A ‘Hoax Hartal’ and its Political Dynamics in Kerala

There is general agreement in the state that the hartal breathed new life into the Sangh parivar, which till then had found itself totally cornered.

Kerala already has the dubious distinction of being a state where hartal calls by any political party will be a sure success. The one on April 16 further proved how strongly this culture is entrenched in the state. Except that this time – the first time ever – no party or organisation claimed credit for organising the action. The ‘hoax hartal’ as it is being described by the police and media, turned violent in several parts of Kerala, especially in the northern region, damaging several vehicles, shops and establishments.

The police have now apprehended five people from Kollam and Kilimanoor of southern Kerala whom they think are responsible for the call for the ‘hoax’ hartal. It has been learned that two of them have active Sangh parivar connection and one is an ex-RSS functionary. According to police sources, they created a WhatsApp group called ‘Voice of Truth’ of which several sub groups were formed across the state. The police had identified a 16-year-old, a class X student, as being an admin of one of these groups.

The Malappuram district police is questioning them and have not disclosed their whereabouts. 

The objective of the April 16 shut-down was to ratchet up the demand for justice in the Kathua case. The call was routed through various WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms. Since the sponsors remained anonymous, no organisation claimed responsibility for the fall out of the hartal. Ironically, the sole beneficiary of the dawn-to-dusk protest was the Sangh parivar which till then, had been pushed to the wall with Kathua grabbing media headlines. And also dominating conversations.

Even though limited to four or five districts and incurring no casualty, the impact of the forced shutdown was huge. Over eight thousand people were booked and more than hundred people put behind bars. The court refused to grant bail without substantial bail money.

The political and social fall-out of the hartal

The state police chief has ordered a detailed inquiry to ascertain the source of the hartal. The intelligence agencies too are not sure about the source or sources of the action. But the needle of suspicion seems to point towards certain radical Muslim outfits.

According to a section of media, the intelligence wing of the state police has filed a report with the state police chief attributing the source of the anonymous hartal call to some hardline Hindutva groups or individuals. Police officials in the higher echelons, however, did not confirm this view. Even though they did not rule out such a possibility.

“Most hartal enforcers were members or sympathisers of radical Muslim outfits like Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) There might have been random individuals with other party affiliation too, but by and large, the hartal was violently enforced by SDPI workers and Welfare Party cadres. We are not aware of the exact source of the hartal call. But one thing is for sure, that those who took to the streets to make the action a success, played into the hands of the Hindutva forces. They were the ones who reaped the benefit of this so-called protest. The Sangh parivar, which was on the back foot due to the unprecedented protests, was suddenly supplied with arms and ammunition. These self-proclaimed champions of minority communities are beefing up the Hindutva narrative,” says three-time CPI(M) MLA and former chairman of the Kerala Wakf board, K.V. Abdul Khader.

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) has also urged the CPI-M chief minister to probe the origin of the hartal call. In a statement to media, the party general secretary KPA Majeed said that the hartal was intended to divert the attention of the people from the Kathua rape case. The rape and murder of the eight-year-old Muslim girl had been getting unprecedented support in the entire society but the sudden call for a violent strike muffled the voices. For instance, Majeed observed that in solidarity with the Kathua victim’s family, thousands of Hindus in the state did not celebrate the Vishu. He also spoke about a non-Muslim journalist who named his newborn after the Kathua victim.

Representative image. Credit: PTI

Posters were plastered on houses with young girls asking BJP vote seekers to not enter.

This situation changed with the hartal. Majeed believed the hartal’s anonymous sponsors aimed to communalise the issue. His party did not extend any support for the action. They did everything possible to keep the cadres off the streets, said Majeed.

“There is no doubt that the hartal benefitted right-wing Hindutva forces, but we had nothing to do with that”, says Sreeja Neyyattinkara of the Welfare Party of India, a political party supported by the Jamaat-e-Islami. “Some of our boys were also there on the street but as a party, we did not know a thing about the strike. It was a spontaneous response of youths driven by social media. Some miscreants could have cashed in on the opportunity. There were reports of attacks on shops and establishments owned by a particular community in Tanur-Parappanangadi area. The culprits who orchestrated such attacks should be booked. But the police are treating the protesters as terrorists and slapping serious charges on them. As if this was the first instance of violence during a hartal. This is unacceptable.”

Protests against the Kathua and Unnao rape cases in Kerala. Credit: Facebook

There is general agreement that the hartal breathed new life into the Sangh parivar, which till then had found itself totally cornered. Television anchors as well as prime-time news producers in Kerala agreed that BJP-RSS leaders tried staying away from television discussions. The first or second-rung leaders were not seen on any channel till Monday, April 16, when the hartal started. From Monday onwards, their leaders gained in confidence and started taking the fight back to their opposition camp.

Janam TV, the official Malayalam mouthpiece of the Sangh parivar, ran seamless coverage of the violent hartal, calling it an action by ‘Muslim terrorists,’ targeting Hindus. According to them, some temple festivals were forcefully stopped (which is yet to be independently verified) and pre-planned attacks unleashed against establishments run by Hindus in minority dominated areas.

“It was a move by Muslim fundamentalist outfits to create communal violence in Kerala, taking the pretext of the Kathua incident. Slogans promoting disharmony and feelings of enmity between different religions were heard. The police are not doing anything,” said the BJP state general secretary K. Surendran.

This narrative has gained steam with all the major political parties blaming radical Islamist groups and the SDPI in particular. On the other hand, Nasarudheen Elamaram, the former SDPI state president, sees this hartal as one of the most creative protests against the RSS in the state. When the mainstream parties rein in peoples’ struggles for electoral gains, the youth are left with no other option than occupying the streets. The hartal is a spontaneous reaction from the people, especially the youth, he said in a widely-shared Facebook post.

According to observers who closely follow minority politics, the hartal call came from various and totally unrelated quarters. Starting on a low key in the morning, the protest gradually picked up momentum. Despite efforts to coordinate, the actions, by and large, remained spontaneous. Many believe that the SDPI is capable of mobilising cadres at short notice. They also believe that the sporadic attacks on shops and establishments owned by the Hindus may not have been premeditated. Yet, there seemed to have been a plan – a method behind the protests. The Tanur-Parappanangadi area where violent incidents took place is a communally volatile region.

The Sangh parivar was divided in its response to the Kathua case. A section of BJP leaders was of the view that the Jammu and Kashmir government handled the case very well, bringing the criminals to book. They accused opposition parties of politicising the horrific case. On the other hand, BJP’s other faction fiercely defended the criminals, with the help of their social media foot soldiers, including the son of an RSS leader, who openly endorsed the rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl. A banker by profession, Vishnu Nandakumar, the son of RSS leader E.N. Nandakumar and nephew of BJP state general secretary A.N. Radhakrishnan, lost his job in Kotak Mahindra bank after his hateful social media post.

In retaliation, the Sangh cyber brigade hit back, targeting a left-leaning IT professional, Deepak Sankaranarayanan, a senior functionary in the multinational company Hewlett-Packard. He was known for posting belligerent comments against the BJP-RSS on social media. The BJP state leadership has officially lodged a complaint with the state police chief against him.

Besides the war on social media, posters asking BJP men to steer clear of houses with young girls made headlines.

The criminal proceedings against the hartal sympathisers have become the new point of discussion with the Muslim outfits on one side and the mainstream political parties on the other, leaving the Sangh in a safe space. The Muslim youth who whole-heartedly supported the hartal call say the action was the spontaneous response of a persecuted community. They believe the community is today standing at a threshold where it cannot be controlled by any patronising political party. On the other hand, parties including the ruling CPIM and the opposition Congress and the IUML, hold the view that protests like ‘hoax hartal’ would eventually lead the society into some kind of anarchy.

Whatever be the hartal’s impact, the dynamics of politics in Kerala has slowly started to shift. The recent ‘hoax hartal’ is just one of its manifestations.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.

This story has been updated to include that the police have now apprehended five people whom they think are responsible for the call for the ‘hoax’ hartal. 

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