Over the past few days, the public sphere in Kerala has been rocked by intense – and at times acrimonious – debates over the claim made in a sermon by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop of Pala Mar, Joseph Kallarangatt, that there are more and more cases of ânarcotic jihadâ (as well as âlove jihadâ) in the state with an explicit attempt to destroy the lives of non-Muslims.
The unfounded statement is potentially explosive, because in India’s famous model of secularism as the most religiously diverse state, it is arguably the first hate speech by a religious figure of high rank in all religions.
The claim and underlying support for it among not too small sections of Christian secularists demonstrates two crucial aspects: the growing ideological willingness to participate in the fascist discourses of Hindutva and the impact of global narratives of Islamophobia, fueled by also by developments like the rise of the Taliban.
The lack of moral quarrel on the part of the Christian minority electorate in voting for majority projects was already evident two decades ago. Shortly after the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, a Catholic candidate from Lok Sabha was elected as part of the National Democratic Alliance, the first and only time that the BJP-led front secured a Kerala MP .
Of course, the Christian community would argue that the roots of Islamophobia are real, pointing to the incident of Islamist extremists cutting off the hands of a Christian teacher in 2010 and the conversion to Islam of two Christian women whose husbands had ties to the Islamic State (IS) in 2016. But the fundamental angst behind the recent inflammatory rhetoric lies elsewhere.
It stems from a story of victimization, which in turn arose out of demographic fears of declining fertility and the number of Christians relative to Muslims and the projection that the population of the Muslim community would be double that of Christians by 2051.
The political implications of this, in terms of increasing the number of seats in predominantly Muslim areas and for the Muslim League of Indian Union, are a major bone of contention.
Other perceived fears relate to the rise of a business elite drawn from the Muslim community as a result of the mobility and entrepreneurship associated with Gulf migration and the challenge to Christian economic power. It also raises concerns that the Muslim minority monopolizes most of the resources allocated to minorities.
As with all other forms of imaginary victimization, these fears are unfounded. The political representation of Christians in the assembly and cabinets has shown little variation, despite the declining population, while Muslims have only moved in recent decades to proportional representation. And as demographers point out, fertility rates will stabilize and become uniform across religious communities in two decades as Muslims in Kerala catch up with other communities in demographic transition.
In terms of the allocation of state resources, it is specious to compare the Muslim community with Christians as the former are far behind the latter in terms of poverty, unemployment, landlessness, education, etc. In fact, the Syrian rite Christians constitute the most advanced community, socio-economically, in the state.
Charges of love jihad in Kerala have remained unfounded, despite investigations by central agencies and the Modi government has not data concerning the jihad of love for any state in India. This is what places the bishop’s speech in the territory of legally prosecutable “hate speech”.
Ironically, in terms of legal conversions last year, the highest number of conversions in the The Christian community was to Hinduism (209) while only 33 converted to Islam; numbers that are tiny anyway.
The imaginary fear of the rise of Muslims is what drove the Christian clergy into Sangh Parivar’s speech, even seeking mediation from Narendra Modi in resolving sectarian conflicts.
In a more fundamental sense, there is an affinity with Hindutva’s âghar wapsiâ worldview that, after all, even Christians are originally Hindus. This stems from the highly casteist and endogamous nature of the Syrian Christian churches in Kerala, which claim purity and revel in the family stories of the supposed conversion to Christianity of the Namboodiri Brahmins.
The Christianity of these churches is one that has no place for Dalits or low caste Christian converts.
In seeking to portray a division between Christians and Muslims, the bishop’s statement completely obscures the most basic and consistent divisions in society: caste, class, and gender. Hindutva is only happy to play the game; see society as torn apart by homogeneous religious blocs.
When Love Jihad’s discourse is rooted in patriarchal control over women’s lives, it is no surprise that the church’s narrative – which focuses on Christian women “lured” by Muslim men – does not speak ironically that among the 21 people from Kerala who visited ISIS territory, were two christian men who had married a Christian and a Hindu respectively, then converted to Islam.
In an age of globalization, as argued by scholar Arjun Appadurai, deterritorialization or the diaspora’s âexaggerated and intensified sense of criticism or attachment to politics in the home stateâ of the diaspora is a problem. a major driving force behind global religious fundamentalisms.
Here there is also a reversal. Christian secularists in Kerala are reacting to global developments and feel anxious about attacks on Christianity elsewhere, from the murder of Christians in Sri Lanka by Islamist terrorists, to the conversion of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to mosque or Palestinian reprisals against Israeli military strikes.
When the Church participates in the global Islamophobic discourse of narcotic jihad, and of Islam as the evil âotherâ, it also obscures certain basic facts.
While some Islamist terrorist groups and drug lords have indeed used the conspicuous religious principle of waging war on the West using drugs, and about 90% of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan (which itself is the product of a complex set of factors, including Western imperial intervention) – in fact, the global drug trade is one of the most sophisticated criminal networks in the world. This is a estimated at one million traffickers of many nationalities, ethnicities and religions. In the early 2010s, the biggest drug cartels in the world were located in Mexico, Japan, Russia, Italy and Israel.
More importantly, he ignores that some of the worst victims of drug addiction are the Muslim nations themselves. Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan individually consume more opium than India. As a 2010 UN report on drugs showed, 42% of global opium consumption took place in Iran alone. Almost 10% of Afghans children under 14s have tested positive for drugs, while 700 people die from drug addiction every day in Pakistan.
What is most ironic is that the bishop’s sermon came at the same time as Pope Francis’ visit to Hungary where, in open criticism from right-wing nationalist Viktor OrbÃ¡n‘s anti-immigrant rhetoric (especially anti-Muslims), he said, âThe cross, planted in the ground, invites us not only to be well rooted, but also lifts and extends its arms towards each one.
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala, which is excited by the alleged global affronts to Christianity, is apparently unmoved by the extraordinary steps its own pope has taken in recent years to reach out to Muslims, including the papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula for the first time in history.
The Bishop’s words are indeed a historic dark moment in the secular regime of Kerala. And the soft response from the CPIM government, with an eye on the Christian vote, shows that a de-radicalized communist movement will find it difficult to ideologically counter an ascending Hindutva language.
Yet there are glimmers of hope in the gathering clouds. Many denominations of the Christian church, including several Syrians, condemned the declaration of the bishop; Catholic nuns, who had previously mounted a strong resistance against sexual abuse in the church, now protested against Islamophobic speeches; a diocese of the Syrian Catholic diocese itself withdrew an Islamophobic pamphlet and some of the most important religious leaders in the Muslim community presented a voice of tolerance and love instead of being provoked.
The tectonic shift in India over the past seven years has been the normalization of the Hindutva language in the public sphere and a reflection of this is seen in discussions on social media even in Kerala which is one of the last frontiers against the Hindutva in India.
The crucial difference is that the Hindutva has yet to make an electoral breakthrough, including among Christian voters. The shock and anger over the bishop’s statement and the vigorous response from civil society could still outweigh Kerala’s exceptionalism in religious friendship and coexistence.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is at Dalhousie University, Canada and is the author of the recent book Communism, subaltern studies, and postcolonial theory: the left in South India (Routledge). He tweets to @nmannathukkaren.