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The ‘murders’ don’t figure in official campaign speeches or party manifestos. Nobody talks of them publicly. Yet, they remain eerily in the air, in huddled off-the-record conversations, in whispers inside thatched tea shops and drawing rooms in Vengara, Kerala.
Anil Kumar, who had converted to Islam from Hinduism in the summer of 2016, came down from Saudi Arabia later that year, and managed to convert his wife and three children. However, in November, days before he could convert his mother, he was hacked to death near Kodinji in Malappuram district. A number of RSS workers and relatives of Kumar, now Faisal, were arrested in connection with the case. They had expressed unhappiness over his decision to convert.
Vipin Das, the second accused in the case who was out on conditional bail, was found dead by the roadside in Tirur in Malappuram, earlier this year. His killing was estimated, by many, as a retaliation to Faisal’s murder. In September, two men associated with the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) were arrested by the police.
Vengara, an hour away from the sites of these two communally-charged murders, is feeling a bit of the heat, especially when a fierce bypoll campaign has just concluded on its soil. The constituency, with a size of 1.7 lakh voters, is essentially a fortress of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which has had an iron grip on the district and the region’s Muslim population for decades. The bypoll was necessitated after sitting MLA P K Kunhalikutty vacated the seat to contest a Lok Sabha election which he went on to win.
While few contest the IUML’s absolute dominance over Vengara and the larger Malappuram district, religious tempers are frayed especially with parties like the SDPI pitching itself into the election fray and RSS becoming more active. Big leaders of the IUML may dismiss the vote-garnering abilities of the SDPI, but there is talk of more youth getting ‘radicalised’ and ‘brain-washed’.
“While SDPI claims authority over the Muslim community, RSS claims to be the protector of Hindus,” said a CPM leader based in Vengara. “Religious propaganda is being spread here. They are brainwashing innocent young men.”
Even as the murders of Faizal and Vipin find space only in hushed whispers during the campaign, they were raised and intensified by immediate protests and dharnas by all parties as they happened. A probe into both cases is underway by the state police.
“BJP strongly stands against forced religious conversions. Peace here is maintained under the guise of threat,” said K Narayanan Master, the party’s election committee general convenor, pointing fingers at the IUML. “We need peace and stability. We are a responsible party working towards that goal,” he added.
For the Muslim League, a victory in Vengara is a foregone conclusion. What matters is the margin of that victory. For its claims of a secular party to stand rooted, it knows it cannot splinter its votes either to the SDPI or the BJP. Even as the League battles the prospect of the SDPI and the BJP rearing its heads, it has to contend with a bigger challenge from the CPM-led LDF, looking out for the same share of the growing Muslim vote-pie.
“In the last Lok Sabha bypoll, SDPI did not contest. Their workers came out on the streets to campaign for Kunhalikutty. In the Assembly election, SDPI came out in the last round to create polarisation. They brought out their venom-induced campaign. Muslim League benefits from the activities of the SDPI. They have to answer for this,” said TV Rajesh, CPM legislator from Kalliassery.
Whether the murders of Faizal or Vipin will create any impact in Vengara will be known on October 15 when the ballot boxes open for counting, but their brutal killings have indeed left their mark in the socio-political equations of this tense region in Malabar.