In states like UP, the 'love jihad' narrative has only been Hindus versus Muslims. But in Kerala, the propaganda has been tweaked to Hindus+Christians versus Muslims.

Home Minister Amit Shah on the left and BJP Kerala president K Surendran on the right with black and white crowd in the background
news 2021 KERALA ASSEMBLY ELECTION Thursday, April 01, 2021 - 13:51

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while campaigning in Kerala invoked Jesus Christ. “Judas betrayed Lord Christ for a few pieces of silver. LDF has betrayed Kerala for a few pieces of gold", the PM said while attacking the Left government over the gold smuggling case. From any other leader of any other party perhaps, this would be a passing statement. But coming from the staunchly Hindu Modi, whose party BJP and its supporters have targeted Christians and Christianity in other parts of the country, the statement demands a closer look.

The Prime Minister and his party want to woo Christians in Kerala, because without them, they will not have a large enough vote bank in the state. It’s a long-term strategy — and one of the elements of this strategy is how the party has tailored the ‘love jihad’ bogey to fit the demographics of the poll-bound state. While in states like Uttar Pradesh, the 'love jihad' narrative has only been Hindus versus Muslims, in Kerala, the propaganda has been tweaked to Hindus+Christians versus Muslims. 

'Love jihad' is a term coined by exponents of Hindutva targeting Muslims. The fallacious concept alleges that Muslim men lure, seduce and trap Hindu women by pretending to be in love with them, and then deceive them by compelling the women to convert to Islam in order to get married. Officially, the Indian government — led by the BJP — has denied that anything called ‘love jihad’ exists. However, all that political correctness is for the Parliament, not political stages. Several BJP leaders including Home Minister Amit Shah have used the narrative to target Muslims. 

And this election season, the instruction to party leaders and workers is to capitalise on the othering of Muslims using this narrative in Kerala. 

“One of the important emotional issues for us in Kerala is that of 'love jihad',” Karnataka Deputy CM Ashwath Narayan, who is in-charge of Kerala for the upcoming Assembly elections, told TNM recently. “Amit Shah told us to speak about this and make people realise how the Congress too is guilty of not taking a stand because of their appeasement politics.”

The gains made by ‘love jihad’ narrative

Amit Shah’s strategy is evidence based — ever since the ‘love jihad’ bogey has been raised by the right wing, Christian leaders in Kerala have been propagating the myth to their followers. 

“In our Sunday sermons, 'love jihad' has featured very frequently,” says a follower of Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church from Thiruvalla. He says that many speak of how their ancestors were Hindus who converted to Christianity and still have a hangover of belonging to an upper caste.

“Examples of women who married Muslims and were ‘forced’ to convert is often cited. Details of how their lives changed after that, like being forced to wear a burkha, not being allowed to keep in touch with their Christian families are cited in sermons. I think many parents in our Church have started to believe that 'love jihad' is a planned strategic conversion to Islam using the deception of love,” he adds. 

Why BJP wants to woo Christians

According to the 2011 Census, Kerala’s population is 54.73% Hindu, 26.56% Muslim and 18.38% Christian.  

The loyalties of the Hindu vote base is already split between the UDF and LDF. With Sabarimala and other related issues, the BJP has managed to win over a few of the Hindu voters, especially those belonging to upper castes. However, this number cannot be expected to rise dramatically for the BJP, say political observers. 

So for the BJP to gain votes, they will need the support of the sections of Christians at least. An RSS functionary working with the BJP social media team in Kerala, speaking to TNM talks about the Sangh’s need to woo the Christians. “Kerala’s caste politics predominantly played a role too. SNDP, NSS and others keep shifting their loyalties so we cannot rely just on upper caste Hindus,” he says. 

Confirming that 'love jihad' is a very important election plank for the BJP, he says they believe that continuous campaigning has yielded results for them in the past. “If you see the local panchayat results in the south, which is predominantly Christian in demography, BJP has won. And this is a response to issues like 'love jihad'. This election also the Christians are openly supporting BJP because of this.”

BJP’s overtures, and Christian leaders’ acceptance

PM Modi’s January 19 meeting with various Cardinals from Kerala indicated the BJP’s outreach towards the community. While both sides denied that politics was discussed, it was reported that 'love jihad' was prominently discussed and the Christian leaders also complained that the Muslims are largely benefitting from the welfare schemes for minorities. 

In the past too, after serial blasts in Sri Lanka in 2019, Kerala media had reported BJP leaders as having said that they will form a collective to protect Christians in the state. 

In districts like Kottayam, Idukki, Ernakulam and Kozhikode with significant populations of Syro-Malabar Catholics, Syro-Malankara along with Jacobite Syrians form a strong voter base. The BJP leaders in Kerala say that they have received positive feedback to their overtures to these communities, many of whom have not displayed animosity towards the Sangh parivar and its politics. 

A long game

With five states across India facing Assembly polls, the RSS functionary says that Kerala is not on top of the priority list for the BJP high command as they see themselves barely crossing double-digits in the number of seats — but the ground level workers have been instructed to create a ‘favourable’ atmosphere. 

“Now the BJP’s full force is in West Bengal as it has 39 Lok Sabha seats. But Amit Shah has told us that we will next target Telangana, Andhra, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and then Kerala, in that order. Meanwhile, the Kerala BJP has to prove itself,” he says.

The history of ‘love jihad’

In October 2009, the term 'love jihad' was first heard when representatives of the BJP government in Karnataka said that it is a major issue in the coast particularly in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. The government, in an unprecedented move, ordered a CID probe into this ‘menace’.

In 2011, the state government told the Karnataka High Court that they found no evidence of an organised attempt to convert Hindu women to Islam. But this notwithstanding, the propaganda of 'love jihad' continued.

In 2011, the term found its place in the Assembly discussions when BJP’s Puttur MLA Mallika Prasad alleged that because of the ‘rampant problem of 'love jihad'’, 69 Hindu girls who had gone missing in 2011 and were later found, ‘confessed that Muslim boys had deceptively converted them with th elure of marriage’. The veracity of this statement was not given either by the district administration or the home department. Later, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti claimed that 30,000 women in Karnataka had been converted to Islam, a claim with no statistical basis but was used heavily to polarise.

This experiment coupled with BJP’s electoral success in Karnataka showed that such issues, though not backed by facts, can create a conducive environment for the party and it is being replicated in Kerala too.

Kerala origins of 'love jihad'

In 2009, the Kerala High Court, while hearing a plea accusing two persons of 'love jihad', ordered a probe. The allegation had been that between 2005/6 and 2009, close to 4,000 women were forcefully converted to Islam. The then Director General of Police Jacob Punnoose, in his report, had said that while they found that several Hindu girls had converted to Islam willingly, they found no evidence of 'love jihad'. 

In 2012, the Kerala police, after investigation, called the allegations of 'love jihad' a “campaign with no substance”.

In 2014, the then CM Oommen Chandy told the Assembly that 2,667 young women had converted to Islam between 2006 and 2014 but they were not forced.

But despite the fact that there is no shred of evidence to support the theory, right wing Hindu groups like the VHP and Christian groups like Christian Association for Social Action came together to ‘battle love jihad'. VHP even set up a ‘Hindu Helpline’ in the state.

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