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A noble tradition in jeopardy
Monday, August 3, 2009
Shihab Thangal's demise leaves a void difficult to fill
Mohammad Ali Shihab Thangal of Panakkad, who passed away on Saturday, belonged to a rare breed of politicians. He headed the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Kerala's third largest political party for 34 long years, but never sought an elected office.
Old-timers remember an occasion when he filed nomination papers in an assembly election. That was as cover candidate for CH Mohammad Koya, the party's nominee. Since Koya's papers were in order, he didn't have to contest. He was not in politics at that time anyway.
On another occasion, the Muslim League wanted to send him to parliament. It proposed his name for the Rajya Sabha. The party and the front to which it belonged had sufficient strength in the Assembly to ensure his election. But he and his father, Pookkoya Thangal, who was then president of the League, rejected the suggestion.
Across Kerala's wide political spectrum, either on the right or the left, it is not possible to find another leader who was so totally free from the lure of office.
Believed to be a scion of an Arab family that traces its ancestry to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), Shihab Thangal had studied at Al Azhar and Cairo universities and returned home in 1966.
He showed no interest in politics until the party picked him for the president's post on his father's death in 1975. When the IUML was set up in 1948 in Malabar, then a part of the Madras province, there were good reasons for eyebrows to rise quizzically. For one, the organisation's name was similar to that of the All India Muslim League (AIML), which had led the successful campaign for a separate Muslim homeland in the subcontinent. For another, several of its founders had been associated with AIML.
The struggle for power between the Communist Party of India and the non-communist parties after the formation of the Kerala state in 1956 paved the way for the end of the political ostracism that the IUML faced in the early years.
By the time Shihab Thangal assumed the leadership, it was a force to reckon with in state politics, but still carried the stigma of communalism.
More a statesman than a politician, Shihab Thangal, through judicious handling of sensitive issues, steered the League away from the path of communal politics and helped it to gain recognition as part of the secular mainstream.
Instead of dealing with the problems of the Muslim community - it constitutes about a quarter of the population and is the largest single caste/religious group in the state - solely in the narrow context of their faith, he placed them in the broad context of the social, economic and educational backwardness of large sections of the population.
This made it possible to seek solutions for several problems without raising communal animosities. Shihab Thangal faced two major challenges during his long reign as the chief of the League. He faced them, sticking unwaveringly to the Islamic ideal of brotherhood.
First came the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, by Hindu fanatics to facilitate the construction of a temple dedicated to Ram, who, they believe, was born there in a remote period.
Even as some sections of the community raised shrill cries of revenge, Shihab Thangal asked his followers to ensure that communal harmony was not disrupted.
Then came two rounds of communal violence at the coastal village of Marad. Shihab Thangal exerted his influence to prevent the outbreak from spreading to other areas.
The virulent propaganda unleashed by critics, who alleged that the League was sacrificing the community's interests to enjoy the benefits of power, caused some setbacks to the party. But Shihab Thangal refused to make compromises for short-term gains.
While some parties which flaunt secular names have not been able to shed their communal image, the Muslim League has been able to gain credence as a party that upholds the secular ideal despite the religious tag in its name. The credit for this belongs entirely to Shihab Thangal
He was unique in another respect too. He had an unblemished record in public life. There have been others, too, who have commanded respect as men of integrity but none against whom there was not even a vague allegation of misdemeanour.
The tributes that flowed from all sections of the people on Shihab Thangal's demise are a measure of the regard and respect that he enjoyed cutting across political and religious lines. Truly can it be said that he has left a void that is difficult to fill. – Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 3, 2009.