Fear and rumour in Kerala
In the Indian state of Kerala, poor Muslims are accused of being under the influence of ISIL by nationalist Hindu groups intent on fomenting communal strife. Aritra Bhattacharya reports
Twenty-one youths from the Indian state of Kerala have left the country to join ISIL over the past year. That was the sensational headline picked up recently by a number of international publications based on local media reports and briefings from national intelligence agencies.
None of these cases have been confirmed however, and according to the Indian government, ISIL does not pose a major threat to the country. Despite this, Muslim organisations investigating cases of discrimination against Muslims and Dalits (members of the lowest caste) have been placed under surveillance, according to activists, academics and journalists from Kerala. They believe the threat of ISIL is being used by right-wing Hindu groups and some state agencies to harass poor Muslim families and organisations.
Last August, Sheena Farzana, a 40-year-old Muslim in Kerala’s Palakkad district, opened her doors to a Hindu girl from the neighbouring district. The girl was in a relationship with a boy from Farzana’s village, and, she claims, was looking for a place to stay overnight as it was too late for her to return home.
Within days, police filed a report alleging Farzana was working for ISIL and trying to convert Hindu girls to Islam. Media reports stated that Farzana had taken her to Islamic classes and that she also tried to recruit the girl to fight for the ISIL terrorist organisation in Yemen.
Hindu vigilante groups affiliated with the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement demanded action and Farzana was detained, spending a month in jail while police investigated the case and her husband tried to secure her release.
The National Investigation Agency (Nia) – India’s major anti-terrorism agency – took over the case but stated in court that there was no proof of Farzana’s involvement with ISIL. Farzana was released on bail after 28 days in jail. But now, as the case drags on in court, she is fighting another battle – a society which has condemned her as a “traitor”.
Cases like Farzana’s, where poor Muslims are falsely accused of being under ISIL influence and then forced to spend months in jail, have become increasingly common in Kerala in the past couple of years, say academics and activists. “Right-wing Hindu groups and sections of the intelligence department are deliberately spreading false stories, engaging in scaremongering around ISIL, to keep up the atmosphere of Islamophobia,” says Prof P Koya, general secretary of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO), based in Delhi.
Since the late 1980s, the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and its ideological parent the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have been stirring up anti-Muslim rhetoric. Although those now in prominent positions of power, like prime minister Narendra Modi, have abandoned the rhetoric of religion for economic development, those in the lower echelons of the party continue to base their politics on an anti-Muslim card. Several of the party’s J Devika researcher and teacher at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram leaders have been accused of inciting communal violence.
“The discourse of terrorism – of Muslims being a threat of national security – came into use in India after 9/11, more so after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Then, any group that tried to organise Muslims or raise rights issues was branded a Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi) activist. Later, this changed to Indian Mujahideen (IM), and now ISIL,” says Bobby Kunhu, a human rights lawyer based in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram. Both Simi and IM were declared terrorist organisations by the Indian government at different stages.
Several families and individuals from Kerala who have moved to Syria, Iran and the Arabian Gulf states in search of work have also been affected by accusations of extremist affiliations. Reny Ayline, national secretary of NCHRO and a journalist, has met with people and families affected. He mentions one case in which a doctor’s family travelled to Iran in search of a better life. Within a few days of their departure, the local media started carrying reports of them having joined the terrorist group ISIL.
“They got in touch with the family after a couple of weeks, by which time news of their having ‘joined ISIL’ was rife. They were helpless – despite days of searching, they had found neither jobs or a place to live and were also short on money. Meanwhile, back home, their reputation was in tatters,” says Ayline.
“The threat of ISIL is being used to stereotype the Muslim poor and present the community as a threat to the nation’s security,” says feminist researcher and political commentator J Devika, who teaches at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. What happened to a government-recognised school shows how such stereotyping is happening. In August, the media reported that the Peace International School in Kochi was being monitored as a suspected ISIL recruitment ground. The founder of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), MM Akbar, and a teacher from Kasargod district, were accused of working for ISIL. The police registered a case against the school. Under attack from Hindu vigilante groups affiliated to the RSS, the school was shut and it is believed MM Akbar fled the country, fearing arrest.
Imran Khan, a Bangalore-based journalist who has reported on terror cases, says that when Indian youths are confirmed to have joined ISIL, there is a pattern.
“They are mostly kids from broken families, well-educated, socially-reclusive but highly active on social media, where all the ISIS propaganda is. The internet plays a very important role in ISIS recruitments,” says Khan. Devika from the Centre for Development Studies agrees. “Some individuals or small group of friends may be influenced by their propaganda but that is no reason to unleash the security state on a segment of the population and its organisations,” she says.
Khan says: “My sources in the intelligence department tell me mosques in Kerala are under watch; the moment they hear someone talking of justice during prayers or casual conversations, they start following the person.” KP Sasi, documentary filmmaker and activist, says: “Muslims have been making money in Kerala since a long time. The state had a very strong and wealthy Muslim trading community since before the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498. They played a key role in the Hindu kingdom too.”
Kerala accounts for the highest share of remittances in India today. A September 2016 Western Union study showed 25 to 30 per cent of India’s US$69 billion (Dh253 billion) remittances were sent there the previous year.
Although several influential and wealthy businessmen come from the state, the largest chunk of remittances go to poor families, for whom a job in the Gulf is often the only chance to escape poverty.
In the past six months or so, as war continues in Syria and allegations of ISIL connections are blamed on migrants from the state, several women from poor families have journeyed to the ravaged country to work as nurses. Others have gone to Iraq and Yemen to work in the construction sector.
Clearly, for some such families, there isn’t much of a choice between being labelled a security threat and the chance to be better off.
The threat of ISIL is being used to stereotype the Muslim poor and present the community as a threat to the nation’s security.
Aritra Bhattacharya is chief reporter for The Statesman (Mumbai).
Kovalam Beach near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital, is the idyllic setting for Vizhinjam mosque, but all is not well in India with some Muslims being accused of extremist sympathies.