Kottayam, Ernakulam: A young girl leaves home to marry her lover defying her parents. She’s happy barely for a few minutes before her now-husband reappears in a skullcap and a crisp white kurta-pajama. He takes off her bindi and covers her head with a dupatta. He then teaches what looks like the Quran to a group of people, before he sells off his wife to some people who appear to be terrorists.
This isn’t a lazy caricature from an archaic and offensive movie plot, but a video going viral in several Christian WhatsApp groups in Kerala.
The video, shared on Facebook by the Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (CASA), a Kerala-based Christian body, is one of the many based on the premise of “exposing love jihad”.
The caption with the video, in Malayalam, reads: “The Left (CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front) and the Right (Congress-led United Democratic Front) are competing to appease jihadists by covertly and overtly justifying the form of terrorism known as love jihad. We should not allow the jihadists to grow in their (LDF’s and UDF’s) shadow. For that, we need to cut down the trees that provide them shelter. Think… act.”
‘Love jihad’ is a term coined by religious fundamentalist groups, alleging a conspiracy by Muslim men to convert non-Muslim girls in the guise of love.
In January last year, the Syro-Malabar Church, one of the largest church bodies in Kerala, issued a statement raising concerns about Christian women being “targeted” through ‘love jihad’.
Over a year on, the charges continue to resonate with a section of the church’s parishioners.
ThePrint spoke to several members of the Christian community, particularly followers of the Syro-Malabar Church, on the issue. While there were many members who rubbished it as being a “communal bogey”, there were also several who agreed with the picture painted by the video.
‘They are doing it globally’
For Kennedy Karimbinkalayil, a 57-year-old resident of Kakkanad region in Ernakulam, there isn’t an iota of doubt that Christian women are under “a growing threat”.
“On Netflix, there is a thriller drama called Caliphate. It is based on a real life story about three women in London,” he told ThePrint. “It’s an international phenomenon. This love jihad — they are doing it globally.”
Karimbinkalayil is the state convenor of the Save Syro-Malabar Forum, a body he describes as being “simply pro-Church”.
The 57-year-old carries in his shirt pocket, copious notes on ‘love jihad’, and it is these “facts and figures” that he has been lately spouting in debates on local television channels. He said the Syro-Malabar Church has on multiple occasions raised the concerns of “Muslim fundamentalists taking our girls to Syria” but that “no one is taking any kind of action”.
He, however, added that he isn’t against all inter-religious marriages. “Kerala is an educated state so of course there are mixed marriages; we cannot call all such cases love jihad,” he said. “Conversion also is personal, but after that if some are taken to Syria, to ISIS, that’s a problem.”
Another member of the Syro-Malabar Church, a 25-year-old student who is also part of the Laity Council, said other issues too had been “upsetting” the community — such as the conversion of Turkey’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
“The global issues combined with the ‘love jihad’ cases have been very upsetting, so of course we are in fear for our women,” said the student, who didn’t wish to be named.
Should live in harmony: Bishop behind love jihad remarks
It was around 2009 when the term ‘love jihad’ entered the popular lexicon in Kerala. The state high court had in that year urged the government to frame laws against ‘love jihad’, claiming that there were indications of “forceful religious conversions under the garb of love”.
Then in 2016, news emerged of 20-odd women from the state being recruited by ISIS after they converted to Islam.
One of these cases that gained prominence was that of 24-year-old Nimish Fatima who had gone missing along with her husband, Isa alias Bexin Vincent, in 2015, after both reportedly converted to Islam.
But analysts say it is the Church that has really driven the narrative in the recent past.
In its statement last year, the Syro-Malabar Church, which is the second-largest eastern Catholic church in the world after the Ukrainian Church, said Christian girls are being “targeted and killed” in the name of ‘love jihad’.
“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 statement read.
“Love jihad is an issue that has penetrated the community really well. The Church’s response is one that managed to mobilise and build on the prejudices already existing within the community,” said political analyst Bipin Sebastian.
But speaking to ThePrint, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal George Alencherry, said “communal harmony is most important” to him.
“All should live together in total peace and communal harmony,” he said. “There should be understanding between religions and cultural groups. There should be a spirit of cooperation.”
Alencherry, however, refused to speak on his previously expressed views on ‘love jihad’.
Just two months ago, heads of various Church bodies including Alencherry met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and reportedly discussed ‘love jihad’ among other issues.
“It was on invitation of the Prime Minister’s Office that we went there… We conversed on many things regarding society in general, and also the relationship of the Church with the government,” he told ThePrint.
Alencherry, however, called his meeting with PM Modi “usual” and denied it was a political endorsement of the BJP.
“Actually, we are endorsing all the political parties and coalitions because they are all representing us, the community at large,” he said. “Almost all communities are members of all the political parties now, so we cannot say we are endorsing one party.”
‘Love jihad’ and politics
Christians account for about 19 per cent of Kerala’s population, making the community a substantial minority in the state.
The BJP, in its manifesto ahead of the assembly elections, has promised to bring in a law against ‘love jihad’ if it comes to power.
Last month, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, while campaigning in the state, hit out at both the LDF and the UDF for not taking any steps to “counter love jihad”.
The ruling CPI(M) hit back, with the party’s acting state secretary A. Vijayaraghavan saying ‘love jihad’ was non-existent and that it is a creation of the Sangh Parivar.
However, the CPI(M)’s own ally, the Kerala Congress (M), a new entrant to the LDF, holds an entirely different view. The Kerala Congress (M) is extremely popular among Christians.
In an earlier interview to ThePrint, its chief Jose K. Mani had said he thinks there have been cases of ‘love jihad’ in the state that needed to be addressed.
But the CPI(M)’s own stance on the issue has been ambiguous. Former Kerala chief minister and party veteran V.S. Achuthanandan had in 2010 claimed that there was a “threat of love jihad”.
“In 20 years, India and Kerala will become a Muslim-dominated world. Youngsters are being given money and are being lured to convert to Islam,” Achuthanandan, then in office, had said.
But not everyone is comfortable with the issue being politicised — even those Christians who believe that ‘love jihad’ should be probed.
“It is a serious issue. It needs to be looked into in some parts of Kerala,” said M.A. Joseph, Kochi resident and member of the Syro-Malabar Church.
“The Church has many serious issues but its present tendency has been to just focus on this. Moreover, this has come up only after the second Modi government has come to power — so it is being needlessly politicised,” Joseph said.
‘Progressive’ movement to counter ‘love jihad’ narrative
The growing talk of ‘love jihad’ in the community, particularly from the head of the Church, has given birth to a counter-movement as well — headed by groups that call themselves progressive.
One such group, called the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency, has openly challenged the stand of the Church.
“The love jihad message delivered by the Church came at a time when there was no report of forced conversion or anything,” said Shyju Antony, convenor of the group. “We asked each and every bishop what calculations they are basing this on, what is the conversion rate, what is the basis of this fear-mongering. But they had no answers.”
Unlike other states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh where ‘love jihad’ is positioned as a Hindu-Muslim issue, in Kerala, it’s in parts of the Christian community that this is gaining ground.
“The Christian population is not as high in any state as it is in Kerala. And so if enough members start believing this theory, then it’ll only be politically beneficial for right-wing propaganda,” Antony said.
Even among the Christians, it’s largely only the Syro-Malabar Church members who appear to be buying it. “This has purely to do with the fact that no other church denomination’s head has ever gone ahead and made political statements like these,” Antony added. “But when Alenchery did it, the blind followers of course bought into it.”
Antony alleged that this has to do with the land scams that Alenchery has been accused of in the past few years. “We strongly believe that Alenchery is singing the tune of the BJP so that he’s not convicted in any of these cases,” Antony said.
Joseph Varghese, a businessman based out of Kochi, has been a member of the Syro-Malabar Church since childhood. Now in his 50s, he is a vocal opponent of the ‘love jihad’ campaign, even as he continues to be a member of the Church.
“It is utter foolishness,” he said. “Basically, there is a strong faction of the Sangh Parivar within the Church, especially the Syro-Malabar Church. It is their creation. The Sangh Parivar wants to divide Christians and Muslims of the state, and the Syro-Malabar clergy is part of that effort.”
Alarming and disheartening: Muslims
For the Muslim community, seeing this ‘love jihad’ debate play out in front of them has been “disheartening”.
Majeed, 30, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram, said he has personally experienced being accused of spreading ‘love jihad’.
Majeed had been in a relationship with a Hindu woman for three years before her family abruptly started objecting to their relationship.
“They told her I’ll get her converted after marriage and force my religion on her. It was all a very big shock for me, and extremely disturbing,” Majeed said.
“It’s unfortunate that now this kind of propaganda is being spread among Christians as well,” he added.
Some others described the whole controversy as “alarming” but don’t necessarily think it will become a matter of grave concern for them.
“When you say love jihad, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Sangh Parivar. Given how connected all communities are in Kerala, I don’t think the Church’s statements will change much,” said Muhammed Shafeeq, a 27-year-old entrepreneur in Kozhikode.
“Yes, inter-religious marriages may have increased in Kerala over the last few years, but it’s not due to some love jihad. In fact, it’s a sign of society progressing,” he added.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)