In the context of the violence in Coimbatore, evidence of a growing presence of religious fundamentalist forces in Kerala with inter-State links raises new questions.
THE serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore have put on a high alert neighbouring Kerala, which is clearly becoming a sanctuary and a possible recruiting and training base for some religious fundamentalist groups with inter-State links. The activities of such groups have assumed dangerous dimensions. This is particularly true of northern Kerala, where a significant Muslim population suffers from a broad range of economic and social disabilities and the BJP, the RSS and its satellite organisations pursue an aggressive strategy of stoking communal sentiments.
The seizure of huge quantities of explosives and the arrest of 10 persons from various parts of Kerala following the Coimbatore blasts are but the latest indications of this situation. According to the police, one person who was arrested in Palakkad was involved in the bomb blast at the Hindu Munnani office in Chennai and a group of nine persons arrested in Thrissur on their arrival from Coimbatore are suspected to have had a role in the recent blasts.
Arms and ammunition have frequently been unearthed from different parts of Kerala. The latest seizure and an explosion in a godown in Thrissur, which killed four persons, have raised suspicions about possible links between traders of explosives in Thrissur and Tamil Nadu-based fundamentalist groups.
Senior police officials told Frontline that some of the Muslim fundamentalist groups that became active in Kerala after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 have the potential for whipping up communal trouble and violence. In a majority of such incidents, evidence pointed to the involvement of groups that had inter-State links and had access to funds from abroad, they said.
Significantly, as early as in March 1997, soon after a haul of explosives was made in Chennai, Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar told the Kerala Assembly that five to eight extremist groups were operating in northern Kerala and that they received funds and other forms of support from foreign countries, especially Iran and some countries in West Asia. He also said that the situation was "serious". If things did not get out of hand, it was only because the Government and the police were maintaining a strict vigil, he said.
According to police sources, interrogation of those who were arrested in connection with a series of violent incidents in Tamil Nadu, starting with the bomb blast at the RSS headquarters in Chennai, revealed that some of them had received training in Jammu and Kashmir in the use of modern weapons and the making of bombs; they had in turn trained many persons in northern Kerala. There have also been regular intelligence reports of attempts by certain forces to wrest key positions in Muslim religious and political organisations in the State and to use religious institutions, including madrasas, to spread divisive and extremist messages among Muslim youth.
It is significant that several Islamic organisations and Muslim political groups, including the Indian Union Muslim League, have criticised "the spread of extremist tendencies among Muslims in the State" and warned their followers against taking part in such activities. Some organisations - even those that believe in the ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic society - have passed resolutions against attempts to convert places of worship into storehouses of arms and safehouses for fundamentalists.
Coming from within the community, these statements are evidence of a growing presence of religious fundamentalist forces in northern Kerala. Police officials say they are gaining strength, providing support and drawing on the resources of similar organisations in neighbouring States.
THE growth of fundamentalist organisations in Kerala may appear to be a surprising development considering the State's achievements in the social and educational sectors and its record of social harmony. What has now come to the surface, however, is an attempt by fringe elements to take advantage of the socio-economic problems, especially problems affecting the Muslim community in the State, which have been exacerbated by the post-1990 aggressiveness of the Hindutva forces.
Muslims form a significant proportion of the population in northern Kerala, and the community has from the time of Independence given expression to its need for development and recognition through its own political and social organisations. The Muslim League has used this as an opportunity to gain a prominent place in the State's coalition politics. This satisfied a major psychological need of the community. However, over the years the Muslim League became the cause for much disenchantment because of its failure to find solutions, especially to the community's socio-economic backwardness.
Remittances from expatriates in West Asia provided temporary economic relief but this could not remove the general backwardness of the community. This in fact deepened the divisions in northern Kerala society. The gap between the rich and the poor, and also between Muslims, who got more job opportunities in West Asian countries, and Hindus, who felt discriminated against in the matter of such opportunities, widened.
The dissatisfaction among a section of Hindus was reflected in the statement of the BJP's former State president, K. Raman Pillai, in Kozhikode during the recent election campaign that if voted to power the BJP would ban advertisements that offered jobs to Muslims and Christians alone - and not Hindus - in West Asian countries.
On another front, family life suffered strains, with many male members seeking employment in West Asian countries and leaving women to take up family responsibilities. Simultaneously, materialism and a consumerist culture began to influence Kerala's Muslim society, which had been tradition-bound and deeply religious. Even the religious leadership was at a loss as to how these un-Islamic tendencies could be checked.
The flow of foreign funds, however, began to taper off, especially after the 1990-91 Gulf war. It was also the time when the BJP and the RSS became aggressive in promoting Hindu communal consciousness in northern Kerala through aggressive assertions on the need to resist "policies of communal appeasement" and slogans that called for the upholding of "Hindu unity and pride" and the establishment of a "Hindu India". There were several instances when communal passions and a feeling of insecurity were aroused among the members of both the communities. This made the situation ripe for the extremist elements to step in.
There were significant attempts early enough to contain extreme reactions. The State witnessed a series of anti-social crimes in Kochi, Kollam and Tirurangadi following the murder of a madrasa teacher in Thrissur in October 1990, allegedly by RSS persons. At several places groups of Muslims organised processions and shouted provocative slogans. However, within a fortnight, secular action came from the CPI(M), which organised a remarkable "human chain" that stretched from one end of Kerala to the other symbolising the need to defeat extremist and divisive forces.
However, matters did not improve. At the time of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Kerala had a United Democratic Front (UDF) Government, with the Muslim League sharing power with the Congress(I). The resentment of the masses of Muslims over the Congress(I)'s inability to prevent the demolition manifested itself in the form of the community's alienation from the Muslim League. This created the right circumstances for the growth of extremely fundamentalist forces, the most prominent among them being the Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS). The ISS was later disbanded, when the Government banned it along with the RSS; however, its chairman Abdul Nasser Mahdani subsequently transformed his political profile into that of a more moderate leader, and formed a political party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP). There was no inquiry into the activities of the members of the ISS after it was banned.
The Government at that time apparently failed to realise that just as majority communalism was a major threat to peace, minority communalism too required to be tackled sternly. The police now say that fundamentalist elements within the disbanded ISS regrouped quickly and joined the forces that have now assumed different identities. The prominent ones among such forces, according to the police, are the NDF (the National Defence Force or possibly the National Democratic Front, when it became too much of a focus of attention), Al-Umma and the Jem-Iyyathul-Ishaniya. It is quite conceivable that these organisations are one and the same or members of one organisation are also members of the others.
A senior police officer told Frontline that the NDF had successfully used the sense of insecurity created in the Muslim community by the events that followed the Babri Masjid demolition to find supporters in northern Kerala, irrespective of their political or other allegiances. The officer said: "Initially, no NDF member used to acknowledge openly that he was an NDF member. Always they would say that they were members of other organisations. The truth may be that members of several organisations were members of the NDF also. Now the NDF has several wings and is making a major effort to project itself as a socio-cultural organisation of Muslims."
He said that members of one wing of the NDF might not be aware of the activities of another wing. Although it had embarked on social activities such as organising blood donation camps and ambulance services, there was no doubt about its fundamentalist intentions and actions, he observed. The NDF seeks support from Muslims by claiming that it will unite all Muslims, help them advance socially and educationally and "defend the community against fascist forces". It is also believed to conduct "secret" camps to train cadres in unarmed combat, as the RSS does all over Kerala.
The NDF now openly seeks funds from the public, and in the Malabar region a poster campaign for this purpose is on. There have been several instances in which the organisation has intervened on behalf of Muslims in disputes. One such was its intervention when the RSS allegedly tried to prevent the renovation of a mosque in Kozhikode district.
The police believe that the NDF received copious funds from abroad and has now established its presence as a "socio-cultural organisation" in Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur, Kasaragod and Palakkad districts and parts of Thrissur districts.
However, police officials said that the more serious threat came from Al-Umma which had established itself in Kerala and was behind several violent incidents in the State. Several of its prominent activists based in Tamil Nadu, had crossed over to Kerala when it became too hot for them there. They could find sanctuaries in northern Kerala with the help of their religious links and money power. Over a period of time such links were strengthened, and this led to the organisation spreading its influence among Muslims across Kerala, they said.
Ideologically, Al-Umma was more dangerous as it believed in the annihilation of its enemies, a top officer said. He cited four incidents of murder in Malappuram, Palakkad and Thrissur districts, which had been traced to Al-Umma. All the victims were members of another community, who allegedly had relationships with Muslim women whose husbands were abroad. In all the four cases, Al-Umma had presented itself as an organisation committed to ensuring the "purity of the community", and the message was spread with deadly effect, the officer pointed out.
A senior officer said that the growth of Al-Umma in Kerala indicated that religious fundamentalism did not recognise State or language boundaries. Religious extremism bound its members together and made groups like Al-Umma highly dangerous, the officer said. The strength of such groups is not in their numbers but in the commitment of their recruits, mostly youth, according to the officer.
One of the most significant activities of such groups, which change their name and identities frequently - from "Sunni Tigers" to "Jihad Committee" and so on - is the burning of cinema halls, because they believe cinema is against Islam. More than a dozen cinemas were burnt in the Muslim-majority Malappuram district and the police have found that the photographs of the burning structures were sent to foreign countries. Pipe bombs discovered accidentally from a river were found to be made by trained hands; they were similar to the one used in the bomb attack against film director Mani Ratnam in Chennai.
Northern Kerala districts are also centres of hawala, drug-trafficking and smuggling rackets. These exploit the region's close migrant links with West Asian countries. Inter-State gangs have well-established networks in the region. The police believe that criminal gangs or their individual members could have found it advantageous to work under the garb of religious fundamentalism and thus get more recruits and money for their activities. Or it may be that fundamentalist elements and criminals have found each other mutually beneficial.