The Rediff Special/ George Iype
In Kerala's northern district of Malappuram, 46-year-old Abdul Manaf Nazir recently changed his name. Nazir, a grocer in Tirurangadi, is now officially called Abdul Nasser Madani, after the jailed People's Democratic Party leader.
"He is the true leader of the Muslims. And, today, he is in jail because he is a Muslim. Changing my name is one of the small things I can do for him," says a rather proud Nazir. He is among thousands of activists who constitute the PDP.
But politicians and observers claim the PDP's support base among Muslims across Kerala has waned, after Madani's arrest following the February 14, 1998 serial blasts in Coimbatore. Even as the state readies itself for next week's assembly election, observers say the PDP is no longer a political force to reckon with.
In some Muslim pockets, however, the jailed demagogue is looked upon as a saviour. An ardent, zealous following prays for his release and pin its hopes on the assumption that Madani will, some day, return to guide them. This could be why the Congress-led United Democratic Front has covertly sought the PDP's help in the election.
"It is his loyalty to the cause. It is his political ideals. It is his enormous guts in challenging the Hindutva forces that makes him a hero in Kerala," says Poonthura Siraj, general secretary, PDP. "Madani may be in jail. But his charisma continues to dominate us all. He is the ultimate leader for the Muslims."
Madani is confined to Coimbatore's central jail, from where he continues to control the party. Under his directions, young PDP leaders hold street corner meetings across Kerala. These meetings are used both to campaign for UDF candidates and detail the 'atrocities' heaped on Madani in jail.
Every month, PDP supporters, led by Siraj, take a procession from the Kerala border to Coimbatore to protest against the manner in which the jail authorities treat Madani. Last month, the Kerala police stopped some 6,000 PDP protesters from doing so.
Born in 1965 at Sastham Kotta in south Kerala's Kollam district, Madani began delivering the Friday sermons from a local mosque at a young age. Thanks to his oratorical skills, he soon built up a following.
Madani soon formed the Islamic Sewak Sangh, which he said was an answer to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. PDP leader K P Mohammed says there was nothing "wrong with the ISS. Just as the RSS stood for the Hindu cause, the ISS advocated the Muslim cause."
Even as the ISS grew in Kerala, Madani had to face personal tragedy. He lost one of his legs in a bomb blast. Then, in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the government banned the ISS. Madani did not give up. He launched the PDP to forge a broad Muslim-Dalit-backward alliance.
Six years later, Madani was arrested in connection with the Coimbatore blasts. He has been charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 153-A (spreading communal hatred), 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 124-A (sedition). He has also been charged under the Arms Act.
Many of his followers feel Madani is being penalised for being Muslim. "He is suffering in jail because of a ridiculous charge. He has not yet been tried, yet he has been denied bail. The charges against him were furnished two years after his arrest. Isn't the cruel arm of law harassing Muslims in India?" asks Siraj.
He says the voluminous chargesheet against Madani is in Tamil, a language he does not understand. "He suffers from diabetes and a heart ailment. But the court is yet to heed us," Siraj alleged.
Even in jail, he exerts considerable influence over certain constituencies. For instance, in the last Lok Sabha election, the PDP polled 35,000 votes in Ponnani. The party also won two seats in the Trivandrum corporation election last year. "We can tilt the balance of victory and defeat in a few constituencies. That is why the Congress, the Marxists and even the BJP consider us a potent political party," says PDP leader Sulaiman Hanifa.
PDP insiders claim Madani wants to tone down his militant image. This could be why Siraj and other PDP members met state BJP leaders two months ago. Marxist leaders allege that PDP leaders are in regular touch with the BJP to ensure Madani's release.
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