Kerala’s new Islamic powerhouse

Binoo K John

Trivandrum: Kantapuram PA Aboobacker Muthaliar was known in Kerala for the last two decades as a fiery orator who has been trying to position himself as a Islamic leader in the state preaching everything from morality in public life, certain Islamic practises closer to Sharia law and an unclear political text, veering between the liberal and the orthodox. On April 28, he led a one million strong sunni population from mostly north Kerala and laid siege to the southern capital town to announce his arrival as a major Muslim voice, sending tremors through the Muslim League which has been part of the Kerala’s ruling UDF for many years .

After organising a one-million gathering, no political party can ignore him as he will in the next few months try to buttress his strength. AFP

Arterial streets of Trivandrum were blocked for many hours on Saturday as Kantapuram’s followers arrived in special trains and buses for the culminating meeting of his Kerala yatra which started a month back. The yatra and the culminating meeting has increased tensions in Kerala’s social fabric getting tense due to the political assertion of the Muslim league and now the boisterous arrival of a cleric with almost the entire backing of Sunnis.

In the meeting held at the police stadium, Kantapuram preached communal harmony saying Muslims had no hatred towards other communities. He called for a humanitarian Kerala, not making it clear what he meant though he said he wanted something along the lines of the Kerala’s literacy mission. He blamed certain ideologies imported into the state for the tensions in the social fabric.

It is not clear which is the imported ideology he was referring to. The meeting was attended by a local CPI(M) leader and shamefully enough the chief minister Oomen Chandy who loves to appropriate any religious gathering believing that the support of Christians and Muslims is crucial to his survival. The day before he was at the 90th birthday function of the chief bishop of the Mar Thoma Church which has crucial presence and influence in central Kerala.

Travelling from one religious gathering to another, it will not be wrong to say that the chief minister, facing another byelection next month, spends more time with mullahs, priests and certain swamijis, as if to pretend that the communal tension in the state is not rising alarmingly.

The lone sane voice amidst this mounting attempt by various religious groups to assert themselves came from Congress leader and former MP VM Sudheeran. “Most political parties try to woo religious groups for narrow gains. Communal forces thus end up exploiting the system..”, he said at a meeting of the Save Kerala Movement, directly pointing a finger at Chandy.

Most importantly no leader of the ruling Muslim League which just got its fourth minister in the Kerala cabinet, attended the meeting because the Sunni mobilsation is seen as a threat to the Muslim League’s unquestioned supremacy in the state’s Muslim politics. Kantapuram who has formed the All India Sunni Jamayathul Ulamma, said that he has no political ambitions but it is quite clear that no one will attempt such a siege of the capital city if he does not dream about the glitter and aura of political office.

Kantapuram has a huge office complex near Kozhikode (Calicut) where his organisation has brought in about 200 orphans from Kashmir to educate them a few years back. His intentions may be noble but his preaching of a slightly unclear humanist politics and moral values may hide certain other texts. For instance he follows the generally anti-women line and a few years back defended the Muslims right to marry more than once, going to the extent of saying that it is acceptable practice because a man has the right to have sex even when his wife is not in a position to have sex. His gatherings are attended only by men and clearly in a state where Muslim women are empowered, mostly independent and work in government and private jobs, his attempt may be to reign them in at some stage in line with ultra-Islamic practises.

After organising a one-million gathering, no political party can ignore him as he will in the next few months try to buttress his strength. Kantapuram’s main interest is to cut the Muslim League to size and he had secretly supported the Left front in the last elections. But the Muslim League won 18 seats in North Kerala, signally a revival of its declining fortunes . So a fourth cabinet berth was for the asking. To offset the huge and cry against one more ML minister, by the NSS, the upper caste Nair organization which wields big clout in the state, the chief minister handed over the crucial home portforlio to minister Thrivanchoor Radhakrishnan, a veteran congress leader and more crucially a Nair.

Kantapuram is now in a position to split the Muslim votes in the state and thus muddy the highly fractured religious equations in the state. Muslims, just like Christians , form 20 percent of the population and unlike the Muslims in say, Uttar Pradesh, are fully mainstreamed, have influence and money and occupy important jobs, thanks mainly to the Muslim League which has been in power and thus helped in the growth of the community. The Muslims and Christians cannot really be called minority communities in Kerala because of their affluence and influence in politics and governance. Higher Education and medical services in the state are dominated by these two communities.

Kantapuram is now the newest big Muslim cleric to watch out for. Using his mix of orthodoxy and some liberal values he seems to have brewed a concoction that will weigh heavily on the Muslim community in Kerala and nibble at the increasingly tenuous social situation in Kerala.