Unpacking The Kerala Story: Propaganda, Politics, And Public Opinion


History as a subject has always intrigued me to a point of revered fascination. In the tales of the civilizations that preceded ours I have often found magnanimous lessons to be learnt to help us outdo them in our time on earth and to leave the world a better place than we received it. As we flip through the pages, we find before us rulers, politicians, scholars, ministers, fanatics, dictators, kings, emperors, godmen, and the like who came with boisterous energies and inspiring talent to leave behind their indelible footprints on the history of our world. These trail blazers with their documented words, deeds and consequent effects are in their own self an entire curriculum for those looking for patterns of the human psyche, the secrets of manipulation and domination of the human race, and its subsequent move towards realization followed by the inevitable call for revolution and then, their fated liberation. But as they say, history is written by the victors, and hence there will certainly be periods of time that deprive a few tormented groups from having their ingenious stories of achievement retained in history but that is only until their emancipation, when they too, as victors, begin retelling history from their standpoint. And the pattern then continues. Like in the case of Germany where Hitler convinced an entire country that just one group of people were God’s chosen inheritors of the German fatherland and the ‘other’, the Jews were dangerous termites that deserved immediate expulsion and extermination before they ate through the woodwork of the great nation that Germany was. Hence, history and mythology in Germany were retold through speeches, movies and books to suit this agenda, while those not humming along the tune were banned from seeing the light of the day. What followed is the infamous genocide of the Jewish people that happened for years as the world watched in silence. Throughout this time, the Jews were forced into hiding and suppression, not because their story wasn’t true, but only because it wasn’t the one that was selling like hotcakes in the market from 1933 until 1945, when the victor was defeated and the Second World War came to a much-awaited end. Jews were viewed for long after that as the meek, voiceless, obliterated people with not much of an history to be told. But, with the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, Jews found their deliverance as they established themselves upon the welcoming goodness of another silent group of people. Now, they too, having learnt from Hitler and his propaganda peddlers firsthand, began their own narrative of how the land of Palestine was in fact their birthright and the natives needed to be cleansed through bloodshed. Now Israel, armed with popular support and military might, unleashes similar and even worse horrors upon a nation and has been doing so for 56 years now, all the while retelling history from the Jewish point of view and gagging out the voices of the those in the lands that they have forcibly occupied. The victim is now victorious, but it is only a matter of time when the pages of history turn to reveal another victor and its unfortunate victim.

Sitting through my history classes in school, amazed at what happened in Germany, all at the hands of just one determined, crazed man who led an entire population into buying his idea of cleansing and salvation, I never imagined, not even once, that I too would live to witness the same catastrophe in my own country of more than a billion, sane and educated people. But history is bound to repeat itself. As we have seen before in all the stories of dictators and the people they manipulated, it takes only one man, a few followers, control over media and public opinion, and overflowing coffers to create textbook examples of genocide and mass annihilation. For the beginning few years after India’s saffron left-wing rose to power in 2014, it seemed like the charm was only working in the northern states of India, which were more populous but less educated, impoverished, gullible and were teeming with unemployed youth restless to be given purpose, no matter how illogical or bizarre. The steady rise of motivated violence against the minorities of India soon spread to other states too, as the Bharatiya Janata Party began sweeping electoral victories in state after state. Each election campaign saw inciteful hate speeches targeted at how the Muslims in India were actually receiving more than they deserved and that it was now time for the Hindu to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. Star campaigners, protected by the police force, were seen wielding swords and other weapons as they began doling out wild and violent ideas to the public with the guarantee that they would be given the protection of the state by none less than the Prime Minister himself. Even a relatively peaceful, educated state like Karnataka, with a contribution of 8.7% to the capital GDP, and a literacy rate of 75% fell prey to the grandiloquence, as previously inconsequential issues were brought up in media and parliament one after the other to set its population at arms against one another. The Hijab Ban, the Meat Ban, Muslim Reservation, Love-Jihad, anti-conversion laws, Tipu Sultan and other issues became popular household topics and the basis of many campaigns. The gateway to the south had been compromised and was now being called the Uttar Pradesh of South India. There was still one state though that remained well fortified against hate mongering and divide.Kerala, India’s southernmost state with its awe-inspiring picturesque valleys, is known as ‘God’s own country’ for more than just its unparalleled beauty. Kerala’s secular society is a fabric that remains to this day, unstained, pristine and quite literally a breeze of fresh air from the other squabbling, bickering states in India. Temples, churches and mosques existing beside each other peacefully, with no one party claiming the land of the other is a sight that is still not a rarity here. Plurality of thoughts, respect for diversities, tolerance for differences and value for life and knowledge, make many puzzled visitors witness God’s own hand in the making of this land and the personalities of its people. With a 96% literacy rate in 2023, it is the most literate and progressive society in the country. Those statistics, though being pleasantly surprising, do not obviously sit well in a country that has begun polarizing its population towards decline. Kerala so far has remained the only state in the last eight years to be relatively immune to inciteful politics. When all else failed and the saffron flags were unable to find themselves fluttering in Kerala’s unpolluted air, a rather disgusting attempt hit the country’s silver screens on May 5th to crack through the defenses of this secure state and its people.

The Kerala Story, directed by Sudipto Sen and produced by Vipul Amrutlal Shah, is the latest in a series of Hindi films that paint India’s Muslim population in broad strokes as the villainous, cunning ‘others’ in an otherwise tranquil Hindu land. Appearing to be much like a sequel to last year’s The Kashmir Files by Vivek Agnihotri, the movie doesn’t make any attempt, not even a clumsy one, to hide its intentions. Even before its release, the trailer itself began stirring many hornet nests with its vague, imaginary statistics that glared through the screen in large, bold, garish fonts almost trying to forcibly enter the viewers’ heads convincing them of its truth. The film purportedly is based on the true story of three girls from a nursing college in Kerala who were forcibly converted to Islam only to be shipped away to become terrorist brides in Syria. The trailer of the movie claimed that this was not the story of one girl but of 32,000 girls that have gone missing from Kerala for the same agenda. With groups in Kerala and abroad demanding evidence for the claims and announcing cash prizes of up to 1 Crore if they could succeed, the filmmakers altered the caption of the trailer days before its release to state that it was the story of only three girls from Kerala. But the film however, obstinately insists in an emotional monologue that the number 32,000 is the official count of the women gone missing from Kerala under the guise of ‘love-jihads’ while the unofficial count mounts up to 50,000 women. The movie follows up these claims with interviews, supposedly from the parents of one of the missing girls and reminds the audience for maybe the tenth time in the movie that it is most certainly a true story and 50,000 women were in fact abducted by scheming bearded Muslim men and veiled women to be sent to fight a war in some desert in the Middle-East, and that their fate remains an unknown tragedy to be shuddered upon.

Those numbers really are alarming and would have been a cause of great concern had they been true. But, ground reality in Kerala seems to contradict greatly with the plot of the film. With so many girls missing from one state, there surely should be much hue and cry about their whereabouts and Kerala’s adept police must have if not 50,000 then at least 25,000 missing complaints registered with them. But Kerala Police is just as surprised as the rest of the country to hear of these apparent disappearances under their watch as being suggested by Sudipto Sen. According to the US state department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2020, there were “66 known Indian-origin fighters affiliated” with the ISIS as of November 2020. In 2021, India’s National Investigation Agency said it was investigating 37 cases related to Indians joining the group and had arrested 168 people. With the total number of Indians in ISIS not exceeding three digits, the staggering count of 50,000 women, exclusively from Kerala, is beginning to seem a little more than just far-fetched. The Print in 2020, reported that the ISIS, comprised a total of 40,000 members from more than 85 countries of which less than 1% are Indians. In response to the source of these numbers, Sen replied to The Quint“Do you think the number actually matters? The 32,000 number is an arbitrary number. It is based on facts.” Mr. Sen, a seasoned filmmaker, somehow doesn’t seem to understand that creative liberties can only be taken when discussing fiction where you may suggest ‘arbitrary’ numbers as and when you please. But when a topic as sensitive as the lives of three missing women is being made for the big screen, some sensitivity, discretion, caution, facts and just pure facts are criterias of the utmost importance. He further adds, “in 2010, I documented a case where he (Chandy) said that every year approximately 2,800 to 3,200 girls were taking up Islam. Just calculate it for the following 10 years, and the number is around 32,000.” What Sen is suggesting here is that the movie he made is based purely on his own personal calculations, of what might have been if multiplied with a ten-year period and not based on actual, researched, documented facts. Mr. Sen, isn’t probably aware that when it came to conversions in Kerala, Hinduism was actually the gainer as compared to other religions in the region, as reported by The New Indian Express in 2020. Of the total 506 people who registered their change of religion with the government, 241 were those who converted from Christianity or Islam to Hinduism making it 47% of the total conversions. A total of 144 persons adopted Islam whereas Christianity received 119 new believers in the year.

Statistics alone is not all that is wrong with The Kerala Story. The movie is twisted, insensitive, bigoted, rooted in hatred, peddles propaganda, incites violence, and is a pure display of majoritarian supremacy. The Film Companion has called it, ‘a film based on WhatsApp forwards’, while others have criticised it for its lack of nuance. Instead of showing the shocking disappearance of three women from Kerala to join ISIS the filmmakers insist that it is THE reality for ALL female students of Kerala. The film has ALL its Muslim characters in bad light with not one of them, not even as a token to balance the film, depicted as being capable of any form of goodness. There are bearded older Muslim men in kurtas and turbans, depicted as running study centers in Kerala that advocate the two younger men, also bearded, about their agenda to convert India’s 1.3 billion people to Islam by impregnating impressionable women, one by one. A rather tedious and slow process it would seem, but in the minds of Sen and Vipul Shah it is the ultimate Plan 101 that ISIS, armed and equipped by Russia and USA, can come up with. The bearded, purported scholars go on to shamelessly say that this is not just their agenda but also the unfulfilled mission of the Mughal rulers Aurangzeb and Alamgir.

While the movie could have raised important questions like, who was behind the conversion of these girls, why empowered nursing students were not aware of options like reporting to the law, abortions, Special Marriage Act, and most importantly, who was the girl Asifa, who was converting her friends to join ISIS, it relies solely on opinions and stereotypes to generalize and make their case. Had research on who recruited Asifa in the first place and who her family
was had been made, a lot could be done to actually help the girls. But the film
seems only interested in pinning all blame, for all evils in Kerala on the Muslim
community. For instance, the nursing school is shown with grafittis of Free
while the teacher explains that these are just a few ‘rogue’ elements in
the college; Muslims are shown as responsible for drug peddling across the state.
All statements that come from the ‘all knowing’ Asifa, written as the mouthpiece
of the Sharia, are baseless and trash. She refuses lipstick because it is, according to
Sen and Shah, unlawful in Islam. To take the depiction further up one notch, in a
scene set in Afghanistan, a man is beheaded for allowing his wife to wear makeup,
while the woman’s hand is chopped. Probably not a man of cosmetics and makeup, but the women around Sen would surely be aware that a leading cosmetic brand, Huda Beauty, with sales of up to $200 Million annualy, is run by an Iraqi Muslim woman. There has been NO instance, anywhere in Islam of disallowing women to beautify themselves. Keeping up with the vision of promoting more lies and vilifying Islam and its followers further, the movie also shows cellphones as being illegal for Muslim women, where one of them is actually killed within minutes of accessing one. And that’s only the beginning of an attempt to show Muslims as backward cavemen, enjoying the liberties and freedoms offered by a democracy such as India. There is such broad generalization and stereotyping that one really gets tired of rolling eyes so many times during the 139-minute runtime. All Muslim men are sex-crazed, violent fanatics and wife beaters, all Muslim women don the hijab, all those who wear the hijab are not raped, all interfaith relationships are under the agenda of love-jihad, all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslim, all terrorists belong to ISIS, and all of Kerala is hand in glove with the ISIS in converting India into a Muslim country. Hilarious as it sounds, Sen’s depiction of a Muslim state seems more like a utopia that he himself would have enjoyed being a part of. As if in an attempt to show a glance of what life would be like if Muslims were given power in India, the movie shows a Brahmin Hindu woman, begging with folded hands and a stream of tears before a bearded, turbaned Muslim man for the life of her daughter only to be refused. Once converted, one of the girls is taught, again by the ‘all knowing’ Asifa, that Islam rewards its converts for spitting upon their non-Muslim family members. Sen clearly didn’t research one bit. Had he only looked within his own circles at the Bollywood fraternity’s many existing interfaith marriages, his worries would have been put to ease to see that the only water fights that happen are the ones at their grand Holi parties.

These are quite evidently mere attempts at stoking the flames to incite a Kerala community that has almost vowed to remain true to inclusiveness and peacemaking. The purpose of this movie is only to create panic of this ‘other’ community living amongst ourselves whose only purpose in life seems to be to gather more and more, not the other faiths in India, but the Hindus and only the Hindus into the fold of Islam, either by forced conversions, impregnations and if all else fails, then by the mighty sword. These fears are voiced by one of the films lead characters when she says, ‘If we don’t act fast to save God’s own country, then Kerala will become an Islamic State’, almost as if she means that in the larger picture, if India is not saved then all Indians will have to succumb to Muslim rule. Whether she meant that or not, that is exactly what has been understood by the viewers who have watched the movie in multiplexes. The videos emerging from across the country of the reactions of the audiences show petrified Indians, who are openly expressing that they fear their Muslim counterparts in the country. A woman was also interviewed as saying ‘India mein rehna hoga to Jai Shri Ram Kehna hoga’ (If you have to live in India then you should hail the name of Lord Ram). It is not a mere coincidence that the movie was slated for release right at the hour of Karnataka elections where the premise of the movie was being used by the Prime Minister himself as the gospel truth and hence calling it the reason why Hindus had to vote the BJP party to power: to save them from the wrath of bloodthirsty Muslims.

Kerala is a state which contributed 2.3 lakh crores to NRI remittance in 2020 making it 34% of all NRI remittances in the country; has at 64%, a per capita income that is higher than that of the whole country, has less than 1% of its population living below poverty line when the national average is 22%, and an infant mortality rate of 6% as compared to states like UP which stand at 46%. These statistics, the real Kerala Story explain why propagandists felt the need to make an alternate Kerala Story to sell to people hungry for more reasons to alienate the minorities of the country. While the state of Kerala itself has, true to its spirit dismissed the movie as mere propaganda, it is the effects in the rest of the country that are more worrying. The state’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan criticised that the film was made “with the aim of communal polarisation and spreading hate propaganda”. Even with the movie banned in West Bengal and some theaters refusing to screen it in Tamil Nadu, there have already been two deaths reported due to the violence caused in North India as a reaction to the movie. Despite that, the Supreme Court of India has questioned the West Bengal government’s decision to ban the screening of the film citing law and order issues and has asked to submit a report by Friday. But then of course, how can one forget that it was the Supreme Court that also cleared the then Chief Minister of Gujarat as innocent of all charges in 2014 for his role in the Gujarat Riots of 2002, due to ‘inconclusive’ evidence, giving him the go ahead for the topmost post in the country.

Nevertheless, even with a smashing box office record, The Kerala Story failed to woo exhausted voters in Karnataka as they chose to vote out the right-wing from power on May 10th making the south entirely BJP free. It can be expected from the saffron setback in Karnataka that there is still some hope for this country to return to choosing peace over power, inclusiveness over divide, and tolerance over bloodshed. No matter how many secret Kashmir Files, and Kerala Stories hit the big screens, Indian Muslims, will still remain Indian, choosing day after day to dress, eat, speak, earn, write, read and watch as freely as they will, just like any other Indian, because that, the freedom to do it, was and is the guarantee upon which this great nation stands. Beard no beard, hijab no hijab, burqa no burqa, vegetarian non-vegetarian, we are all and will always be unapologetically Indian Muslims. For dictators may come and go, but history which vows to repeat itself is a lot like a hamster on a running wheel. One may feel like they’ve traveled great distances but in reality are only going around in circles. There will always be a victor and a victim but with none being promised the position till the end of time. The wheels of history will spin, for India like it has for others. It’s a promise.


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