Azure seas, verdant paddy fields and growing radicalisation make for an odd combination. But apparently such a cocktail can make for a potent threat if what is going on in northern Kerala is any indication. This is a particularly exquisite part of Kerala with its pristine beaches and fabled cuisine, and at one glance seems hardly the place in which jihadi tendencies could ever exist. Today, we see that more and more young men are undertaking great danger and hardship to reach IS strongholds. Most surely know that is a journey of no return or death despite the rewards in heaven promised by the innkeepers of the IS.
Yet, until recently this radicalisation, which has been taking place for well over a decade, has hardly been noticed by governments or media. I have travelled in this part of Kerala for several years and each time I have been astonished at the number of mosques and madrassas that have been springing up in the area. Around them, young, unemployed youth loiter around, easy prey for poisonous rhetoric.
The economic story of Malabar is driven by Gulf money, much of it from places like Saudi Arabia. It is not unusual for radicals of Wahabist persuasion to come to that region, flush with funds, seeking to convert young Muslims to a ‘purer’ version of the religion. And it has found many takers. It was not also uncommon for old men to come from the Gulf to take brides, mostly very young women, for short periods of time in return for which their parents would be paid.
The radicalisation of this area, however, has been with the connivance of all the political parties who now come out with platitudes that the recent IS recruits are just misguided youth. No, the ground for this has been laid for years. Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, no novice to the politics of the region, has tried to dismiss the whole thing as nothing to do with religion. And it is an especially destructive form of religion that is taking root in the region. In fact, the CPI(M) itself has not been above playing communal politics. A former general secretary publicly shared a platform during one election with a notorious radical in the hope that this would prove that the party had the best interests of the Muslims in mind and who would find in it a guardian angel. They did not and the CPI(M) lost that election.
Other parties like the IUML that have sent ministers to the Centre and wield enormous influence in the state have either unwittingly or deliberately abetted the growing ties between Wahabi elements in the Gulf and the local populace in the hope of getting votes. Some years ago a leading light of a major Muslim party in the area urged me to go on a visit to Saudi Arabia. Not only would he arrange it, he would get Malayalis in the Gulf to meet me and look after me. When I refused his generous offer, he was astounded. “You must go to Saudi Arabia, there are many stories you can do,” he said. He waxed eloquent about the country being an ideal state with free electricity, water, education and medical care. Then came the killer — women don’t have to step out of their homes, he said as a final sweetener. When I said that this constituted the very opposite of the ideal state to me, he was disgusted and incredulous. This is the kind of state we should have here, where there can be no compromise on prayer, where discipline is enforced by harsh Sharia laws. As a woman, you would feel safe while wandering around covering elections as you are now, he said, after which he lost interest in me.
If they had wanted, the political parties could have kept a check on the radicalisation of the youth. Instead, they either encouraged this or overlooked it. I am not saying that the situation in Kerala is so dire that it cannot be overcome. Just that the trend of radicalisation being seen now should be tackled both economically and socially. It can never be too early to deal with this. And it is certainly not an issue for politicians to try and use for small term gains. Accept the problem for what it is, accept why and who are involved and grasp the nettle now. It will hurt for a bit but well worth the gain of saving a small but showpiece state.