By Naveen Nair
Hartals (strikes) are not new to Kerala. But when a call for hartal over social media evokes an unprecedented response wreaking havoc across five districts of the state, leading to large scale violence in certain pockets that are dominated by one particular community, it certainly rings alarm bells for the state’s law enforcing agency.
The Kerala Police are however not mincing their words this time round. The state police chief who is otherwise tight-lipped over sensitive issues has spoken out loud and clear.
“There has certainly been an attempt to inflame communal passions through the social media which had resulted in this hartal. We have enough evidence to believe that the aim was to create a communal riot like situation in the state. We cannot let this happen in Kerala at any cost and it will be dealt with an iron hand,” said Lokanath Behera, Director General of Police, Kerala.
Even when the police chief claims that he would take all steps to not let a communal riot burst out in the state, what happened in certain pockets in Kerala on Monday was nothing short of it as the police clearly failed to preempt such a scenario.
Tanur, a little town in Muslim dominated Malappuram was the worst hit as rioters vandalised shops, stoned vehicles and burned tyres on the national highway.
Pictures of young men, with their faces half covered, stoning the policemen prompted people to draw similarities between Kerala’s hartal and the protests witnessed in Kashmir valley.
North Kerala was on the boil like never before but with no one to take the blame for it. Perhaps for the first time in the state, there was a hartal without anyone to own the responsibility.
But the underlying narrative was all too evident. The brutal crime committed at Kathua on the eight year old had taken a completely communal colour. It was Hindu vs Muslim.
After the fire burned out, the state police had little doubts that the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its political arm the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), both Islamist separatist groups had ignited it.
“We have credible evidence to believe that the PFI and SDPI workers are the ones who led the violence at many places. There may have been others also involved. A lot of youth who had no political allegiance have also been arrested. But the whole thing was managed by these hardline groups. Once we track the origin of the message we will get to the bottom of it. A proxy server seems to have been used to spread the message around,” a senior official who is investigating Monday’s incidents told Firstpost.
According to the numbers released by the police 265 PFI/SDPI activists have been booked for rioting out of a total 951 who had been arrested till mid-week.
But what is baffling even for the police is another statistics. Out of the rest of 686 arrests made, 270 people swear allegiance with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), 125 are CPM activists, 60 are Congress workers and around 235 have no direct political leanings.
Hameed Chennamangaloor, a sociologist and a political critic based out of north Kerala, explains this strange mix of protesters: “See we always thought that workers from other parties lose their cadre to the hardline groups. But this incident pan-Kerala actually shows that such hardline Islamist elements have successfully infiltrated the rank and file of major political parties in Kerala. They are forming sub groups inside these political parties, which will then take forward their radical ideology inside these mainstream political parties. It is a terribly dangerous slope that we are slipping off from.”
Chennamangaloor says that this trend can only be arrested if mainstream political parties come forward to reject the radical outlook in strong terms. But with electoral ambitions in sight, hardly anyone would take that step.
Definite PFI imprints
To make more sense of the turn of events FirstPost talked to the top brass of the PFI and SDPI in Kerala.
While they are outright denying any such official call given for a hartal, both the organisations have not only shied away from condemning Monday’s violence but are also, in spirit, supportive of everything that happened on the hartal day.
Naseeruddin Elamaram is the state president of the PFI in Kerala. Speaking to Firstpost from Kozhikode he puts across his own arguments defending the violence.
“What happened on Monday was a display of the anger of genuine people to the misrule of the Modi government in the last four years. Kathua rape is only the tipping point. See what all inhuman acts have happened in the last few years. Killing in the name of cow, love jihad, how can people tolerate all this? They will surely react. These protests were only a reflection of the existing situation,” Elamaram told Firstpost.
When asked about the violence his cadre allegedly unleashed on the streets, Elamaram had a more bizarre take.
“Has there been any hartal in Kerala which has not seen violence? All political parties have unleashed violence before, why single this out? Just because the slogans were against the RSS?” asks Elamaram.
However his next argument is perhaps a definite give-away on the real ownership of Monday’s violence.
The conviction in Elamarum’s voice as he explains the exact nature of protests and defends them, further raises questions if PFI indeed planned, fanned, and tacitly supported the hartal. But PFI president’s claim of the hartal being just an anti-RSS affair falls flat because as per eye witness accounts in many places small establishments owned by Hindus were singled out and attacked, something which even the Muslim League agrees to.
“Calling the hartal anti-Hindu is only an attempt to colour it communal. This was a mass protest by youngsters who are very emotional, so naturally it became violent. Now the police have even arrested youngsters who have shared the hartal messages on Facebook and WhatsApp which is wrong. We will soon protest against it,” claims Abdul Majeed Faizi, state president of the SDPI.
The SDPI may have its own narrative but ground reports from across all five districts in north Kerala, along with some pockets in the southern part, say that the tone of the hartal was highly communal, putting an entire community in the dock for the Kathua crime. Perhaps, this is why the DGP himself called it an attempt to create a communal riot.
Polarisation was the aim
Social observers say that it is a well concerted effort by extremist elements to divide the society among Hindus and Muslims and then fish in the troubled waters for their respective gains.
“It is beyond a doubt that this was indeed an attempt to hijack a sensitive issue like the rape of this young Muslim girl and create a narrative of Hindu vs Muslim so that certain separatist organisations can pursue their radical ambitions. What is alarming is that at every place the attack was targeted at one community,” says CR Neelakandan, political commentator and convenor of Aam Admi Party in Kerala.
What is most dangerous is that post Monday’s hartal the so called torchbearers of both the communities have started a sustained polarisation effort over social media. Groups across Facebook and WhatsApp have been spewing communal venom like never before, further drawing a line in an already divided society in Kerala.
“This so called self proclaimed hartal has immensely helped in dividing Kerala communally in the last few days. Especially in the post hartal period, it’s the Hindu groups that are now hitting back. By doing such a violent hartal, these Muslim fringe groups have literally played into the hands of the Hindu fringe groups. Now it’s a competition between the two, which could once again spill on to the streets,” KM Shajahan, noted social activist and left ideologue told Firstpost.
Shajahan says that such polarisation could also get reflected in the electoral process in the near future. A consolidation of the Hindu vote bank in favour of the BJP could very well be a major fallout of such meaningless communal aggression.
Many believe that it could also be the reason the RSS failed to retort to the violence unleashed on Monday. A victim card in run up to the Chengannur by-polls could also help the BJP and the Sangh Parivar is well aware of it, which explains their silence.
CPM’s soft stand on terror
The CPM goes soft against such radical elements, is an allegation that has been doing the rounds ever since the Pinarayi Vijayan government came to power in 2016.
But political pundits say that it is only a reflection of the red party’s policy degeneration in terms of joining hands with anyone as long as it brings electoral gains.
“It was the Left which had been acting as a vanguard against communalism in Kerala for decades. From there the Left has succumbed to the whims and fancies of the communal forces, not only the Islamist but also the majority Hindutva forces. Apart from a few noises what has it done against fringe radical preachers like Sasikala teacher? Even the Opposition to RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat’s flag hoisting ceremony was just a farce. So if the secular fabric of Kerala is lost tomorrow, the Left has a huge share of blame to take,” Shajahan says.
Not only the political party, the Left intelligentsia too had been contributing heavily to the growth of Islamist separatism in the state.
“If you want to arrest communalism you need to condemn it outright. Instead, many of the Left writers and intelligentsia are acting as advocates for minority separatism to grow. They attend their seminars, programmes and end up legitimising their radical ideology which is not what Left parties and their ideologues should be doing,” Chennamangaloor ads.
While the CPM continues to be in denial about their cadre crossing the fence, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) is a terribly worried lot.
That a party that had always took an anti-communal stand even in the period around Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, is now fading away to irrelevance and a lot of its cadre are opting for the more radical SDPI or Welfare party is also a matter of grave concern.
“The league is seeing this as a very dangerous development in Kerala. It is a trend that needs to be countered and we will be calling a meetings soon to address the issue,” says KPA Majeed, General Secretary, IUML.
The BJP has meanwhile approached the National Investigating Agency to look into Monday’s violence and take necessary action.
If sources are to be believed the central government too is shocked at the turn of events in Kerala. The urgent flying down of IB chief Rajeev Jain to meet the Kerala police chief is also an indication of ruffled feathers in New Delhi.