The Maudany factor

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

In a context of intensified shows of strength by the Hindutva brigade and the proliferation of fundamentalist groups vying to woo the Muslim mind, the continuing incarceration of Abdul Nasir Maudany and the growing pressure for his release create a complicated situation in Kerala.

THESE past few weeks have witnessed shrill demands in Kerala for the release from jail of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) chairman Abdul Nasir Maudany. He is in jail in Tamil Nadu as an accused in the 1998 Coimbatore serial bomb blast case.

His current profile, as projected by his party, is that of a leader "deserted" by opportunistic political parties, one who has been "denied justice" and held without trial for four and a half years, despite "election-eve assurances" by United Democratic Front (UDF) leaders "about his release".

According to the charge-sheet filed by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) inquiring into the bomb blast case in the Court of the Judicial Magistrate V, Coimbatore in May 1998, he is the 15th accused, one who "supplied high grade explosives through one K. Raju alias Army Raju, accused number 144, a deserter from 16 Assam Rifles". On the day Bharatiya Janata Party president L.K. Advani was to address an election meeting at R.S. Puram in Coimbatore, 12 powerful bomb explosions took place in the city and its suburbs. These killed 58 persons, injured about 250 people and caused property damage worth Rs.4.37 crores.

The charge-sheet also accuses Maudany of being among the key conspirators who plotted "the retaliatory action" for the killing of 18 Muslims in riots and police firing after the fatal stabbing of a policeman by Al Umma cadre.

Maudany was arrested by the Kerala police on March 31, 1998 (when the Left Democratic Front was in power in the State) in connection with a long-pending but non-bailable charge of making a provocative speech in Kozhikode in 1992. The reasons for his arrest were not disclosed nor was his advocate allowed to meet him. After a week the Tamil Nadu police produced its arrest warrant and the SIT secured his custody. Since then he has been in jails in Tamil Nadu, at Salem and Coimbatore. (Ten others were also arrested in Kerala in connection with the blasts case.) According to the Kerala Police, there are now seven cases in Tamil Nadu and 24 cases in Kerala against Maudany pending trial.

When the Tamil Nadu police failed to file a charge-sheet within 90 days, Maudany, an invalid, a diabetic, a heart patient and one suffering from stomach ulcers, sought bail and a Coimbatore court granted it in July 1998. But on July 7, the Tamil Nadu police issued orders under the National Security Act (NSA) to ensure his continued detention.

In March 1999, the Supreme Court ordered the revocation of the detention warrant against Maudany under the NSA. But Maudany continued to be held and almost a year passed before he received the charge-sheet, running to 16,800 pages, all in Tamil, a language he pleaded he did not understand.

Maudany's party and his family members have been trying to shore up political support to get him released. While political parties and their leaders, all of whom had sought his party's support in the elections, refused to intervene, Maudany did receive support, especially from some human rights activists and eminent persons in Kerala, including former Supreme Court Judge V. R. Krishna Iyer, who wrote to the Chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Human Rights Commission in April 2000 on the issue.

Things came to a head when the PDP decided in September to use Maudany's political clout in Kerala in tandem with the sympathy that human rights arguments had gained for him to launch an agitation against Kerala's ruling coalition and the government for "doing nothing" to get Maudany released. This followed the refusal of the Coimbatore court in September to release him on parole for a few hours to attend his grandmother's funeral, with the prosecution producing a fax message from the Kerala Police to argue that it would lead to a law and order problem in Kerala.

As Ministers including Chief Minister A.K. Antony were being gheraoed in surprise actions by PDP squads on the road and meeting venues, the announcement by his party that Maudany's wife and family members would start a fast before the State Secretariat from October 16 saw the Kerala government and the UDF leaders running for cover. Several Ministers acknowledged that the UDF had sought his help in the Assembly elections in several constituencies and that there was denial of justice and basic human rights in the case of Maudany being refused bail for so long.

On October 9, UDF convener and Congress(I) leader Oommen Chandy and Transport Minister K. B. Ganesh Kumar announced (after a closed-door meeting with PDP leaders, `social activists' and others in the presence of Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer in Kochi) that the UDF would do everything possible to "ensure that Maudany gets justice", and the PDP announced the "temporary suspension of the decision to start an agitation, including the fast by Sufia Maudany".

But Antony immediately clarified that he was Chief Minister and not merely a UDF leader and that the government could help Maudany only within the limits of the law. The message was clear: the government was not going to do anything much.

UNTIL just over a decade ago, the only claim to fame for Abdul Nasir, who came to be known under the religious title `Maudany', was his oratorical skills as a student in a traditional religious training centre near his home in Kollam district. In the late 1980s and especially after 1990, when Hindu fundamentalist forces started their aggressive strategy of stoking communal sentiments in Kerala, Maudany began delivering his vitriolic Friday sermons in mosques in south Kerala, especially in Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts.

Soon he announced the launching of the Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS), obviously as an answer to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in Kerala. The ISS soon became a magnet for Muslim youth, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, who were provoked by the growing belligerence of the Hindutva forces but were without a platform.

Maudany's organisational capabilities were striking, especially after the ISS began to take out "route marches" in the roads of Thiruvananthapuram a la the RSS, uniforms, hats, sticks and all. The existence of the ISS coincided with a period of communal tension in Kerala, as Maudany's outfit disturbed not merely the aggressive Hindutva elements but also Muslim organisations, from the mainstream political party the Muslim League to the groups on the extreme fringe. These Muslim organisations too were forced to take extreme positions on many issues, which affected communal peace. Then a 1990 bomb blast at Karunagappally in Kollam district cost Maudany a leg. It has been attributed both to the RSS and Maudany's Muslim detractors. But every blow that fell on Maudany, was used by him to build up his mysterious organisation.

The December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid must have been the perfect opportunity for Maudany's ISS to try and spread its wings, especially in northern Kerala, the Muslim League stronghold, at a time when the League was sharing power in the State with P.V. Narasimha Rao's Congress(I), which fact had invited the wrath of Muslims all over India. But a day before the Central government imposed a ban on several organisations including the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the ISS, Maudany announced that the ISS stood "disbanded".

Soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Kerala saw the amazing public transformation of Maudany, from a rabble-rousing, provocative leader of a mysterious organisation to a comparatively moderate public figure, leader of the new Muslim political party, the PDP, which sought to gain for the former ISS chairman the political clout he lacked.

A relatively moderate Maudany was trying to project himself more and more into mainstream politics, first by fighting against Antony and the Muslim League, which supported the Chief Minister in the Tirurangadi by-election in 1996, later leading a clutch of small regional parties under the banner of `backward classes unity'. All these attempts ended in failure but that did not seem to bother Maudany.

It was clear that it would be nearly-impossible for his party to win a seat in the Assembly on its own, that at best the PDP would win a few seats in the local bodies, and that the key to his political survival lay in strengthening his pockets of influence in order to gain political clout with the bigger, mainstream parties. Maudany's PDP entered the fray in every crucial election in the State, spoiling the chances of one coalition or the other. In turn, leaders from both the dominant coalitions started courting Maudany's PDP overtly and covertly during elections. During the Assembly elections 17 months ago, several UDF leaders visited Maudany in jail and sought his support, in return promising to get him released on bail.

Kerala had been interested only in his occasional successes and failures as a political leader, his private activities, especially his alleged links with extremist elements remained at best a matter of conjecture. The chargesheet filed by the Tamil Nadu police is the first time such an accusation is made against him publicly.

FOR the moment, what is more significant than anything else for Kerala is the communal context of the Maudany saga. On the one hand there is the intensifying threat posed by provocative speeches and statements and frequent shows of strength by Hindutva organisations such as the VHP and the Shiv Sena in the State. Just as the RSS had brought in the until-then north Indian Janmashtami ritual as a mobilisation strategy in Kerala after 1990, the Vinayaka Chathurthi day this year saw for the first time a non-entity in State politics, the Shiv Sena, installing and immersing nearly 18,000 Ganesha idols all over Kerala amidst much fanfare.

The VHP too has raised its profile and its north Indian leaders have started descending on the State and making provocative statements. The latest was Praveen Togadia, who while demanding in Thiruvananthapuram that Maudany not be released, said his release would lead once again to "Mopilla violence" in Kerala. Kerala usually takes such things in its stride, but this time competing organisations within the Hindutva fold and also a clutch of virulent Muslim groups that have taken root in the State in the past one decade are imparting dangerous dimensions to the picture.

The State police in 1997 had identified eight extremist Muslim groups operating in north Kerala, which received funds and other forms of support from West Asia. It was also known that Kerala was turning into a sanctuary for extremist elements fleeing the security agencies in other States and also a centre of arms-running. Police sources told Frontline that even as recently as July, the suspected Inter-Services Intelligence agent Imam Ali Harikumar, (originally a Hindu from Alappuzha district) who was shot dead by the police in Bangalore on September 29, had got sanctuary in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram. The PDP denied that it was involved in the matter, and said that allegations in this regard against it was a ploy to keep Maudany in custody. But police sources say PDP supporters are among those being investigated for providing food and shelter to members of the Al-Mujahideen, the organisation Ali floated.

As in the Hindutva fold, the most disturbing trend, according to police sources, is the proliferation of fundamentalist groups vying with one another for the traditionally peaceful Muslim mind in Kerala. After the disbanding of the ISS, the most disturbing growth had been that of the National Democratic Front (NDF), in north Kerala in particular. It is one of the most prominent Muslim fundamentalist groups in the State, according to sources in the State police. The NDF claims to be a social organisation and de<147,2,1>nies any fundamentalist tendencies, but the police have no doubt about its intentions and activities, and its ability to attract cadres from other Muslim groups. It is no secret that a majority of its hardcore members were formerly members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India.

THE NDF was one of the first to form a Maudany Legal Action Council and launch a fund collection drive. Whether the funds collected ever helped Maudany is unclear. According to a top police officer, what really seemed to have happened was that, with Maudany in jail, the NDF had enticed many of his former ISS cadres into its own fold. Significantly, no statement has been issued by any known NDF leader demanding Maudany's release.

The consequence of all this, according to intelligence sources, is that Maudany, who had been keeping a tight leash on his cadres from within jail, is known to have issued a directive for the reactivation of a unit he formed in 1997 in Kollam, Majlis Tarbiyathul Muslimeen (MTM), with his former hardcore ISS colleagues as members. According to a senior Intelligence officer of the State police, the MTM's professed objectives are similar to those of the NDF, namely, `fighting (alleged) injustices against Muslims', `working for the socio-economic development of Muslims', `defending Muslims from the RSS and the BJP and other Hindu groups', among others. The police believe that MTM activists were behind the troubles in three southern districts last December 6. The officer said that MTM cadres have been directed to recruit two members each in every taluk, who are then to form MTM committees at every mosque, "to defend Muslims", or in other words, to prevent further erosion in the ISS-PDP ranks.

It is in such a potentially-volatile context created by competing fundamentalist groups trying to outwit one another and fight "the common enemy" at the same time, that the demand for the release of Maudany has become a headache for the State government.

The question remains as to what difference the release of Maudany on bail can make to the situation in Kerala. A top police officer told Frontline: "Maudany should not be taken lightly, the human rights aspects notwithstanding. How can the State police guarantee his return for trial in Tamil Nadu given the ground realities here and the potential for communal violence that his return would create."

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