In an indication that it plans to pursue an aggressive Hindutva agenda to make inroads into Kerala, the Bharatiya Janata Party has decided to highlight “jihadi terror” in the state during its Jana Raksha Yatra that starts on Tuesday.

“The National Investigative Agency has arrested plenty of people from Kerala for anti-national activities, and it shows the state has become the home of ‘jihad terror’,” said BJP national executive member PK Krishnadas.

He was referring to the arrest of Kerala residents allegedly involved in terrorist activities or with links to the international terror group Islamic State in the past year. The arrests had come in the wake of the disappearance of 21 people from the state who were suspected to have joined the Islamic State.

Party leaders, however, maintained the focus of the 14-day roadshow would be attacks on Sangh Parivar workers by members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala.

But Krishnadas added, “We consider jihadis and communists as terrorists. We want to expose them. That is the aim of the yatra.”

A Jana Raksha Yatra hoarding in Kannur with the images of BJP president Amit Shah and the party's Kerala chief Kummanam Rajashekharan. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)

Party president Amit Shah will flag off the roadshow from Payyanur in Kannur district, where scores of workers of both the Sangh and the ruling Left have been killed in political violence. According to the Kerala Police, there were 69 “political murders” in Kannur between 2000 and 2016, with 31 victims from the Sangh and 30 from the Left party.

“We never claimed that our cadres haven’t [been] involved in the killings,” said Krishnadas. But he added, “We had done it as an act of self-defence.”

Hard Hindutva agenda

By declaring its intent to fight “jihadi terror”, the BJP hopes to win over Hindu voters, who make up 55% of the state’s population.

Its campaign also ties in with the rise in recent years of Hindutva groups in Kerala fighting “love jihad” – a conspiracy theory that Muslim men marry women from other religions solely to convert them to Islam.

This subject came to prominence in the last two months with the case of two young Hindu women who had adopted Islam, of their own free will and against the wishes of their parents, going all the way to the courts. In the case of Akhila Ashokan, or Hadiya, the Supreme Court had even asked the National Investigation Agency to inquire into the possibility of a terror conspiracy.

Left strongholds

The BJP’s decision to make Payyanur the first stop of its campaign also signals its ambition to make inroads into Left strongholds in Kannur, which is the home turf of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

The yatra, to be led by BJP state president Kummanam Rajashekharan, will spend four days in Kannur and a day each in 10 other districts before concluding in state capital Thiruvananthapuram on October 17.

The roadshow faced initial hiccups. It was scheduled to begin on September 7 but the BJP central leadership postponed it, reportedly because of infighting in the state unit. However, state leaders insisted the delay was because of the unavailability of national leaders.

Chief ministers of BJP-ruled states, Union ministers and Central leaders are expected to address public meetings across Kerala. They will travel in a cavalcade of around 80 vehicles. However, state leaders will march on foot to some strongholds of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), including Vijayan’s village. Shah will join them on these marches. He is scheduled to address the public at various locations in Kannur over two days.

“Our aim is to expose the CPI(M)’s politics of violence,” said P Sathyaprakash, the BJP’s Kannur district president. “So the march will pass through its pockets.”

However, the ruling party accused the BJP and the Sangh Parivar of trying to foment trouble. “The yatra will pass only through CPI(M) strongholds with a deliberate aim to create tension,” said party state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. “We haven’t seen such a roadshow in the past.”

Accusing the BJP of spreading lies about Kerala, Balakrishnan said “people in Kerala live [more] safely than [in] BJP-ruled states” and that there were fewer murders in the state than in BJP-ruled Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujaraj, Rajasthan and Haryana.

He added, “They should stop tarnishing Kerala’s image.”

Women residents of Keezhattoor village in Kannur march on Thursday holding Communist Party of India (Marxist) flags after ending their agitation against a proposed bypass. (Credit: Special arrangement)

Preventive measures

However, the BJP’s yatra seems to have caused the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) some alarm.

On Thursday, it hastened to pacify residents of Keezhattoor village – a party stronghold in Kannur – who have been protesting against the government’s plan to acquire 250 acres of paddy fields for a proposed bypass for the national highway. This happened a day after BJP leaders met the villagers and offered to support their agitation.

The government had decided to back the project despite residents and activists alleging it would lead to environmental degradation. Angered by the party’s stand, many Left sympathisers had set up tents in the village for a day-night strike on September 10. The party’s Kannur district secretary P Jayarajan had termed the strike anti-party.

The government received a blow when alliance partner Communist Party of India supported the villagers’ stand. And on Wednesday, BJP leaders arrived in Keezhattoor, setting off rumours that Shah would visit the village after inaugurating the Jana Raksha Yatra.

The minister for public works met the villagers on Thursday and promised to defer the notification for the bypass. The government also decided to send a team of officials and people’s representatives to look into an alternative alignment. On Friday, the protestors called off their strike temporarily.

The BJP has claimed that the haste the ruling party showed in resolving the agitation is proof that it is worried by the saffron party’s growth. “The communists cannot undermine the voice of BJP workers through intimidation anymore,” said Kannur leader Sathyaprakash.

Jana Raksha Yatra hoardings dot Kannur district, where it will be launched on Tuesday. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)