The southern comfort no longer there

Not long ago, North India was more affected by terrorism than the South. But a new ‘religious landlordism’ has shattered the communal amity of the southern states
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

Desperate for his evening stroll, my dog Sandy delayed my walk to Sarojini market in Delhi on October 29, 2005. Having deposited Sandy back at home, I was on my way to the market when I noticed a pall of smoke rising in the distance. A part of the market had been blown up by a bomb explosion, which I barely missed because of my dog’s insistence.

Indeed, the high point of terrorism in India was witnessed in the last part of the previous century and the first decade of the present one. The earlier Parliament House was attacked in 2001, the American Centre in Kolkata and the Akshardham temple in Gujarat in 2002, train crashes took place in Jaunpur in 2002 and 2005, and the bomb explosions in Delhi in 2005. In 2008, when I was Cabinet Secretary, I had to deal with the horrific 26/11 incident, left-wing extremism across many forested states in the heart of India, and militancy in the Northeast and Kashmir. The North continues to simmer with growing communal and caste tension expressing itself in lynching, religious conflict, selective police action and intolerance.

The South was relatively unaffected. When I retired from the civil service and came back to distant Thiruvananthapuram, I thought I was coming into a zone of peace. But was I right? Not really. There had been serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore in 1998, which killed 58 people. The alleged kingpin, N P Noohu alias Mankavu Rasheed, was finally arrested twenty years later in Kozhikode in Kerala. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) searched 31 alleged training centres a couple of months ago across Tamil Nadu and Telangana. According to them, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was attempting to extend its reach across the South of India and the Kovai Arabic College in Coimbatore was a suspected centre of operations. Radicalisation, they said, was carried out through regional study centres. The Popular Front of India (PFI), an agglomeration of three groups across southern India, was banned but an alleged “master weapons trainer” of the PFI, 33-year-old Nossam Mohamed Yunus, was arrested by the NIA from Ballari in Karnataka in June of this year. Al Jazeera reported in September 2022 that 45 PFI members had been arrested by the NIA, 19 of them from Kerala, 11 from Tamil Nadu, 9 from Karnataka and the others from Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Even the mouthpiece of the ISIS, the Voice of Khorasan, claimed that they had been responsible for the aborted bomb blasts in Coimbatore and Mangaluru (mistakenly called Bangalore by them) last year. They called on their operatives to wage a war against the Hindus and their government. In an article in the Geopolitical Monitor in April 2023, B Viswanathan said this seemed to be a ploy to give the impression that they had a presence in southern India. Normally, the ISIS claims credit for its terror actions immediately after the event through their Amaq News Agency. In this case they waited six months. As the author put it, “The attacks in Coimbatore and Mangaluru carried out by inspired modules appears to have got the rapt attention of the Islamic State core, albeit belatedly. The Islamic State appears to sense an opportunity to capitalise on its existing sympathisers concomitantly attempting to capitalise on the PFI ban and poach its members in South India. By addressing the ban on PFI in its mouthpiece, the Islamic State has touched upon issues which are local to India.”

Hindu extremism has also made its presence felt. On August 30, 2015, well-known activist and writer M M Kalburgi, who fought a determined battle against superstition in Hinduism, was shot dead at his residence in Dharwad district of Karnataka. This followed the assassination of Narayan Dabholkar in August 2013 near the Omkareshwar temple, Pune, and Govind Panasare, social activist and left-wing politician at Kolhapur, both in Maharashtra. Following these events came the ghastly murder of Gauri Lankesh, an outspoken journalist and social activist, outside her house in Rajarajeshwari Nagar in Bengaluru. It looked as though the expression of a different view would lead not merely to silencing but to actual extinction. Nor is religion-inspired violence confined to Hindus and Muslims.

The United Christian Forum, on the basis of calls received at their toll-free number, said that incidents against Christians peaked in 2022. As many as 511 incidents were reported, with Karnataka and Tamil Nadu reporting the most. This probably does not include the Meiti-Kuki conflicts in Manipur and the reported large-scale destruction of Christian churches in that state. When a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses met for their conclave in Kalamasseri near Ernakulam a few days ago, an explosive in a tiffin box led to four deaths and many injuries. The alleged perpetrator, himself claiming to be a member of the sect, came online to say that he disagreed with their theology, which was not in the interests of the country.

The historical intermingling of communities in Kerala and the balance of communities in the population, higher literacy and greater level of understanding have generally ensured that communities learn to live harmoniously with one another. In an interview with in September 2021, historian P K Michael Tharakan said, “In his book titled Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala (1972), historian MGS Narayanan observed that there is a cultural symbiosis in which people belonging to different cultural and social backgrounds are coexisting in the state.” Yet, there is a feeling that the ascendancy of politics is leading to what social activist and writer Hameed Chennamangaloor has called “religious landlordism”. He said in a June 2023 interview, “Unfortunately, the submission of secular political parties to religious landlordism continues to grow stronger each day. Instead of approaching issues from a secular standpoint, Kerala’s political parties are increasingly adopting a religio-communal perspective.”

The growth of communalism is now not confined to the North. The communal virus, more potent than Covid, is insinuating itself into hitherto peaceful areas. Not merely this country. The world is increasingly suffused with hatred poured out relentlessly through social media and some irresponsible news channels. A prolonged period of statesmanship, political self-restraint and good governance—and, if possible, a stronger UN—is needed to ensure that we pull back before we reach a point of no return.

(Views are personal.)

K M  Chandrasekhar

Former Cabinet Secretary and author of As Good as My Word: A Memoir


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