Last week, the state government of Kerala put out a full-page advertisement in leading national newspapers with the caption “The Real Kerala Story.” The advertisement underscored the “social harmony, progressive values” and “inclusive development” in the southern Indian state.
Kerala ranks first on most development parameters, including literacy, education, health, and poverty alleviation, in the country. While the advertisement was released to mark the second anniversary of its communist Left Democratic Front government, it was clearly aimed at countering the false narrative being portrayed by a recent film, “The Kerala Story.”
The movie portrays a conspiracy to convert Hindu women from the state to Islam and recruit them into the Islamic State terrorist regime. The sensational promos of the film claimed that “32,000 women” from Kerala had been seduced and radicalized by Muslim men and had joined the Islamic State.
Directed by Sudipto Sen and produced by Vipul Amrutlal Shah, the controversial film has been hailed by right-wing Hindutva (Hindu supremacist) organizations. Others have criticized the film for its vicious propaganda aimed at polarizing society and demonizing the Muslim community.
Not surprisingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government as well as BJP-ruled state governments have actively promoted the film. The release of the film on May 5 was timed to coincide with the crucial Karnataka elections. Faced with strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the state’s BJP government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to polarize the electorate. Speaking at a campaign rally in Karnataka, Modi praised “The Kerala Story” for exposing anti-India activities. He accused the Congress party of going soft on terrorists. (Incidentally, despite these efforts, the ruling BJP was booted out of Karnataka, its only bastion in south India, the recent polls.)
After watching the film screening at a movie theater in the capital, New Delhi, Union Minister for Women and Child Development Smriti Irani of the BJP described “The Kerala Story” as a wake-up call and lambasted parties opposing it as “supporters” of terror outfits. BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Uttarakhand even declared the film tax-free, making its tickets cheaper for the public.
In fact, a few days after its release, popular YouTuber Dhruv Rathee debunked the claims made in “The Kerala Story”through a viral video. Citing official reports, he proved that only three women, Fatima Isa (Hindu), Sonia Sebastian (Christian), and Merrin Jacob Pallath (Christian) had joined the Islamic State and not 32,000 as claimed in the film.
To stoke Islamophobia and establish Hindu hegemony in the country, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar (allied Hindu supremacist organizations) have normalized hate politics over the past nine years of Modi’s rule in India. “The Kerala Story” is a handy vehicle for the BJP to further its agenda.
The film has incited violence across the country. Kashmiri Muslim students in a medical college in Jammu were attacked for objecting to posts on the film in the college’s official WhatsApp group, which was to be used for academic purposes only. Police had to be called in and the injured hospitalized. Communal violence erupted in Akola in Maharashtra over a social media post about “The Kerala Story.” A 40-year-old man was killed and several were wounded in the rioting.
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehboob Mufti reprimanded the BJP government for patronizing a divisive film. “The blood of innocents is being spilled to quench BJP’s insatiable thirst for petty electoral dividends,” she said.
Given the large (27 percent) Muslim population in West Bengal and apprehensive of the film inciting communal violence, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee banned the film in the state. However, the Supreme Court overturned the ban while directing the state to maintain law and order during the screening.
Significantly, the apex court bench headed by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud directed the filmmakers to insert a disclaimer stating that it was a “fictionalized version of subject matter” and also clarifying that “there is no authentic data available…” to back up the claim that 32,000 women were converted to Islam.
Meanwhile, movie theaters in the southern state of Tamil Nadu have refused to screen the film.
This is not the first time that the BJP has used a propagandist film to forward its agenda. Last year, it went all out to promote “The Kashmir Files.” I had written in The Diplomat then that the film was misleading in its portrayal of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley as a “genocide” and that it was being used by the ruling establishment to incite anti-Muslim violence.
The same script is now playing out for “The Kerala Story.”
At a press meet, director Sen, while refusing to clarify the exaggerated numbers, said that northern Kerala is a hub for terror networks and was quite distinct from the picture postcard portrayals of Kerala as “God’s Own Country.”
It may be recalled that Sen was a jury member at the International Film Festival of India last year in Goa. He went on record to denounce jury head and Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s public censure of “The Kashmir Files” as “a propaganda, vulgar film.”
The Sangh Parivar’s obsession with Kerala is not new. Despite several attempts, the BJP has not been able to make inroads into the state. Its attempts of foisting Hindutva polarization have not found any takers among the electorate there, which has strong communist and socialist leanings. The Modi-led BJP’s focus on “Hindi-Hindutva-temple” kind of politics has failed to resonate with the people of Kerala. Therefore, the BJP is resentful of Kerala’s high social development indices and has lost no opportunity to disparage its achievements.
It first attempted to vilify Kashmir through “The Kashmir Files” and having successfully done so, it again used cinema to vilify Kerala.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan described the film as a “product of the Sangh Parivar’s lie factory.” “The Sangh Parivar is trying to break the atmosphere of religious harmony in Kerala and spread the poison of communalism,” he said. Apart from Hindus, the state has a sizeable population of Christians (18 percent) and Muslims (26 percent).
Undeterred by criticism of the film, Hindutva activists are strongly championing the film and using it as a vehicle for fearmongering.
The fact that this propagandist film has managed to become one of the highest-grossing films, earning over $18 million in just a fortnight, only underscores how successfully the BJP has managed to inject hate into the veins of generations of Indians. This is damage that will be difficult to repair.