Kerala election: God’s own country is discarding centuries of religious harmony to become like the rest of India

Kerala’s syncretic society may be under threat.
Kerala’s syncretic society may be under threat.
Image: Reuters/Babu
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Kodungallur is a bustling temple town of 94,000 at the mouth of River Periyar in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

It is believed that, till around 675 years ago, this was the site of Muziris, an ancient port city that was the funnel through which Islam, Judaism, and Christianity entered South Asia. For centuries, it was also a Buddhist pilgrimage centre. Muziris was wiped out in a cataclysmic flooding of the Periyar in 1341 .

However, vestiges of such a remarkable past are alive here: Muslim households carry Hindu names, Hindu festivals are ritually linked to non-Hindu entities and Christians follow Hindu traditions.

But this syncretism that has defined Kodungallur, and indeed much of Kerala, is at risk of being torn apart by widening religious schisms in the state. These divisions, accentuated by hardening identity politics, could even influence the results of the Kerala state assembly elections scheduled for May 16.

While religion has played a behind-the-screen role in alliances and candidate-selection during past elections, its growing clout in the current election cycle seems unprecedented.

Ruled alternatively by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Marxist-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) since 1957, Kerala has managed to provide its population of 33.3 million an enviable level of social development, surpassing much of India. It has consistently topped the chart in almost all indicators of human development index including education, income equality, healthcare, and women’s empowerment.

Kerala’s political parties have also achieved another feat: Keeping prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) off their turf.

But this election may change things. The BJP, which has conspicuously stayed off religion and associated subjects in its campaign, may—like in the rest of India—turn out to be the biggest beneficiary of Kerala’s widening social chasms. Indications are that the party will send its first elected representative to the state assembly this time.

In Kodungallur, some residents are clearly nervous.

Peaking “devotion”

“We feel people are drifting apart in the name of religion,” said Father Jose Frank, a Catholic priest who lives at Kodungallur’s revered St Thomas Shrine. This shrine is a monument to the first-ever church believed to have been established in south Asia after St Thomas arrived here in 52 CE, marking the advent of Christianity in India.

Today, Christians form around 18% of Kerala’s population, the third biggest religious community after Hindus and Muslims.

“There is a strong fanatic movement among Christians,” the senior member of the clergy revealed. “I have had people come up to me and confess that they ate Aravana (a delicious pudding pilgrims bring back from the Sabarimala temple). There are those who think Bharatanatyam ought to be shunned because it is related to the Hindus. I fear this situation will worsen in Kerala.”

The elderly, soft-spoken, but no-nonsense priest points at the increasingly grandiose new churches to further his argument.

In fact, a 250-km journey through Kerala’s spine revealed something of a revolution underway among all religions. Old temples are being rigorously refurbished and snazzy mosques are under construction.

But why?

Leaders of each community point at the others.

Temple revival is simply a manifestation of Hindus returning to their roots, explained G Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of the Nair Service Society (NSS), an organisation working for the Hindu Nair community that forms 14% of Kerala’s population. The NSS is traditionally known to back the Congress party. “Temple renovations do not imply any Hindu consolidation,” he said.

New mosques, though, are entirely another matter. “Among Muslims it is a case of assertion of identity,” Nair said.

Some of these new mosques, it is alleged, are a result of Arab funds pouring into the state. A conservative strain of Islam is seen to be taking root here through places of worship, educational institutions, and other organisations that have direct links with donors in the Middle East. Kerala, after all, is known for its diaspora in the Gulf countries, bringing in remittances of over Rs1 lakh crore ($15 billion) in 2015.

However, that’s a hypothesis Panakkad Hyderali Shihab Thangal, a senior leader of the Congress-allied Indian Union Muslim League party, refuses to buy. “Centuries ago, Ponnani (in Malappuram district) had one of the most number of mosques. People weren’t frequenting Saudi Arabia then,” he said. “Hindus are renovating temples in a big way. Is it because Modi visited Arab countries?”

Religion and politics

If these grass-root changes aren’t proof enough of creeping fundamentalism, Kerala has also witnessed violence in the name of religion, and even instances of terrorist activities in recent years. In the past few years, media organisations have come under attack and scholars have been threatened into silence by religious fanatics of all hues.

In 2010, a Christian professor of Malayalam language had his arms chopped off by a radical Muslim outfit, Popular Front of India, for allegedly insulting Prophet Mohammed. It has also emerged that the south India commander and chief recruiter of the dreaded Lashkar-e-Taiba is from Kerala.

To be sure, political violence is not new to Kerala. For many years, Marxists and functionaries of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, have indulged in deadly violence against each other way too often.

But the religious violence of recent years is a new addition to that deadly cocktail.

M Pradeep Kumar, secretary of Kannur-based Kerala Folklore Akademi, an independent centre for cultural affairs, surmises that this is because the youth are increasingly depoliticised. “When political awareness recedes, religious and caste feelings surge. People are being convinced that what is needed is not ideology but religious fervour,” Kumar said.

Indeed, for long, ideology has been the sheet anchor of Kerala’s society. Entire generations have been bred on the two chief streams of political thought: anti-feudalism as represented by the Leftists, and nationalism espoused by the Congress. These ideologies seeped into student union levels, weaning legions of leaders in schools and colleges.

But there’s also been a change in Kerala’s education sector, dominated for decades by government-run institutions.

“When public education was strong, students from all sections of society would attend these schools,” said M B Rajesh, a Communist Party of India-Marxist parliamentarian from Palakkad.

With the state’s gradual withdrawal, he said, education is now moving into the hands of institutions run by caste and religioun-based organisations. “Today, you can identify the character of the institutions by their name. Each caste, each religion has its own school or college,” Rajesh said.

Minority appeasement

Given the situation, the ground seems fertile for the mainstreaming of radical religion in the state. And that may already be happening. ”There are places where anonymous persons have put up posters that simply put out statistics like ‘54% are Hindus, 24% are Christians and 11% are Muslims. So who should rule?’ The intent is very clear,” Nair of NSS said.

When asked to name the suspects, he replied: “People who are indulging in such divisions are related to those ruling the country.” The allusion to the BJP is clear.

The BJP itself hasn’t waded into issues of religion and community. Rarely has any top party leader—be it veteran O Rajagopal or the party’s state chief Kummanam Rajasekharan—uttered anything on these lines.

Instead, it is organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Hindu Aikya Vedi (HAV) that are harping on subjects—through their polemical diatribes—that BJP leaders elsewhere have developed a reputation for. Some of the favoured topics among HAV speakers during public speeches include “beef”, “conversions”, and “love-jihad.” These are not issues that would’ve made an appearance in election hustings even a decade ago.

When asked about HAV’s divisive rhetoric, Rajasekharan, who himself was once HAV’s general secretary, made his stand clear: “Beef is not an issue in Kerala… Hindutva is not an issue… Development and the concept of development are the issues. Why should the BJP comment on the Hindu Aikya Vedi? Any move to disturb communal and religious harmony will be opposed by the BJP.”

But the BJP won’t condemn the fringe group. ”Why are you naming only the Hindu Aikya Vedi?” Rajasekharan retorted. “It could be the Congress or the Communist party, too.”

Some even feel that Kerala’s Hindus have a right to be angry. ”If social justice was implemented here, we wouldn’t have any of these (communal) problems,” said Vellappally Natesan, secretary-general of the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam. According to him, the UDF and LDF’s only stratagem to gain power has been appeasement of minorities. “All authority and assets are being channelized towards the minorities. Nobody wants the majority community of Kerala,” he said.

The SNDP works for the welfare of the Ezhava caste, which forms 23% of the state’s population.

Natesan is also the founder of a party called the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), which has aligned with the National Democratic Alliance led by Modi’s BJP. Asked if there was unrest among Hindus, he said, “Definitely. That is why the BJP has gained a foothold in Kerala. Appeasing the minorities is torturing the majority.”

His view is clear: The state’s two main political groupings—UDF and LDF—have had an active role in polarising people.

A different world, a receding world

Some time back, authorities at the Thirumandhamkunnu temple near Palakkad’s Cherpulassery town—around 100km north of Kodungallur—wanted an entrance arch built. The person they approached was one Kalathinkal Mohammed, a building contractor born and raised in the locality, and an ardent devotee of the presiding goddess.

The officials offered to inscribe Mohammed’s name on the structure. That was two years ago.

Today, a simple entrance arch and wall enclose the temple complex. There are no names inscribed because Mohammed shunned the idea. “The temple is a public place of worship. An individual’s name has no relevance there,” Mohammed, 78, said, bogged down by asthma.

As his wife, Pathumma, rattled out details of all temple festivals in the neighbourhood, I asked Mohammed: “Are people in his neighbourhood moving apart over religion?”

“Son,” he said teary-eyed, “People within the family are moving apart. Communities staying together is a huge ask.”

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