Gulf money fueling Muslim extremism in Kerala; IUML grows more militant to take on other radical islamist parties
Kerala's Muslims have prospered largely thanks to the Gulf Boom, but over the past four decades the phenomenon has also led to an apparent spurt in extremist tendencies among the minority community, throwing up yet another paradox in a state known for paradoxes.
Every time the chief Muslim party, Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), flexes its political muscles and seeks more representation in the Congress-led government, the focus shifts to 'radical Islam'. None other than the state Congress president, Ramesh Chennithala, recently accused the recalcitrant ally of being a "liability".
The IUML, which has 20 MLAs and five ministers in the 140-member assembly, has often come under attack - even from defence minister AK Antony - for using its "bargaining power" in a minority government to secure ministerial and other administrative perks. The party has come under sharp criticism for nominating a former long-time security guard of industries minister and IUML leader P K Kunhalikutty as the regional passport officer of Malappuram - the CBI has initiated a probe into irregularities in issuing passports by this former gunman, K Abdul Rasheed, whose "out of turn" appointment itself had generated controversy. It has also been demanding bifurcation of the Muslim majority district of Malappuram to gain an additional Lok Sabha seat in the 2014 general elections.
Gone are the days
The IUML, according to renowned historian MGS Narayanan, who was a chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), used to be a "relatively secular party like the Congress". Lately, however, he says, it has been trying to outwit radical elements such as the Popular Front of India (PFI) through its constant "pro-Muslim posturing", and in the process contributing to polarisation along communal lines in the country's most literate state. The state's self-government department, held by IUML, had issued a circular that legalised marriages of Muslim women in the age group of 16 to 18 and men below 21. In the face of protests, the circular was amended.
Last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had listed Kerala - a state that economists such as Professor Amartya Sen and others have used as a case study to highlight the paradox of high social indicators despite low growth - along with the likes of J&K and Assam that are seeing a spurt in extremist religious fervour.
A major chunk of the estimated 60,000 crore in remittances that Kerala receives is contributed by Muslim migrants and Malappuram tops the list of beneficiaries among all its 14 districts. The Muslims, who form more than a quarter of Kerala's total population, are not only more economically advanced but also politically more powerful compared with the Muslims in the other states. Among all communities in the state, only Muslims have positive population growth - something that has prompted the Church to discreetly encourage more than two children per family.
Narayanan contends that "indoctrination of Muslim youths follows a pattern". "These 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 spend money or devote time and energy into what they call religious activities," he says, emphasising that Hindu organisations, too, are flush with funds from overseas donors.now
"Saudi" money, love jihad
The real problem now, says a senior state police officer, is the growing "extremist" tendencies among Muslim youths. "It is leading to a major law-and-order situation in the state known for its progressive edge," he adds, asking not to be named.
Narayanan points out, "Both - Hindu extremist and Islamic fundamentalism - grow on each other." Emphasising that "madrassas are mushrooming and are the breeding grounds for potential jihadis", he says such childhood training results in a person building a wall against other religions.
Even as various Islamist recruits have been charged with wooing girls from other religions in an effort to convert them, senior PFI leader EM Abdurahman dismisses charges of "love jihad" "It is absolutely false and it is just a creation of rightwing elements," he says. "Muslims are now aware of their identity and are proud of it. Unfortunately, this prosperity has invited jealously from right-wing sections and vested interests," he said.
In certain pockets in north Kerala, CPM cadres have joined hands with those in the BJP to take on what they call "threat from Islamist forces such as PFI". While Narayanan calls this "a very dangerous trend", Abdurahman downplays it, saying, "People of northern Kerala are very emotional compared with those down south. This is true of all cadres, including those in the CPM, RSS and our own." For his part, Narayanan blames the CPM in the state for encouraging radical Islamic elements so as to corner votes and batter the IUML. "That strategy has misfired in the state, causing this deep polarisation," he says. Abdurahman disagrees: "The CPM, I would say, isn't doing enough to safeguard the rights of the minorities as it should have."
The PFI was accused by the central agencies of being involved in creating bulk SMSes that led to the exodus of Northeasterners from Bangalore last year. Earlier, the PFI had come under scanner on several occasions over various communal clashes across Kerala. Political leaders, especially those from the CPM, have charged the PFI with double standards. "Organisations such as this (PFI) are engaged in nefarious activities. If Kerala isn't as progressive as it used to be, it is because of outfits like the PFI," CPM politburo member and former home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan told ET, citing the hand-chopping incident of a teacher on charges of "blasphemy against Prophet Mohammed". The PFI has denied any wrongdoing.
However, political observers such as MG Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram, offer a slightly different view. "The kind of radicalisation among Muslims in Kerala isn't the militant kind," he says, adding that Muslims in the state are now more prosperous and more conscious of their identity. "This is why you see more burkhas and skull caps on the roads. Militant Islamism in Kerala is a major hype. There are many odd incidents, but I see it as a natural phenomenon. When communities rise out of long years of poverty and transform into a new mode, there is always this kind of perception. They are rediscovering their identity. Reading too much into it is a mistake," he says. Radhakrishnan adds that the Muslims who were among the lower sections of Kerala society take special pride in their identity once they become rich. "There is nothing unusual about it," he says, adding that many of them are highly successful businessmen and serial entrepreneurs. "It is radicalism, but it is non-militant radicalism," he says.