Thalassery Bishop Joseph Pamplany with Kannur BJP President N Haridas, Kannur Minority Morcha State secretary Arun Thomas, Ayyankkunnu Panchayath member Jose A One and others
Thalassery Bishop Joseph Pamplany with Kannur BJP President N Haridas, Kannur Minority Morcha State secretary Arun Thomas, Ayyankkunnu Panchayath member Jose A One and othersSpecial Arrangement

In north Kerala’s migrant settler belt, BJP warms up to Christians

In its attempt to build political clout among the Christian community in parts of north Kerala, the BJP is employing every weapon in its arsenal from Modi charisma to the bogey of Love Jihad and even the ED.

In 2023, Mercy’s* family, from a migrant settler belt in Kasaragod district of Kerala, faced an unexpected storm when her 26-year-old daughter entered into a relationship with a Muslim youth. The family were traditionally supporters of Congress. But after the intervention of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which found a political wedge in what should have been a private affair to be settled within four walls of their home, they found themselves drawn closer to the party.

Mercy’s husband Alex*, who was close to the church, was dead against his daughter marrying a Muslim. “The Muslim community has hidden interests in building such relationships. BJP is the only party that speaks about it openly,” he told TNM. Mercy wasn’t against the relationship but felt intimidated when political outfits – the BJP’s Minority Morcha and the Christian Association and Alliance For Social Change (CASA), an organisation accused of Islamophobia – visited their home, airing concerns about ‘Love Jihad'.

The fear of ‘Love Jihad’, a bogey created and kept alive mostly by groups aligned to right-wing Hindutva to perpetuate a belief that Muslim men are deliberately luring women of other faith, has been a concern for Christians since 2009. The BJP in Kerala has tapped into the collective anxiety of the community by amplifying such narratives every time an interfaith marriage has happened between a Christian woman and a Muslim youth.’

Common ground: Islamophobic narratives and ‘Love Jihad’

Even before the BJP’s state unit responded to the call made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to foster greater bonds with the Christian community during the party’s national executive in January 2023, it had identified fear of ‘Love Jihad’ as a common ground to forge ties with Christians.

The settler migrant belt, which has a high concentration of Christians, extends from Panathady, Malom, and Chittarikkal region in the Kanhangad Assembly constituency of Kasaragod district up to Peravoor in Kannur district. In Kannur, the regions that witnessed Malabar Migration in the early decade of the 20th century until the 1980s are now part of two Assembly constituencies — Irikkur and Peravoor, with more than 30% Christian population. While Irikkur has consistently elected a Christian candidate from the Congress since the 1980s, Peravoor too has voted similarly since the last decade.

Sitting at Mararji Bhavan in Kannur, Arun Thomas, district general secretary of BJP’s Minority Morcha, spoke about the sentiment that binds a section of the Christian community and the party — ‘encroachment of Islamists’. Arun said, “We are not against Islam, we respect all religions. But we are against Islamists, ‘Love Jihad, Narcotic Jihad’, etc. We are not against interfaith love marriages. But we are against women being trapped and used for religion.”

“In Payyavoor, the parents got back the girl only because of our timely intervention,” said Arun. When incidents of ‘Love Jihad’ are found, sometimes CASA seeks help from the Minority Morcha, Arun explained. “We work in tandem to assist families trapped in such situations,” he said.

Also read: Kanniyakumari and The Seven Sisters: RSS-BJP’s strategy for Tamil Nadu

A protest held in Payyavoor Church, after allegations that an 18-year-old girl from the Knanaya community, who had eloped with a Muslim youth, was kidnapped
A protest held in Payyavoor Church, after allegations that an 18-year-old girl from the Knanaya community, who had eloped with a Muslim youth, was kidnapped

In March 2023, Payyavoor in Irikkur constituency witnessed a major protest by Christian groups after allegations that an 18-year-old girl from the Knanaya community, who had eloped with a Muslim youth, was kidnapped and forcefully converted. Calling it a case of ‘Love Jihad’, the Minority Morcha and CASA launched an agitation. The girl returned to her home a day after the protest and organisations like the Minority Morcha claimed that it happened only because of their actions.

Arun, now a 36-year-old, is a journalism graduate from Bangalore University. Until 2014 like many others he had also distanced himself from the BJP and considered it a communal party. Though his family has a Congress background, he entered politics after Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister. An admirer of the PM, Arun said it was Modi’s presence that attracted him to the BJP.

“There is an encroachment of radical Islam here. It is being supported and nourished by the CPI(M) in Kerala. Even the Congress supports Islamists. Both the parties support them for votes,” said Arun, who assumed office as the Minority Morcha’s district general secretary in 2018.

“The ground work among Christians by the BJP was limited until recently.  Now we have started meeting people, convincing them, and explaining about the BJP. We spend time with each family and explain to them about the welfare measures. The change is visible, many of the Christian families are showing interest in the BJP. It is not certain that all that sympathy will turn into votes, but there is a change,” he added.

BJP’s Christian outreach

On the afternoon of January 9, when CG Gopan, a local BJP leader in Alakode in Irikkur Assembly constituency, was undertaking one such visit, TNM joined him. Gopan chose to visit the residence of Francis, a respected businessman from the Syrian Christian community. It was Gopan’s second visit to Francis’ home in less than two weeks.

The first one, ahead of Christmas, was to hand over greetings from the Prime Minister. The Christmas missive was seen as an attempt at rapprochement by Modi because an earlier attempt to build bridges had fallen flat due to the strife in Manipur, which resulted in destruction of church properties and loss of life of many from the Kuki community who follow Christianity.

Gopan and Francis have known each other for at least a decade and were friends, which made the ambience familial.

Speaking to TNM, Francis said that the Christian community in Kerala has an open-minded approach towards the BJP. “There was a certain uneasiness over the Gujarat riots and the Babri Masjid issue but Christians here never harboured animosity towards the BJP. This was in stark contrast to their sentiments towards the CPI(M),” he said. The Syro Malabar Christian community, from which Francis hails, has always been at loggerheads with communists though other Christian denominations have shown warmth.

Gopan and Francis pointed to the contributions made by KJ Mathew and Parekkulam Sebastian, Christians from Alakode, towards the growth of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor to the BJP in the 1980s, to show that ideological affinity run deep between the communities.

A Sneha Yatra visit during Christmas 2023
A Sneha Yatra visit during Christmas 2023

Since 2023, the BJP, with the help of its Minority Morcha, has embarked on a strategic initiative targeting specific Christian families in select regions. This outreach, named Sneha Yatra, involves family visits during occasions such as Christmas and Easter. In July, the party also launched a campaign called Modi Mitra to attract members of minority communities who may not be open enough to join the party but support Modi openly.

Gopan said the party has identified influential households, as part of a targeted approach, where BJP members would be welcome. “These families extend hospitality and are happy to engage with us as we share insights into the welfare measures initiated by the Narendra Modi government,” he said. The people they target are beneficiaries of schemes such as Kisan Samman Nidhi and Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, among others, he said. An influential household would have around 10 voters or a popular figure as a resident.

Gopan’s next stop was at the residence of Mathew P* and Maria*, a retired school teacher couple who were traditionally supporters of the Kerala Congress, a party with several splinter groups and Christian farmers as its support base. Speaking to TNM, 72-year-old Mathew said his family is now an ardent supporter of Narendra Modi. “Our bishops and priests have indirectly extended support to the BJP, contributing to a shift in the community’s mindset,” said Mathew, adding he was disheartened when the Kerala Congress (Mani) aligned with the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front  in 2016.

BJP workers visiting a vicar at a church in Kannur
BJP workers visiting a vicar at a church in Kannur

Slow social engineering

Organisationally, the BJP is nowhere near the Congress or the CPI(M) in constituencies like Irikkur and Peravoor. The groundwork, Arun Thomas said, too was limited until recently. “Now we have started meeting people and explaining to them about the party’s vision. We invest time with each family, elucidating the party’s welfare measures. The change is palpable as many Christian families are displaying interest in the BJP,” he said.

In the 2021 Assembly elections, BJP had a 5.13% voteshare in Irikkur, one-tenth of what the Congress got. Arun is cautious and acknowledges that sympathy may not translate into votes. In Peravoor too, the BJP’s performance was dismal, with the party gaining only 6.44% of votes. This was slightly lower than what the party got in 2016 when it experimented with a Christian candidate – Paily Vathiattu. “But there is a change in perception,” Arun said.

In the 2020 local body polls, the BJP managed to win close to around 5% of the total 22,000 wards in Kerala. One of them was Eruthamkary in Ayyankunnu panchayat, which falls in the Peravoor Assembly constituency. The ward member representing Eruthamkary is Jose A One, a local businessman and an influential figure. When TNM met Jose, who uses the name of his business as his second name, was sorting medicines acquired from the local Jan Aushadhi medical store.

“In my ward, there are many patients who require regular medication. I collect prescriptions from them and procure medicines from the Jan Aushadhi store. I inform them that these stores were initiated by our Prime Minister to provide medicines at subsidised rates,” said Jose, a Syrian Christian who is a committee member in the local parish. He also draws the attention of the ward members to various schemes of the Union government, ensuring that eligible individuals access these benefits.

It was Jose’s popularity that made him the first BJP ward member in the region two decades after he joined the party.

“Back in 2000, everyone considered the BJP a divisive party. Many of my friends were taken aback when I joined the party. No other political ideology appealed to me. I realised that an anti-Hindutva stance would be destructive to our national identity,” said Jose, who also considers Islamic extremism another factor that compelled him to join the BJP.

Jose said his victory wasn’t mere luck. It was the result of his relentless efforts — house visits, years of unwavering advocacy of BJP’s ideology, and facilitating access to government schemes.

In his ward, comprising 250 houses, 80% are Christian households. “I made five visits to each house, spending at least an hour each time explaining to the families various central schemes like the Kisan Samman Nidhi and Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana,” he said.

Jose secured 275 votes against the 255 secured by the Congress candidate. The LDF candidate bagged 196 votes while an Independent polled 144. In the run-up to the polls, many from the Christian community in Ayyankunnu had joined the BJP.

The violence in Manipur broke the bonhomie between the BJP and the Christian community, which had received an impetus following PM Modi’s meeting with bishops in Kerala in April 2023. Many bishops and church leaders made statements that indicated that politically they were moving closer to the BJP. But after Manipur, there was a heavy outpouring of anger and church leaders who had warmed up to the saffron party issued harsh statements critical of Modi for his silence.

“What happened in Manipur was initially framed as a communal issue, causing a ripple effect among Christian communities. We don’t deny the initial impact. However, people are now convinced about the authentic situation there,” said Arun.

It was in 2019, following the Lok Sabha elections in which the UDF swept the state, that the BJP had the realisation that it cannot crack Kerala’s poll arithmetic unless it had the blessings of the Christian community, which was displaying a widening rift with Muslims because of the political influence they seem to wield. Events in 2020, including the conversion of the Hagia Sophia in Turkey into a mosque and the Muslim League’s reaction to it and the opposition of Muslims to the 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), displeased Christians. The BJP began to tap into the anxieties of the community. It was also during the same time that the Kerala Congress (Mani) moved to the LDF fold with the blessings of the Church.

A section of the Christian community strongly feels that the Congress has waned as a political force in the state. Many Christian voters in the region are bitterly opposed to the CPI(M), whom they don’t want to win. Speaking to TNM, Alex, another Alakode resident, said he was terribly confused during the last Assembly election and voted for the Congress candidate only because he was afraid that the CPI(M) candidate would win.

Also read: The non-Brahmins of Hindutva in Tamil Nadu

Enter the ED

Using the political disaffection among the Christian community and popularising BJP narratives about development and welfare schemes is not the only thing the BJP seems to be doing to turn the tide in its favour.

In the second week of January 2024, Rajeev Joseph, chairman of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee and brother of Sajeev Joseph, the Congress MLA representing Irikkur constituency, received a summons from the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to appear at its Kochi office on January 18. The notice was served as part of an enquiry into his alleged foreign exchange transactions.

Rajeev said it was intriguing that the summons was served at his father’s house in Irikkur though all official documents list his home in Delhi as his permanent address.

“I have consistently spoken out against the BJP and organised protests against them. As a Christian, I have been vocal against their dubious actions within our community. The ED summons is an attack on the Congress, yet party leaders are silent,” said Rajeev, who is disheartened by the lack of support from fellow Christian and Congress leaders.

Rajeev believes that the summons was served in Irikkur with an ulterior motive. “I have received numerous offers from the BJP, and it is curious that this ED investigation began after my refusal,” he said.

“BJP may not significantly impact electoral politics in Irikkur as of now because the Congress remains strong. However, if the Congress fails to address the concerns of its voters, there is a risk of losing its supporters to the BJP, which would ultimately benefit the CPI(M),” he said.

(*Names changed to protect identity)

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