Until last year, Kerala’s society was being sited as an example for preserving its secular image where people of various communities have been staying in a harmonious manner. But, after the incidents in Marad in January 2002 and May 2003, this representation of Kerala has greatly eroded. Marad was not the only place where communal clashes were witnessed in the past couple of years. In Nadapuram, Panur, Taikal and Pathanamthitta, also similar incidents of communal conflicts occurred. The latest incident in Marad was a well-planned attack carried out by an organized group of people, killing eight persons belonging to a particular community. A large cache of arms and ammunition was recovered including swords and daggers. Given the scenario, it is imperative to ask as to what has led to these sudden changes in Kerala? What has been the impact of these clashes at the societal level? Is Kerala increasingly moving towards the path of being a communally volatile state? What methods are to be adopted to maintain the harmonious relationship between the various communities in Kerala?

The demographic characteristic of Kerala suggests that people belonging to various religious denominations live interspersed. Even if clashes occurred in the past between two religious groups they were largely in relation to the economic rivalry. But, the current trend has been of organized attacks against particular communities, which project the feeling of hatred and vengeance towards ‘the other’. It is significant to point out that in the recent years the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has increased the number of its branches in Kerala. There are 5000 shakhas and upshkahas of the RSS currently operating in the state. Moreover, there are innumerable cultural organizations, promoting and disseminating communal ideas in the guise of patronizing literature, theatre, traditional arts and science or the renovation of village temples. The activities of these organizations have led to the emergence of a cultural right in Kerala, leading to a swift change in the consciousness of many Hindus. The setting up of the Islamic Service Society and the National Development Front after the demolition of Babri Masjid has created communal feelings among the Muslims and the reformist groups among the Muslims have not been able to control the activities of the militant Muslim organizations. Religious processions are also a familiar sight in Kerala and the participation in publicly organized religious functions gives a sense of solidarity. Therefore, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have emerged as separate entities not only in their personal and domestic lives but also in their social existence.

The incidents like the one that occurred in Marad are primarily the spillovers of the changes that have been slowly happening at the societal level. It is the first kind of a communal clash in Kerala where the fundamentalist forces have locked horns and have deliberately left the embers burning. There is a high degree of competition among the fishing communities of Kerala and economic rivalry has made it easier for the fundamentalist forces to mould the mindset of the people. The communal environment in the state has been further kindled by the interference of the political parties. Various political parties tried to gain mileage out of the events in Marad. BJP, which has been trying to enter the political spectrum of Kerala for quite some time, politicized the whole issue by pointing out that eight persons were killed by the Muslim fundamentalist forces. Marad became a mobilization platform for the BJP-RSS-VHP. The immediate arrests, which followed the massacre, comprised of the members of many mainstream political parties who were active in the area. Therefore communal forces have started working under the guise of political parties to cover up their activities in the state. This gives a more dangerous turn to the situation in Kerala, considering the fact that once political activities are divided on communal lines, it is very difficult to maintain peace in such a society.

The State Government of Kerala ordered the constitution of a special investigation team (SIT) of the Crime Branch of Police and within two months of its formation the SIT finalized a charge-sheet against 150 persons. The SIT report said that the operation was carried to avenge the killings of those murdered in 2002. The conspiracy was planned eight months before and the conspirators met several times at places in and around Marad.

There is an increased sense of bitterness among the people in Kerala and little signs of attempts to patch up the differences. Despite the peace accord religious polarization is still pronounced in Marad. Soon, after the communal clash at Marad, the Chief Minister A.K. Anthony visited the place only with the assistance of the local Aryasamajam members. The rehabilitation of the Muslim families, which fled Marad immediately after the incident, is being carried out and though the State government is taking steps to improve the situation, yet there are several obstructions to the restoration of peace. There are protests against the rehabilitation of the Muslim families in these areas. The sharpest protest was against the rehabilitation of family members of the accused involved in the May 2 killings. In addition to this the local Aryasamajam activists have ensured that the feeling of animosity remains among the Hindus. There are attacks on the Christian institutions as well in Kerala and they have in recent years multiplied.

At the political level the Chief Minister is being accused of following a policy of “appeasement” to wards the Hindu Right wing organizations. The statements given by A.K. Anthony after the massacre in Marad projected his sudden shift towards the Hindutva organizations. There were large-scale protests by the Christians and the Muslims and the state government was accused of being pro- Hindu. This was the first time that such an allegation was being made at any ruling government in Kerala. The Congress after the Marad incident has been trying hard to project the Chief Minister as being anti-minorities in order to project itself as the true saviour of the minorities. The exploitation of religious factors to increase the vote banks was not a feature in Kerala but after the recent incidents, this is becoming a normal practice.

Though Kerala cannot be portrayed, as being communally volatile, yet if the present situation continues it can also become an exploitative ground for communalist forces. The fact that Kerala has a large population of Christians and Muslims, who are considerably affluent, makes it fertile for communal clashes. It is also a region where the Christian missionaries are very active and this could further be used to create animosity against the Christians. Kerala was always known for leading the campaign against caste practices. The Vaikam movement before Independence saw the Muslims supporting the cause of the lower castes fighting for their rights. Even after Independence due to the influence of communist politics, religion was never openly used as a means to gain votes. But the emergence of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist forces in the last decade, especially after the demolition of Babri Masjid, has brought religion to the political arena.

The handling of Marad situation by the State Government shows the lack of competence to stop further occurrence of such clashes. The positive aspect could be that the Police forces of Kerala are not communally motivated and therefore the situation is not completely out of control. The need is to bring in the sense of security among the people of various communities. The State government should have some means to regulate the functioning of such organizations, which work under the symbol of cultural and religious associations. The situation in Kerala is of greater concern because of the presence of all religious groups in significant numbers. The population in Kerala being literate and politically aware has a greater responsibility of not being swayed by the attempts made by political parties or religious associations to exploit their religious sentiments. The joint venture of the State Government and the people of Kerala can only help in protecting the secular credentials of the state.