The incidents in the city that is known as Kerala's cultural capital have sparked protests and petitions across the state, with citizens questioning the inaction of the police in dealing with the attackers, and demanding the removal of the sub-inspector at the police station where the women were allegedly assaulted.
The events, say observers, are a manifestation of the growing visibility of Hindutva forces in the state who are riding the national Modi wave.
“The RSS and the BJP are not a big presence in Kerala, but these days they appear to have an influence over the police and the media,” said KP Sasi, a filmmaker, activist and national coordinator of the Vibgyor festival.
Vibgyor, which started nine years ago, focuses on screening documentaries and short films on social issues. On February 14, four days into the year’s edition of the festival, around a dozen RSS workers barged into a screening of 'Ocean of Tears', a documentary about alleged army atrocities in Kashmir.
The mob tried to destroy the projector and the screen. Outside the venue, other RSS activists vandalised Vibgyor’s office. But the audience of around 400 people rallied together. They began shouting slogans like “RSS go back” until the mob left. “The policemen who were in charge of festival security did not do anything to prevent or stop the goons – they just stood watching and did not even file a case against them later,” said Sasi.
Trouble flared up again the next day, when the police attempted to arrest some Vibgyor organisers for staging the feminist play, 'The Vagina Monologues'. The police had taken offence with the Malayalam word chosen as a translation for vagina, claiming it was indecent and abusive, said Sasi.
The film festival ended on February 17. But on the night of February 22, five young male festival volunteers were accosted by the police as they stood outside a beer shop opposite the festival venue. “The police charged them for drinking in a public place, but that is not true,” said Sasi.
The five men were beaten and forced into police vans. Neethu, a cinematographer who was with the group, called up Vibgyor’s advocate, RK Asha, who arrived at the spot with her 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. “I saw the police brutally beating the men and hitting Neethu, and even as I began to step in, I saw the local sub-inspector, Lalkumar, assaulting my son and pushing him into a police van,” said Asha.
By the time the group got to the police station, Asha’s son had a fractured collarbone. “When I demanded an explanation from him, Lalkumar pushed me, kicked my foot so that I fell and injured my knee, used obscene language with me and asked the policewomen to drag me out,” said Asha. She claims her minor daughter was also assaulted.
Asha, Neethu and one of the five men are now recovering from their injuries in hospital. The local police could not be contacted. But they have claimed to the local media that it was the men who initiated the violence. The police have not commented on the abuse faced by the women.
Meanwhile, media in Thrissur reported that on February 28, the district’s chief judicial magistrate directed the city’s police chief to arrest sub-inspector Lalkumar and produce him in court before March 3.
These incidents seem unusual in Kerala, a state known more for its liberal values, high literacy rates and excellent social indices. Historian J Devika believes that the attacks are a fallout of the success of Sangh Parivar members in getting Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism pulped, and are a sign of the national assertion of what she calls "Moditva”.
“These are goons, and what we see is not a rise in their intellectual confidence, but in their brazen determination to inflict violence and terrorise others,” said Devika. “Interestingly, their supporters in the police have also found it easier to hit out now, and the most vulnerable sections they can target are precisely young people who identify with the non-mainstream left.”
According to Devika and Sasi, extremist elements – with the help of the police and the media – have been trying to whip up “Islamophobia” in Kerala. Said human rights activist BRP Bhaskar, “The Modi factor is giving them more encouragement.”
Here is a clip from the film 'Oceans of Tears' that sparked the attacks.