusion among people about who to support and the impact their vote will have. He added that many are now voting for the LDF because of the Congress’s declining national presence.  

“The declining national presence of the Congress has hurt the prospects of the IUML, as many Muslims now question if they should go with the Left or the Congress, as they want to defeat the NDA. Therefore, they want to consolidate their votes — which is how the LDF managed to muster support in the last election,” he said. 

However, he was confident that after an initial period of two-three years, the IUML would bounce back and be the main party of choice for Muslims in the state. 

Meanwhile, many say that the IUML should be worried about how quickly the CPI(M) is gaining ground among Muslims in Kerala, with many of its leaders becoming prominent faces of the community. For example, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s son-in-law P.A. Mohammed Riyas, a prominent minister in the state cabinet, is also the party’s emerging Muslim face. 

Paul Zacharia, a leading Malayalam writer and distinguished fellow of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi, argued that the IUML was a very important party in Kerala, but with one of their tallest leaders passing away, the party was standing on shaky ground. 

“The problem is that the IUML is being run by businessmen who are running it like a business and not a political party. They themselves don’t understand what is happening to their future. If they are not careful, then the SDPI will poach their leaders,” said Zacharia. 

Also read: Kerala’s IUML under fire for disbanding women’s wing that complained of sexual harassment

Haritha controversy

Last year, the IUML was embroiled in a controversy when it dissolved ‘Haritha’ — the women’s unit of its Kerala students’ wing, the Muslim Students Federation (MSF) — and went on to remove the MSF’s national vice-president. 

During a state committee meeting of the MSF in early 2021, the state president at the time had allegedly made derogatory remarks against some members of Haritha, who went on to lodge a complaint with the state women’s commission in August. Haritha was dissolved five days later.

Then, in September, MSF’s national vice-president, Fathima Thahiliya — the first woman to get a general post in the MSF — was reportedly removed from her post for supporting the women.

Speaking to ThePrint, Fathima said the women of Haritha had first lodged a complaint with the MSF state committee. However, there was no inquiry or follow-up, and the women were being victim-shamed, she said. Therefore, they went to the state women’s commission as a last resort.

“I was removed because I called a press meet and spoke on behalf of the women. The slander and cyberattacks were becoming too much, as they started affecting not only the women, but their families as well. There was a campaign of hatred against us within the IUML community. Everyone was making false remarks,” said Fathima.

She alleged that she had been removed from her post with no procedure followed, and saw her removal notice in the media. However, she continues to be an executive committee member of the MSF, she said.  

Fathima said she was very disappointed by the IUML’s response to the Haritha issue, and said it went against the party’s ideology. Its constitution speaks about affording respect, opportunities and importance to women candidates, she added.

However, she went on to say that every party is prone to such “patriarchal” attitudes.

“It is not the party but the attitude that is there in each party. Even the CPI(M) has only one woman in its politburo. Inclusion is happening slowly, I would rather be within the party and making that change, than be outside it. I was the first woman officebearer of the MSF. In 2012, there wasn’t even a single woman member of the MSF,” said Fathima.

Way forward

In almost every Lok Sabha from the third (1962-1967) to the 16th (2014-2019), the IUML has had at least two MPs. Only in the 14th Lok Sabha was it reduced to just one. The current (17th) Lok Sabha includes three IUML legislators: E.T. Mohammed Basheer and M.P. Abdussamad Samadani from Kerala, and K. Navaskani from Tamil Nadu. 

Speaking to ThePrint, IUML MP, national organising secretary and former Kerala cabinet minister E.T. Mohammed Basheer said the void of Hyderali’s passing could not be filled as he had been a very “dynamic leader”. However, he was confident that Hyderali’s brother, Sadikali would perform and do very well. 

Basheer, who joined the IUML as a student leader and has been with it for more than five decades, said both he and the party were confident of its “bright future”. He added that they had no reason to be worried or lack confidence, with Syed Sadikali Shihab Thangal as the Kerala state president and chairman of the national political advisory committee.

“The future of the party is very bright, our new leader is well educated and experienced. God will bless us and we will perform very well in all the elections,” he said.

However, Kerala BJP spokesperson Narayanan Namboothiri disagreed, claiming that the new generation of Muslims was moving away from the IUML and considering other options. 

“The IUML has a hold on Malappuram, Wayanad and Kozhikode. However, it is restricted to only certain areas. They may have a say in Kerala’s politics in the future, but it will be limited,” he said.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: How Kerala church’s ‘love jihad, narcotics jihad’ taunts are hurting Muslim businesses & society


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