Sadiq Ali Thangal takes over leadership of Muslim League at the most critical period of its existence

 Panakkad Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal
Panakkad Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal

In keeping with the tradition of choosing a Panakkad family member as the head of the Kerala unit of the Muslim League, Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal, the brother of Panakkad Syed Hyder Ali Shihab Thangal who died on March 6, was unanimously chosen on Monday as the Indian Union Muslim League chairperson.

The decision was taken by the Kerala State Muslim League committee, the available members of the League National Committee, and also the members of the Panakkad Pookoya family. Sadiq Ali Thangal will also be the new chairman of the IUML National Political Advisory Committee.

The Thangal family's spiritual aura had historically given the Muslim League its immense clout among Muslims in Kerala. Sadiq Ali is the fourth member from the Thangal family to adorn the top post in the League.

Hyder Ali Shihab Thangal had taken over the reins of the party in 2009 after the death of his elder brother Syed Muhammadali Shihab Thangal. Shihab Thangal was elevated to the top post in 1975 after the death of his father Puthiya Maliyekkal Ahammed Pookoya Thangal.

Sadiq Ali Thangal, who is now anointed the political head of the Muslim League, has been active both in League politics and also in the family's spiritual realm. He was the IUML's Malappuram district president for the last 12 years and holds top positions in various spiritual bodies. He is taking over at a crucial juncture in the history of the Muslim League.

In political terms, the League has found itself in an unprecedented situation. It has been out of power for the second consecutive term. Its clout at the Centre has also virtually dried up with the emergence of Narendra Modi, and the considerable weakening of the Indian National Congress.

Now, as if political troubles were not enough, it looks like the League is losing its hitherto unquestionable sway over the Muslim community in the Malabar region. The recent Wakf controversy had revealed deep divisions within the larger political and spiritual Muslim collective associated with the Muslim League.

Sayed Jifri Muthukkoya Thangal, the president of the most dominant Sunni group in Kerala, Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama (EK Group), had openly questioned the League's anti-government tactics in the Wakf issue. Since the Thangal family has special prominence in the EK Samastha, Jifri Thangal's open rebuke of the League was seen as a mighty blow. There was also a feeling that the EK Samastha, like Kanthapuram's Samastha faction, was getting closer to the LDF.

Soon enough speculations were rife that the League might abandon UDF and jump left. The recent closed-door meeting between LDF independent and League baiter-in-chief K T Jaleel and top League leaders, including Kunhalikutty, made a CPM-League deal seem like a not-too-distant possibility. However, the CPM State Congress that concluded recently had categorically stated that it would not accept any more parties into the LDF fold.

At the moment, the new chairperson will have bigger issues than political realignment to grapple with. The ascendance of the Hindu right in the country has both widened and deepened the influence of militant organisations like the SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India) and the ideologically rigorous Jamaat-e-Islami within the Muslim community in Kerala.

It will be up to Sadiq Ali Thangal to strike a balance. Influential voices within the League, especially the younger lot, have already called for a more hardline position. Sadiq Ali, though he is always found in public with a genuine disarming smile, seems instinctively hawkish.

Before the 2020 Assembly polls, for instance, an untimely statement by Sadiq Ali had worsened an already troubled Christian-Muslim bond in Kerala.

On July 11, 2020, Turkey's right-wing president Recep Tayyip Erdogan converted perhaps the world's most splendid symbol of secularism and a Unesco World Heritage site, the Hagia Sophia Museum, into a mosque. For over 900 years, the massive many-domed architectural wonder was an Orthodox Christian cathedral, the largest church of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire.

This had seriously hurt the Christian community in Kerala. Since Erdogan's move came after the Babri Masjid verdict, which allowed a 16th-century mosque to be converted into a temple, even extreme Muslim outfits kept a sensible silence on the issue.

But Sadiq Ali, then the Malappuram district president of IUML, wrote an opinion piece in the editorial page of the League's mouthpiece Chandrika Daily on July 24, 2020, cheering Erdogan's action. "Those who are raising their voices against this move are the very people who had converted 350-odd mosques constructed during the Ottoman period into churches and theatres and jails," he said.

League leaders had to rush to Bishop houses in Kerala to band-aid Christian hurt. As the new chairperson, in the shoes of his highly revered elder brother, Sadiq Ali will be asked to cultivate a bit more tact.

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