Kochi: A pro-Palestine rally in Kerala’s Malappuram made headlines last week after a video message from Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was broadcast during the rally.
While the organisers had taken prior permission for the rally, and the police also didn’t find “anything wrong” with the video on review, the 27 October event — coupled with the Kochi bomb blast at a convention of the Christian sect Jehovah’s Witness on 29 October — has once again raised concerns over national security in Kerala, often seen as a hotbed for religious extremism.
Misinformation on social media and fake forwards fanned the flames.
The incident quickly turned political, with the BJP accusing the CPI(M)-led government in the state of fuelling radicalism and communal tensions. In response, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan gave his assurances that the speech would be investigated — and appropriate action would be taken if anything untoward was found.
The uproar around the rally seems to have been extinguished in Kerala, but anxieties around its consequences were loudly proclaimed at the Center by Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar.
The pre-recorded video had been played at a rally organised by the Solidarity Youth Movement (SYM), the youth wing of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. The SYM had sought and received permission from the police to hold the rally, after informing them that it was pro-Palestine. Details of who would be speaking and which videos would be shown were not disclosed, according to the SYM.
“The Kerala police thoroughly reviewed the speech delivered by Hamas leader Khaled Mishal in the Palestine solidarity program and found nothing wrong with it,” said Rashad V., state secretary of the SYM, adding that Mashel was simply calling for global support for the Palestinian cause, and was thanking Indians for being in solidarity.
“The propaganda disseminated by certain BJP national leaders and some Hindi and English media outlets is solely driven by their vested interests,” Rashad alleged.
Sources in the police corroborated that the investigation found nothing wrong in the speech, though a report on the investigation has not yet been filed. ThePrint has also reached the commissioner of police, Kozhikode, Rajpal Meena, for a comment on the video over phone, the article will be updated when a response is received.
The SYM has been running a campaign called “Bulldozer Hindutva”, which began before the attack by Hamas — Palestinian militant group in control of the Gaza strip since 2007 — on Israel on 7 October and the subsequent conflict.
The rally held on 27 October combined this campaign with support for Palestine and was called “Uproot Bulldozer Hindutva and Apartheid Zionism” — which was then taken out of context and conflated to be a bigger issue, Rashad claimed.
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Protest culture in Kerala
In Kerala, there’s a running joke: Malayalis will protest anything and everything. That’s how deep-rooted the culture of taking to the streets is.
The Israel-Palestine conflict, however, strikes a deeper chord. Kerala is firmly on the side of Palestine — Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself made a clear statement following the SYM’s rally that India and Kerala have always supported the Palestinian cause, and it is only recently that this stance has changed at the Centre.
Neither the United Nations Security Council nor the India government have officially labelled Hamas as a terrorist group.
Many rallies have been taken out in support of Palestine across Kerala, making it hard to provide an accurate number of protests, according to senior sources in the police. The number of protests also varies according to the day — for example, according to the police, they usually receive a higher number of requests for permission to hold protest rallies on Fridays as compared to other weekdays.
The day before this particular rally, people took to the streets in nearby Kozhikode to take part in the Indian Union Muslim League’s (IUML) pro-Palestine rally, at which Congress MP Shashi Tharoor also spoke. The IUML and the Congress are both members of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala.
“Our rally was called ‘Save Humanity, Save Palestine,’” said Shareef Sagar, an IUML spokesperson. “The IUML doesn’t blindly support Hamas and such violence. But we do support the Palestinian cause.”
Adding that Kerala has traditionally supported Palestine, Sagar said Islamophobia in India is driving the communal divide and conflating the support of dispossessed people with religious extremism.
“This is a political issue, and doesn’t need to be connected with religion,” he said. “There are more than enough protests in Kerala — Kerala is very different. But there’s an attempt to make it like North India, because now we’re seeing prejudice in normal civic action,” he added, underlining the fact that communal tensions don’t exist in Kerala to the extent that they exist in other parts of India.
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Linked to blast targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses
What made matters worse was the fact that the 29 October Kochi blast happened hot on the heels of this rally.
The blast took place at a convention held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a small Christian sect. And before the primary accused, Dominic Martin, confessed to the blast in a Facebook video, fake WhatsApp forwards and misinformation had done the trick: many mistook the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a Jewish sect, and rumours began to spread that the bombing had happened in retaliation to the broadcast of Mashel’s speech in Malappuram.
“The sheer number of harmful posts and incendiary speeches was shocking,” said social critic and writer M.N. Karassery. “Many made use of the occasion to express their hatred of the other camp — I was shocked not by the blast, but by the hate speech.”
Karassery, who has written extensively on social justice and religious equality in Kerala and holds the distinguished chair in Malayalam studies at University of Calicut, said that Kerala society has typically been in support of the Palestinian cause, especially as many Malayalis live in the Middle East. While migration to Israel has also been increasing, most Malayalis remain ignorant about Judaism — hence the assumption that Jehovah’s Witnesses were Jewish.
The Kerala government also criticised Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar for saying at a press conference that the SYM rally was an incitement of radicalism. “Rajeev Chandrasekhar is not just poison but very potent venom,” said CM Vijayan in response, defending the right of Malayalis to organise the protest.
But those who defended the rally are using “technicalities to justify terrorism,” according to BJP spokesperson Anil Antony. “The Kerala police and government have been observing the worrying trends in the state for the last years, but not doing anything about it,” he said. “Groups like the PFI [Islamic outfit Popular Front of India] work openly in Kerala, but no action is taken.”
“Kerala has taken a blatant pro-Palestine stance, and they have a right to do that,” said Antony. “But whitewashing terrorism is ethically wrong and is a national security issue because India is a longstanding sufferer of terrorism. We’re concerned that in Kerala, as part of blatant vote bank politics, parties are working in tandem to whitewash acts of terror.”
Both Antony and Chandrasekhar have been booked for hate speech.
(Edited by Smriti Sinha)
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