New Age Islam
The Roots of Islamic Radicalisation in Kerala
By Tufail Ahmad for New Age Islam
30 September 2016
For an outsider, one way to recognise that you have left Tamil Nadu and entered Kerala is when cut-outs of J. Jayalalitha give way to street posters with signs of the hammer and sickle. But nowadays, it is a concern for increasing jihadism in the God's Own Country, not the hammer and sickle of the communists that attracts newspaper headlines. On September 13, it emerged that Rifaila, who along with her husband Ijaz and son was part of the nearly two dozen Keralites who left for the Islamic State (ISIS) last July, has given birth to a baby girl. The message was communicated to her mother-in-law at a village in Kasargod district of Kerala. Ideas could move you across geographies. The baby girl would have been born in Kasargod, but it is power of jihadi ideas in this case that weeks before her birth, she landed in Syria.
On the same day, September 13, it emerged that a UK-based couple inspired some of those Keralite Muslims who migrated for Syria and Afghanistan. This information emerged from the questioning of Yasmin Ahmad, the second wife of Abdul Rashid, who worked at the Peace International School at Malappuram, run by radical televangelist Zakir Naik's NGO, Islamic Research Foundation. Rashid, along with his first wife and child, is believed to have joined the ISIS in Afghanistan. Yasmin Ahmad, along with her child, was stopped by intelligence officials at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi as she was headed to Kabul to join Rashid.
Jihadism, much like fascism and Nazism, never originates from the masses. In all cases, Muslim youths are radicalised by the educated class of Muslims such as Islamic clerics, Islamist editors, mosque leaders and televangelists like Zakir Naik and Br. Imran of Hyderabad. The youths who left for the ISIS, a dozen of them from Padane village near Kasargod, included a dentist, two engineers, a doctor, two pregnant women, teachers, a BTech graduate, a commerce graduate and others. The issue attracted national attention and has forced the Keralites to think of who they are and where their state is headed to in coming decades. The Muslim communities of Kerala are alive to these new developments and worried, but also in denial.
The Reach of Salafi Globalism
On September 12, Ismail Kangarappady led the annual Eid Al-Azha prayers at Marine Drive in Kochi. Addressing the worshippers, he blamed some of the familiar villains like "imperialists, Zionists and fascists" of creating the Islamic State to malign Islam. Kangarappady stated, "One cannot even regard the ISIS as an Islamic terrorist outfit. The ideals they propagate have nothing to do with real Islam." At another Eid Al-Azha prayer in Kozhikode, Sharif Melethil, the imam, told the worshippers, "seeking a mysterious paradise is not jihad." In Islam, there are two spiritual quests for the paradise: one motivates a faithful to live for the life after death, while the other leads Muslims to migrate from non-Muslim lands to countries ruled by Islamic leaders, or Dar-ul-Islam.
For example, during the Hijrat Movement, which was an offshoot of the Khilafat Movement in the 1920s, Indian Islamic scholars like Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Maulana Abdul Bari, Maulana Muhammad Ali and Maulana Abdul Majeed Sindhi issued a fatwa (Islamic decree) declaring that migration from Dar-ul-Harb (House of War) to Dar-ul-Islam (House of Peace) was desirable. As a result, a number of Indian Muslims migrated to Afghanistan, which ultimately became a disaster as the Muslim rulers there did not accept them. For similar reasons, a section of Muslims from Kerala has been going to Yemen in recent years, and to Sri Lanka where those having trained in Yemen have established camps, for learning and living a life of piety.
"I don't believe the missing youths from Kerala went to join the Islamic State," says Mujib Rahman, a teacher based in Kozhikode. In July when this interview was conducted with him, it was not fully clear where the missing youths might have gone. Rahman said that they could have gone to Yemen, not to fight alongside ISIS in Syria. Rahman is a former president of the Ithihadu Shubbanil Mujahideen, the student wing of Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM), a Salafi organisation which describes itself as an Islahi (reformist) group with roots in Egyptian and Saudi religious movements of the late-19th and 20th centuries. KNM emerged from the works of Vakkom Abdul Khader Moulavi who brought Islamic literature from Egypt around the 1900s.
Although Mujib Rahman insists that the KNM is a reformist movement, one must keep in mind that almost all Islamic groups such as the Tablighi Jamaat, Jamaat-e-Islami, the ISIS, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda describe themselves as reformist, purer than other groups and sects in Islam. The KNM itself has split and reunited many times after Kerala Muslims in its ranks got education at universities in Saudi Arabia and returned to propagate a slightly different doctrinal version of Islam than that was traditionally preached by the KNM. Doctrinal questions posed by them could not be answered satisfactorily by local clerics who were unprepared.
The so-called moderate faction of KNM remained focused on Kerala Muslims, but the Saudi-educated returnees preached what can be described as Islamic globalism. So, while KNM allowed women into mosques and introduced Khutba (Friday sermons) in Malayalam and for such acts it considers itself reformist, the Saudi-returned radicalised factions have their Khutba in Arabic.
Challenges to Co-Existence in Kerala
Krishnendhu R. Nath is a non-resident Indian based in Malaysia. On June 14, the eighth day of the fasting month of Ramzan, she was travelling through the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district. She felt sick and needed some lime soda. Her husband's friend checked in most of the shops by the highway but was told: since it is a fasting month, such things could not be sold. Startled by the reply, she herself went out to a shop and confronted a shopkeeper, "What is the problem with selling Nimbu Pani during fasting season? What will travellers like us who have no fasting do?'' As per her Facebook post, the answer she got was: "It is not that we don't like to. But our shops will be destroyed if we do that." She went into another shop where she got a similar reply upon which she exclaimed in anger, "Is this Saudi Arabia!"
Co-existence has for long been the founding principle of Indian civilisation. It is understandable that Muslims close their restaurants in Malappuram and other Muslim-dominated regions of India in daytime during Ramzan, but it is worrying that now it is impossible for Hindus and Christians to open their restaurants in Malappuram during the fasting month, or sell eatables in shops not owned by Muslims. Unable to protest, local Hindus have willingly accepted their position as Dhimmis, second-class citizens. "The Hindu community in Malappuram is now far subdued, far outnumbered by Muslims," says Vivek Vibha, an architect based in Kochi. He reminds that a few years ago there were arson attacks on some temples in Malappuram allegedly by an insane person "but the same insane person couldn't burn a mosque."
These incidents are not isolated, but part of a continuing movement of ideas that challenges the co-existence of Kerala's society. Ansiba Hassan, the Muslim actress from Kerala, faced abuse from Islamist trolls after she posed for a photograph with Buddhist monks. She was forced to remove the photograph from her Facebook page. Leading actress Nazriya Nazim was targeted for hurting religious sentiments because she did not wear Hijab (Islamic veil) in real life. Actor Asif Ali was abused for posting a photo from the Lords cricket stadium with the words "The Mecca of Cricket – Lords." For the Islamists of Kerala, it is unacceptable to compare the Lords with Mecca, even for the purely secular reason of sports. Journalists based in Kerala point out similar incidents.
Prof. Kausik Gangopadhyay, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management in Kozhikode, notes a suddenness to the new religiosity of Muslims in Kerala. "When I moved to Kozhikode in June 2009, this was more an open city. No shops will close in Ramzan, except for about half-an-hour at Iftar (evening breakfast)," he says. "Now even the spelling of Ramzan has changed to Ramadan, the Arabic version. Saudi Arabia has more influence here. It's a new influence." Vivek Vibha adds, "The new rise in Islamism in Kerala is due to the money from the Middle East." Islam can be defined as a religion, as a politics, as an ideology and as a movement of ideas – all rolled into one. Islamism is Islam's methodology. Jihadism is the armed version of Islamism.
There is unanimity among analysts of Kerala, on both the Left and the Right, that it is money coming from the Middle East that is behind the growing religiosity and radicalisation among Muslims. Anshad Ilyas, a journalist with Asianet Television News in Thiruvananthapuram, rejects any likelihood of Hindu-Muslim conflicts, but says: "The money from the Gulf is adversely affecting Hindu-Muslim relations. It is a dangerous problem in Malapuuram." M.G.S. Narayanan, a renowned historian, reflects on the issue: "Intolerance and fanaticism subsided in Christianity but in the case of Islam, there were sudden riches in the Gulf nations. The Sheikhs there crushed the reform movements in Islam. The ISIS is an offshoot of the richness." He adds, "This money comes to Kerala. Elected governments knew but ignored and neglected. This neglect has become the cause of the migration of youths from Kerala to the Islamic State."
Sajad Ibrahim, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram, cautions, "Don't be under the impression that only Muslims are bringing money from the Gulf countries. Christians from Kerala are working as professionals in the Gulf and get lots of money, followed by Hindus, but Muslims working there are in large numbers." However, Ibrahim notes that charitable and black money is entering Kerala in a major way, and mosques and churches are receiving lots of it. "All NGOs of Muslims in northern Kerala are rich and powerful. Charitable organisations have links with political parties and exercise influence and power over them," he says, adding that the situation in Kerala is unpredictable as the Popular Front of India (PFI) has been taking over control of mosques and some Muslims under its umbrella are involved in crimes, causing disharmony in Hindu-Muslim relations over the past decade.
Is Kerala's Islam Peaceful?
Religions, when coupled with rising demographics, can threaten established orders. On July 8, a Friday, at Nadakkar in the heart of Kozhikode, Muslim worshippers parked their bikes right in the middle of the road in front of the police station situated opposite the mosque. Police officials fined all the vehicles for traffic violations. Soon after the Friday prayers, all Muslims went to the police station and forced the cops to remove the fine stickers from their vehicles. Like all parts of India, Kerala too has been known for religious harmony. For example, before visiting the Sabarimala temple, all Hindu devotees go to the Vavar mosque at Erumeli. The mosque gives prasadam, ash which the devotees put on their forehead and the mosque gets donations. Vavar, a Muslim warrior, is considered a friend of Lord Ayyappan, the deity of Sabarimala temple.
The received wisdom in journalistic writings is that Islam in Kerala is peaceful because, in contrast to the historical experience of northern India where it arrived accompanied by Muslim invaders, it landed in Kerala through peaceful ways, namely by the sea trade route during the era of Prophet Muhammad. But more than anywhere else, it is Kerala which demonstrates the original model of Islam characterised by a distinction between the Meccan and Medina periods, the former being peaceful and the latter being conflicted. During the Mecca period, Muslims were in minority and preached peacefully. But during the Medina period when Muslims established their own rule, the prophet led raids on the non-Muslim traders going to Syria and fought wars against non-Muslims.
In Kerala, Muslims were not the first to arrive from West Asia. Long before Islam, Arab traders were arriving by ships from West Asia, assisted by the monsoon's hospitable flow. Of them, Jews and Christians were naturally the first, followed by Muslims. Over the subsequent centuries, the Jewish population did not rise, but Christians and Muslims grew in population and influence. However, the first conflicts involving Islam began in Kerala after the arrival of the Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama in 1498 CE, whose team brought Islam-versus-Christianity idea from Europe. For reasons of trade and Hinduism's co-existence, the Hindus had supported Muslims until then and during conflicts with Europeans. The Hindu king Zamorin was hospitable to Muslims traders and ordered Hindu fishermen's children who were born on Fridays to convert to Islam.
G.K. Suresh Babu, the Thiruvananthapuram-based executive editor of Amrita Television, points out that the attacks on Malabar in 1771 by Hyder Ali and in 1789 by his son Tipu Sultan were turning points in radicalisation of Kerala's Muslims. The Medina period in the life of Kerala Islam begins mainly after their invasions. Suresh Babu says Hyder Ali was invited after Muslims ran into a conflict to build a dome on a mosque, a practice allowed at the time only for three Hindu temples. Historian M.G.S. Narayanan adds, "Hyder Ali plundered Hindu temples because there was gold there. So, this became the beginning of the divide between Hindus and Muslims. And Tipu Sultan's attacks later worsened this divide, as he gave lands seized from Hindus to new converts from lower castes to Islam."
Tipu Sultan was harsher as he forced Hindus to eat beef and converted them to Islam. Much like in northern India, in Kerala too it seems that a version of Political Islam arrived in the company of Muslim conquerors like the father-son duo. The causes of their invasions could be varied as wars necessarily have multiple causes, but Hyder and Tipu introduced what can be described as the Medina period in the life of Kerala's Islam. Before them, arguably the Islam in Kerala reflected the Meccan period, or the era of peaceful Islam. Today, the cases of radicalisation are reported from the areas through which their armies marched. Kerala has witnessed Hindu-Muslim conflicts of differing scale from around the second half of the 19th century as well as in the 20th century.
The Rise of Overt Religiosity
The 1921 Malabar Rebellion – against the British and Hindus by Muslims – appears as the biggest conflict on the timeline of Hindu-Muslim issue in Kerala. Marxist historians have presented it as an agrarian conflict but that seems to be a side issue. The rebellion had a religious dimension and one of the reasons behind it were efforts by the British to rehabilitate Hindus displaced from their lands in Malabar, inviting the wrath of Moppila Muslims. Around this time, a large number of Muslims in Kerala also supported the Khilafat Movement, points out M.G.S. Narayanan. During the course of the Rebellion, Kunjahammad Haji, a leader of the Moppila Muslims, declared Caliphate and issued passports, says Prasanth MP, a journalist based in Kozhikode, adding that even now he is seen as a hero by Kerala's Muslims, both Sunnis and Salafis.
This indicates that the Islamic globalism, a major source of radicalisation among Muslims in contemporary times, existed in Kerala at that time. However, Prasanth MP adds that Kunjahammad Haji did not have direct links to the Ottoman Caliphate, which was nearing its last days in Turkey. Now that these issues are sensitive, even the RSS is forced to be politically correct. For example, to organise an event to mark the 90th anniversary of the Rebellion, the RSS posters mentioned the words "90 Years of Malabar" in 2011, avoiding any reference to "riots" or "rebellion" by Muslims.
In 1992, the Ayodhya issue played a critical role in further radicalisation of Muslims. The recent issues such as the lynching of Muhammad Akhlaq in Dadri over beef consumption and reports of beef served at the Kerala House in New Delhi were exploited electorally by Kerala's politicians, both the Leftist and Muslim leaders. One interesting conversation one comes across in Kerala is this: nowhere in India you will see a Muslim party in power, except perhaps for Hyderabad. For example, in West Bengal the Muslim population is 25 per cent but there is no Muslim party in power. But in Kerala, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a Muslim party owing its lineage to M.A. Jinnah whose movement led to the creation of Pakistan, exercises power and often bargains with the Left and the Congress. This adds to the religious factor in the state. In Kerala, houses have names. In 2011, IUML minister Abdul Rabb was given a government bungalow named Ganga. He felt it was a Hindu name and demanded it to be called Grace.
In the battle of ideas, the issue is this: while the IUML may appear to be secular in approach, various Islamic organisations thrive under its influence. For example, in last Ramzan, mid-day meals provided by the government to school children were stopped in schools in Kozhikode and Malappuram after some Islamic clerics issued a fatwa but IUML leaders could not oppose them, says Kochi-based Advocate Jaysankar. In the past, government buses would run in Malappuram on Muslim occasions like Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Azha, as Muslim drivers would swap duties with Hindu drivers. Similarly, on Onam, Muslim drivers would fill in for their Hindu colleagues. "Now this has changed. No public bus will run on Eid and even Hindus will be forced to close restaurants," says A. Vinod, a school teacher based in Malappuram.
Like all monotheistic religions, Islam creates a separate lifestyle for Muslims. But in Kerala, it is also occupying secular spaces like malls. At the Focus shopping mall in Kozhikode, and also at other malls in the state, there are prayer rooms for Muslims, but no prayer rooms for Hindus and Christians. Additionally, for Muslims, there are separate prayer rooms for males and females. This Islamic encroachment into the secular space of Kerala's public life adds to unease among Hindus. Vinod notes that earlier homes had names in Malayalam, but Muslim houses now have their names in Arabic. In government schools and offices, Muslims offer prayers. A question arises: what if Hindus do pujas? "Some places should be secular spaces," he says, adding that if you go to Tiruchur and Kottayam, Christians are influential, but there is no such overt religiosity. In Western countries, airports have multi-faith prayer rooms, but not separately for Muslims.
The Phenomenon of Mujahid Muslims
In Kerala, one comes across two expressions: Sunni Muslims and Mujahid Muslims. Both belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, but the expression "Sunni Muslim" means a moderate Muslim, perhaps a peasant Muslim, with no hostility to non-Muslims and their lifestyles and religious practices. However, the expression "Mujahid Muslim" means an unarmed radicalised Muslim who advocates piety, detests Indian rituals and lifestyles, and when possible actively opposes them. At Narikunni, 20 kilometres from Kozhikode, Naveen PK opened a Patanjali ayurvedic shop, but posters used for advertising Patanjali products were removed by the neo-Mujahid Muslims. Fewer Muslims now come to his shop, says Naveen, adding however that Mujahid Muslims continue to send their servants to pick up these ayurvedic medicines.
The Mujahid Muslims represent what would be known internationally as the Wahhabi-Salafi version of Islam. Advocate Jaysankar says that at the level of ideas, the Wahhabi movement has existed in Kerala since the 1920s. The Mujahid movement – not a formal organisation but an informal movement of ideas that preaches a puritan version of Islam and opposes Sufi practices at shrines – is mainly propagated by the KNM. It is from their corpus of ideas that grew the radical Islamist group National Development Front (NFD), now known as PFI which has roots in the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), a banned militant group which seceded from the Jamaat-e-Islami. By 1980, the Kerala branch of SIMI had declared slogans such as "destroy nationalism, reinstate caliphate," says Prasanth MP.
Abdul Nasser Madani is a key leader whose name figures in the radicalisation of Muslims. He spent jail terms in the cases of the Coimbatore blasts in 1998 and the Bangalore blasts of 2008. P. Unnikrishnan, a former Vigilance Department officer, notes that after the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992, Kerala witnessed a spurt in further radicalisation, mainly due to fiery speeches by Abdul Nasser Madani. "In 1999, we arrested some youths for radical activities who confessed that they were attending evening classes led by disciples of Madani," he says, adding that the Tamil Nadu-based group Al-Ummah and the NDF, formerly the People's Democratic Party (PDP) launched by Madani, were connected through Madani.
Unnikrishnan argues that the nearly two dozen youths going to the Islamic State is a continuation of existing radicalisation in Kerala. He notes that he had arrested Ayub Ilyas Sabir for radical activities who was granted bail and escaped to Pakistan. At least four youths from Kerala were killed in Kashmir when they were trying to enter, not coming from, Pakistan. Last year, there were two cases of Kerala youths going to the Islamic State. N.P. Balakrishnan, a former police officer, notes that in the 1990s there were many arson attacks on cinemas in Malappuram, which were not concrete buildings, but more like thatched houses. These were the results of fiery speeches delivered by Madani to counter the RSS. Over the years, the PDP transformed into NDF and assimilated some other outfits later into PFI (the Popular Front of India), currently the lead organisation in radical activities.
The PFI seems to be a major group formally active behind a proselytization movement now known as Love Jihad, which may not be an accurate expression but points out a pattern of conversions to Islam in order to marry both by Hindu and Christian women, though once in a rare while exceptions do occur. Much before the phenomenon of Love Jihad attracted newspaper headlines in northern India, it was in Kerala where Christian groups kicked up a storm over the issue. However, predominantly it is the strong communist movement that has engendered a liberal culture of inter-marriages in Kerala, but this liberalism is yielding space to Islamism, thereby adding to the concerns of Hindus over the one-way conversions to Islam involving wedding to Muslims. So many cases of love jihad have landed in courts that this phenomenon is no longer considered a propaganda of the Hindu groups, says Sayeed Muhammad, a noted liberal writer in Malappuram.
Internal Schisms in Kerala's Islam
There are also internal conflicts within Islam in Kerala which reflect the sectarian schisms found in Islam elsewhere in India and abroad. Sayeed Muhammad, author of many books on Islam, says that both Sunni Muslims and the Mujahid Muslims do not consider Ahmadi Muslims and Shias as Muslims. The population of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims is not significant in Kerala. Muslim children's views about them are influenced by Islamic clerics and religious organisations because, he notes, there is no system of comparative religious education in India. Sayeed Muhammad adds that Mujahid Muslims are not big in numbers, but they represent a movement of ideas with overt religiosity such as beards, caps, purdah, preaching and so on.
In Kerala society, while there are tombs of Muslim mystics, there is no Sufi movement to counter the radicalisation of Muslims, but a version of Sufi practices is found among Sunni Muslims. While there might not be formal organisations representing the Barelvis, Wahhabis and Ahle Hadeesis (the more extremist version of Wahhabis) the radicalising ideas filter through the Kerala's Muslim communities. In this context, the murder of Islamic cleric P.K. Muhammad Abdul Hasan Baqavi aka Maulvi Chekannur in 1993 is an important marker on the timeline of radicalisation in Kerala. Maulvi Chekannur had written a book arguing that everyone, including non-Muslims, will go to heaven by the factor of good deeds, not faith per se.
Salim Haji, the uncle of Maulvi Chekannur and president of the Koran Sunnat Society (KSS) which observes his death anniversary as anti-terrorism day on July 29, says that the Maulvi Chekannur's liberal activities provoked orthodox Islamic groups which felt that he was against hadiths, or traditions of Prophet Muhammad. M.S. Rasheed, the vice president of the KSS, adds that Maulvi Chekannur based his writings solely on the basis of the Quran. Salim Haji says that fundamentalist leader Kanchapuram A.P. Aboobacker Musliyar was involved in the killing of Maulvi Chekannur but the government does not arrest the real culprits. The KSS propagates the view that prophets will come and go but only the Quran will remain which should be the foundation of Islamic practices. Both Rasheed and Salim say that they face death threats from fundamentalist groups even now.
Dr. Salahuddin is the emir of Ahmadiyya Jamaat based in Kozhikode. If one were to believe his interpretation of current affairs, there is peace everywhere and Kerala is a paradise. When coaxed to explain some conflicts among Muslims, he does open up saying: "Salafism in Kerala is not the same as Salafism in other countries. They do not support terrorism here, but due to splits in the Salafi movement, some might go the radical way." Asked about the response of Muslims towards Ahmadis, he adds: "There is no problem faced by the community as in Pakistan, but when we go for preaching, there is some opposition based on doctrinal beliefs." There are also occasional reports of Ahmadi Muslims being beaten up in Karnataka and Kerala.
As for Ahmadi Muslims themselves, their beliefs respect spiritual leaders of all communities. "Insofar as Ahmadi Muslim view is concerned, all persons who are held high by a community for centuries they have to be respected by all Muslims. We say Alayhi As-Salaam (peace be upon him) for Buddha, Confucius, Rama and Krishna," Dr. Salahuddin says and stresses that even non-Ahmadi Muslims pray alongside Ahmadis in his mosque. But Ahmadi Muslims are in a minority and persecuted everywhere, and one is left wondering if the current phase in their spiritual life represents the Mecca period of early Islam, purely non-violent.
Apprehension among Hindus of Kerala
An RSS worker based in Thiruvananthapuram, who asked not to be named, rejects the idea that the Hindus should worry. However, he says, "Although there are no cases of open violence, there is apprehension among Hindus." He adds that magazines and newspapers like Madhyamam, which is published by the Jamaat-e-Islami, are radicalising Muslim youngsters. Asked what does radicalisation mean, he says: "Radicalisation means that the Muslims become followers of Political Islam, viewing the necessity of establishing an Islamic state. They are no longer nationalistic. They create hate against the pagan culture of Hindus." He adds: "Radicalisation weans away Muslim youngsters from local society. They are taught to be part of only the Muslim society. It introduces puritan elements. They declare local festivals as un-Islamic."
A move to have a sculpture of Tunjethu Ezhuthachan, the father of Malayalam literature, installed at Tirur, his birthplace, had to be abandoned because the local municipality opposed it under the influence of Muslims. This opposition reveals the same thought process that was behind the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan. A plan by the Kerala government in 2012 to install a statue of the legendary Muslim actor Prem Nazir, who commands a Guinness Book of record for acting in over 700 movies, was opposed by the Kerala Muslim Jamaah Council on religious grounds. On the Cochin University of Science and Technology (Cusat) campus, breasts of a plant figurine had to be pruned after Jamaat-e-Islami became influential in the teachers' organisation. A Thiruvananthapuram-based correspondent of a major daily, who asked not to be named, reminds that a bust of Mahatma Gandhi could not be installed in the nearby union territory of Lakshadweep, which is some three hours from Kochi, due to opposition from Muslims who are in a majority there.
Similar assertions of religious identity by Muslims – which essentially comes at the cost of the syncretic and pagan cultures and practices in Kerala – are behind the Hindu-Muslim unease, if not tensions, in the state. Muslims, who are supported by the communists in the state's politics, are bold and assertive religiously, while a section of Hindus, who are not communists, feel that their lifestyles and traditions are under attack. This boldness even frightens Christians. In 2010 when Prof. T.J. Joseph's hand was chopped off for committing blasphemy of Prophet Muhammad by setting a question paper by the Islamists of the PFI, Christian groups and the Left did not stand by him. M. G. Radhakrishnan, senior editor with Asianet News TV, says the Church was afraid and the Left also feared that by supporting T.J. Joseph it could antagonise Muslims and the Christian-Muslim tensions could grow.
"Marxists are also rationalising Islamic extremism. Marxism suited the poor Kerala but Kerala is no longer poor," notes M.G.S. Narayanan. Once Kerala was poor and ripe for Marxist politics but now Kerala is rich and ripe for green/Islamist politics, adds N.R. Madhu, editor of Kesari, a weekly associated with the RSS. Speaking about Kerala's changing identity, Madhu points out that traditionally Muslims wore Lungis (loose long skirts) and shirts, but now choose Arabian dresses and keep camels. In Muslim-dominated regions like Kozhikode, Malappuram and Kasargod, restaurants advertise Arabic foods. Black Burqa, especially the Saudi version of it, is also a major concern that is reshaping Kerala's identity. Like in other parts of India, more Muslim women are wearing Burqa in the Muslim-dominated northern Kerala. In Malappuram, one comes across a woman wearing a Saree – but with a detachable scarf denoting that she is a Muslim.
Asked if northern Kerala looks like a mini-Pakistan, a major concern raised by Hindu groups, Radhakrishnan responds: "Absolutely not. This is an image of Kerala in northern India." Although he thinks that it is a northern Indian view, yet this view very much prevails right here in Kerala. Hindu-Muslim conflicts are unlikely because Muslims have a lots to lose in the state. There is a concern among non-communist Hindu groups that Islamists dream of Malappuram as another Pakistan. "But it's a dream and it takes a lot of guts," says a policeman, "to dream like that." T.G. Mohandas, a former engineer, points out that Malappuram has a seashore and looks intellectually more to the Arab world than to New Delhi. While versions of history and current events will differ as per narrators, such conversations, including rumours and concerns, the religious communities of Kerala have about each other will be consequential in coming years.
Former BBC journalist Tufail Ahmad is executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif
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