THE RELEASE OF THE FILM The Kerala Story has raised as shrill a debate as the one over The Kashmir Files and again demonstrated that the freedom of speech argument can cut both ways, testing the capacity of partisans to accept differing points of view. If in the past films that provoked rightwing ire saw public declarations of going to the theatres in solidarity—the same set is slamming The Kerala Story as propaganda and calumny. Social media and even mainstream media are bubbling over with outrage on the one hand and a sense of vindication on the other.
Given the film’s subject, which draws its theme from the activities of radical outfits like the banned Popular Front of India (PFI) and controversial preacher Zakir Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation aimed at luring non-Muslims to convert to Islam, it is hardly a surprise that The Kerala Story has quickly become part of the political discourse. Some Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states made the film tax-free. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath met the production team and is expected to see the film with his ministerial colleagues. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee banned the film in the state on the grounds that its screening could be detrimental to harmony and law and order.
The film meanwhile opened to a creditable `8 crore earnings on its first day and raked in more than `45 crore in four days. The initial discussion on the film centred on the claim, which has since been retracted, that some 32,000 Hindu and Christian girls were converted to Islam and ended up as Islamic State (IS) recruits. The film’s makers said the claim was based on a former Kerala chief minister’s statement in the state Assembly. Several commentators challenged the computation but despite the duelling over numbers, the debate rages. BJP leaders called on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to reveal the “correct” number of IS recruits from the state in response to the CPM leader denouncing the film as Sangh propaganda. A polarising discussion is set to become even more heated as The Kerala Story becomes a lightning rod for contending political ideologies.
The plot is based on the story of four women from Kerala who converted to Islam and married Muslims (in some cases, the husbands were themselves converts), and travelled to Afghanistan to participate in the jihad launched by IS. They ended up in a jail in Afghanistan where they were interviewed by a National Investigation Agency (NIA) team which found them to be heavily radicalised. They had not anticipated the levels of violence they witnessed but remained wedded to the IS ideology even after their husbands’ deaths. As far as this account goes, the stories are based on real-life cases. The operational aspects of the “conversions”, which typically involve friends, colleagues, hostel or college mates, and acquaintances speaking of the truly egalitarian and liberating nature of their faith, introduction to persons working for so-called charitable trusts linked to organisations like PFI, formal acceptance of a new religious identity and, often enough, marriage to a co-religionist have been well documented by NIA and Kerala police. Were these cases of love jihad? Theindividuals were certainly targeted for conversion in an organised manner and, often enough, lost contact with their families.
The numbers vary, but NIA cases and news reports point to some 50-odd cases of Indian nationals from Kerala having left the country to join IS. Most of these individuals were Muslims and they were radicalised by networks promoting IS ideology, urging the faithful to fight in Syria. In some cases, married couples and young children left India, and are missing. In other instances, there are reports of individuals being killed in the fighting in Syria. The children, some as young as two, are reported missing. The investigation by NIA followed families reporting the missing persons, many of whom were subsequently charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). In other instances, closer cooperation between India and the Gulf countries saw individuals being deported to India due to extremist activities. NIA has regularly busted Kerala-based modules planning terrorist activities like the Kanakamala case, where a group called Ansar-ul-Khalifa was planning attacks in the state and in Tamil Nadu. While The Kerala Story discussion centres on the activities of individuals and entities that seek to convert people (in this case, women) from other faiths to Islam, the state has been the hotbed of radical leaders and outfits, the latest being PFI which gained a higher profile than its predecessors.
The debate on The Kerala Story, though, is not really about the ‘facts’ of the case or the presence of radical organisations in Kerala. It is not that if the film’s makers had not made a claim about 32,000 women, its detractors would have dropped their objections. Rather, critics have argued that the film vitiates the state’s otherwise serene traditions of comity and defames a community. The political debate, however, did not start with the film. In 2006, the Kerala Assembly passed a resolution calling for the release of hardline Muslim preacher Abdul Nasser Madani, known for his communally charged speeches and an accused in the 1998 Coimbatore blasts case. (He was later discharged, but 53 co-accused were convicted.) Interestingly, earlier this year, a senior CPM leader sought “humanitarian” treatment for Madani who is in jail in Karnataka in connection with the 2008 Bengaluru serial blasts case. BJP has consistently attacked both CPM and Congress for “appeasement” politics and for allowing organisations like PFI and its clones to grow despite being aware of the danger they posed. It is true that senior CPM and Congress leaders have spoken of the threat posed by PFI. The Kerala government fully cooperated with the recent crackdown by the Centre on PFI, but its record on curbing the organisation has most parties involved looking the other way.
The politics over the film ties in with BJP’s advocacy of laws against love jihad with some states, where it is in office, adopting such legislation. There are “anti-conversion” laws that make it mandatory for a person changing her faith to report the matter to a magistrate. The more unapologetic approach to religio-cultural issues is based on the assessment that there is a greater public receptivity than was the case. The argument favouring such interventions is that provocative actions by radical groups sour inter-community relations and disturb social harmony. The other side, comprising BJP’s opponents and the Left-leaning intelligentsia, sees this as a bid to target and demonise Muslims as a whole. The frequently reported actions of radical organisations—all share hardline religious beliefs—are an undeniable fact. It is true that this has given rise to hatemongers claiming to represent “Hindu” interests. But The Kerala Story, irrespective of how it is regarded, brings to the fore a much-needed conversation that, despite its raucous notes, might bring about a better recognition of schisms and the sources of discord in society.