IUML, Congress, UCC
A Muslim League rally during the campaigning of Rahul Gandhi in Kerala. File photo

Communal or secular? The curious case of IUML in Kerala

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In the 2019 general elections, when Rahul Gandhi contested from the Wayanad constituency of Kerala, Internet discussion forums and social media were awash with images of the green flag with a crescent. The right-wing ecosystem went delirious, accusing Rahul of being a Pakistan sympathiser and the people of Wayanad as terror supporters, just because of this green flag, which belongs to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a major constituent of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) of Kerala.

Disinformation campaign by BJP leaders ranging from Amit Malaviya to Yogi Adityanath did not miss any opportunity to equate the IUML with Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. Adityanath audaciously went on to warn the voters that India would be plagued with the virus called Muslim League. ‘Muslim League is a virus. If someone is affected by this virus, he cannot survive; today, the main opposition party, Congress, is affected by it. Imagine, if they win what will happen? This virus will spread in the entire nation,” he said during the election campaign.

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A 2019 research project Check point, commissioned and technically assisted by WhatsApp, which studied misinformation that spread during the general elections, identified hundreds of ‘WhatsApp forwards’ on this issue that could have potentially had an impact on the results, especially in the communally polarised areas of the BJP-dominated states.

Congress’ partner

Rahul Gandhi’s recent statement from the US that the IUML is a secular party has once again put the spotlight on the regional party that has three members in the current Lok Sabha and one in the Rajya Sabha.

Rahul was asked about his party’s partnership with the ‘Indian Union of Muslim League’ in Kerala during a meeting with journalists at the National Press Club in Washington. He responded: “The Muslim League is a completely secular party; there is nothing non-secular about them.” BJP leaders did not waste the opportunity this time also by pouncing on the remark, once again linking the Kerala party to Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

“Jinnah’s Muslim League is a secular party? The party responsible for India’s partition on religious lines is a secular party? Extremely unfortunate that some people in India still consider the person who supports the Muslim League as secular!” responded Union minister Kiran Rijiju.

IUML history

The All-India Muslim League of the pre-Independence period, which had spearheaded the fight for Pakistan, was disbanded after partition. Jinnah passed away in September 1948 after serving as Pakistan’s first governor general. His party was succeeded by the Muslim league in Pakistan and the Awami League in Bangladesh. In India, a new political party, the IUML, was formed under the leadership of M. Muhammed Ismail Sahib of Tamil Nādu, known as Qaid e Millat (Leader of the Nation).

Though the party was floated in 1948, its constitution came up only in 1951. In 1967, the IUML was part of the Communist-led government in Kerala of EMS Namboodiripad. Later the party shifted its allegiance to the Congress. The party split in 1980 when a faction led by Ummar Bafaqy Thangal floated a new outfit, AIML (All India Muslim League) which leaned towards the Left parties. In 1985, the AIML faction returned to its mother party and realigned with the Congress, only to be split again in 1993, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

Kerala governance

The Muslim League was part of the government in Kerala right from the EMS ministry of 1967. Its leader CH Mohammed Koya had been the chief minister of Kerala for a brief period in 1979. Muslim league leader Chakkeeri Ahamed Kutty served as the Speaker of the Kerala assembly, apart from League leaders who were part of various governments.

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There were five ministers in the Oommen Chandy government of 2011-16. When the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit was established, E T Mohammed Basheer was the education minister.


The period 1992-93 was critical in the history of the party as it severed ties with the Congress after the mosque in Ayodhya was demolished by the Hindu rightwing with PV Narasimha Rao as the prime minister. Ironically, the IUML had to go back to the UDF as the Left Democratic Front refused to accept it as a constituent. At this juncture, Ibrahim Suleiman Sett, the towering leader of the party, quit to form the Indian National League. The new party aligned with the Left supporting the communists from outside for a couple of decades, and later joined the front. INL’s Ahamed Devarkovil is now a minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet.

“IUML politics with Malayali characteristics has created a language for articulating the legitimate demands of a religious minority without alienating other segments of society. As a party, IUML has been downright conservative, often illiberal, sometimes corrupt, some other times opportunistic, but never communal,” opines Shajahan Madampat, a cultural critic and political commentator.

Said Shajahan: “The Muslim League took utmost care to function as a communitarian party committed to working for the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the minorities. It began articulating its politics in a language and idiom totally in sync with Kerala’s cherished pluralist traditions.”

No untouchable

In Kerala, no party considers the IUML untouchable, with the exception of the occasional political criticism, especially during the election period. Despite what their national leaders frequently allege, even the state BJP has not outrightly labelled them communal.

The CPI(M) of late has been trying to woo IUML to the LDF fold.

In December, the party state secretary MV Govindan said: “League is a democratic party working for the minorities. CPM has criticised it whenever it joined hands with communal parties like SDPI. The CPM, under the leadership of EMS Namboothiripad, had aligned with the League to form a government in 1967,” said Govindan immediately after he assumed office as party secretary.

Compromise politics

The Muslim League, on the other hand, has always maintained cordial relations with its political rivals. They have long been a partner of the UDF led by the Congress, but they haven’t always joined in on every anti-government demonstration. They have been very tactful in this, which has frequently angered members of Congress.

The Muslim league was the only party from the opposition which wholeheartedly supported the People’s Planning programme which was a flagship event of the 1996 EK Nayanar-led LDF government. This co-operation had even led to some tactical understanding with the Left in the subsequent local body elections.

There are concerns regarding the Muslim League’s ‘accommodative posture’ towards the other major political parties, including the BJP, in the Muslim community. Recently, newer parties have started capitalising on this argument. The SDPI and Welfare Party of India have been eating their share of the pie, which has put pressure on IUML to take a slightly more aggressive stance on religious issues. The IUML has the advantage of being led by the leader of a significant Sunni Muslim faction — the state president always comes from the Kodappanakkal Thangal family of Panakkad — but this also comes as a baggage as well.

Numerous anecdotes demonstrate the party’s commitment to secularism, as do its cross-religious charity and relief efforts, yet this evidence is constantly discounted by the opponents, who accuse the party of not being ‘sufficiently secular’.

However, this party’s ability to bounce back from setbacks and its cadre strength, albeit being restricted to a few districts, are what make it par with the CPI(M) in terms of organisational structure.

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