In April and May, when the Muslim community came under criticism for the spread of coronavirus after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) remained calm. It did not react. Instead, it went about helping those infected not only among Muslims but also from other communities.
“As of now, we have conducted the funeral of more than 700 bodies. Some of them were Hindus and Christians,” said F Udhuman Ali, district president, TMMK, Tiruchirapalli. “We performed their last rites as per their religion,” he said.
It is this human side of the community that the organisation, which celebrates its silver jubilee this year, has been striving hard to showcase. The Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) has been giving a new identity to the Muslims in the state for the past 25 years as it tries to dispel stereotypes while at the same time protecting the interests of the community, which was repeatedly targeted in the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the Jamaat event and which has constantly been accused of proselytisation, radicalisation and having links with extremist groups.
“Those who contracted the virus from the Tablighi Jamaat and recovered turned plasma donors,” said Ali, emphasising on the kind of values the TMMK promotes.
Started on August 25, 1995, the TMMK is headquartered in Chennai. It was the first major organisation to bring Muslims all over the state together. It provided the community a common platform and some political heft although that has been waning a bit of late.
Free ambulance service
The TMMK has been known for its religion-agnostic services since its formation. In the mid-1990s when only hospitals had ambulances, the TMMK launched its own service free of cost for use by anyone needing medical help irrespective of religion.
“Today, we operate 160 ambulances across the state. Besides, we conduct blood donation camps every month, and our organisation stands first in the state in donating large units of blood,” said Ali.
“Before the TMMK came into existence, we had organisations such as Jihad Committee and Muslim League. Post Babri Masjid demolition, every now and then, many Muslims were detained under TADA and POTA. The Muslim organisations that existed then would conduct only public meetings. Some of the Muslim leaders decided that we need a vibrant organisation that can work at the ground level. That’s how TMMK was founded. Its main objective is to strengthen the Muslims in the state both politically and socially,” he said.
Supporting DMK, AIADMK
As it sought greater political say for the community, the organisation hobnobbed with both the major Dravidian outfits in the state.
Since its inception in 1995, TMMK organised public meetings and rallies every year on December 6 to mark the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition.
In 1999, the TMMK invited the then AIADMK general secretary J Jayalalithaa as chief guest to the organisation’s state conference.
“It was at this conference that Jayalalithaa announced that she will never again have an alliance with the BJP,” recalled Ali.
In the 2001 elections, the organisation extended its support to the AIADMK. However, the relationship with the party did not last long.
“Following the riots in Gujarat in 2004, Jayalalithaa met Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of the western state and wished him. That made the relationship sour. So, in the 2006 elections, we supported the DMK,” said Ali.
In a show of gratitude, the then DMK chief minister M Karunanidhi fulfilled the demand of reservation for Muslims in 2007. He provided 3.5 per cent reservation even though the TMMK had sought 6 per cent.
Social service to mainstream politics
Tired of playing second fiddle to both the DMK and AIADMK in every election, the organisation decided to enter mainstream politics. In February 2009, the TMMK formed its political wing, the Manidhaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK).
“It was also the time when amendment was made in the Representation of the People Act. Until then small parties, when they were in alliance, could contest elections only under the symbol of the big parties. The amendment said only those who are a member of a party can contest under the party’s symbol. That gave an identity to us,” said M H Jawahirullah, the chief of MMK.
The party independently contested the 2009 parliamentary elections, fielded candidates in four constituencies — Ramanathapuram, Myladuthurai, Coimbatore and Central Chennai. Even though it lost in all the seats, it was able to attract considerable votes.
In the 2011 Assembly elections, the party had an alliance with the AIADMK and contested in three constituencies — Ramanathapuram, Ambur and Central Chennai. While it lost in Central Chennai, the party emerged victorious in the other two seats.
The MMK contested five seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the DMK, but lost in all the constituencies.
“We launched our party to provide an effective representation for Muslims. But we are not fighting only for Muslim rights. Our MLAs raised their voices in the Assembly for environmental causes — the malfunctioning of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, hydrocarbon, e-wastes and against human rights violations such as the genocide in Sri Lanka. We demanded prohibition even when Jayalalithaa was alive. That is what differentiate our party from other Muslim political outfits,” said Jawahirullah.
Asked about the plans for the 2021 Assembly elections, Jawahirullah said the party will focus on asserting the state’s rights.
“Through GST, the Centre has usurped the power of the state finance minister. Through the New Education Policy, it has made the role of the state education minister redundant. Through the diluted EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) draft, the Centre tries to make TN’s announcement of the Cauvery river basin as a ‘Protected Agricultural Zone’ into a joke. We will take these issues to the people. We will continue the alliance with the DMK to fight against the BJP,” Jawahirullah said.
Criticism from the community
Some, however, feel the party and the TMMK have lost their old appeal, said writer Kalanthai Peer Mohammed.
“Earlier, it was the Muslim League that was perceived as a party representing the Muslims. Post the Babri Masjid incident, the party was expected to come out of the government in Kerala. When it didn’t, people started losing faith in the party. It was never, and still is not, rigorous enough in fighting for Muslim rights. That is when the TMMK arrived and tried to fill that vacuum. One of their major achievements was that they brought many women into the political arena. It made them politically aware. Now, the TMMK is less aggressive,” he said.
Moreover, the TMMK, in its initial years, had advocated Wahhabism, which put some sections of Muslims off, he said.
Mohammed said a separate Muslim party does not help the community’s cause much. “Two decades ago, they wanted to have Muslim parties. But, over the years, they have realised that these parties cannot win if they stand on their own. It is interesting to note that those parties themselves know this. Take the Tiruchendur Assembly constituency for example. Since there is a Murugan temple in the area, people think it is a Hindu majoritarian constituency. But that is not true. Tiruchendur and its surrounding areas are highly populated with Muslims. Till now, none of the political parties has fielded a Muslim there. Also, if a Muslim party contested on its own and fielded a candidate, people won’t vote for him. Its candidate will get a lot of votes only if it is in alliance with either the DMK or the AIADMK. The Muslim parties need the support of one of the two Dravidian outfits to make some impact. Now, they have offered their support to a party that is anti-BJP,” said Mohammed.