Kerala Poll Special: How the CPM used anti-Muslim sentiment to get closer to the Church

How the CPM used anti-Muslim sentiment to get closer to the Church
Revenue officials removing a holy cross installed illegally in Pappathichola near Munnar in Idukki district. File photo

After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in which Kerala voted overwhelmingly in favour of the UDF, two major developments took place. One was a social phenomenon that saw the Christian community becoming openly suspicious about its Muslim brethren in Kerala. The other was the CPM realisation that, in spite of its proud atheistic heritage, it just cannot be seen as anti-faith.

Both are seemingly unconnected but the CPM seems to have found in the first, in the growing Christian-Muslim divide, an opportunity to remould its attitude towards the Church, which was defined not just by ideology but also by that whirlwind of an anti-communist movement whipped up by the Church during the Liberation Struggle of 1959-60.

Erdogan and Christian-Muslim fallout

The open Christian disapproval of Muslims, on the face of it, is not the fallout of the elections, as both the minority communities were forcefully behind the UDF.

Still, many political observers find it hard to brush aside as mere coincidence that this had happened after the BJP began to aggressively woo the Christian community post the Lok Sabha polls. The results had demonstrated, yet again, to the BJP that getting the Christian nod was its password to Kerala.

Whether prodded by the Sangh Parivar or not, the Church spoke of 'love jihad' as a reality in January, 2020. World events, too, played a part. In July last year, the Catholic Bishops' Council was angry that a prominent Muslim League leader (IUML's Malappuram district president Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal) was celebrating the conversion into a mosque of a great symbol of secularism, the Hagia Sophia in Turkey that was originally an orthodox church.

Even later, Church leaders were livid that the Muslim community bitterly objected to the 10 per cent reservation introduced by the LDF government for the economically weak among forward castes. Church leaders also openly complained, even to the Prime Minister, that the Muslims were gobbling up most of the minority benefits in Kerala.

How the CPM used anti-Muslim sentiment to get closer to the Church
Pinarayi Vijayan at Sabarimala. File photo

CPM code to soften Hindu anger

At the same time, when the Christian-Muslim divide was starting to get wider after the elections, the CPM was focused on calming Hindu tempers. The LDF government announced the acquisition of nearly 2,250 acres of the disputed Cheruvally Estate for the Sabarimala airport, knowing fully well it would be struck down by courts. This was a quick bribe for a crying child.

If this would be construed outright appeasement, the CPM had subtle ways to humour the openly secular but secretly communal Hindu. It created a villain, the Extremist Muslim, and flogged it publicly.

The spectacle was clearly intended for the satisfaction of the 'half-way Hindu' who did not want to be seen with the Sangh Parivar crowd but still had found merit in the wild fears they had raised about the Muslim.

The flogging was CPM's Morse Code of brotherhood to the half-way Hindu.

Pinarayi's please-all political act

This was a strategy the CPM had put in place right after the Lok Sabha polls. All societal ills were traced back to the Extremist Muslim. Maoism, too. Alan Shuhaib and Thaha Fazal, the two students were booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), were said to be pushed into Maoism by extreme Muslim ideology.

This 'Flog the Extremist Muslim' strategy was unveiled at a strategic moment, during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act when Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had quite successfully positioned himself as the most daring opposition voice. Just when he was seen as the voice of the Muslims at the national stage, Pinarayi lashed out at the Extremist Muslim.

How the CPM used anti-Muslim sentiment to get closer to the Church
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan speaks at a anti-CAA protest. File photo

Right wing Hindus could tear into Pinarayi for his anti-CAA stance but could not convincingly accuse him of appeasing Muslims. At the same time, fence-sitting Hindus who had fallen for the Sangh Parivar narrative of the growing clout of Muslims, found Pinarayi's Extremist Muslim bashing courageous.

The Muslim community was not left in the lurch either. It saw in Pinarayi's bold ways during the anti-CAA struggle signs of a strong secular leader.

It was a please-all strategy, but carried out with what deceptively looked like an ideological warrior's stern attitude.

Cemetery trick

But even in the initial months after the Lok Sabha polls, this was not seen as a strategy that could satisfy the Church, too. Nonetheless, there were signs that the CPM wanted to get closer to the Christian community like never before.

The government introduced a bill called Kerala Christian Cemeteries (Right to Burial of Bodies) Bill in early 2020 that would allow the Jacobite faction members to bury their dead in cemeteries of churches they had lost to the Orthodox faction in the Supreme Court battle. The Jacobite faction, which was larger in number, was charmed.

Church vs Pinarayi

With the Christian community, Pinarayi had put out confusing signals. In 2007, he made the "wretched creature" (nikrishtajeevi) comment against then Thamarassery Bishop Paul Chitilapilly for what he termed the priest's lie that it was the last wish of CPM leader and former MLA Mathai Chacko to be buried according to Christian rites. In 2013, he made up for the outburst by visiting Chitilappilly's successor Mar Remegiose Inchananiyil at the Bishop House.

In 2017, when revenue officials in Munnar demolished a massive holy cross illegally erected on revenue land by a fringe Christian sect 'Spirit in Jesus', the Chief Minister had sounded deeply disturbed. "The move gave the impression that the government was waging a war against the holy cross," he had said, apparently shaken by the symbolism of a wicked-looking earth mover pulling down a giant holy cross.

And then, a couple of months before the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, he badly provoked the Church. The Law Reforms Commission the LDF government had set up had published a draft Bill, Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill, 2019, which sought to audit the accounts of all Church denominations. All Church factions, including the warring Jacobite and Orthodox factions, rose up in revolt. Pinarayi backed down.

The Church Act provocation came amid the Sabarimala agitation and Pinarayi was seen by the Hindu faithful and the Church as a white-clad Bolshevik out to destroy places of worship. The Lok Sabha results were also a reflection of this distaste.

Mani in LDF's lap

It was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to convert Hagia Sofia museum into a mosque and Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal's consequent jubilation that alerted the CPM to the possibility of the 'Flog the Extremist Muslim' strategy to woo the Christian community, too.

How the CPM used anti-Muslim sentiment to get closer to the Church
Hagia Sofia

This time the goal was not just to attract a few Christian votes, it was far more ambitious. It was to undo the UDF experiment, to make it unthinkable for the Christian community to be seen along with those representing Muslim interests.

It is widely believed that Jose K Mani had the blessings of the Church to move his Kerala Congress, which mostly represents Christian interests in Central Travancore, to the LDF.

What was surprising, at least for the layman, was not the Church's nudge or Mani's move but the CPM's eagerness to have Mani's party within its fold. Till then, Kerala Congress (Mani) symbolised for the CPM all that was ugly about the UDF.

Ideological purity be damned, Jose K Mani did bring the LDF some crucial Christian votes. It now lords over Kottayam district panchayat and Pala municipality, for the first time ever.

How the CPM used anti-Muslim sentiment to get closer to the Church
Kerala Congress leader Jose K Mani. File photo

CPM goes for the kill

Before all this could happen, the Muslim League had to be sold as an extremist organisation that the Church would be morally obliged to stay away from. Given the League's widely recognised role in keeping Kerala's secular fabric intact, merely saying so would sound unconvincing.

So the CPM aimed at the League from behind the shoulders of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), an organisation that holds on to extreme Muslim views.

The then CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, referring to Shihab Thangal's praise of Erdogan's communal decision, said the League and the JeI had spoken as one.

This was a distortion because the JeI had not officially taken any stand on the Hagia Sophia conversion. But soon enough, at the insistence of the League, the UDF had a tactical alliance with JeI's political wing, Welfare Party of India, during the local body polls. This made it easier for the CPM to keep firing at the 'extremist' League.

If the local body poll results are any indicator, it was as if there was widespread belief that the League deserved all the holes that had formed in its image.

How the CPM used anti-Muslim sentiment to get closer to the Church
Pinarayi Vijayan (right) with Kanthapuram A P Aboobacker Musliyar. File photo

Thief in the minority store

By then, the Muslim reaction to the LDF government's 10 per cent reservation for the poor among the forward castes had further alienated the Christians. The BJP, too, was now seriously after the Church leaders.

Perhaps emboldened by this general anti-Muslim atmosphere, for the first time ever they publicly complained about Muslims cornering the lion's share of minority benefits in Kerala. They took this grouse up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when Church leaders met him at his residence on January 23.

Anticipating this, the LDF was all ears even before, and promptly appointed a three-member commission headed by the retired Chief Justice of Patna High Court, J B Koshy, in November itself to assess the educational and economic backwardness of Christians in Kerala.

Paloli's take on X'tian-Muslim backwardness

Neither the chief minister nor Minority Affairs Minister K T Jaleel, who was also part of the Paloli Committee that decided on minority benefits, bothered to put the record straight. It was as if they were convinced that Christians were as backward as Muslims in Kerala, and wanted to right the wrong.

The Paloli Committee report, which Jaleel himself helped author, provides figures to show that unemployment is highest among Muslims, and lowest among Christians. Muslim community also has the most number of landless, 37.8 per cent, in Kerala. Among Christians, only 3 per cent are landless.

K T Jaleel (left) with Pinarayi Vijayan. File photo

The Committee, referring to a study by the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad, also noted that in Kerala poverty is highest among Muslims (28 per cent), after scheduled castes (38 per cent) and scheduled tribes (38.7 per cent). Poverty is lowest among Christians, 4 per cent. Among Hindus, it is 22.6 per cent.

Sustaining the Church-CPM affair

Now that the UDF has called off its tactical understanding with the Welfare Party, it is hard to persist with the demonising of the League.

But since the Church was traditionally opposed to the Left, and because the BJP at the Centre is in a position to hand out the Church even greater benefits, this new and unlikely bond requires sustained nourishment.

For the moment, the LDF government has found a way to keep up the Church's interest in the front. It has included all Christian Nadar groups in the OBC category, a decision the former UDF government tried to make but couldn't.

The Nadar community, largely considered pro UDF, is said to be the decisive factor in at least five constituencies in Thiruvananthapuram district: Parassala, Neyyattinkara, Kattakkada, Kovalam, Nedumangad, Vattiyoorkavu and Aruvikkara.

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