The Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent tirades against film-maker Kamal and litterateur MT Vasudevan Nair, both from Kerala, for criticising the government and the Sangh Parivar are a good indicator of its political strategy in the state, where it is determined to increase its cadre base.

On January 9, the BJP’s state general secretary AN Radhakrishnan said Kamal should leave India if he is not interested in living in the country. The statement was prompted by the director’s criticism of the arrest of 12 people at the International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram in December, for not standing up during the playing of the national anthem before movie screenings. The Supreme Court had in November directed cinema halls to play the national anthem before each screening and said the audience must stand up for the duration of the song. Sangh activists had also marched to Kamal’s house in Kodungalloor in Thrissur district last month, singing the national anthem and targeting his Muslim identity by expanding his name to Kamaluddin.

Adding to the controversy, earlier this week, Vidya Balan opted out of Kamal’s biopic on author and poetess Kamala Das, titled Aami. Media reports quoted a spokesperson for the National Award-winning actor saying she had quit the project as she and the director had “divergent approaches to the process”. Dismissing speculation that the decision was a result of Kamal’s run-ins with the Sangh, the spokesperson added, “Any other reason cited is untrue.”

Nair, or MT as the Jnanpith awardee is popularly known as, meanwhile, earned the BJP’s ire by criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation policy, saying it had created trouble for millions of Indians. The 83-year-old writer, film director and screenplay writer had expressed this view at a function for the release of a book on black money, written by Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Issac, on December 28.

The BJP responded by saying that MT was no economist to criticise demonetisation. “He should know that the country has changed a lot and that there are 87 lakh Facebook users in the state and 4.2 crore mobile phone connections in Kerala,” said Radhakrishnan.

The attacks on Kamal and MT seem to toe the line taken by BJP leader Giriraj Singh who had famously said that all those opposed to Modi should go to Pakistan, during an election rally in Bihar in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. After the elections, the BJP had rewarded him by inducting him in the Union ministry.

The BJP’s strategy in Kerala is two-pronged: it aims to portray all those who oppose it as anti-national while elevating the prime minister as the country’s unquestionable leader. And with this, it hopes to polarise the state on communal lines to consolidate Hindu votes.

This strategy is not new. In the past too, the party and the Sangh have depended on vitriolic speeches to make inroads in Kerala’s political landscape. Last year, Sasikala, a member of a Hindutva group in the state, told a public gathering, “Hindus united and destroyed the [Babri] Masjid. It would be the result if Hindus woke up.”

This ploy has worked well and the Sangh has been able to increase its cadre base across Kerala while the BJP won its first seat in the state Assembly during the elections in May.

‘Fascist forces at work’

Kamal agreed that the Sangh Parivar’s act of targeting his religious identity was all for political gain. He spoke of a time when Keralites believed casteism and religious fanaticism would not influence them as they considered themselves more culturally intelligent and politically conscious than people in other states. “But fascist forces are devising plans to put the breaks on Kerala’s cultural growth and its political awareness,” he said in an interview to the weekly Malayalam Varikha. In such a situation, he added, “only the Left has the wherewithal to fight the proponents of fascism.”

Referring to Sangh activists calling him Kamaluddin, he said, “Fascist forces believe that if Kamal becomes Kamaluddin, it will be difficult for me to come out of that identity and that whatever I do will be attributed to Kamaluddin.”

The film-maker said he had never lived as Kamaluddin. “It was the name given by my father,” he pointed out. “Neither my friends nor my villagers called me Kamaluddin. For them, I am Kamal.”

He added, “I am not the only person facing this problem. Our society is passing through difficult times. It is time our secular society addressed these issues seriously.”

The backlash

The BJP’s actions have drawn flak from a section of society. On January 11, politicians, cultural activists and thousands of common people assembled in Kamal’s home town of Kodungallur to express solidarity with him and to deplore the Sangh Parivar’s plan to stifle dissent. Noted Malayalam filmmaker Lal Jose said the threats were directed not only at Kamal but all those who believe in cultural diversity. “Staying united is the only way to defend against it,” he said.

Communist Party of India leader Benoy Viswam, a former state minister, said Kamal and MT would never succumb to the Sangh’s pressure tactics. “They will continue to live in India till their last breath,” he added.

Poet Prabha Varma, who is a member of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), said fellow writers in Kerala were ready to die to defend MT. “The Sangh Parivar wanted MT to remain silent,” he said. “His website was hacked with the message ‘die’ pasted on it.” He likened the threat to that faced by the late rationalists MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. “Scholars like Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar, all of whom have been murdered, also got such threats,” Varma said. “MT spoke for the common people against the Centre’s demonetisation policy.”

The ruling party has backed MT and Kamal in the wake of the attacks on them, but many social critics believe it has done little to counter Hindu communalism. “The situation would have been different had anyone protested when workers of the BJP’s youth wing threatened human rights activist Grow Vasu recently,” said writer and social critic Dileep Raj. “Defending society from the onslaught of Hindu communalism doesn’t start or end with uniting against the BJP. It is a kind of protest that should be continued.”

BJP takes a step back

In the face of such criticism, and fearing public outrage, the BJP has softened its stand. Calling Radhakrishnan’s comments on Kamal his personal opinion, party general secretary MT Ramesh said, “The party or its state committee has nothing to do with it.”

The party also issued a statement saying none of its leaders had threatened MT. “MT stated his views on the matter and similarly, party leaders responded with their opinion,” said BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan. “We never threatened him for his comments.”