Sunday, August 2, 2009

Panakkad Muhammedali Shihab Thangal: Politician, Religious Leader and Human Being

I HAVE had a pretty long association with Panakkad Muhammedali Shihab Thangal, the president of the Indian Union Muslim League Kerala unit, who passed away yesterday. Today I was watching his final journey on the television channels even as I had to comment on his contributions to a few channels. I also had to comment in a cyber discussion forum, which provided me with an opportunity to see how ill-informed are sections of our mainstream society about the politics, culture and religious practices of the most dominant minority community among us.

It was in 1989 when I returned to Kozhikode as a reporter for Indian Express that I started seeing him and listening to him. Those were very tempestuous days in the League politics as there were sharp differences within the party and community about its approach to the Congress, its weak-kneed response to the rising Hindutva threat, and its compromises even with Congress which failed to uphold the secular principles of our Constitution.

He was not a tough leader or a person who aggressively pushed his line; instead he was a man of soft manners and affability. People used to complain that his mild manners had been misused by some of his close confidantes. But I do not believe that is true. In fact, on some occasions he did show his toughness, his decisiveness, though even that was expressed without raising his voice, without any externals show of strength.

I remember visiting him with Prasannarajan, senior writer with Indian Express in Delhi some time in mid-nineties during a Lok Sabha election. He was pleased with the visit, and treated us with tea and snacks in his room even as dozens of people came to visit him the morning; some of them seeking political recommendations, some for blessings, some with complaints to sort out…

There were a few new vehicles like jeeps and cars waiting in the courtyard of Kodappanakkal house, as the owners believed his blessings would keep them safe from accidents. After our meeting, we saw him walk up to them and then he got in the vehicle and took the driver’s seat and managed to ignite them ceremonially.

The last time I met him was only last year when Amrita TV was shooting a special programme on him with actor Siddique as the anchor. It was called Samagamam, part of popular series of celebrities’ meeting with old friends and relatives, and I was invited there as a journalist who had known him for a long time. In my few minutes with him at the set, what I recalled was his decisive actions to uphold peace and communal amity in Kerala in December 1992, when Babri Masjid was demolished and the Muslim community was seething with rage.

There are many more memories to write about, but I think they should remain for another occasion.

I reproduce a few paragraphs from my comments to some questions form friends at fourth-estate critique, in a discussion on Shihab Thangal:

Is he the head of a sect. or something like that? Is this more like the `Supreme Leader' of Iran type? Or is this more like RSS head?

These questions in a way point to the deep chasm in our society. Even the best informed, highly educated, mobile sections in pars of Kerala do seem to know precious little about another section who live in the same place, who have contributed immensely to our lives but still seem to live as far away as the South Pole, with no contacts, no understanding in between.

It has always troubled me, why do we allow ourselves to be completely ignorant about such vital parts of our own self?

Now what is Panakkad Syed Muhammedali Shihab Thangal?

Is he the head of a sect?

By a sect, if you go by the contemporary reality in Muslim Kerala, you mean some groups which are opaque, somewhat secretive groups like say Noorisha Tareequat, which has been in the news for some time with their association with characters like Thammanam Shaji. Sects are groups which revolve around some individuals and they are at the fringe of the society with their own rituals and practices. Shihab Thangal is far form it; he is the leader (both spiritual and political ) of a substantial section of our population which constitutes something around 24 per cent of Malayalees.

It would also be wrong to think Shihab Thangal someone like the supreme leader in (predominantly Shia) Iran either. Because he is first and foremost a Sunni religious leader who came to his position by way of his lineage and his deep roots and contacts among the people, the Sunni masses in Malabar. The IUML has always been a party which made clever use of the religious sentiments of the people and hence they were often putting the Sunni religious leaders at the helm of the party, (like P S M O Pookoya Thangal, Shihab Thangal, Bafaqui Thangal, etc) though it was basically controlled by the traders and other vested interests in the community.

Now is it a party of communal and exclusivist politics and ideology like the RSS?

I do not accept this view because I have always found the League willing (even eager) to accept the secular practices in a democratic politics and they never even dreamt of establishing a religious state in this country. They did in the past and Pakistan is the result of such a calamitous ideology. Ever since Partition, the League has been part of the Indian democratic system and they were a pressure group in our politics for the benefits of the Muslims, may be the richer segments among them primarily.

Is there any implied understanding within the community that such leaders should not hold parliamentary positions? Is this implied understanding that makes ML to readily take him as the leader?

I think the question whether there is a clear demarcation of the role of the leader and the people who wield power in IUML need a little more serious probe. As far as I can see, there is nothing that stops a leader from holding public offices, though it is not generally practiced. The reason seems to be in the social practices of Malabar Muslims as the thangals in this area had a temporal as well as spiritual role in the community for the past three decades or so. You will see they were directly involved in anti-imperialist politics, some of them had to face official actions and punishment like the famous deportation of Fazal Pookoya Thangal by Collector Conoly, and the call for jehad against the British by another thangal.

But the thangals are known to have taken public offices and there is nothing that prevents them from holding such offices and many have done so too. If you take a look at the list of MLAs from Malabar, you will see such names listed there.

In the case of Shihab Thangal, during the election to 14th Lok Sabha I had written an article in Madhyamam which called upon him to directly stand for election from Manjeri or Ponnani and come to Delhi so that he could see the real and sad situation of Muslims in other parts of the country.

I had no occasion to talk to him on it later on but after the polls, I met E Ahamed, now IUML national president (technically a position higher to the one Shihab Thangal held as state unit chief), at his home and he told me the party would be happy if Thangal accepted such a position, only that it was his decision not to go for such positions.

The IUML for all practical purposes is an umbrella organization of various Muslim groups, sects and interest groups like Sunnis (two dominant factions), Mujahids, (again two factions), Jama-athis, thareeqathwallahs, Shias, Ahmadiyyas, and so many others. The differences are ironed out through mutual consultations and normal democratic practices and I had witnessed the sharp rift in 1989 -94 when Sulaiman Sait and others left the party. I think being the senior-most leader and a dominant spiritual presence in the most powerful group that explains his special position in the party. It is far from the way RSS or Shiv Sena had set up their organizations.

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