When one hears about Kerala, the things that come to mind are a state whose residents live in peace and harmony, which has eradicated illiteracy, is high on social indices related to health, education, and well-being, and combatted the Covid-19 pandemic in the best possible way. It is also where Christianity arrived as far back as in 52AD with Saint Sebastian, and Islam first arrived in the seventh century with Arab traders. Contrary to all this, the teaser and promo of ‘The Kerala Story’, project Kerala as a state riddled with conversions to Islam and where Hindu women are being dragged into the terrorist outfit Islamic State in large numbers.
The film is made along the lines of The Kashmir Files, where, to promote discord and hate, half-truths and outright fiction are claimed to be facts while the actual situation is hidden. For this reason, that film was called “propaganda” by the head of the jury of the 53rd International film festival held in Goa. Nadav Lapid also labelled it vulgar and stood by his initial diagnosis despite outrage in India and some sections of Israel over his assessment.
The Kerala Story is to be released on May 5. The teaser was released on November 2, 2022, with the trailer following on April 27. These releases have given concerned citizens adequate indication of the half-truths and lack of research into the actual situation of religious conversions and the scale of recruitment into the terrorist organisation, the Islamic State. This outfit reared its head after the United States invaded Iraq and promoted fundamentalist Islamic groups to counter Russian influence in West Asia’s “oil zone”.
The forthcoming film makes the ludicrous claim that 32,000 Hindu girls have been converted and are part of the Islamic State. The source of this number is highly dubious—in that there isn’t any source for this information. A paper by Adil Rasheed titled ‘Why fewer Indians have joined ISIS’ published in the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) says there are about 40,000 recruits to the Islamic State [earlier known as ISIS] across the world. Less than 100 Indian migrants ever left for Islamic State territories in Syria and Afghanistan, and about 155 were detained for having links with it. The data from the World Population Review of the radical outfit’s recruits worldwide shows that the countries which provided its mass recruits were Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, and others. The Middle East was the top source of its membership, followed by the European Union.
Yet, the filmmakers’ fantasy about Kerala, clearly meant for propaganda purposes, claims that the film is based on a true story. It refers to a girl who realises she is trapped and is currently in an Afghan jail. She claims there are others like her—according to the filmmaker, this amounts to the testimony of “many” women and girls and, out of thin air, claims this figure is 32,000.
The status of religious conversion in Kerala is the next issue in the film. Oommen Chandy, former Kerala chief minister, provided the related statistics for 2006 to 2012: “A total number of 7,713 persons were converted to Islam during 2006-2012 as against 2,803 conversions to Hinduism.” He said the number of people who converted to Christianity during the period was unavailable. Among those who converted to Islam during 2009-12, 2,667 were young women, of which 2,195 were Hindus and 492 were Christians. He also said there were no forced conversions.
Recall that the campaign around love jihad (conversion of Hindu girls to Islam by duping them into marriage) originated in conservative elements of Kerala. Communitarian politics always need divisive, emotional issues to root themselves in society. Chandy said, “We will not allow forcible conversions. Nor will we allow the spread of hate campaigns against Muslims in the name of love jihad.” An inquiry by police commissioners did not reveal any campaign to lure and convert Hindu or Christian women or girls to Islam.
But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) latched on to the issue, and 11 states now have laws against “love jihad”. Maharashtra recently saw a massive mobilisation by the Sakal Hindu Samaj, which claimed that the love jihad propaganda was an actual threat to Hindu society. The Samaj organised rallies in rural Maharashtra that can become a building block of hate against Muslims and other minorities in the BJP-ruled state. There is no empirical basis for love jihad cases. An RTI inquiry revealed on 11 November 2020 that the National Commission for Women does not maintain any data on this issue. The NCW said, “No specific data under the category of complaints related to ‘love jihad’ is maintained by the NCW.”
The ruling CPM government in Kerala and the Indian Union Muslim League are against screening the film as it would only serve to add to the anti-Muslim propaganda and create divisive politics in the state. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said that artistic freedom should not be abused to divide society along religious lines. Equally disturbed by what is known of the film so far, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has tweeted that the one who proves that 32,000 girls have been victims of this mythical love jihad will get Rs. 1 crore as a reward and that a film based on falsehoods should not be permitted.
This film comes just as the Supreme Court came down against hate speech and asked the authorities to take suo motu action against such acts. The Central Board of Film Certification should review the film for fitness to circulate in the country and Kerala. And, considering the risk to not just Kerala but the entire country’s social fabric, the Supreme Court needs to restrain propaganda films masquerading as art.