R. Madhavan Nair
Known for his oratorical skills in English
Remembered for the clean politics he practised
Kozhikode: Ghulam Mahmood Banatwala will be remembered for the key role he played along with the late Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait in placing the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in the centre stage of national politics. He will also be remembered as a moderating influence on Muslim politics at a critical period of history when the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 roused strong sentiments within a section of the community.
Banatwala Sahib, as he was reverentially addressed by his party men, made his public speeches not in Malayalam, the language of his voters, but in chaste English. His oratorical skills in English language enabled him to emerge as the voice of Muslim community in Parliament.
For several decades, the tall frail frame of Mr. Banatwala addressing election meetings in English was a familiar sight in Muslim pockets in north Kerala. Even at his election rallies, which were always well attended in the Muslim League stronghold of Malappuram district, Mr. Banatwala spoke in English, like his contemporary Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait, though only a small number of people in the audience could understand what he said. Though his speeches were often translated into Malayalam, the language he used did not matter much, for those were the days anyone fielded by the Muslim League would win with a thumping majority from Manjeri or Ponnani, the two parliamentary constituencies in Malappuram district.
Mr. Banatwala won seven times from Ponnani since 1977 defeating his rivals by massive margins. He won in the Lok Sabha elections that followed in 1980, 1984, 1989, 1996, and 1999.
However, the political tide turned against him, mainly because of the changes that came about in the State Muslim League leadership. He was eclipsed in the party by State-level leaders who commanded mass following on a bigger scale.
He was replaced by E. Ahamed as Muslim League candidate in the next Lok Sabha poll from Manjeri. Many thought he would be rehabilitated with a Rajya Sabha seat. However, the Rajya Sabha seats that the party could have filled with its nominees were given first to Abdusamad Samadani and later to NRI businessman P.V. Abdul Wahab.
He was made Muslim League all-India president after Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait left the party to float the Indian National League (INL), unhappy with the Muslim League’s response to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Though he was elevated as national president of the party, the reigns of the Muslim League remained with Panakkad Mohammedali Shihab Thangal, E. Ahamed and P.K. Kunhalikutty and he could not exert much influence in League politics. Mr. Banatwala had studied M.Com., B.Ed. and LLB and was a lecturer in Commerce in a college before he entered full-time politics in Maharashtra in 1964. He won elections to the Maharashtra Assembly in 1967 and 1972. He was o twice elected councillor in the Mumbai Corporation. But soon he established contacts with Muslim League leaders in Kerala and emerged as a leader of the party to make his debut in the Lok Sabha elections from Ponnani.
When Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait became all-India president of the Muslim League, Mr. Banatwala took over as all-India secretary of the party.
Mr. Banatwala was undoubtedly an able parliamentarian. He was also a disciplined party worker who many felt has got a raw deal in the past few years. He will be remembered for the clean politics he practised and for his forceful presentation of Muslim perspective in the Shah Bano case in 1986. A private Bill he moved later prepared the ground for changes in the Muslim Personal Law. He will also be remembered as the MP who first spoke up for a ban on Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses.