Bread and butter, not religion
Local issues are top of the mind in Kerala’s only Muslim-majority district
PHarris sells fish by the highway at Trikkannapuram, trying to lure speeding vehicles by flashing his latest catch at them. The 35-year-old was a construction labourer until recession hit the industry, rendering him jobless almost a year ago. “Life has never been so bad. It has become so difficult to feed my wife and three children even one meal a day,” he says. His eyes gleam only when asked about the forthcoming General Elections. “I hope some candidates will give us money.”
Malappuram is Kerala’s only Muslim-majority district whose 16 Assembly constituencies and two Lok Sabha seats have been traditionally monopolised by the Muslim League, the second-largest constituent in the ruling United Democratic Front ( UDF). Muslims form Kerala’s largest minority— 24 per cent of the state’s 33 million population. Though it remains Kerala’s economic and social backyard, it accounts for more than 20 per cent of NRI remittances, which totalled Rs 65,000 crore in 2013. The petro prosperity is evident from swanky shopping malls, restaurants that sell “genuine Arab food”, fancy houses, newly built roads, schools, and private hospitals dotting the district. However, the boom co-exists starkly with inequality and poverty for people such as Harris. Malappuram is also the hub of emerging Muslim fundamentalist organisations.
With elections nearing, the anxiety level of the region’s elite is rising in proportion. “I wish BJP fielded a less fundamentalist leader such as L.K. Advani,” says Dr Mujib Rehman, a surgeon at Valanchery who is also secretary of the Muslim Educational Society ( MES). The League’s dominance has helped Rahul Gandhi emerge as the most popular prime ministerial candidate here. But there are doubters too.
“I wish BJP had fielded a less fundamentalist leader, such as L.K. Advani.” MUJIB REHMAN Doctor
“I doubt if he can stand up to strong contenders like Modi. He also has to prove his pro-growth credentials unlike Modi,” says P. Thabsheera, a second year BSc student at MES’s college at Valanchery. But the older generation, more focused on their own problems than national issues, still swears by the League. “Ever since my late husband told me to vote for them, I’ve stamped only for koni (ladder, the League’s symbol),” says K. Kunjeema, 84. Perhaps the last word is the most surprising. “Modi and BJP in power may be more moderate than they are in Opposition. So let’s try them out too,” says Abdulla Bakhavi, 65, imam at the 500-year-old Makhdoom Masjid in Ponnani.