Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said that Mar Joseph Kallarangatt, the bishop of Pala, was not aiming to create enmity between communities when he delivered controversial sermon claiming that Muslims are waging a “narcotics jihad” against people of other faiths. According to The Hindu, Vijayan said that “the bishop delivered the speech from the pulpit to believers. He had not made a public statement. Hence, the government believed there was no legal ground for any case against the prelate.”

Even if we set aside the strange understanding of public and private that the Kerala chief minister wants us to accept, some context is necessary before we move ahead. During a sermon in a church in Kuravilangad on September 8, Bishop Kallarangatt had said that there had been an increase of instances of “love jihad” and “narcotics jihad” in the state.

“Love jihad” is a conspiracy theory which claims that Muslim men are waging a campaign to court women of other communities with the aim of getting them to covert to Islam.

The bishop said that “narcotic jihad” or “drug jihad” was a method adopted by “jihadis” to convert the youth of other religions into drug addicts. He did not stop there.

‘Destructive mission’

“In the eyes of a jihadi, non-Muslims are meant to be destroyed,” Kallarangatt claimed. “When the intention is to spread the religion and annihilate non-Muslims, the adopted methods take different methods – two such methods that are widely discussed are ‘love jihad’ and ‘narcotic jihad’.” According to Kallarangatt, besides ill-treating and forcibly converting non-Muslims, “jihadis” capture women who are members of other religions by faking love and then use them for terrorist activities and to make financial gains.

If this is a sermon to believers by a priest who professes to love Christ, we must reconsider the meaning of a sermon. What the bishop was doing was clearly instigating the followers of his church against Muslim men. It is hate speech and needs to be treated as a criminal act.

For Pinarayi Vijayan to rush to the aid of the hate-preacher and defend him by claiming that no legal action could be taken against him because his statement was not a public act is even more serious. It compromises the office of the chief minister. He has turned the understanding of crime on its head.

If we go by the standard set by Vijayan, even the extremist Hindu priest from Ghaziabad, Narsinhanand, or those people from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh fold who spew venom against Muslims day and night cannot be charged with any crime: they could all claim that they were addressing only their followers, believers of a different kind. This could not be deemed a public act , hence no crime has been committed, they could say.

The bishop was doing was not making his followers aware about a social evil, as the chief minister and the diocese are implying. He was clearly spreading misinformation with the purpose of creating enmity between Christians and Muslims.

He achieved it. The chief minister must be aware that, as The Telegraph reported, “Two food-processing companies in Kerala have become targets of a communal hate campaign and boycott call in connection with a bishop’s allegations about ‘love jihad’ and a ‘narcotic jihad’.”

This boycott call came after Muslims marched in protest against the bishop’s remarks. Members of his diocese organised organised a counter march. Just after this, a campaign started on social media targetting two food processing companies: Ajmi Flour Mills India and KKFM India, both owned by Muslims.

According to The Telegraph, “The companies, both based in Erattupetta in Kottayam and owned by Muslims, are being accused on social media of facilitating a recent protest march in Pala against Bishop Mar Joseph Kallarangatt of the Pala Diocese.”

The owners have denied this. They have even lodged criminal cases against the people who made this allegation. We need to think about this denial as well. Is it a crime to participate in or support a protest march against a hate speech? Is it not a democratic right?

‘Privately’ spreading hate

Chief Minister Vijayan has promised action against the people who want to create discord in the society. But he sounds conflicted. He does not want to be seen as acting strongly against Christians. Nonetheless, instead of making it clear that those peddling hate will not be tolerated, the chief minister is obliquely granting the bishop the right to “privately” spread enmity against Muslims.

The chief minister belongs to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has the distinction of legitimising the “love-jihad” conspiracy theory propounded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates. In 2010, VS Achuthanandan, who was chief minister at the time, alleged that there was a conspiracy in Kerala to expand the size of the Muslim community by getting young men from the community to lure non-Muslim women to marry them. Achuthanandan sounded like a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh spokesperson.

But anti-Muslim sentiment runs even deeper in the party’s veins in Kerala.

In 2017, scholar J Devika wrote about it in an article in Kafila praising Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Brinda Karat for supporting Hadiya, a young woman who had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man when Hadiya was facing persecution by her family and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh groups, aided by the courts.

But Devika also had some concerns. “I write... to also express my gnawing worry about the rising and totally unchecked respectability of Islamophobia among vocal [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] supporters on Facebook,” she said. “They ostensibly criticise one particular group, the SDPI [the Social Democratic Party of India, the political arm of the extremist Muslim organisation, the Popular Front of India] but inevitably, their venom falls on all practising and religious Muslims. A few weeks earlier, we saw them justify the father’s violence publicly, but now that he has been revealed to be a criminal by Hadiya’s own words, they have shifted to a kind of Islamophobia reminiscent of that unleashed by US imperialist feminism in the wake of the bombing of Afghanistan.”

Devika points out that Communist Party of India (Marxist) members and supporters take the cover of criticising the Popular Front of India and the Social Democratic Party of India to hide their hatred. Even Karat had written an article saying that Muslims persecute women who marry outside the community.

Seeking a clarification

“…May I please ask a clarification?” Devika writes. “In your essay, you mention that Muslim women in Kerala marrying Hindu men are being violently threatened by extremist Muslim groups like the Popular Front. I would like to know what sources you may be basing this claim on. Since this group has been the target of much attack from quite long, since we now know how wary the general public is of Muslim extremism here, surely, many cases must have been filed against these alleged ruffians?”

The scholar added: ‘I have been trying to trace these cases since yesterday and have found very few, but none in which the Popular Front is directly involved. If you have information – say case numbers, the police stations etc. – please do publicly share them? I am saying this because I have observed since 2008 that the Popular Front has been the target of consistent demonisation by both the left and right in the state. It is high time we start going by clearly identifiable acts...given the heavy climate of fear against religious Muslims, complaints must have been filed and pursued as well. But if no such evidence is available then maybe that remark should be withdrawn.”

Karat did not withdraw her remarks. Leaders, especially communists, never make mistakes. To understand what Devika wrote, we need to read Ayyapn P in a long article published in OnManorama. Analysing the strategy of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in a state in which relations between Muslims and Christians are tense, he noted: “…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 figure of the extremist Muslim is very useful. It allows the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to be sympathetic to Muslims, to pass a resolution against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act but to take a “principled stand” against extremist Muslims. How can anyone criticise a government which is against extremism?

Ayyapan explains the strategy the Communist Party of India (Marxist) put in place right after the Lok Sabha polls of 2019. “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, were said to be pushed into Maoism by extreme Muslim ideology.”

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s alliance with the Mani Congress, which is unabashedly anti-Muslim, has to be understood in this context: a bid to win the support of Christians. But the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had to go further. It also vilified the Indian Union Muslim League as an extremist, communal party, which it knows too well that it is not. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), like all communal parties, defames any political expression that bears a Muslim identity and asks Muslims to accept it as the only champion of their rights.

While it could justify its opposition to the alliance of the United Democratic Front and the Muslim League, it must not forget that it is using a patently false (and dangerous) argument to do that.

Christian Islamophobia

In Kerala, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is trying to wean away Christians from the Bharatiya Janata Party. This explains why it does not want to address the vice of Islamophobia in the Christian community. It does not have the courage of acitivist John Dayal who calls the evil by its name.

Islamophobia has not been mentioned publicly, but the caste-ridden Christian community finds itself more at ease with their Hindu neighbours than with Muslims, who, before the discovery of oil in West Asia and the job boom, were economically less well-off,” Dayal has written in an article in the Quint discussing the complex, tense relation in which Christians, Hindus and Muslims exist in Kerala.

Dayal called out the bishop in no uncertain terms: “He used a dog whistle, which accentuated the Islamophobia that the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh are assiduously fanning as they seek a foothold in this politically important state.”

What is heartening is that many nuns have spoken out against this open Islamophobia and Bishop Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, the Metropolitan of the Niranam Diocese of the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church, in Kerala was unambiguous in his assertion that Christians did not face any threat from conversion or similar phenomena. “In religious community is under any serious threat, let alone Christianity,” he said.

It was this unambiguity we expect from a chief minister who claims that he is secular. Instead, he tried to avid the matter by making a general appeal to Keralites maintain harmony.

Christians must understand that a large section of them suffer from Islamophobia and it is easy to fall in this trap as Bishop Coorilos, the nuns and Father Cedric Prakash have been warning.

Internal document

As I wrap up this piece, The Indian Express reported about a Communist Party of India (Marxist) document circulating internally in the warning its cadre: “At professional college campuses, there are deliberate bids to distract educated young women to extremism and fundamentalism. The student fronts and the youth front should pay special attention to this issue.”

The note does talk about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and attempts to push Christians against Muslims but notes that Christians in the normal course of things are not found succumbing to communal thought. We need not say more.

The newspaper reports that after Chief Minister Vijaya’s soft statement absolving the bishop of a hate-crime, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and state cooperation minister VN Vasavan visited the cleric. Vasavan later said the controversy was a closed chapter. He even praised the bishop, saying, “The bishop is an erudite person, he has in-depth knowledge of the Quran and Bhagavad Gita. I have watched his speeches and shared dais with him.”

It is very clear that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is trying to humour the Christians. But in a dangerous manner. Instead of calling out the bishop for his Islamophobia, the party is fanning it. The statement of The Catholic Bishops Conference of India laity council secretary, Advocate V C Sebastian, is a glaring proof of this. He welcomed the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s note, saying it “attests what Bishop Kallarangatt had stated about extremism”.

The silence of the central leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is ominous. Islamophobia is not an opinion one is allowed to have and to practise. It should be identified when it takes the cover of a fight against extremism and should be nipped in the bud.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.