On the eve of the Onam festival, when people rejoice in memories of a just society characterised by equality and fraternity, Kerala is under a cloud of distrust generated and sustained by acts motivated by political and religious considerations.
A popular myth links Onam with annual homecoming by a benevolent ancient king, Mahabali, whom jealous gods had deposed. Ballads hail his reign as a time when all were equal and there was no falsehood or deceit.
Although the myth connects Onam tenuously with the Hindu religion, scholars are agreed that it is the traditional harvest festival of the region, and followers of all faiths join the celebrations enthusiastically, making it the most important goodwill season in the Keralite’s calendar. In recent years, the state government has developed it as the tourist season.
Onam, which falls next week, acquires added sanctity this year as it coincides with the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims, who form about 25 per cent of the population, constitute the state’s largest minority.
The people of the state have always prided themselves in the region’s long tradition of communal harmony. India’s oldest synagogue, church and mosque are all located in the state. They bear eloquent testimony to this hoary tradition.
Kerala, still under Buddhist-Jain influence, extended a warm welcome to Jews when they landed here centuries ago to escape persecution in Israel. The local Christian community believes St Thomas, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, came here and preached the gospel. An Arab, Malik bin Deenar, reputedly built the Cheraman mosque at Kodungallur in the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
In the early 1920s, violence erupted in Malabar in the course of the Khilafat movement launched by the Congress at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi. Although the event had communal overtones, scholars are of the opinion that it was primarily anti-British and anti-landlord in character. Thanks to the spirit of inclusiveness promoted by the social reform movements that had swept the region earlier, the trouble did not spread far.
The emergence of vote banks built around religious and caste identities promoted a degree of divisiveness after Independence. Sectarian groups gained political legitimacy as the Congress and Communist parties pampered them to win elections.
Communal sentiments grew in the 1990s in the wake of the Ayodhya temple controversy fanned by the Sangh Parivar. That was when Abdul Naser Mahdani appeared on the horizon. That was also when National Development Front, predecessor of the Popular Front of India, which is now under the scanner following a hand-chopping incident, took birth.
Both the Congress and the CPI-M vied for Mahdani’s favours but he eventually ended up as a pawn on the political chessboard. He spent more than nine years in a Tamil Nadu jail without bail or parole before being acquitted in a bomb blast case. As these lines are written, a police team from Karnataka is waiting to arrest him to face trial in a blast case in that state.
The murder of PK Mohammed Abdul Hassan Maulavi of Chekannur, whose reformist ideas infuriated orthodox elements, in 1993 and the communal riot that rocked the fishing hamlet of Marad in 2002 were rude reminders that fanaticism was on the rise. The warning signals evoked only a weak response.
The hand-chopping case shows how those who ought to act soberly are exacerbating the situation with short-sighted action.
In March, TJ Joseph, a college teacher in Thodupuzha, set a question paper in which students were asked to provide punctuation marks in a text, which was an imaginary dialogue between the Creator and a character named Muhammed. There was nothing in the text to suggest that the character was the Prophet (PBUH) but word spread that the teacher had denigrated the Prophet (PBUH). The college, the university, the government and the media implicitly endorsed the charge of denigration.
Religious leaders in Thodupuzha came together and brought communal sentiments under control quickly. However, elsewhere, some people were plotting revenge. On July 4 Joseph was waylaid near his home in Muvattupuzha while returning from church and his right hand chopped off. Six weeks later, he is back at home, the severed hand sewn up, but the social fabric remains torn.
The political parties have their eyes on the local self-government elections which are at hand and the Assembly elections which are not far away. The CPI-M, eager to live down the impact of its disastrous association with Mahdani in last year’s parliamentary elections, is taking a position close to that of the Bharatiya Janata Party on communally sensitive issues.
Organisations like the pro-CPI-M Democratic Youth Federation of India, the Indian Union Muslim League, the BJP and Jamaat-e-Islami have drawn up separate programmes to repair the damage to the social fabric. The partisan approach reflected in these efforts offers little room for hope.