The paradox of India’s most religiously diverse state

KOCHI, India — Residents of Kochi, a coastal city in the southwestern state of Kerala, call it paradise. From its leftist government to its laid-back vibe, blue-chip schools, spas and wellness centers, the city is home to some 700,000 people with another 1.6 million in the greater metropolitan area.

But like Kerala, which bills itself as “God’s Own Country,” Kochi is a place of paradox. Marxists head both city and state governments, but religion is a vital aspect of local culture. And in the upcoming Indian election, religious issues may help swing some Kerala voters from opposing the current Hindu nationalist government to supporting it.

“The RSS has roots in Kerala,” said Anil Kumar, a Communist Party India (Marxist) supporter, about  Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing, Hindu nationalist organization that wants religion to dictate social policies and cultural standards. “Its sphere is influence is increasing.”

In the last year, several religious controversies have increased RSS influence in the city and state. Foremost were women’s protests against religiously-based gender and caste discrimination. Long-simmering tensions over beef-eating and religious conversion also are never far from the surface.

But throughout India, religion takes a backseat to economic issues, according to political observers who say the Modi government is vulnerable. The prime minister has not delivered on promises of job creation and aid to farmers. Unemployment is up and economic progress is slow. While these factors are at play in Kerala, recent events have added religiously-fueled, cultural anxieties to the mix.

“In the last six months, we in Kerala saw some kind of revolution,” said K.J. Sohan, a former mayor of Kochi. “Since the 18th and 19th century, everything was based on caste and patriarchy. That’s changing.”

At stake overall in the national elections, which last from April 11 to May 19, is the future of the world’s largest democracy. In 2014, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP,) the political arm of RSS, campaigned on a platform of economic development. Modi distanced himself from religious nationalism during the 2014 campaign. But he has since promoted a Hindutva agenda, which seeks to integrate Hindu values and Indian culture.

India was created as a secular state, and its constitution guarantees freedom of religion. More than 80 percent of its 1.3 billion people are Hindus. Thirteen percent are Muslim, 2.3 percent Christian and 1.9 percent are Sikhs. Buddhists, Jains and those with “no religion” make up less than one percent each of the national total.

The nation has long prized religious diversity, but Hindutva, claiming Hinduism is a culture not a religion, wants its values to be preeminent.

By prioritizing the protection of cows, an animal sacred to Hindus, Modi‘s followers have tacitly encouraged violence against butchers and beef-eating Muslims. BJP supporters also have warned against a “love jihad,” Muslim men who marry Hindu women to spread terrorism. Modi himself has spoken forcefully against Islamist terrorism and Pakistan, and his government has attempted to introduce Hindutva ideas into schools and cultural institutions.

“We respect all individuals and nationalities.” said C.G. Rajagopal, a BJP leader in Kochi. “But we believe you are not a Christian or a Muslim, you are an Indian.”

Rajagopal’s perspective may be more mainstream in Delhi than Kochi, which is 1,686 miles and cultural light years from the capital city. Kochi, like the rest of Kerala, has one of the highest literacy rates in India, including among women. Its long history as a center for the spice trade brought Jewish, Christian and Muslim immigrants to settle. Some sought safety, others economic opportunities and still others missionary prospects. And while Kerala is 54 percent Hindu, 26 percent Muslim and 18 percent Christian, Kochi has fewer Hindus and Muslims and more Christians than the state.

Kochi’s cosmopolitanism, educated populace and middle class values help explain what appears as a live-and-let-live culture.

“There is Islamophobia here, but not to the level of attacking someone,” said Shaheena Nafeeza, a Muslim journalist. “Keralans don’t resort to violence because it will hurt tourism.”

But they will stand up for what they believe is right.

Last fall, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a Keralan temple to ban women of menstruating age. Conservative Hindus immediately protested, but the state government backed the decision. Women who supported the ruling began demonstrating and agitating to enter the temple.

On January 1, five million women joined a 385-mile chain to support gender equality. Organizers did not mention the Supreme Court ruling, but participants were aware of the historic moment. The next day, two women entered the temple. Both were Dalits, members of India’s lowest caste, who were once known as untouchables. Their entrance to the temple was as much about flouting caste restrictions as ending the prohibition against women.

“We walked with the devotees, who gave us no trouble,” said Bindu.“ (Many Keralans use only one name.) None of the men were surprised by our visit. This is not an issue for the common man, it’s just political people who have made it difficult.”

Also last fall, five nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus order held a sit-in in Kochi. The women were supporting a member of their order who had accused a Catholic bishop of rape.

After failing to receive justice from church authorities, the women went to the police, who were slow to act. The protesting sisters demanded the bishop’s immediate arrest, which followed after supportive residents joined their struggle. Several months later, Pope Francis, who was monitoring the Indian situation and similar ones in Africa, admitted that bishops and priests have sexually abused nuns.

Women opposing religious patriarchy, calls for Dalit empowerment, ongoing concerns about forced conversion and fears of rampant beef-eating have aroused Hindu conservatives in “God’s Own Country.” The RSS, which has more branches in Kerala than any other Indian state, plans to capitalize on their anger, fear and frustration to win votes this spring.

Still, many Keralans don’t expect the right-wing tide to swamp the region’s liberal-left status.

“Things go in cycles and religion is making a comeback,” said K.J. Sohan, the former Kochi mayor. “But my hope is that young people will change that.”

This article is part of a collaboration between The GroundTruth Project and the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, made possible in part by the Henry Luce Foundation.