The developmental woes of Kasaragod in Kerala are quite well known but its dark underbelly of religious divide, especially in its northern part which borders the volatile Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, becomes newsworthy only when there is a violent flare-up. For an outsider, Kasaragod is still a sleepy place with many myths and syncretic folklores but beneath the veneer of rustic charm lurks a seething mistrust fed by insecurities, that dates back to the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992.
Incidents of moral policing, when a group suspects that a boy and a girl found together are from different communities, are a common occurrence here. Two motorbikes grazing against each other on a busy road, a stone thrown at a house by a drunkard or someone peeing in public, all can attain a communal colour within no time leading to scuffles, murders and even riots. Such incidents are unnerving as they have acted as triggers for violent backlashes in the past leading to loss of life.
While the politics and social dynamics of southern Kasaragod reflects the secular fabric of rest of Kerala, the Hindu-Muslim divide is explicit in several parts of northern Kaasaragod including the Kasaragod town, where residential segregation on religious lines and organised attempts for economic exclusion are visible to anyone who has stayed long enough.
This division gets reflected in the electoral politics, especially in local body polls, and is the reason why wins over the years have become predictable. For instance, it is common knowledge that the Thalangara ward in Kasaragod municipality will only elect a candidate from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Karanthakkad or Korakode wards are destined to have Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) councillors.
â€śPeople here seem to think, speak and act only in terms of religion. After Poinachi, the entire part of north Kasaragod that extends to Talapady you will find a political climate that is totally different from other parts of Kerala. There are entire residential areas where only Hindus or Muslims reside,â€ť says Muhammed Khader, 75, a resident speaking about religious segregation in Kasaragod town. In the 2020 local body polls in Karanthakkad, IUML did not even contest against the BJP, as they knew it would be an absolute win for the latter. Similarly, in Chalukunnu ward of the Kasaragod Municipality BJP did not field a candidate as itâ€™s an IUML area.
The same story repeats in locales spanning from Chandragiri to Talapady and in towns like Kumbla, Uppala, Manjeshwar, Cherkala, Badiyadukka and Perala. While Hindus are in a majority in Karanthakkad and Kudlu in Kasaragod municipality, Muslims dominate places like Thalangara and Thayalangadi. In Manjeswar block panchayat, Hindus are the majority in Permude, Enmake and Kadambar while Uppala and Bandiyod are known as Muslim areas.
The deep polarisation contrasts with the district's ancient syncretic traditions as Kasaragod is also known as the land of Mappila Theyyams, where Muslim characters turn Gods held in equal respect with Hindu deities, merging myth and social history.
A history of simmering communal tensions
The North Kasaragod region has witnessed several communal riots and hate crimes with religious underpinnings in the past but convictions have been low. Until late 2010, Kasaragod witnessed communal clashes quite frequently. The most violent of all riots happened in 2008 when four people were killed in back-to-back incidents in a period of five days.
It all began on April 14, 2008 on a Vishu day when a group of BJP activists, travelling in a car stopped to relieve themselves near the bus stand in Kasaragod. Some persons objected to this saying it was near a mosque, which led to an altercation and Sandeep, one of the persons in the group, was stabbed to death. The BJP called a protest the next day. Two of their party workers were stabbed at Mogral after Muslim youths came under attack in Karanthakkad where BJP had dominance. In the three days that followed, three men, including a teenager, lost their lives. In 2020, a court acquitted all the accused in the case. Though there have been other incidents of violence, the latest and most sensational of all murders happened in 2017, when a 30-year-old Madrassa teacher was hacked to death inside a mosque by RSS workers.
In recent years, the district has not witnessed any major communal conflagration. But there is a pervasive sense of unease because the communal fault here runs deep and into all aspects of public life; economy, social and political.
â€śPetty squabbles with communal overtones are frequent here. Some drunkard will throw a stone at a house. If it's a Hindu family it's assumed that the stone was thrown by Muslims, and vice versa. Since the police act on time these petty incidents donâ€™t flare-up,â€ť says KR Jayanandan, a CPI(M) leader from Manjeshwar and the partyâ€™s district committee member.
A senior journalist, who is a keen observer of the regionâ€™s politics, attributes this to lack of interdependence among people of different faiths, which is essential for ensuring peace and stability. â€śGroups like the RSS work on reducing the interdependence and interactions between communities leading to mutual distrust and then conflict,â€ť he says. The trust deficit between the communities is the reason why the region continues to be on the edge.
â€śMany people here see everything from a communal angle. The extremist forces to an extent were successful in injecting insecurity in the minds of people,â€ť says Raghav Bhat, a social worker from Perla. The polarisation has extended to schools and colleges and even friend circles are formed on the basis of religion, he alleged. But the recent happenings in neighbouring Karnataka following the Hijab row did not have much impact in the region according to testimonies.
IUML leader and Kasaragod MLA N A Nellikkunnu, however is dismissive of the allegations that the region is polarised on communal lines. "It is a common misunderstanding that Kasaragod is communally polarised. People here don't vote based on religion, me being the MLA here is the proof for that. Kasaragod has changed totally,â€ť he says. In June 2021, Nellikkunnu had levelled an allegations that the BJP had bribed Muslim voters in Madhur panchayat to abstain from voting in the assembly polls.
An RSS gathering in Kasaragod in 2015
Moral policing and intimidation of interreligious couples
On April 22, Kasaragod police arrested 10 workers of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) on charges of moral policing. The group had waylaid and harassed a 19-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl, belonging to different religions, who went to watch a movie. Moral policing to intimidate interreligious couples regularly occurs in Kasaragod and has had a huge impact on personal freedom and privacy.
â€śI was on my way to attend tuition with my classmate Akshay when men who arrived in two bikes, stopped and harassed us to reveal names. They said they had been keeping a watch on us for the last few days. When they realised that we were both Hindus, they left,â€ť says Neethu, a victim of a moral policing incident at Nellikunnu in 2020.
Akshaya,* a Hindu girl, was similarly targeted and publicly harassed by Hindu groups few years ago for travelling in a car with a Muslim boy, who was her classmate. She had to undergo multiple counselling sessions to come out of the trauma. â€śAfter the incident, for about two years stones were pelted on our house. My parents were abused. They also pasted posters to insult us,â€ť says Akshaya, who is now 22.
Allegations of economic boycott and growing mistrust
Shameer (name changed to protect identity), a Muslim and a civil contractor from Ukkinadkka was questioned by his community members for taking up work for a Hindu man. â€śThey were not happy that the building was being constructed by a Hindu. Usually in regions like Perla, Ukkinadkka and some parts of Badiyadka, fundamentalist Muslims, who own buildings, don't rent it out to Hindus. Hindus, most of them right wing sympathisers, won't entertain dealings with Muslims,â€ť says Shameer.
Allegations of economic exclusion and boycott are levelled by both Hindus and Muslims with allegiance to parties like the BJP and the Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI). Ashwini ML, a member of Manjeshwar Block Panchayath standing committee and a national executive member of BJPâ€™s Mahila Morcha, alleged that Muslims in her region discriminate against Hindus by buying goods and groceries from the shops owned by people of their community. They wonâ€™t sell their properties to Hindus and ensure that the economic transactions are limited within their community,â€ť she alleged.
NU Abdusalam, a leader of the SDPI, alleged that they face this discrimination from Hindu fundamentalists. â€śWe prefer renting out our buildings to non-Muslims just as we rent it out to Muslims. As a businessman I would like to have business with non-Muslims. Itâ€™s the right-wing sympathisers who choose shops owned by their people,â€ť he said, citing many buildings in Kasaragod town, owned Muslims and occupied by many non-Muslims.
Many people from northern Kasaragod this reporter spoke to however said they use religion as a filter when it comes to buying goods, renting out rooms, selling land and many other daily affairs.
An ardent RSS worker, who works as an auto driver in Uppala makes sure that he fills the fuel from a petrol station owned by a Hindu. â€śNot just me, we have decided as a group to try and limit economic transactions within the community,â€ť he says.
While there are no studies to establish the depth of residential segregation in Kasaragod, apart from the predictable nature of electoral victories in certain local body wards, there is a popular perception that Hindus and Muslims increasingly prefer to reside in neighbourhoods where their communities are in majority.
NU Abdusalam said there were instances when Muslim families had to relocate from Kudlu. â€śThey were frequently troubled by Sangh Parivar workers, who would attack the houses by pelting stones. They also faced ostracization,â€ť he alleged.
Similar allegations were levelled by Hindu residents of Talangara, who said Hindu families had to move out from the place as it became difficult to survive. But these allegations could not be independently verified by TNM.
Abdu, a real estate dealer, said there are certain residential colonies in places like Vidyanagar, Anangoor and Kudlu where they donâ€™t encourage Muslim buyers. â€śProperty dealers are given clear instructions regarding this. In fact, Muslims are not interested in such areas and Hindus wonâ€™t prefer places like Naimarmoola,â€ť he says.
The widening of economic disparities between Hindus and upwardly mobile Muslims, who benefited from migration to the Middle East, too has contributed to the tensions.
Prameela R, a BJP ward member near Mogral Puthur says she is not comfortable with Muslims buying land. â€śThey have money but the majority of Hindus here are poor, so they can easily buy our lands. In a way Hindus themselves are responsible for our fate,â€ť she said.
Abdusalam says that price of the land is higher in Muslim dominated regions. â€śIn Nairmarmoola, a Muslim prominent area, residential properties are available only for Rs 4 lakhs per cent, but if you move to some other regions where non-Muslims reside, the land cost is in the range of Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh per cent,â€ť he says.
Historic reasons behind backwardness
C Balan, a historian and academician, says the economic backwardness and absence of secular forces are the reasons for the religious polarisation in northern Kasaragod. â€śAnother major problem with this region is economic backwardness. There is an economically elite class here in both communities. Take the agrarian sector. Huge plantations are owned by upper caste Hindus. On the other side is a large unprivileged group which did not have political awareness and suffered economic backwardness. The region did not have any library movements, and they were also educationally backward,â€ť says Balan who believes the communal politics in the region was influenced by these factors.
There are also historic reasons why it remained so, according to him. Renaissance movements that have lent cultural and political character to Kerala completely skipped the region. â€śThe northern part of Kasaragod did not play much role in the national movement, unlike the rest of Kerala. Peopleâ€™s lives here revolved around religion due to absence from mass movements and lack of politicisation,â€ť says Balan.
Growth of radical organisations
Kasaragod, like other parts of Kerala, has witnessed growth of organisations with radical and exclusivist politics fuelled by insecurities.The Popular Front of India (PFI) had two offices in Kasaragod, which were closed down following the ban. The PFI, which runs several charitable societies, is stronger in northern areas of Kasaragod like Nayanmarmoola, Thalangara, Uppala and Manjeshwar. The RSS also has a strong presence in the region.
SDPI, the political wing of PFI, had made gains in the 2020 Local Self Government elections, compared to previous polls. In 2015, they secured just one seat in local polls from Manjeshwar. But in 2020, the party won eight wards in the district causing a setback to Indian Union Muslim League. It bagged a total of 95 seats in Kerala.
However, some believe that the ban on PFI will not contribute to harmony but rather intensify polarisation. C Balan points out that the ban of Student Islamic Movement in India (SIMI), was not helpful that it later morphed into the form of PFI.
â€śCommunalism cannot be tackled through a ban. Instead this can lead to an aggravation of communal hatred. When there are more communal forces in the country, just banning one group will cause more problems,â€ť he said.
(The field reporting for this story was done before the ban on PFI. The story has been updated to reflect the changes)
Edited by Binu Karunakaran