Why Kerala Story makers are quietly backtracking from the controversial 32,000 figure

The description alongside the film’s trailer, which was released a week ago on April 26, now says 'The Kerala Story' is a compilation of the true stories of “three young girls” from different parts of Kerala.
The protagonists of The Kerala Story
The protagonists of The Kerala Story
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The makers of the controversial film The Kerala Story seem to be quietly backtracking from their initial claim that 32,000 women from Kerala were forcibly converted to Islam and recruited to the militant outfit Islamic State or IS. The description alongside the film’s trailer, which was released a week ago on April 26, instead says The Kerala Story is a compilation of the true stories of “three young girls” from different parts of Kerala. “Thousands of Innocent women have been systematically converted, radicalised and their lives destroyed. It's their side of the story,” it goes on to add.

The film’s first teaser which was released on November 3, 2022 had overtly emphasised this “32,000” claim. In the video, Adah Sharma who plays the central character of Shalini Unnikrishnan was seen saying, “I am not alone, like me there are 32,000 girls who have already been converted and buried in the desert of Syria and Yemen.” The YouTube description alongside the teaser then said, “Heartbreaking and gut-wrenching story of 32000 females in Kerala! Coming soon!” This teaser’s description was quietly changed to say “three young girls” in April 2023. But when this change was called out by several people on social media, the makers reverted to the 32,000 number in the description.

In a recent interview with the Asian News International (ANI), director Sudipto Sen said, “The number 32,000 is not important. Yes, we said that 32,000 girls left their homes, but we didn’t say that they joined IS. We even filed an RTI to know the whereabouts of these girls. But Kerala Police have still not given us an exact number of the vanished girls.” But if he is yet to receive the RTI response, how did he arrive at this very specific number of 32,000? The interviewer doesn’t seem to have asked.

The film’s producer, Vipul Amrutlal Shah, is of the opinion that people are “understating the gravity of the tragedy by focusing on the ‘32,000’ issue.” “We should rather talk about the issue than the number. Even if it happened just to 100 girls, will the gravity of the issue become less? Instead of stressing on the numbers, we should talk about the pain experienced by these girls and what happened to them,” he said.

The filmmakers' recent attempts to steer clear of the number “32,000” hardly comes as a surprise, since they have so far been unable to produce any factual evidence or official documents to back the claim, despite the fervent outrage from multiple quarters over the allegedly blown-up numbers. 

When fact-checking website Alt News reached out to Sudipto in November to find out where this figure was sourced from, he reportedly said, “This figure (32,000) is not mine. It was a piece of news in The Times of India.” This report, however, is not to be found on the internet as of now, and Sudipto is yet to produce it himself. Meanwhile, Alt News found an interview the director gave to YouTube channel The Festival of Bharat, in which he explains how he arrived at the number. “In 2010, former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy put a report in front of the Kerala Assembly. In front of my camera, he denied that anything had happened. But in 2010, I documented a case where [Chandy] said that every year approximately 2,800 to 3,200 girls were taking up Islam. Just calculate it for the following 10 years, and the number is around 32,000,” he says in the video.

So is there any truth to the film’s claim? 

Conflating conversion with radicalisation

There are two parts to the claim made by the film’s teaser — the first is that 32,000 women converted to Islam in Kerala and the second is that they joined IS and were deployed in terror missions in Syria and other places.  

If one goes by Sudipto’s claim, it is Oommen Chandy who presented the 32,000 number. In 2012, then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy did present figures related to conversions in the Assembly. In answer to question raised by then MLA KK Lathika, the former CM said that 2,687 young women have converted to Islam in Kerala since 2009. But this is not a yearly statistic as claimed by The Kerala Story director, but rather, data spanning three years from 2009 to 2012. On the occasion, Chandy also mentioned that 79 women converted to Christianity during this period and two to Hinduism. 

Importantly, Oommen Chandy also stated that there is no evidence for forced conversions in the state, and that fears about “love jihad” — a conspiracy theory claiming that Muslim men deliberately marry Hindu women to convert them to Islam — were baseless. “We will not allow forcible conversions, nor will we allow the spread of hate campaigns against Muslims in the name of love jihad,” Chandy said. 

And it isn’t just Oommen Chandy, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, G Kishan Reddy, has also acknowledged in Parliament in 2020 that “no case of ‘love jihad’ has been reported by any of the central agencies”.  

Besides, a TNIE report states that Hinduism was the biggest gainer in Kerala in terms of new converts in the year 2020. As many as 241 out of the 506 people who registered for a change of religion in the state that year wanted to convert to Hinduism. While 144 people sought Islam, 119 were converting to Christianity.

Now to the second part of the claim that 32,000 women from Kerala went to Syria. 

According to an RTI response to TNM dated February 13, 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that a total of 177 persons with links to IS had been arrested between May 2014 and December 2019. The most number of arrests were made from Tamil Nadu, where the number of arrests stood at 34. Maharashtra is second on the list, with 26 arrests, followed by Uttar Pradesh (25), Kerala (19), Telangana (17) and Jammu and Kashmir (11). The reason why the number is high in Tamil Nadu can be attributed to the series of arrests made by the NIA in the year 2019.

As far as Indians crossing the borders and joining the IS is concerned, India has recorded not more than 180-200 such cases, out of which Kerala accounts for about 40, says a 2019 report titled ‘The Islamic State in India’s Kerala: A primer’ by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Though analysts have generally expected India to have a high number of pro-IS cases owing to its large Muslim population of around 200 million, the country has only had a handful of pro-IS cases, says the ORF report.

On the narrative of radicalism in Kerala, the report says, “The mainstream media tend to describe Kerala as a ‘highly radical’ region of India, specifically referring to certain areas such as the northern district of Malappuram. However, the total number of Muslims from Malappuram who have been found involved in pro-IS activities is only 25 (out of a total population of 22 million Muslims); this is statistically minuscule." But as the report points out, politically and from the viewpoint of national security, each and every one of these cases will remain a cause for concern.

There’s one more claim the makers of The Kerala Story seem to have been forced to cut since the trailer came out. It has been reported that the Central Board of Film Certification had asked the makers to delete an interview of a former Chief Minister from the film to attain clearance. In the trailer, one of the actors can be seen saying, “Our ex-Chief Minister has said that Kerala will turn into an Islamic state in the next 20 years.” In all likelihood, the reference is to CPI(M) veteran Achuthanandan, who reignited the ‘love jihad’ conspiracy in 2010. In a speech critical of the Popular Front of India (PFI), Achuthanandan had claimed that the organisation was trying to multiply the number of Muslims in the state using “money and marriages”, adding that Kerala will become a Muslim-majority region in 20 years.

The three women and their stories

When the filmmakers say that the film is a compilation of the true stories of three women, they could be referring to Soniya Sebastian aka Ayesha, Merin aka Mirriam, and Nimisha aka Fathima — two formerly Christian and one Hindu woman who were radicalised and went missing along with 18 others from Kerala in 2016 to Afghanistan. Some of those who went missing including those born into Islam were from a Salafi commune in Malappuram district. Salafis believe that the right way of life was the one led by the early Muslims – those who lived within 400 years of Prophet Mohammed's death.

Extremist radicalisation is not unheard of in Kerala, and it has to be addressed. As Sudipto himself said in an interview, even if one girl goes missing from her home, it is a tragedy that needs to be discussed. But where he goes wrong is in claiming that the numbers do not matter, while simultaneously advertising an enormously inflated figure that he claims to reflect Islamist extremism, aiding the Hindutva narrative that paints a majority of Muslims as extremists.

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