The changing face of Tamil Nadu’s Muslim politics

August 05, 2013 12:41 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:22 pm IST

KALANTHAI PEER MOHAMED: ‘When the whole world was revolted by the beheading of a Sri Lankan Tamil girl, in Tamil Nadu, it was vociferously defended by a radical organisation.’ Photo: M. Karunakaran

KALANTHAI PEER MOHAMED: ‘When the whole world was revolted by the beheading of a Sri Lankan Tamil girl, in Tamil Nadu, it was vociferously defended by a radical organisation.’ Photo: M. Karunakaran

Over the last year, agitations by radical Tamil Muslim groups have effectively influenced the Tamil Nadu government’s policies. In September 2012, the Tamilnadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) and Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ) protested against the film, The Innocence of Muslims , and laid siege to the U.S. Consulate in Chennai. In early 2013, in the face of similar protests, Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam was first taken off the screens and exhibited only after cuts were made. Last week, a scheduled lecture by the Islamic scholar, Prof. Amina Wadud, at the University of Madras was cancelled in the face of threats to disrupt the meeting. The award-winning Tamil writer, commentator and observer of Muslim politics and culture Kalanthai Peer Mohamed tells historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy that it is worrying that Tamil Nadu’s Muslim community does not have representatives who can articulate the moderate viewpoint. Excerpts:

It is evident that political formations such as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Indian National League (INL), which formed alliances with mainstream parties such as the Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), and politically represented Muslims in Tamil Nadu, have lost their influence. In their stead, we see the rise of the TMMK and TNTJ. Can you place this in perspective?

The partition of India had its inevitable impact on Tamil Muslims. As the Muslim League vanished in North India, it was left to Muslims in South India to reorganise politically under the IUML banner in 1948. The venerable Quaid-E-Millath Muhammed Ismail gave cohesion and leadership to the IUML. Despite hailing from Tamil Nadu, he could comfortably win a parliamentary seat in Malappuram constituency in Kerala.

Tamil Muslims played an important role in the anti-Hindi agitation (1937–39) led by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy. How did the relationship between the Dravidian movement and IUML evolve in the post-1947 period?

After C.N. Annadurai and the DMK split from Periyar, Tamil Muslims maintained a cordial relationship with both the Dravidar Kazhagam (led by Periyar) and DMK. Periyar and Anna often appeared on Muslim platforms, usually on the occasion of Meelad-un-Nabi, and extolled the egalitarian ideas enshrined in Islam. The avowed atheism of the Dravidian movement did cause some friction but Tamil Muslims were largely comfortable with a Tamil identity that encompassed Muslims and other religious minorities.

What were the political benefits reaped by the IUML as a result of this alliance?

The IUML was an integral part of electoral alliances with the DMK, and regularly won seats in the Legislative Assembly. It was part of the winning combination in 1967 that routed the Congress. Quaid-E-Millath Ismail’s death in 1972 proved to be a major setback. In the same year, the DMK split. In the post-Quaid-E-Millath period, the IUML was largely content with representing the interests of Muslim businessmen. The IUML was hardly involved in political mobilisation or organising mass agitations. In the pursuit of vote bank politics, the IUML was wooed by both the DMK and AIADMK, finally leading to the split in the IUML. While Abdus Samad retained the leadership of IUML, the Indian National League (INL) was led by Abdul Latheef, considered close to M. Karunanidhi. There was a regional divide as well. Muslims, especially in north Tamil Nadu, who had gained from the DMK’s populist policies, for instance, in the public housing sector, backed the DMK. MGR won popular support from Muslims in the south.

A comment on the economic background of Muslims in Tamil Nadu may be appropriate here.

The better-off Muslims are involved in the leather industry, and run small textile shops, fancy stores and restaurants. Except for the leather industry, these establishments demand little capital and long hours of work. Large numbers are artisans and workers in the unorganised sector. The Muslim middle class is insubstantial. The businesses of the rich Muslims relied largely on Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia.

During the Gulf oil boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, Tamil Muslims, mostly youth, migrated from South-East Asia to the Middle East. The South-East Asian countries were multi-religious societies, in contrast to the Gulf monarchies. The dominant, purist Wahhabi tradition in the Middle East attracted these youth who began to disdain Tamil syncretic Muslim practices. Islamic reform organisations were formed. Dargah worship, the adulation of saints and their tombs, seen as un-Islamic, came in for sustained condemnation. Social practices such as dowry were derided. The Gulf boom, the decline of the moderate IUML/INL and the rise of Wahhabi Islam proved to be a potent cocktail.

This period coincided with the rise of Hindutva politics in India — the Ram janmabhoomi controversy was singularly influential in Tamil Muslim politics. The Shah Bano verdict was seen as interference in the Shariat.

Muslim puritan groups capitalised on the weakness of the IUML/INL. What started as an anti- Dargah campaign soon entered the town, street and home, and vertically split the community. Jamaat , namaz , Id celebrations — everything became two. Youth who returned from the Gulf brought new practices. The gaiety, amity and togetherness that characterised earlier social religious occasions were now lost. The groups championing Thowheed (the Oneness of Allah) argued against the Shafi, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali schools of jurisprudence and in effect became a fifth school.

What forces emerged from this chaos?

In 1995, the TMMK was formed. The Babri Masjid destruction was the prime trigger for its launch by M.H. Jawahirullah, P. Jainul Abideen, S.M. Bakkar and others. The violence following the Babri Masjid demolition — the anti-Muslim riots and bomb blasts — and the action and inaction of the police, intelligence agencies and courts pushed Muslim youth into the hands of radical groups such as the TMMK.

What other incidents, both national and global, affect this politics?

Paradoxically, the attacks on a non-puritanical, even secular, regime like Saddam Hussein had an alienating effect on Tamil Muslim youth. But a particularly localised event had the greatest fallout. In November 1997, a traffic constable named Selvaraj was murdered by Muslim youth in Coimbatore. The insensitive handling by the police influenced by Hindutva propaganda, eventually culminated in the gruesome Coimbatore serial blasts on February 14, 1998 leaving 58 people dead and over 200 injured. This tragic event coloured subsequent politics. It became an indelible blemish on Tamil Muslim identity. A largely secular state came under the influence of communal politics.

What was the fallout of this for radical groups such as the TMMK?

It cut both ways. If youth flocked to radical groups, the community also began to wonder if the rise of such outfits was not at the root of such violence. Some even began to long for the good old days of moderate IUML politics. Muslims also became wary of the fact that no political party was exempt from playing ball with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for electoral considerations. The alliance forged between the DMK and BJP in 1999 was perhaps akin to crossing the Rubicon.

Within the TMMK itself, a radical wing emerged led by the charismatic P. Jainul Abideen who formed the TNTJ. The TMMK remained committed to its founding Wahhabi ideals, but expanded its scope to address other social issues concerning the community including reservation. The Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), the Humanist People’s Party, formed in early 2009, is an outcome of this goal. An important aspect of its coming of age was its alliance with the AIADMK in the 2011 Assembly elections and the capturing of two seats. The TNTJ, largely a one-man show, eschews electoral politics, and confines itself to its communal ideals. It blindly backs acts of omission and commission committed by the Arab world under the garb of Islam. When the whole world found revolting the beheading of the Sri Lankan Tamil Muslim girl, Rizwana, Jainul Abideen vociferously justified it. It’s worrying that the community in Tamil Nadu does not have representatives who can articulate their voice in a reasonable manner within a broad humanistic and universalistic framework.

How do you respond to the silencing of Dr. Amina Wadud?

It is a pity that we have been deprived of an opportunity to listen to the views of a renowned scholar. People who disagree with Dr. Wadud should articulate their views and refute them. Historically, Islam has been enriched by debate and varied interpretations.

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