In an Indian State, a Church Pushes an Anti-Muslim Conspiracy Theory

Anti-Muslim conspiracy theories once confined to Hindu nationalists are spreading into Christian communities in Kerala

In an Indian State, a Church Pushes an Anti-Muslim Conspiracy Theory
Christian women and children leaving Sunday church service. India’s Kerala state has a long history of Christians and Muslims coexisting / Eye Ubiquitous / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In February 2021, the chief minister of India’s most populated and polarized state of Uttar Pradesh, “Yogi” Adityanath, went to Kerala — arguably the most developed and progressive state in the country — and slammed its Left Democratic Front (LDF) government for not enacting a law against “Love Jihad.”

Adityanath, who has a history of making blatantly communal and anti-Muslim statements, flew to Kerala just months before the southernmost state’s crucial elections, where his address revolved entirely around the bogey of “Love Jihad.”

A communal term, coined and popularized by the Hindu right-wing groups of India, “Love Jihad” is meant to signify an evil conspiracy designed by Muslim men to trap and convert non-Muslim women using the guise of love. The term is casually flung around in many cases of interfaith love affairs between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, often when the latter’s family and community doesn’t approve of the relationship. The nation’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which Adityanath belongs to, has repeatedly raised concerns and questions over the “safety” of Hindu women under threat of “Love Jihad.”

Except this time, Adityanath wasn’t warning the women of the majority Hindu community of the supposed threat but those of another minority — Christians.

Adityanath’s address came a year after the Syro-Malabar Church, which is the second-largest eastern Catholic church in the world after the Ukrainian Church, released a statement saying Christian girls are being “targeted” in the name of “Love Jihad” in Kerala.

“The growth of Love Jihad endangers the communal harmony and peace in Kerala. It is a fact that Christian girls are being targeted by the Love Jihad in the state,” the church had said in a statement.

The statement, which raised many eyebrows, was only a first in what would become a sporadic, gradual series of comments and signaling on “Love Jihad” not by another Hindu right-wing group but by the most prominent church of Kerala.

Soon after, a flurry of videos and text messages circulated on the WhatsApp groups of many Christian families and church groups across Kerala, warning women of the supposed threat, quoting the church’s statement.

In one such video, a young girl is seen leaving her visibly upset parents to go off with her lover. The two are shown getting married and all is well, except in a few minutes, her husband appears wearing a skullcap and white kurta payjama (an attire often sported by Muslim men going for Friday prayers). He then takes off her bindi (an adornment traditionally associated with Hindu women) before covering her hair with a dupatta, a scarf-like head covering. Cut to the next shot, where he is seen teaching the Qur’an to a group of people in a dingy room. Eventually he sells off his wife to a group of supposed terrorists.

This video, just a few minutes long, is meant to persuade Christian women to steer clear of Muslim men and their love and affection, for it will inevitably lead to the best-case scenario of conversion or ultimately the worst-case scenario of death and capture by terrorists.

The message would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous.

“Such messages and videos inundate our family and church WhatsApp groups,” a 24-year-old Christian man from Kerala’s Ernakulam told New Lines on condition of anonymity. “In every family get-together, this is discussed at length. There were of course always bigoted elements in the community, but the church’s statement has given such statements a certain legitimacy.”

Kerala ranks at the top in various human development markers of India, including education and health. But it also boasts a religious demography — 54 percent Hindu, 26 percent Muslim and 18 percent Christian — often cited as a celebration of its unity in diversity.

So when two sizable minorities — Muslims and Christians — are pitted against each other, it marks an evident shift in the politics of the state.

“Kerala is one of the few odd states where BJP has failed to make inroads, because of the demographics,” said G.Pramod Kumar, a political analyst based out of Kerala. “For any political party to gain electorally in Kerala, it has to get at least one minority to side with it. So, BJP is trying to play up the anti-Muslim sentiment by stoking existing fears among the Christian community and hoping that there will be a section of the community that starts supporting it.”

In the months running up to the 2021 Kerala elections, the Syro-Malabar Church’s head cardinal, George Allencherry, along with some other church leaders met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was widely reported that “Love Jihad” was at the top of the agenda for the meeting. But despite its efforts at furthering the “Love Jihad” bogey, the ruling BJP was unable to make any inroads in Kerala in this year’s polls. While the party’s repeated assertions have failed to help its own fortunes for now, the church’s position has had serious ramifications in Kerala.

This is not to say there hasn’t been significant pushback from members of the Syro-Malabar Church.

In fact, a former church pokesperson, Father Paul Thelakat, has spoken up against the church’s “Love Jihad” posturing.

Thelakat, who now runs a Catholic newspaper called Sathyadeepam, has pointed out how the narrative being peddled by the church “isn’t just communal” but also “deeply sexist.”

“Christian women aren’t so naive and gullible that they can be manipulated by anyone into falling in love with them and then converted forcefully. This is a patronizing understanding,” he told this reporter.

Many other church members, both as individuals and via activist groups, have been questioning Alencherry’s intentions, among them the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency.

“The cardinal has a slew of allegations against him, and it helps him to take a position in line with the ideology of the BJP, which is in power at the national level,” said Shyju Antony, convenor of the group. “This way he won’t be convicted for any of the cases — all of which are being investigated by central agencies.”

Antony was referring to land-scam allegations against the church that national income tax authorities have been investigating since 2018.

Like Antony, others believe that the church’s changing politics has to do with the corruption allegations. But that tie alone cannot explain the large number of takers for the theories of “Love Jihad” within the community.

And the “Love Jihad” is not the only theory. The church’s warnings now include “Narcotics Jihad” too.

In September of this year, a senior bishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt, accused Muslims of a concerted “Narcotics Jihad” effort, with drugs instead of love being the lure.

“They have realized that in a nation like India, taking up weapons and destroying others isn’t easy; they’re using other means. Their aim is to promote their religion and end non-Muslims. They use ‘Love Jihad’ and ‘Narcotics Jihad,’ ” he said.

The statement immediately triggered reactions on social media, where people wondered how so many things at once — from love to drugs — can be connected to jihad.

The chief minister (CM) of Kerala intervened and held a press conference to dismiss these narratives. CM Pinarayi Vijayan quoted government data to deny any connection between a particular religious group and drug abuse. Vijayan said that there were 4,941 cases in Kerala under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS Act) in 2020. Of the 5,422 individuals accused, about 50 percent were Hindu, 35 percent Muslim and 16 percent Christian. “There is no unusual ratio in these figures. The narcotic business is not on the basis of religion,” Vijayan asserted.

He went a step ahead and called it childish to see drug abuse as part of a religious fundamentalist conspiracy. “If any of them uses drugs or becomes part of the drug-peddling network, it is puerile to analyze that as part of a concerted attempt of any religion,” he said.

The bishop’s diocese attempted to counter the outrage by clarifying that his statements weren’t against any particular community but only “gave a warning about the dangerous trends prevalent in society.”

But Kallarangatt has a history of controversial moves.

One that especially grabbed eyeballs was his financial donation for the Ram Temple in March this year. The Ram Temple being built in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya — where the Babri Mosque was demolished in 1992 — has come to be seen as a marker of the BJP’s conquest.

A few months later, in July, the bishop announced “sops,” or government benefits, for all Christian families in their diocese if they have four or more children.

These include a monthly scholarship of 1,500 Indian rupees to the fourth child and subsequently to all future children in the family. The fourth child and all subsequent children will be given admission with scholarships into the church-run St Joseph’s College of Engineering, as well as free medical services at church-run hospitals.

The bishop and his diocese have stopped giving statements or responding to queries since the “Narcotics Jihad” controversy blew up, but political observers say that his statements and the church’s proximity to the nationalist right-wing groups betrays a greater insecurity.

The growing population of the Hindu and Muslim communities and the largely stagnant population of the Christians of Kerala mean that the latter’s political power and ability to be seen as a worthy “vote bank” will dwindle.

“The fact that BJP is in power may have aggravated the problem, but it isn’t the underlying cause,” said John Dayal, an activist and former president of the All India Catholic Council. “The competitive communal politics of Kerala is at the root cause of these statements and this posturing of the church. There is a certain apprehension that there might be an erosion in their political clout, comparative social and economic status, and therefore of the community’s future opportunities. This is the underlying fear that is triggering all such statements.”

The first fissures between the two communities in recent times can be traced to the assault a decade ago on T.J. Joseph — a professor in a Christian minority institution who had in 2010 designed an examination question paper with the name “Muhammad” used in a controversial passage. Joseph’s hand was subsequently chopped off by members of the Popular Front of India (PFI), an extremist Islamic organization, in a case that shocked Kerala. It wasn’t until three years later that some of the perpetrators were convicted.

Then in 2015 came an order by Kerala’s LDF government, which reformulated a minority education scholarship scheme for those pursuing professional courses to an 80/20 ratio, favoring Muslims over Christians. Various Christian groups protested the equation, and the order was overturned by the Kerala High Court in May 2021. As per the new scheme, the scholarship will be designed and disseminated in a 60/40 ratio, more in accordance with the population proportion of the two communities.

But arguably the most polarizing jolt to the relationship of Christians and Muslims came in the 2016-18 period, when some 20-odd Muslim youth traveled to Afghanistan to join the Islamic State group. Some were Christian men and women who had converted to Islam.

While there wasn’t much clamor around the men who had converted, the women on the other hand were repeatedly mentioned in popular discourse as exemplifying the perils of “Love Jihad.”

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August this year, they broke open the jails in Kabul and let prisoners free; it was reported that the imprisoned fighters from Kerala were also let go. It remains unknown where they are or whether they are even alive. But the fact that they fled to Afghanistan has meant that they often are mentioned in the increasingly divisive political discourse back home.

There have been economic effects too. Two major food companies in Kerala — Ajmi Foods and KKFM India — sell a variety of ready-to-cook products and have existed in the state for a generation, becoming household names. Both are run by Muslim families, and after successfully operating for over two decades, the company owners woke up one day in September this year to a barrage of inquiries and calls for boycotts.

The boycott demands emerged from social media posts alleging that the two companies had funded protests against the church for its jihad statements. Notably, the protests were led by members of the Christian community, but the posts alleged that these two Muslim-family run businesses were behind them.

“Ajmi Puttu powder is a 100 crore [$13.3 million] Jihadi empire. … We should boycott those who bring out people against Pala Bishop’s statement and launch Jihad campaigns against Christians,” one of the Facebook posts read.

K.A. Rashid, the 33-year-old director of Ajmi Foods, said that he was “deeply disappointed” with the attack. “We had nothing to do with the protests; we didn’t even know about them until these rumors came to light. We filed police complaints against the Facebook posts … and also ensured we clarify our position. But, it was very disappointing to see how this panned out. We never imagined something like this would be possible in a state like Kerala. It was a targeted anti-Muslim hate crime,” Rashid said, evidently disturbed over the incident.

The propaganda and narrative peddled by the church has found its loudest critics among its own members.

Days after the bishop’s “Narcotic Jihad” remark, another local priest was echoing his statements in a Sunday prayer service in a church in Kerala’s Christian majority Kottayam district. Four nuns present there walked out of the service and accused him of “sowing the seeds of communalism.”

Another senior nun, Sister Teena Joseph, has been voicing her opposition to the church’s position — even ast possible personal risk.

“I know many top clergymen won’t be happy with me taking such a public stance against the church. But as Christians, it is our duty to remind others of the values of Jesus — of love, peace and communal harmony,” she said.

The fact that a number of members of the Syro-Malabar Church, including ardent followers, nuns and bishops, have come out against the new, evidently anti-Muslim politics of the top clergy of the church shows that there is significant resistance.

But despite these vocal dissenters, it is a matter of concern that — in a state heretofore more or less immune to such intolerance — conspiracy theories and rumors targeting a minority community have taken root and led to political, social and economic repercussions.

This is especially important when the state continues to speak of its “diversity” as a matter of pride without fully acknowledging the dangers of paranoia and fears that have gained legitimacy from one of the biggest religious bodies in the state. This doesn’t mean that the BJP will gain more power in the state, but it could mean for a slow but gradual erosion of the principles of harmony and co-existence that have so far kept Kerala in good stead.

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