The ‘Real’ Kerala Story: Tales of Communal Harmony From Ground Zero

Temples and churches hosting Iftar parties and Nabi Dinam, blending of the azaan with temple bells, Muslims helping Hindu families – all these instances add to the state’s already rich traditions.

In Karnataka and North India’s communal hotbeds, government authorities have systematically used every religious occasion for shifting punishment onto minorities. But, in Kerala, the gods, the devotees, and their places of worship happily coexist.

On a month-long holiday to the state, this writer found no one talking about stopping the azaan. In some places, mosque authorities voluntarily decided to lower the volume of the loudspeaker.

There were no cow vigilantes on the streets, no bulldozers razing minority properties, no attacks on mosques, madrasas and churches, no disruption of namaz prayers, and no cries to ban hijab, halal, and beef. This was in sharp contrast to the states like Uttar Pradesh where chief minister Yogi Adityananth had ordered the removal of loudspeakers from all religious places.

Consider The Kerala Story, the fictional film which left a trail of death and destruction, including in places like Akola, Ahmednagar, and Jammu. But Kerala remained calm. No one here found any need for protests, for or against the screening of the film. They seemed to have dismissed it as fiction.

During our Kerala visit, the local media narrated an incident where the azaan from the local mosque blended with temple bells at the Shanthigiri Ashram in Kozhikode. This happened when leaders of the Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Muslim League were attending a function along with the ashram monk, Gururethnam.

Such incidents, we were told, are not uncommon in Kerala.

This news story was published on April 12. During the same month, the Hindi belt was in the grip of Ram Navami clashes. The violence also spread to Bihar and West Bengal.

Social harmony

What happened in Kozhikode was not an isolated incident. In Kerala, religious festivals are increasingly becoming occasions for enhancing social harmony and kinship and celebrating diversity.

For instance, Miladi un-Nabi or Nabi Dinam in Kerala has become an occasion for great bonhomie. Last year, many temple management committees in the state celebrated the day by holding receptions for the rallies organised by the local Muslims. As per media reports, leaders from churches in many places went to the local juma masjids to greet Muslims.

There’s another similar instance of communal harmony when the mohalla committee in Kottakkal in old Malabar celebrated Nabi Dinam. They donated Rs 1 lakh to a differently abled Hindu woman. However, local RSS leaders described it as a trap for conversion. To disprove this, Lakshmi Kutty’s Hindu friends were also present at the function in large numbers on October 9, 2022.

In Thrissur’s Olarikkara, the local Bhagavati temple committee organised a reception for the Nabi Dinam rally at the temple maidan. The committee president and others welcomed the procession.

At Valappad, the vicar of St. Sebastian Church, Father Babu Appadan, went to the new juma masjid to greet fellow Muslims with sweets.

The Bhagvati temple club office bearers at Cherpu in Thrissur district distributed sweets to the participants of the Nabi Dinam procession at the temple premises. A reception held at Vandur near Trissur was addressed by leaders of different communities. Students of a local madrasa performed a deffmut (Moppila folk dance) in front of the Kacheri Kundur Shiva temple in Vengara.

Malayalam dailies widely covered such gestures of harmony.

In Manalaya near Perinthalmanna, local Muslim League MLA Najeeb Kanthapuram inaugurated the centuries-old temple’s new building. The chief priest, Narayan Nambudiri, led the puja ceremony. The trustee of the temple, M. Shasidharan, said people of the village cutting across religious divides were living in peace and harmony.

In Malappuram’s Edakkara, Sabarimala pilgrims prepared kheer on the occasion of the inauguration of a new building of the Karapuram Shamsuddin madrasa. Last year, Punnassery Bhagavati temple near Tirur cancelled its annual festival to condole the death of a local Muslim Cherathil Haider.

In January 2022, the Islamic Institute at Thrissur introduced Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads in its syllabus from this year. The gesture was widely welcomed.

Temples and churches in the state organise iftar parties during Ramzan.

The Lakshmi Narasimhamurthi temple began hosting the Iftar party from 2017 onwards. It began after the temple festival coincided with Ramzan that year.

Iftars were also held by the temple management committees of Vaniyannur Chathangadu Maha Vishnu temple near Tirur and Sree Puthuveppu Manaliyarkavu Bhagavsthi temple at Othalur.

On the other hand, Hindutva groups, who have a domineering presence in many such local temple committees, fiercely resent such societal interaction. Two months ago, a shade of a renovated hall at the famous Thirumanthamkunnu Bhagawati temple had to be changed due to objections raised by the Hindutva groups.

Last month, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposed the naming of the refurbished Jubilee Hall at Kozhikode after the renowned patriot Mohammad Abdul Rahman. Other parties like the Left and Congress supported the move.

Also read: What the Debate on the Ban on ‘Kerala Story’ Needs to Acknowledge

A sweeping transformation

The Muslim community has undergone a sweeping transformation during the past six decades. When this writer, born and brought up in what is called the Muslim majority Malappuram district, left the state in 1960, Muslim men were identified by their clean-shaven head – some attribute it to their Buddhist past – stitched lungi, often fastened with a three-inch wide cloth belt and a bare upper. Now on the streets, you cannot differentiate Muslims from others.

Similarly, it is hard to spot the old kind of archetypal ‘Umma’ – a Muslim woman – in a full sleeve kurta with a stitched lungi. The old dress has been replaced by a variety of outfits like skirts and salwar kameez. However, the hijab has survived the sartorial onslaught. There are shops exclusively catering to Muslim women in almost every town in the Muslim heartland of Malappuram.

In those days, Muslims in Malabar invariably spoke the ‘Mappila’ dialect. Now even Muslim girls speak Malayalam. In madrasas, trained Maulavis have replaced the semi-literate ‘Mullaka’.

In Pattambi, a group of skull-capped boys in white kurtas and pyjamas got into the crowded bus we were travelling in. We asked them where we could get a bus to Valapuram. We were surprised when they themselves carried our baggage and put us on the right bus. Another ‘jihad’ to trap an octogenarian couple?

In Beppur, a minor port near Kozhikode, we decided to drop in at a relative’s house in a local modern colony. As we pressed the bell, two girls in hijab opened the door. Are we at the wrong address?

“Aunty will be back home any moment. Please come in,” they said. They went in and out of the kitchen and prepared cool drinks – as if they were part of their aunt’s family. The aunt later explained that the Muslim girls were friends of her daughter who now lives in Canada.

In a crowded bus, we found some Hindu and Muslim girl students in uniform. They were studying at a local medical college. They all spoke Malayalam. The only Muslim identity was the hijab. So clearly, the language barrier is cracking.

And suddenly, we found the Muslim girls pulling up their hijabs in place. An old Muslim man in a skull cap boarded the bus. A Gulf-returned relative, who is now a director of the Ayurvedic college near Kuttanad, said most of its students were Muslim with girls taking the lead.

Muslims of Malabar were the early beneficiaries of the Gulf jobs and the remittances boom. This benefited two generations and has greatly enhanced the economic, social and educational profile of the Muslims. Simultaneously, there were community efforts to encourage education among the mostly backward Muslims. They opened a string of schools and colleges, including professional ones, in backward areas. The result was the birth of an aspirational generation.