Tuesday, July 12, 2016

'Burqa Revolution' In Kerala: An Early Sign Of Islam Radicalisation


Till some 20 years ago, the burqa was not a Muslim woman's default costume in Kerala. Muslim women worekachathuni (a mundu or dhoti), pennu kuppayam (a full-sleeved loose blouse) and thattom (long scarf). This outfit differed only slightly from what the Christian and Hindu women wore. Or like the others, some Muslim women wore sari and blouse or modern attires, Indian or western.

But all this changed by the year 2000. Surveys conducted around that time reported that the number of burqa-wearers in the Muslim-dominated northern districts of Kerala had gone up from less than 10 percent to over 30 percent. Burqa-clad girls and women gradually became a familiar sight in Kerala's offices, colleges and other institutions like never before.

In many other parts of India as well, the burqa found increasing favour with Muslim women, prompting some writers to call it a 'burqa revolution'. But nowhere was the trend more noticeable than in Kerala and the reasons for the veil's new popularity too were different in the southern state.

In Kerala, the 'burqa revolution' was one of the first visible signs that the state's Muslim community was radicalising itself.

If 15 young men and women have vanished from the state and apparently joined the Islamic State (IS), it's not the result of a dramatic overnight phenomenon. It's the result of a process that began a long time ago.

And the process continues.

And it's not a coincidence that the rise of the burqa as a high-fashion costume closely followed the boom in Gulf jobs. It was first the Muslim men working in the Middle East, who began to insist that their women back home must don the hijab.

Many migrants believed that the Islam they found in the Gulf was the "real" Islam and the Arabs who practised it were the "real Muslims". Many Muslim men of Kerala began to ape not only the customs of Arabs but also their costumes. The women accepted it and even made it a piece of haute couture. Many shops have sprouted to sell a wide range of designer burqas. Amazon and Snapdeal, among others, flaunt a stunning variety of burqas, some of which beat the best party gowns in look and design.

At the same time, clean-shaven Muslim men began to grow beards. Those who had beards grew them longer.

Yet, it is preposterous and grossly unfair to Islam to say that every woman who switched to the burqa and every man who sported a beard turned traitor and terrorist. Radicalisation was a loose word used to describe a process which, for most Muslims, simply meant assertion of their religious identity.

I know many Muslims who have become more religious, but who continue to be as fiercely patriotic and remain as fervently opposed to terrorism as before. For many, burqas and beards were also just a harmless reaction to what they perceived to be Western propaganda against Islamic symbols. And they had a right to assert their identity.

At the same time, this also threw up a major warning. For a very tiny fraction of misguided and vulnerable Muslims, the process of radicalisation meant more than identity assertion. It meant militancy. But nobody - neither the fiercely nationalistic Muslim scholars, nor the police or political parties - took note of the warning.

And there was always the subtle and soft propaganda by ostensibly respectable outfits such as the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH) that tossed around words like "Islamic movement" and "old order of Islam". This was long before terrorism preachers such as Zakir Naik came on the scene. Jamaat-e-Islami had been founded in Lahore in 1941 and, after India's partition, split into Jamaat-e-Islam Pakistan and Jamaat-e-Islam Hind.

Look at this gem that JIH posted on its website on Sunday. It called Zakir Naik a "renowned Indian personality of international repute". It condemned the "negative propaganda" against Naik as "sad and against the Constitutional freedom of practising one's faith and freedom of speech".

After the "burqa revolution", there have been many other warnings.

Jacob Punnoose, who was the first head of Kerala's Anti-Terrorist Squad, toldThe New Indian Express on Sunday that everyone accepted the "ground reality" (of the state's terror link) when four men from the state were killed in an encounter at a Lashkar-e-Tayyaba camp in Jammu and Kashmir in October 2008.

But Punnnoose must remember that "everyone" should have accepted this "ground reality" much earlier. He should remember the man called Thadiyantavide Nazeer from Kerala's Kannur, who had in the first pace recruited the men killed in the Kashmir encounter. Punnoose should be aware that Nazeer had disappeared after an alleged attempt to kill then Chief Minister EK Nayanar in 1999 and, even as he was on the run, was suspected to be responsible for many terror attacks, including the 2008 Bangalore blasts.

After his arrest in 2009, and trial by a special court of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in the LeT recruitment case, Nazeer and 12 others were sentenced to life in October 2013. Nazeer was one of the early kingpins of Kerala's terror network.

He probably still is. Shanahas, an associate of Nazeer who was arrested in November 2015, told the police that Nazeer had been sending WhatsApp messages from jail and plotting terror attacks. This happened despite the order by NIA's special court judge that Nazeer and the others, whom he had sentenced for life, were a big threat to the nation and they should be monitored closely in prison.

Yet, Nazeer managed to lay his hands on a mobile phone to send WhatsApp messages.

The alarm bell rang again. And once again, the 'snooze' button was pressed.
There were plenty of other pointers to the immensity of Kerala's link to terror. Just a few months before the 2008 Kashmir encounter, the police found that the Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had conducted a "training camp" at Wagamon in Kerala. Participants in the camp were being trained in the use of arms and the making of bombs.

At the root of the problem is the fact that there has been no political will to heed those warnings. The Congress has been wary of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second-largest partner in the United Democratic Front (UDF). The IUML calls itself a secular party, but its concept and practice of secularism often flummoxes both the Congress and political analysts.

To counter IUML's - and the UDF's - influence, the CPM, which leads the Left Democratic Front (LDF), has been flirting with fringe Muslim extreme groups.
And the people of Kerala can only hope that the new LDF Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan will be different.

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