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

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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).

EyesWideOpen / Getty Images

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.

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