Analysis | Growing Christian-Muslim alienation, Kerala civic polls and Kunhalikutty's Christmas cake diplomacy

Analysis | Growing Christian-Muslim alienation, Kerala civic polls and Kunhalikutty's Christmas cake diplomacy
P K Kunhalikutty meets Major Archbishop of the Malankara Syrian Catholic Church Mor Baselios Cardinal Cleemis Catholicos on Tuesday. Photo: Facebook/P K Kunhalikutty

It was 'love jihad' that had first caused Christians in Kerala to openly think of Muslims as unbrotherly.

Like ghosts and Martians, there are no confirmed official sightings of 'love jihad' but the idea suggests a malicious Muslim male conspiracy to lure, indoctrinate and convert non-Muslim girls.

In January 2020, the synod of Syro-Malabar Church, the most prominent Christian denomination in Kerala, said what only the Sangh Parivar had till then said, that there is 'love jihad' in Kerala.

"It is a reality that 'love jihad' is happening in Kerala in a planned manner targeting Christian girls. There are circumstances in which Christian girls are killed in the name of Love Jihad in Kerala," the Synod said.

Though the declaration was shocking, it did not look serious enough for a rethinking of traditional political inclinations. Put differently, the Church at that point did not seem uncomfortable about throwing its weight behind the UDF brotherhood that had the Muslim League as a major partner.

The Church itself had then said its plainspeak on inter-faith love affairs should in no way affect its long-standing friendship with the Muslim community. Of course, there were suspicions that the Christian community was finding the BJP more acceptable. But this did not look unmanageable for the UDF managers.

Turkish move that shook Kerala

Had things stopped with the Church complaining of 'love jihad', Indian Union Muslim League national secretary P K Kunhalikutty would not have had to make a public spectacle of his visits to Bishop houses across Kerala carrying Christmas cakes.

But something happened in Turkey that further vitiated Christian-Muslim bond in Kerala.

Analysis | Growing Christian-Muslim alienation, Kerala civic polls and Kunhalikutty's Christmas cake diplomacy
Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Byzantine church converted to a mosque, in Istanbul, 03 July 2007. File photo/AFP

On July 11, 2020, Turkey's right-wing president Recep Tayyip Erdogan converted perhaps the world's most splendid symbol of secularism and a Unesco World Heritage site, the Hagia Sophia Museum, into a mosque. For over 900 years, the massive many-domed architectural wonder was an Orthodox Christian cathedral, the largest church of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire.

In 1453, when Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey's capital) fell to the Ottomans, the cathedral was converted into a mosque. It remained a mosque for nearly 500 years, till 1934. Then, swayed by the ideal of secularism, the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, converted the mosque into a museum.

Eighty-six years later, Erdogan laid secularism to rest in Turkey and Hagia Sophia was a mosque once again.

Christian anger, studied Muslim silence

The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) was quick to express hurt. "This highly condemnable act by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogen was painful for the public as well as the Catholic Church that had always stood for global peace, brotherhood and greatness of God," an official KCBC statement on July 12, a day after the conversion, said.

Coming as it did right after the Supreme Court verdict in the Babri Masjid case in November 2019, even Muslim outfits known for their extreme views were careful not to comment on Erdogan's move.

An inside view of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, on July 10, 2020. File photo/AFP

Stray applause from Panakkad family

But a voice extolling Erdogan's action was heard from the most unlikely source: Indian Union Muslim League, counted as the most secular among Muslim political formations in the country.

Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal, the Malappuram district president of IUML and a member of the revered Panakkad family, wrote a triumphalist opinion piece in the editorial page of the League's mouthpiece Chandrika Daily on July 24.

Sadiq Ali Thangal questioned the secular credentials of predominantly Christian countries like Greece that had cried foul. "In many of the European nations that had opposed the move (the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque), Muslims are even denied their right to prayer. It is this realisation that makes their brand of secularism arbitrary and hollow," Thangal said.

"Those who are raising their voices against this move are the very people who had converted 350-odd mosques constructed during the Ottoman period into churches and theatres and jails," he said.

League's folly, CPM's gain

No other League leader had spoken and Sadiq Ali's comments had the effect of a sudden scream of joy at the most inappropriate moment.

The CPM's political antennae is so sharp that they could sense how jarring this would be for the Christian community. It pounced on the opportunity to brand the IUML a rabid extreme outfit. To serve this end, the CPM hitched the League to the Jamaat-e-Islami, which the party had already demonised as an extremist group as vicious as the RSS.

The then CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the League had spoken in the same voice as the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Analysis | Growing Christian-Muslim alienation, Kerala civic polls and Kunhalikutty's Christmas cake diplomacy
Students take a selfie with P K Kunhalikutty during an election campaign. File photo

This was a wily political move as the Jamaat-e-Islami had officially not uttered a word about the Hagia Sophia conversion. In fact, the Jamaat official line is against the revival of historical deeds.

"We have not said anything," said V T Abdulla Koya Thangal, Jamaat-e-Islami general secretary. "There are many things about the past like the Crusades (church-sanctioned war against the Muslims to recover the Holy Land) we hate to remember. Jamaat-e-Islami had consciously decided not to take up any such issues," Abdulla Koya said.

Courting new allies

But the vilification of the League using Jamaat-e-Islami and the publicly expressed CPM concern for a Christian hurt (Hagia Sophia conversion) induced at least a slight rethinking of political affiliations among two groups that were generally not enthusiastic about the Left.

One, it prompted the Christian community to shed its traditional suspicion of the Left. And two, the open Muslim bashing was satisfying to a section of Hindu voters who traditionally voted for the UDF but were disturbed by what they perceive to be the growing influence of the League in UDF affairs.

League's provocative 'reservation'

Here is what the CPM did to develop these incipient feelings of goodwill on an industrial scale: 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education for the economically weaker sections among the forward castes. Both Christians and upper caste Hindus, the LDF calculated, would be grateful.

But what took even the LDF by surprise was the vehement opposition mounted by the Muslim League against forward caste reservation. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that 10 per cent reservation for forward castes would not take away any lower caste benefits.

The League but pointed out that forward caste reservation is for 10 per cent of all seats available instead of limiting it to 52 per cent of the non-reserved seats. This, the League said, would eat into the benefits of Muslims and Ezhavas. It was also said that forward caste Hindus and Christians, though fewer in number, would corner more medical and engineering seats than the numerically stronger Muslims and Ezhavas.

The reservation debate gave the Christian-Muslim estrangement a seeming finality. So furious was the Christian community that Archbishop Joseph Perumthottam of Syro-Malabar Church said the League's communalism had broken through its mask.

Analysis | Growing Christian-Muslim alienation, Kerala civic polls and Kunhalikutty's Christmas cake diplomacy
Kerala Congress (M) leader Jose K Mani celebrates victory of his party in Kerala Local Body Polls 2020. File photo

By then it was clear where the Church stood and it would have been foolish for Jose K Mani not to have taken a Left turn. It has to be noted that it was P J Joseph, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, who had first tried to get into the LDF.

Shakespeare's name theory debunked

And then, like the last nail in the coffin, came the UDF's tactical understanding with the 'Jamaat-e-Islami'-backed Welfare Party of India during the local body polls. This was an alliance engineered by the IUML to soften the anti-UDF stance of media houses backed by the Jamaat.

The Congress was conflicted about this alliance, and like an individual who has gone out of his mind, began to speak in many voices. For the CPM, this was an opportunity to tell Hindus and Christians that the UDF is now led by Hassan (UDF convenor M M Hassan), Kutty (P K Kunhalikutty and Amir (Jamaat's Amir M I Abdul Azeez). The party clearly knew Shakespeare's name theory applied only to roses.

If the local body results are anything to go by, many seem convinced. Now, Kunhalikutty, with Christmas cake in hand, is hopping from one Bishop House to the other hoping to undo the damage.

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