Muslims in India’s most literate state are politically empowered and financially prosperous, yet easy targets for jihadi head hunters, including the ISIS
When the UAE deported four young men back to India for suspected ties with the Islamic State (IS), the immediate response from Muslim organisations in the southern state of Kerala was that it was a knee-jerk reaction. “After all, all these Middle Eastern countries are scared of the IS. Maybe they were over-reacting,” says a senior police officer based in Thiruvananthapuram who adds that “radical Muslim outfits here have always had global ties”. Requesting anonymity, he says, “There are indications that the high incidence of smuggling gold into Kerala could well be one way that funds are allocated by their financiers abroad.”
An intelligence official in Delhi blames it on the “ineffectiveness” of the state police to track the “link between gold smuggling and terrorism.” But even after security forces busted a huge gold-smuggling racket at Cochin International Airport in July, the Customs Department had rejected any link between the racket and jihadi groups. A customs officer had said in a statement that the focus of investigation was only on smuggling and related economic offences. Officials had arrested a Kerala constable who worked on deputation as an immigration official at Cochin International Airport for allegedly facilitating the smuggling of the metal.
“It is money that is one of the big attractions for many young people to join the ranks of radical Muslim groups that are flush with funds. It has helped these groups spread the word of jihad and Islamist rule. Whoever grows in that environment gets attracted to Salafism and the idea of monotheist rule that Islamic State promises,” states a former senior police officer who has done a lot of research on the roots of communal conflicts in Kerala, which, lately, has seen a rapid growth of Islamist groups amid what scholars such as Mohiyuddin Nadukkandiyil Karassery, popularly known as MN Karassery, call a “perverse assertion” of Muslim identity.
Young people from Kerala landing up in IS camps in Syria and Iraq or falling under the spell of the dreaded jihadi group through social media networks doesn’t surprise Karassery one bit. He says the Jamaat-e-Islami has provided the “theoretical base” for the rise of Islamism in Kerala since the late 1940s masquerading as a social organisation and by co-opting Leftist intellectuals to champion their thoughts in the garb of fighting ‘imperialist forces’. According to a report in The Indian Express, one person from Kerala, named Riyaz, was instrumental in bringing together members of the group sent back by the UAE and in indoctrinating them with IS ideology.
Historian MGS Narayanan, in an earlier interview with this correspondent, has observed that the “indoctrination of Muslim youths in Kerala follows a pattern”. According to him, “Labourers and others who go to the Gulf get into this trap, and once indoctrinated, they return committed to the cause of Islam, ready to devote money or energy to what they call religious activities.”
Kerala is a recruiting ground for Islamist groups. For a state that is India’s most literate and where Muslims are socially, financially and politically much better off than members of the community in other states, this is an odd phenomenon. Interestingly, the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s former representative in south India, Thadiyantavide Nazeer, hails from the northern district of Kannur. Nazeer and his men were accused of recruiting youths from across Kerala for the LeT. Though Left intellectuals and mainstream political parties have repeatedly rubbished the ‘idea’ that it was Jamaat-e-Islami that has fathered radicalism in post-Independence Kerala using ‘secular means’— such as organising literary events for all communities, championing the cause of the underprivileged and so on—to establish their presence in the state, Hameed Chennamangalur, a critic of Muslim identity politics, says that such outfits have invaded the intellectual space through the use of media and “sheer cunning”.
“Their media organisations—such as Madhyamam (a print media group) and Media One (a TV channel) pay so-called intellectuals a relatively hefty fee for their contributions. So very few intellectuals speak out against the owner of these media groups. Or the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has over the decades radicalised Muslim youths of the state through meticulous teachings of Abul A’la Maududi and Hassan al-Banna, who are divisive and purveyors of monotheism and the Muslim nation theory,” argues Karassery, another vehement critic of Islamists.
For his part, Chennamangalur doesn’t discount the “jealousy factor”. Some five decades ago, Muslims in the state were mostly poor and rose to affluence thanks to the Gulf boom that started in the 1970s. “That is one reason why Muslims are reviled by a section of Hindus and other communities. And the demolition of the Babri Masjid gave an impetus to the growth of radical parties in the state,” he opines. Several Left intellectuals warn against reading too much into the radicalisation among Muslims in the state, arguing that social, economic and political empowerment has made them more assertive, prompting them to flaunt their identity. “Wearing burkhas and skullcaps should be seen in that context, and that should not be seen as a dangerous trend,” says MG Radhakrishnan, senior journalist and editor of TV news channel Asianet. Jamaat-e-Islami clerics weren’t available for comment.
However, the former senior police officer says that “the burkha revolution” in Kerala has more to it than what meets the eye. “It isn’t just reflective of the affluence of Muslims here, but also of the changes taking place within the community that is resulting in their alienation from the rest of society.” MGS Narayanan, former chairman of the ICHR, says that madrassas mushrooming in Kerala are proof that Muslim groups are bent upon building a wall against other religions among children.
PFI leader EM Abdurahman has often dismissed such designs as false. According to him, such anti-Muslim propaganda is the creation of right-wing elements who are jealous of the prosperity of Muslims in Kerala, where the Muslim League, as part of the Congress-led UDF, has considerable political clout, much to the anguish of other Congress allies.
While Left intellectuals have routinely fallen back on the argument that Islamic extremism is a by-product of the Babri Masjid demolition, Karassery notes that it was the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that stirred the post-Independence rise of Islamism in the state. Some scholars have gone to the extent of locating the roots of Islamism in the late 15th century, when the Calicut king Zamorin awarded trading rights to Vasco da Gama—something that angered Arab traders who had a monopoly on Western trade with Kerala.
“Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Jamaat-e-Islami began to aggressively preach among young Muslims in Kerala that it was time for an Islamic state along the lines of Iran in India. Many young people were swayed by it. Then, the organisation zealously propagated the myth of monotheism among the state’s Muslims. That is when the radicalisation of Kerala Muslims became deeper. And it is such preachings that sowed the seeds of further alienation of Muslims from other communities and led to their attraction towards global jihad,” he says. In the 1990s, communal rhetoric was revived by Abdul Nazer Mahdani.
Karassery also lashes out at Left parties such as the CPM and self- confessed Left intellectuals for “selling their soul” to the Jamaat-e-Islami. “Most of them are known for their duplicity. They raise a voice against the killings of MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, all critics of Hindutva politics. And rightly so. But most of them are even now silent about the killing of Chekannur Maulavi at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists,” he avers. Chekannur Maulavi, a progressive Islamic scholar, had incurred the wrath of fundamentalists over his contrarian interpretation of the Qur’an. Equally tepid was the reaction of political parties such as the CPM and Congress when PFI activists chopped the wrist of TJ Joseph, a professor in Thodupuzha, on charges of blasphemy. Commentators called it a “Taliban-style” assault. The PFI is a confederation of Muslim groups across the country that has set up a body to resolve civil disputes. Parties such as the CPM had initially backed organisations like National Development Front (the earlier avatar of PFI) as a ploy to politically corner its rival Muslim League, a relatively secular entity back then. The growth of such Islamist groups and their infiltration into the League over the past two decades has resulted in much social disequilibrium in northern Kerala. “Whether Left liberals like it or not, there has been a rapid rise in recruitment to jihadist groups from Kerala. It is surprising that such a development should happen from a state where Muslims are hardly discriminated against. It is perhaps the only peaceful state where Muslims are powerful even politically,” says a state minister, asking not to be named. He concedes that in the name of battling Hindutva forces, mainstream parties have swept under the carpet the threat of Islamism in the state. “We cannot ignore it anymore,” he says.
AP Aboobacker Musliyar aka Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmad, Islamic scholar and general secretary of the All India Sunni Jam-e-yyathul Ulema, dismisses such observations, saying, “I will give value to a perception only when it’s backed by solid evidence. The law enforcement agencies of the country have not raised any such claims.” In fact, in 2012, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while addressing senior policemen, had listed Kerala along with the likes of J&K and Assam as states seeing a spurt in religious extremism. Several intelligence officers that Open spoke to say that Kerala turning into a recruiting ground for Islamists has surprised them. Musliyar concedes that the “post-Babri Masjid demolition scenario” made space for outfits such as the PFI to grow. “Indian Muslims have vehemently rejected PFI-type minority politics. Muslims do not look up to their emotional and hyperbolic rhetoric to do politics here. We have plenty of options available within the framework of the Constitution to meet our demands,” he says. Like him, various Islamic scholars in the state and others contend that the fear over Muslim population growth in the state is misplaced. “Population growth is not spurred by religious zeal. It happens as a result of many social and economic reasons,” he says.
The rise in Muslim population in the state over the past two decades had happened at a time when Muslims have become more prosperous and politically powerful. While the Hindu population rose by a mere 2.23 per cent and Christian population by a mere 1.38 per cent, the number of Muslims in the state rose by 12.84 per cent between 2001 and 2011. This rate of growth of the Muslim population during the decade was higher than in the previous one, unlike the growth in the national population of Muslims which had slowed over the period 2001 to 2011 compared with 1991 to 2001.
“This high growth and importance of Muslims in politics, besides the flaunting of their religious identity, has lately led to a rise in a certain awareness of their own identity among the Hindus of Kerala,” says a senior Congress leader, who adds that this would result in the BJP reaping political dividends in next year’s state polls. “The obscene parading of religious identity, such as wearing burkhas in Kerala’s scorching heat, is a ridiculous thing to do. And the practice of medieval norms is triggering widespread anger and alienation,” says Karassery.
In Kerala recently, a non-resident Malayalee Muslim sent his 21-year-old wife a ‘triple talaq’ message from Dubai on WhatsApp. “There are liberals who justify everything that Muslims do and call those who point out hypocrisies done in the name of religion ‘Islamophobes’,” says Karassery.
The influence of Maududi and Hassan al-Banna in Kerala, home to the first mosque ever built in India, is much more than one can imagine, he adds. “Which was why it is easy for organisations such as LeT and Al-Qaeda and others to indoctrinate youths easily. That is the same reason why nobody would be surprised to see more news of IS influence among Malayalee Muslim youths,” says the former senior police officer.
It was cable TV that triggered radicalisation among Kerala’s Muslims when the US invaded Iraq first in 1990 and then in 2002. Looks like many of Kerala’s Muslim youths are now ready to be wooed by the masterful command of social media platforms by the IS which uses jihadi video games, Hollywood thriller-like videos and similar digital campaigns.