The Kerala Story: Secular Yet Nationalistic and Islamophobic

By: Ashraf Kunnummal

August 14, 2023

India and Islamophobia

The Kerala Story is a Hindi-language drama film released in 2023 and directed by Sudipto Sen. The plot revolves around a group of women from Kerala who are coerced into converting to Islam and joining ISIS. The film claims to be based on a true story and promotes the Hindutva conspiracy theory of "Love Jihad.” Love Jihad is a controversial term, predominantly used in India, referring to a purported campaign by Muslim men to convert non-Muslim women to Islam by pretending to be in love, marrying them, and then forcing them to convert. Contrary to the film's claims, data from the Indian government has refuted the notion that a large number of Keralan women have joined ISIS. Official figures suggest that only a small fraction of Indians, around 100 to 200 individuals, have joined, with even fewer from Kerala.

Despite its commercial success, the film has faced significant criticism, as many have labeled it as Islamophobic propaganda. The film's promotion by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the Karnataka assembly election further intensified the controversy. Consequently, the movie has become entangled in prolonged litigation and protests, primarily in Kerala, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. It is important to note that various government agencies, including the Centre, the Supreme Court, and the National Commission for Women (NCW), have repeatedly dismissed the narrative of Love Jihad. The NCW, for instance, explicitly stated that it does not maintain any data on complaints related to Love Jihad, indicating a lack of empirical basis. However, the film's depiction of this controversial concept aligns with a certain brand of Hindu nationalist ideologies prevalent in India.

The experience of this propaganda in Kerala highlights that the dynamics of community and nationalism play a significant role in shaping the discourse around Love Jihad. The interconnectedness of community affiliation and nationalism shapes the political landscape, embodying historical legacies and power dynamics inherited from the colonial era, as astutely observed in Jocelyne Cesari's We God's People: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in the World of Nations (2021). Therefore, the discussion goes beyond whether Kerala is a secular state or not and delves into how the historical legacy of anti-colonial nationalism and community politics contribute to the politics of Islamophobia in South India.

The discussions surrounding Love Jihad first traveled to Kerala in the early 2000s, specifically from the southern districts of Karnataka. These narratives gained prominence through websites such as Haindava Kerala and Hindu Jagratha Samithi, which are associated with various Hindutva organizations and share stories reinforcing the Love Jihad narrative. The Hindutva-controlled Malayalam language newspaper Janmabhumi also contributed to this discourse by reporting on the arrival of Romeo Jihad in Kerala in 2006, which received significant coverage. The term "Romeo Jihad" emerged as an alternative designation for Love Jihad during the initial stages of Hindutva propaganda. It encompassed expressions like "Mohammedan Romeos," which portrayed Muslim men allegedly engaging in deceitful acts of love with the intention of converting women from different religious backgrounds to Islam. Over time, Love Jihad became firmly entrenched in public discourse. However, these news reports did not become part of the mainstream secular discourse until 2009, when Love Jihad started to be widely discussed in the media.

The emergence of Love Jihad propaganda in Kerala's political landscape can be situated within the broader political context of the region. Kerala's political scene has been largely characterized by the dominance of two major coalitions: the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the Indian National Congress; and the Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]). These coalitions have taken turns in power, influencing governance and policymaking in the state. It is worth noting that the BJP does not possess a substantial presence in Kerala's electoral politics. However, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliated organizations hold a considerable social influence within the state.

Following the victory of the LDF coalition in the 2006 Kerala Legislative Assembly election, the V. S. Achuthanandan ministry assumed power. Within the LDF coalition, the CPI(M) held a dominant position and garnered substantial support from the Hindu Other Backward Classes (OBC) population in Kerala. The success of the LDF government was further strengthened by the endorsement it received from minority Muslim movements, such as the People's Democratic Party (PDP), Indian National League (INL), and Jamaat-e-Islami. Historically, the Muslim minority in Kerala had aligned with the UDF coalition, primarily through their association with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). This political realignment witnessed in Kerala, with the CPI(M)-led LDF coalition gaining support from both the Hindu OBC population and certain Muslim movements, created a dynamic political landscape. Love Jihad propaganda gained traction within this context, serving as a tool for political maneuvering and influencing the perceptions of different religious communities in Kerala.

However, LDF involvement with these Muslim minority movements, perceived as being anti-Hindutva, ignited controversy and invited criticism. The government's coalition with the PDP, INL, and Jamaat-e-Islami was frequently portrayed as a "communal," "fundamentalist," and "Islamist" takeover of politics within the wider discourse of secularism in Kerala. In addition to these ideological concerns, the increased participation of the Muslim minority within the LDF government gave rise to heightened social tensions in Kerala. Issues relating to community representation and equitable distribution of economic and social resources surfaced. This evoked significant apprehension among traditional Hindu and Christian communities in Kerala. Thus, Love Jihad propaganda gained entry into Kerala through various Hindutva organizations.

The popularity of this propaganda in Kerala did not primarily stem from the secular political parties, but rather from the influence of the secular media. During this era, Love Jihad received extensive coverage in two prominent Malayalam newspapers: Malayala Manorama, one of the most widely circulated newspapers across Indian-language media platforms; and Kerala Kaumudi, another influential Malayalam-language daily newspaper originating from Kerala.

Historically, Manorama has shown political support for the Indian National Congress (INC), while Kaumudi has aligned itself with the CPI(M). These affiliations can be traced back to the traditional inclinations of the Christian community towards the INC and the Ezhava community towards the CPI(M). By actively participating in the creation and dissemination of the Love Jihad narrative, Manorama and Kaumudi played pivotal roles in shaping public perception, opinion, and understanding of the phenomenon. Intriguingly, Malayala Manorama disengaged from the Love Jihad campaign in 2012 due to substantial political protests and backlash it faced from various Muslim minority movements and secular political groups in Kerala. However, Kaumudi has continued to exhibit its Hindutva leanings and remains involved in the campaign.

It is important to acknowledge that these media outlets have also been perceived as “secular” entities, even as they advocate for the interests of their respective caste and religious communities with the support of the INC and the CPI(M). Historically, this aspect has posed a challenge to Hindutva politics in Kerala. The politics surrounding the community interests of Hindus and Christians in Kerala frequently intersect with coalition politics, either under the leadership of the LDF or the UDF. These coalitions involve alliances with the CPI(M)-led governments or those led by the INC. The positioning of Hindu and Christian community organizations within secular political platforms does not evoke similar “secular anxieties” compared to the associations of Muslim community organizations with secular political platforms. The paradoxes of community politics and secular politics persist in the discourse surrounding secularism in Kerala. However, the community interests of Hindus and Christians are frequently taken into consideration within these frameworks, which also serve as an anti-BJP political front in Kerala.

The coverage of Love Jihad by Manorama and Kaumudi resonated strongly with specific OBC communities and Christians associated with them in Kerala. Interestingly, the claim of Love Jihad acted as a unifying force for various Hindu and Christian groups in Kerala. Initially, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), an organization representing the Ezhava community (historically classified as a lower caste or a backward community in Kerala); and the Nair Service Society (NSS), representing the upper caste Nair community (with a traditional lineage tracing back to the Shudra varna of the Hindu caste system), were among the primary responders to this campaign. Christian organizations, including the influential Syro-Malabar Church (the second-largest Eastern Catholic Church globally), voiced their disapproval of Love Jihad, actively informing parents and educators about the potential risks of conversion attempts through marriage.

Political and social groups with Hindutva-oriented ideologies, including the BJP and RSS, have acknowledged these dynamics and utilized the Love Jihad campaign as a means to expand their influence within these communities. The BJP has recognized the electoral implications and potential of portraying Muslims as the "other" and appealing to both Hindu and Christian communities, historically aligned with the INC and CPM, in order to make advancements and establish a presence in Kerala. While the BJP may derive political benefits from the campaign, its acceptance and normalization within Kerala society are largely due to the deliberate discursive tactics employed by the secular media, highlighting the challenges of nationalism and secularism in the face of Hindutva. This scenario presents intriguing questions about how a campaign rooted in Hindu nationalist ideology gained traction in a state like Kerala, renowned for its “secular tolerance.”

To address and debunk existing misconceptions, the Kerala government took a proactive step in 2009 by launching an official media campaign to refute the Love Jihad myth and provide more accurate coverage of the reality on the ground.

In 2012, following a comprehensive and protracted two-year investigation into the alleged occurrence of Love Jihad, the Kerala police arrived at the conclusion that the campaign lacked evidence. As a result, a police cyber cell has undertaken measures to address this matter by formally registering a case against the operators of the Hindu Jagruti website. Based on official 2020 data, Hinduism emerged as the primary beneficiary of new conversions in Kerala. Approximately 47% of recorded religious conversions during that one-year period involved individuals embracing Hinduism, converting either from Christianity or Islam. The data further reveals that of the 506 individuals who formally registered their religious conversion with the government, 144 adopted Islam, while 119 embraced Christianity. However, despite these fact-checking efforts, Love Jihad propaganda continued to persist in the Kerala public sphere.

It is worth noting that political parties such as the INC and the CPI(M), which are major secular political entities in Kerala, oppose Love Jihad. However, the myth continues to spread in Kerala through other Christian and lower/upper caste Hindu community organizations such as the Syro-Malabar Church, SNDP, and NSS, as well as influential media houses. Another scenario unfolds where political parties refrain from taking a principled stance against the Hindutva-leaning community organizations mentioned earlier.

Indeed, community politics exploit the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism as an instrument of mobilization, aiming to attain privileges and consolidate power. Meanwhile, political parties frequently resort to superficial references to secular ideals, primarily motivated by electoral advantages. This combination ultimately magnifies the influence of Love Jihad within Kerala's society and political landscape, contributing to the marginalization of the state's largest religious minority: Muslims.

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