Ground report: In a polarised Manjeshwaram, BJP hopes to wrest an IUML stronghold

Away from the limelight of the Sabarimala controversy, BJP’s state president K Surendran hopes to win a constituency he lost by 89 votes in 2016.
K Surendran, VV Rameshan, AKM Ashraf
K Surendran, VV Rameshan, AKM Ashraf
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Minutes after crossing the Karnataka-Kerala border in Talapady, the faces of K Surendran, AKM Ashraf, and VV Rameshan stare back at you from posters and hoardings put up on walls every few metres along the national highway linking the two states. They are the contestants of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), United Democratic Front (UDF) and Left Democratic Front (LDF) respectively from Manjeshwaram, the northern-most constituency in Kerala. 

With less than three weeks to go for the Legislative Assembly elections in Kerala on April 6, the three leaders are busy in their election campaign for a seat that was decided by just 89 votes in 2016. But they are going about it in very different ways — with Surendran splitting his focus between two constituencies, Ashraf projecting himself as a local candidate, and Rameshan highlighting the schemes of the LDF government in the last five years. 

BJP fields state president

This constituency is important for the BJP since its candidate K Surendran is currently the party's president in Kerala. He is also the only political leader in the state contesting in two constituencies — in Konni and Manjeshwaram. The BJP leader started his political career in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and rose to become the state president of the party in 2020. “People in Kerala are fed up with the two fronts and BJP is a viable third alternative,” he says speaking to TNM on the sidelines of his election campaign. 

In 2016, K Surendran lost the Manjeshwaram constituency by 89 votes to Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) leader Abdul Razak. “Despite the loss, it was a clear message for the public that the Congress, Muslim League and CPI(M) are tied up with each other in Manjeshwaram. There was also the issue of bogus votes,” he alleges. After the election, Surendran filed a case in the Kerala High Court alleging voter fraud but later withdrew it after IUML MLA Abdul Razak passed away after a cardiac arrest.  

Abdul Razak's death in 2018 led to another IUML leader MC Kamaruddin becoming the MLA after defeating BJP's Raveesh Thanthri Kuntar in the bye-election by a margin of nearly 8,000 votes. 

K Surendran is the BJP candidate in Manjeshwaram

Interestingly, K Surendran did not contest the bye-election from Manjeshwaram, opting instead to contest from Konni — the epicentre of the controversy over the entry of women into Sabarimala in 2019. He was defeated in Konni and this time around, the BJP has fielded him in both Konni and Manjeshwaram. 

As a result, Surendran’s campaigning time has been split between the two constituencies. He travels in a chopper and addresses party workers in two ends of the state more than 500 km apart. He cites the achievements of the Narendra Modi-led Union government in his campaign speeches. “Unlike local body elections, the issues are entirely different now. No one discussed the gold scam, corruption and minority appeasement (in local body elections). This time, the campaign is about state and national level issues and PM Modi and Amit Shah are coming here,” he says.

UDF skips bye-poll winner

The IUML, representing the UDF, is not fielding bye-election winner MC Kamaruddin after he was arrested by a Special Investigation Team in November 2020 in connection with a jewellery scam case in Kasaragod. He is still involved in IUML’s election campaign, but the party decided to field AKM Ashraf, who is a local politician from Manjeshwaram. His identity and background is central to his election campaign. 

Kasaragod is also called ‘Saptha Bhasha Sangama Bhoomi’ or the land of seven languages of which Malayalam, Tulu and Kannada are widely spoken in Manjeshwaram. Ashraf can converse fluently in these three languages unlike his rivals, and his party has a loyal voter base in this constituency.

“I studied at the Govinda Pai Memorial College here and I can speak Tulu and Kannada well. Surendran, who is from Kasaragod, and Rameshan, who is from Kanhangad, are Malayalees. They can perhaps string together a sentence in Kannada when they meet the public, but can they represent the Kannada-speaking local population of Manjeshwaram?  It is time our place is represented by a local leader who can communicate with the people,” Ashraf says, speaking to TNM at the Talapady border between Kerala and Karnataka.

AKM Ashraf at the Talapady border

‘Talapady is not an international border’

He then immediately turns the conversation to the issue at the border which erupted last year during the national lockdown and resurfaced again last month when the neighbouring Dakshina Kannada district administration in Karnataka said that commuters from Kasaragod have to carry negative COVID-19 test certificates to cross the border.

“I want to remind officials in Karnataka that we are living in a federal structure and this border is not separating two countries. Many people from Manjeshwaram study and work in Mangaluru. They have families on both sides of the border and if it is closed by Karnataka again, I will stop my election campaign and sit at the border in protest,” Ashraf says. 

The Kerala-Karnataka border in Talapady

Mangaluru city is just 22 km from the Talapady border and thousands of people commute across the border every day to study, manage shops, work in petrol pumps and even in health care as nurses, in Mangaluru. Residents in Manjeshwaram also depend on Mangaluru for emergency healthcare facilities. The situation turned critical during the lockdown last year when reports stated that seven people died when ambulances were not allowed to cross the border. 

The issue has struck a chord among residents living close to the border. Yakub, 35, from Hosangadi says he is usually undecided about who he will vote for in elections. But this time around, he says that Ashraf will get his vote because he is a local candidate who understands the plight of the residents along the border. “Ashraf has been consistently raising the issue about the entry at the border. He is also a candidate we can approach more easily than the others. What if someone from Hosangadi or Uppala wanted to meet the MLA? Wouldn’t it be better if Ashraf, a local candidate is elected? Very often, parties field candidates from elsewhere here in Manjeshwaram,” says Yakub. 

Yakub, a resident of Manjeshwaram says he supports the IUML

Manjeshwaram and other areas in Kasaragod share their history and culture with present-day Dakshina Kannada dating back to the 15th Century. The areas north of the Chandragiri river that flows through the district are where the Kannada and Tulu-speaking population reside.

LDF aims to build on local body election wins

The border issue was also raised by the Manjeshwaram unit of the CPI(M). “Kolu muriyalla, haavu sayolla” (Neither the snake nor the stick breaks) remarked a local CPI(M) leader Jayananda KR while discussing it. “The BJP government in Karnataka is deliberately raking this issue up again now since we are close to the election,” says Jayananda.

Jayananda was slated to be the CPI(M)’s candidate from Manjeshwaram but a dissenting poster campaign by his own party members led to the party opting to field VV Rameshan, a former chairman of the municipality in neighbouring Kanhangad. 

The CPI(M) has won just once from Manjeshwaram, in 2006, in over three decades and was a distant third in the 2019 bye-elections. But despite its poor track record, the party is upbeat about its chances this year after it won four of the eight gram panchayats in Manjeshwaram in the local body elections held in December. 

CPI(M) candidate VV Rameshan campaigning in Perla, Kasargod

Rameshan says his election campaign is centred around development and the schemes of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government in Kerala. “Welfare pension was raised to Rs 1,600, food kits were distributed in ration shops and education was given a priority,” repeats Rameshan, addressing ward-level meetings in places in and around Perla, a village in the constituency.

Religious polarisation 

Rameshan also says that the religious polarisation in the district is another reason for the success of the Muslim League and the BJP. Manjeshwaram borders Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka, a BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) stronghold. Due to this, the RSS and its affiliate organisations like the Bajrang Dal have a sizable presence in Manjeshwaram. 

“There are areas here like Bajakudlu, Hosangadi and Uppala near the border where the RSS is very active. Over the last few years, we have seen the Muslims here unite over issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and so we (Hindus) have to be united to face this,” says Chandra B, a 35-year-old auto driver in Manjeshwaram. 

Chandra B, a resident of Manjeshwaram says he supports the BJP

In 2020, Sachitha B Perla, a 24-year-old government school teacher, shared a photograph of herself wearing a scarf but within weeks, BJP supporters shared the same picture accusing her of converting to Islam and threatened her. “They threatened me with rape on social media. How can I be a Muslim by wearing a scarf? They want to polarise the voters based on religion,” she says. 

In another incident, a group of Muslim men threatened a Hindu Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) student in Kasaragod when he was seen with two Muslim women classmates in a juice centre. This kind of vigilantism against interfaith groups mingling is common in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka and is also reported in Manjeshwaram. It is also not limited to the Muslim community. “We often meet families and try to intervene when our karyakartas inform us about a Hindu girl seen with Muslim boys,” says Saroja Ballal, a BJP worker in Manjeshwaram. 

Sachitha B Perla 

BJP’s K Surendran has made statements attacking Muslims and asking Christians and Hindus to unite against ‘love jihad’ in Kerala. ‘Love jihad’ is a crude term used to claim that Hindu women are being forcibly converted to Islam and then allegedly radicalised through marriages to Muslim men. The BJP leader however said that he is not against interfaith marriages but is against women ending up with the Syria-based Islamic State (ISIS).

‘A sea of men’

Women in Manjeshwaram are conspicuously absent in election campaigns in Manjeshwaram where it is hard to distinguish between a party worker and an MLA candidate since almost everyone involved in the campaigns are men, usually dressed simply in a mundu. Women like Sachita and Saroja say that there are few women actively involved in campaigning across the three parties.

“A girl’s freedom is generally restricted in Manjeshwaram from a very early age and families discourage women from going out late in the night or getting involved in political activities. Women are asked about their behaviour and questioned by other party members if they are seen outside,” says Sachita Rai. Her views are echoed by Saroja Ballal, a BJP member who has been campaigning in Manjeshwaram for over 25 years. “Women have held various roles in the block level and gram panchayat level but no woman has been given the opportunity to contest a legislative election from here,” she says. IUML has fielded a woman candidate in the state for the first time in 25 years.

The main candidates in the upcoming election in Manjeshwaram are Ashraf and Surendran with Rameshan seeking to improve the CPI(M)’s performance. The three candidates, however, refused to rule out the possibility of a ground understanding in Manjeshwaram before the election on April 6. “In Kerala, the CPI(M) and Muslim League always say they are enemies, but in Manjeshwaram, they are friends,” Surendran says. 

The BJP is tipped to win from Manjeshwaram by the Manorama News-VMR pre-poll survey but a ground understanding before the election could yet prove to be decisive in a close contest like this. Ashraf, however, declined to discuss any potential alliance. “Nothing is ruled out yet. We will be addressing this closer to the elections,” says Ashraf.

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