In August last year, a small event was held at the Constitution Club in Delhi. Branded Redtrocity, it was the brainchild of J Nandakumar, the then-national deputy chief of publicity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the only person from Kerala in the organisation’s top echelon. Nandakumar who now heads Pragya Pravah, literally meaning the flow of intellect, started the campaign to “nationalise Communist-led political violence” in Kerala’s Kannur, famous for its martial history and rousing ballads on warrior heroes.
The more than a year-old campaign successfully managed to bring Kannur to primetime national television. Now the RSS’ political arm is moving in to reap the benefits. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) star-studded 13-day-long Janaraksha Yatra, led by party president Amit Shah himself, is the bugle call for the Lok Sabha elections. Shah is said to have set a target of winning at least half of the state’s 20 seats.
Since 2014, the BJP has been following a twin-pronged electoral strategy. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes the moral high ground and attacks rivals’ poor development record, Shah works on getting caste and community equations in the party’s favour. The southern sliver of a state, however, presents a unique challenge.
Kerala’s human development indicators are on a par with global benchmarks. Poverty is negligible and caste relations are cordial. Political power is almost equally shared by Hindus, Christians and Muslims. Every five years, the baton of power changes hands, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM and the Congress as lead players. The in-power CPM is dominated by Hindus and the Muslim League is aligned with the Congress.
( UP CM Yogi Adityanath and BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan at the party’s Janaraksha Yatra in Kannur. )
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This presents BJP with a problem. How do you wean away Hindu CPM cadres? It made a first attempt in the last state elections when it encouraged the formation of its electoral ally Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, a political outfit sponsored by the Ezhava community organisation Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam or SNDP. Though the National Democratic Alliance polled 16% votes and won an assembly seat in 2016 compared to 6.3% in the previous elections, it was mostly at the cost of the Congress and its allies. But Kerala is more vulnerable now.
Earlier this year, 21 people, including two neo-convert brothers from Christianity, slipped out of India to join the Islamic State. In 2010, members of Islamic hardline organisation Popular Front of India chopped off the hand of a college professor in central Kerala, allegedly for defaming the Prophet. The banned Students Islamic Movement of India is alleged to have held a secret arms training camp in Vagamon in the winter of 2007. While these incidents shook Kerala, what has turned it into a boiling cauldron of social insecurity is the case of Hadiya. Born Hindu, the girl, Akhila, converted to Islam while studying homeopathy at a Salem college and did not return to her parents.
Her father Ashokan, a self-proclaimed atheist, went to court saying she would end up with the Islamic State. But the court sent her with her Muslim friend. Before the next hearing, she married Shafin Jahan. An annoyed court annulled the wedding and sent her back to her parents where she now lives reportedly as a burqa-clad captive awaiting more court orders. The matter, often called the “Hadiya love jihad” case, has captivated the state. Kerala faces dilemmas like those of liberal European democracies as it battles deep-rooted patriarchy and bigotry while trying to balance individual freedom, religious orthodoxy and politics.
The state’s syncretic social fabric is fraying. Hindus, Christians and progressive Muslims fear a new brand of medieval Islam that prefers isolation and shackles personal freedom. It is alienating the Muslim community from others and bringing Hindus and Christians closer in a sort of undeclared social alliance while the widening chasm with other communities is enfeebling liberal Muslim voices.
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In July, Mathew Mar Gregorios, the bishop of the Syrian Independent Orthodox Church, was quoted as saying that “love jihad” is a reality and it was time to fight the evil. “You should see the number of messages I get daily from parents of girls on my phone. There is a rampant conversion of Christian girls to Islam in the Malabar region,” he is reported to have said.
The BJP sees an opportunity here for an unlikely alliance. Nandakumar has said that the RSS is in direct talks with various politicians, including CPM leaders, to stitch together a third alternative. Amit Shah met with prelates in Kerala in June. The meeting was described as non-political but speculation is rife in the state that former civil servant and CPM-supported MLA Alphons Kannanthanam was made minister overlooking other BJP leaders to give the Christian community a representation in the union cabinet.
Meanwhile, the RSS ramped up the “red terror” campaign by hyphenating CPM with jihad. A year ago, the National Investigating Agency picked up five people from Kanakamala village in Kannur for suspected links with Islamic State. The RSS now says CPM is harbouring and encouraging jihadists. This is perhaps the first time that the RSS has directly taken on a political party after the Emergency. The BJP in the state is in disarray and the incompetent leadership has been bogged down in corruption scandals and organisational issues.
The anti-CPM campaign, prefabricated in Delhi, has had limited impact on the people of Kerala so far. The same cannot be said of the impact PM Modi has had on the CPM. It appears rattled and confused by the popularity and political surge of Modi. Panicked by the Modi juggernaut, the dogmatic CPM began holding Janmashtami processions on Lord Krishna’s birthday. Yet, in a kneejerk reaction, it almost reprimanded minister Kadakampally Surendran for offering prayers at the Guruvayoor temple.