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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 50 New Delhi December 5, 2015

Kerala: Cultural Sanitation and the Making of a ‘Hatesphere’

Sunday 6 December 2015

by P.K. Yasser Arafath

“To a Muslim, donating for the construction of temples is more sinful than extending monetary help to raise a brothel,” says a celebrated young neo-Salafi evangelist from Malabar in a video that has circulated massively in Kerala and the Gulf countries in recent times. His Hindutva counterpart in another video screams that “once Hindus wake up from their slumber, one will have to search hard to find a single scalp-cap wearing Muslim in Kerala”. Observing the flow of incidents over a period of two decades, such gerrymandering of religious rhetoric can be considered symptomatic of the communal polarisation that is increasingly palpable, and that one can experience in the everydayness of the Kerala public sphere.

Unfortunately, this is largely un-debated. Such hostile rhetoric produces subtle undercurrents of ‘hate-smearing’ which is conducive to the making of aggressive religious bodies in contemporary Kerala. I therefore try to examine how both Islamist polemicists and the Hindutva ideologues feed their violence with postulations of the ‘pure Muslim’ and the ‘pure Hindu’ respectively, and how in turn these are used to mobilise against the other community.

The Spite of Hindutva in Kerala 

From their very inception, organisations like the RSS and VHP started impregnating the social life of Kerala with the cultural logic of Hindutva nationalism. As is well known, Kerala is the only southern State where they have been unable to make an electoral breakthrough. Currently, this region has become the most desired ground for Hindutva experiments for multiple reasons.

Though they became functional in Kerala from as early as 1925, it was only in the 1970s that the RSS conducted its first anti-Muslim field experiment. That violence was conducted in Telicherry, a trading centre in North Malabar and one of the strongest bastions of the Left movement in Kerala. This was with the polemic of ‘Muslim boy molested a Hindu girl’—a trope that was to become common in later years. Conjectured is the fact that this violent situation, which began by making the Hindu woman’s body a site for constructing communal violence, was thwarted and the spread was contained by the swift manoeuvring of the Left organisations, particularly the CPI-M. After realising the impossibility of a cow-belt style communalism in a State where the power dynamics and demographic compositions are different, Hindutva adopted strategic patience and conducted itself very circumspectly. Part of it was the creation of more sophisticated ideological strategies—for instance, producing networks of micro-Hindu sociability, with occasional acts of physical violence.

At present, the rigour and spread of the Hindu Right-wing organisations and Hindutva feelings are very deep even in the remotest interiors of Kerala. Physical percolation of today’s Hindutva in Kerala can be qualified as performative politics in which North Indian-style rituals like Ganesh Chaturthi have gained popularity, and these connect easily with the common people in the age of global Hindutva. Such attempts at religious homogenisation through rituals and practices also bring changes in the multilayered visual aesthetics of the region.

Now, one finds Kerala villages getting tormented with new aggressive political symbols and signatures, which adds to local volatility. With Hindutva’s massive penetration into the regional media, particularly Malayalam television and post-Marxist regional films, such cultural symbols are normalised as essentials for ‘being a Hindu’. Significantly, these also attack the idea of the ‘secular’, presenting it as an ideal to be abjured. Such ideologies have further spread with the sprouting of a newer kinds of sociability built around cooperative micro-social piety gatherings, like recitation of holy texts, prayer gatherings, rhetoric centred on dietary reform and corporeal activities like yoga and Kalari, the martial art practice.

In recent times, with the new confidence gained after the BJP’s victory in the parliamentary elections, one experiences open physical violence of Hindutva in urban areas in Kerala following the pattern of its North Indian counterpart. Now the interiors and provincial towns are infested by indoctrinated vigilante gangs who largely hail from the blue-collar professional class, particularly from the intermediary caste groups. To be more specific, most of them hail from the Izhava/Tiyya communities that have been experiencing a new economic assertion and social mobility which generally creates a desire for entering the dominant religious sociability. From the early 1980s the Hindutva forces started concentrating on this demographic constituency which had traditionally been with the Left movement.

With the induction of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) into the larger NDA alliance, one began to see such gangs resorting to continuous violence in certain places in South Kerala. The most recent example of this was at the Sree Kerala Varma College on October 1 as they tried to attack a protest programme conducted by the CPI-M’s student wing, the SFI, against the Dadri-lynching. Such gangs and aggressive propaganda of certain leaders have opened up a gamut of tensions in Kerala when the Left movement witnesses its worst crisis—parlia-mentary, ideological, and intellectual—in the post-independence period.

Islamist Polemics and Neo-Salafisation

Muslim reformist (Islahi) ideas have been very visible in Kerala from the late 19th century and disaggregated campaigning activities attained an organised form by the beginning of the 1920s. Salafis (companions of the Prophet), as they were customarily called, are taken to be the pioneers of modernity and education amongst the Muslim community. It is also true that the early Salafis’ novel attitudes towards religion and education attracted a section of the Muslim community, particularly from the provincial towns. Though they failed to address the social and cultural conflicts within the community, their protest against the syncretic traditional Muslims were considered ‘progressive’ by the larger Malayali community which did not bother to examine the revivalist accretions in the declared intentions of the Salafi movement.

By the 1970s, their revivalist character strengthened with the emergence of a new class of Muslims who rose from the remittance economy in West Asia. Subsequently, the catastrophes of the post-1990s enabled a hyperconservative section in the Salafi movement to become representational of the ‘new Muslim’. Alongside, they evolved a strict disciplinary Wahabiite Salafism, which can also be termed neo-Salafism, though a more flexible section continues to exist silently.

The growth of such orthodoxy enabled a demonstrative sphere which in turn facilitated a strong spectacle of religiosity that values expressi-onistic doctrinal assertions. With new economic possibilities in the remittance economy, a large section of the new Muslim middle class demonstrates a proclivity to enter this neo-Salafi sociability. Subsequently, the sartorial part of the religion has been increased in many Salafi villages where attempts are made to build functional doctrinal kinship which advocates for ‘pure religion’ and ‘pure Muslim’. The assertions of the new Salafised middle class, whose intra-religious relations are clearly limited, thus inadvertently became instrumental in the fermentation of exclusive cultural zones in recent times.

Now the cultural exclusivity has not only become a conceivable idea in the interiors, but also a desirable factor with all its sartorial signatures as Salafi breakaway factions are increasingly advocating for exclusive and ‘pure’ cultural cocoons for Muslims. This was evident in the recent doctrinal spite regarding the Muslims’ participation in Onam—a local harvest festival of Kerala. As the religious conservatives find new cultural patriarchs in the villages, festivals, civic relationships and inter-personal engagements are falling into the trap of community-based identity discourses that are both patriarchal and aggressive.

The new derivative of Salafism is a major deviation from its pre-1990s character, and engagements. With their increasing presence in the political sphere, particularly within the rank-and-file of the Indian Union Muslim League, an identity-related cultural problematic has emerged as one of their important issues. the IUML’s rhetoric, related to the nilavilakku (stand lamps), and the ‘colour green’ are far removed from the consequence of the neo-Salafism influence on the party structure. By rejecting outright the discursive character of Islam, neo-Salafi groups attempt to enforce a hyper-conservative jurisprudential framework of extre-mely inflexible medieval scholars like Imam Hambali and Ibn-Taimiyya. This adds to the existing ruckus in the region. Additionally, they also adhere to certain strict legal aspects of Shafiite jurispru-dential frame as to the linearisation of theological dispossessions of neo-Whabiite Salafism which essentially questions any form of cultural syncretism branding them as polytheistic and anti-Islamic.

Currently, the neo-Salafi’s exclusivist cultural gerrymandering gets benefited from other Islamist polemicists of Kerala who make coarse trans-location of the post-colonial-post-modern identity discourses to suit their propaganda for the dystopia of political Islam. Their coarse transpo-sitions of dexterous scholars like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, who perceptually opened up new readings of the Third World communities in the larger Islamicate world in response to the Eurocentric epistemic, are far removed from the creation of new clannish cultural emotions. This new trend does not take into cognisance the different and more complex social and material realities of the region.

Subsequently, when both neo-conservatives and new epistemic Islamists end up presenting adversaries as the ‘others’, religious evangelists are in a position to build vicious networks of retrogressive doctrinal kinship and promote their culture-based persuasive agenda. Now, pressurised by such cacophonic post-modern Islamist argumentative sphere, certain hitherto syncretistic traditional Sunni organisations also started voicing out the conservative Troyistic reading of religious texts by silencing the history of the discursive trajectory of Islam.

Interestingly enough, despite such increasing particularistic accelerations, minority issues, particularly doctrinal and theo-legal, are considered by social critics as ‘internal matters’ while their engagement with the majoritarian communalism has been consistent. Researchers and intellectuals overlook the cascading effect of such aggregative rhetoric on the social everyday, when the Hindutva started lambasting Islamists, and exploited that for its own gains, so as to penetrate into the social, cultural and political spheres of Kerala.

In short, apart from other reasons, the proliferations of identitarian emotions around sanitised cultural narratives by both the Hindutva and Islamist/’pure-Islam’ polemicists are influential in enhancing the number of conflictual zones that are continuously emerging in the region in recent times.

Dr P.K. Yasser Arafath is an Assistant Professor, Department of History, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Delhi.