It is rare for a film to be re-released. When it does happen, it is mostly for its nostalgic value. But Kerala is seeing a renewed set of screenings of a film that hit the theatres only last year. The initiative is led not by the producer, but a religious group – Catholics. The timing of the re-release of The Kerala Story is also curious. It has come just three weeks before elections.

The Kerala Story depicts Muslims in Kerala not only as terrorists but also as luring women of other communities to convert to Islam and then recruit them for “holy wars”. The film initially pegged the number of such women at 32,000 but had later modified a trailer to state that the movie was based on the “true stories” of three girls.

The Catholics are the largest Christian group in the state and arguably the most influential. In Kerala, the community is organised under three independent churches of which the Syro-Malabar Church is the largest. The fans of The Kerala Story belong to this group.

On April 4, the film was screened for teenage children attending vacation Bible classes organised in every parish of the hilly district of Idukki. It stirred a hornet’s nest.

The public broadcaster Doordarshan had already announced the telecast of the film on April 5. The screening of the film, weeks ahead of Kerala elections on April 26, angered parties in the state – except the Bharatiya Janata Party. Political parties marched to Doordarshan offices and issued statements criticising the Modi government’s plan.

Naturally, the criticism spilled over to the church. The retaliation was fast and furious. The youth movement in two units of the church in northern Kerala announced that the film would be screened in as many parishes as possible.

The Catholic Bishops council of the state, an informal body of all Catholic bishops, also came out in support of the plan. Their Commission for Social Harmony and Vigilance issued a statement that they had and would continue to caution believers about “love traps”.

Fact and fiction

The film claims that there was a mass recruitment of non-Muslim women from Kerala for the “holy war”. It is true that some women converted to Islam and went to Afghanistan with their husbands. But the similarity to reality ends there. Only four women from the state have been known to have gone to war zone. Of them, one was a Muslim. Of the others, two of them married men who were converts from Christianity. All the women are now in Afghan jails. Their husbands are dead.

The total number of conversions in Kerala, either for marriage or out of love for the religion, are low. Just 144 people converted to Islam in 2020, according to gazette notifications. The biggest gainer was Hinduism with 506 new believers, mostly Dalit Christians. This accounts for 47% of the total religious conversions. Christianity finished third with 119 converts.

Changing political climate

As election day looms on April 26, the major fronts in Kerala led by the Congress and the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) are keeping their fingers crossed. If the controversy over the film snowballs, it could influence the result in at least some seats – such as Thrissur and Pathanamthitta. Moreover, it can change the political sphere of the state forever.

Like the Gaulish village in Asterix comics that the Romans consistently fail to conquer, Kerala is an impenetrable citadel for the BJP. It is the only state in the country where the BJP was not able not win a single parliament seat even though the party’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, boasts of having the highest number of shakhas, or branches, relative to area here.

One reason is the presence of large minority communities. Christians are the second-largest minority comprising 18.4% of the state’s population. Muslim constitute 26.6% of the population, as per the 2011 census. Both communities vehemently oppose Hindutva. They have their own political outfits which align with Congress and sometimes with the Left Front.

But what if the Christian community prefers a party that the Muslims detest the most? Love jihad – a conspiracy theory by Hindutva outfits that Muslim men lure women into romantic relationships to convert them to Islam – has the potential to make that happen. High-profile conversion cases that were fought up to the Supreme Court set the stage for this a decade ago – for instance, the case of Hadiya, a young woman who converted to Islam in 2016.

The day journal of mistrust

In 2015, Bishop Mathew Anikkuhikattil claimed that “our girls are lured away by some Muslims through love jihad and [also] by the secret plans of the SNDP”. The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam is an organisation of the Ezhavas, an Other Backward Classes group.

“They are not hesitant to renounce Christian beliefs and leave their parents who brought them up while going with a Muslim, that too [even] an auto driver or an SNDP member,” claimed Anikkuhikattil in an address to the pastoral council of the Kanjirappally diocese of which he was in charge. Despite widespread criticism of his statement by many, including Catholic leaders, the bishop did not budge.

But slowly, other clergy members started issuing public statements in support of “love jihad” – some were wrapped in concerns about people falling out of the true faith while others were open calls to watch out for “Muslim terrorists”.

Vigilante groups were formed. Counselling centers under the church ran special “rescue” missions for the likely converts. One of the dioceses in northern Kerala issued a hand book on the modus operandi of “love jihadists” and how to save daughters from it. It was withdrawn fearing controversy. But the church steadily pushed the idea forward.

By 2021, support for the idea of “love jihad” had become the official position of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference, the unofficial assembly of all Catholic bishops in the state.

Bishop hits below the belt

In September 2021, Catholic Bishop Joseph Kallrangatt openly described Muslims as “drug-peddlers” – the first instance of hate speech in the state by a high-ranking religious figure in recent times. He did not stop there. He went on to claim that there was a plan by Muslims to push non-Muslims into narcotic addiction – or “narcotic jihad”.

The BJP entered the muddied pool with high hopes. Delegation after delegation from the Sangh Parivar met bishops and other laity. Back channels were opened under the auspices of Union ministers. Christian clergy displayed affection for BJP leaders. Last year, Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis, high priest of one of the Catholic congregations, declared that the BJP was no longer a pariah. It was a volatile situation.

Then, Manipur exploded into violence in May.

The communal violence in Manipur turned these plans upside down. Violence against the Christian community and the alleged inaction of the Union government forced the clergy to distance themselves from BJP leaders. They started issuing statements criticising the government. But the elections were close and the BJP had no time to patch things up. The BJP entered Kerala elections with the same old Achilles’ heel – no empathy from any of the minority communities

Airing The Kerala Story on Doordarshan was their last attempt to stir up emotions – like it raked up the Katchatheevu island issue in Tamil Nadu. It got initial traction and reopened some old wounds. Religious conversion is being discussed again. But whether this will breach the citadel of secular parties in Kerala is too early to predict. Three days are left for polling and that is a long time in electoral politics.

Jimmy James is a senior journalist and news anchor.