Kozhikode, India – Thousands of kilometers from the Gaza Strip, which is undergoing what many observers call a “genocide”, residents of the state of Kerala, in southern India, are rushing to public spaces to join protests and candlelight vigils in solidarity with Palestinians.
More than 11,300 Palestinians – half of them children – have been killed in Israeli air and ground strikes on Gaza since October 7, when Hamas, in an unprecedented move, entered Israel and killed 1 200 people, according to official figures.
Israel’s continued and disproportionate killings of civilians and siege of critical care hospitals have outraged people around the world, with dozens of people solidarity marches has been detained for over a month now.
In Kerala too, political parties, human rights activists, cultural groups and Muslim organizations have held rallies and events, calling for an immediate ceasefire in the besieged enclave and censoring Israel for his alleged war crimes.
Last week, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated one such rally organized by his Communist Party of India (Marxist) and attended by over 50,000 people of all political affiliations in Kozhikode.
The November 11 rally marked the 19th anniversary of the death of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader, Yasser Arafatan icon of resistance against the decades-long Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In his speech, Vijayan launched a scathing attack on Israel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support for the country’s far-right Zionist regime.
“India is the largest consumer of Israeli-made weapons. Indian taxpayers’ money should not be used to kill innocent Palestinian children. India should therefore abandon all military agreements with Israel and sever diplomatic relations with Israel,” he said.
“Israel is one of the biggest terrorist countries. The Indian government’s decision to abstain in a UN vote calling for a ceasefire in Gaza was shameful. The “Zionist” bias of India’s current leaders is not at all a surprise,” he added.
In response, K Surendran, Kerala state president of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), osa Vijayan condemn Hamas.
“Only bearded moulavis (Muslim preachers) were present on the dais during the (Communist Party of India (Marxist)) rally. This gave rise to doubts among the population that the left party had changed its name to Moulavis Communist Party,” he told journalists.
On October 26, Kozhikode also saw India’s largest-ever Palestine solidarity march, as more than 200,000 people gathered after the regional party, the Indian Union Muslim League, asked them to to take to the streets to oppose the war against Gaza.
The Indian National Congress, the main opposition party in the southern Indian state, also announced a solidarity rally on November 23.
“The solidarity of an informed society”
So, what makes Kerala so sensitive to the Palestinian cause?
“The Palestinian issue commands wide support in Kerala because of the region’s historical ties to West Asia, particularly the Arab world,” KM Seethi, former professor of international relations at Mahatma Gandhi University, told Al Jazeera from the town of Kottayam in Kerala.
Seethi said Kerala’s migration to the Gulf from the early 1980s exposed them to the struggles of the Palestinian people, leading to a “natural sympathy” for their cause. Nearly 3.5 million civil servants work in the Middle East, making up the majority of Indian expatriates in the region.
But there is more.
In India, which ranks at the bottom of many human development indices such as education and health, Kerala is an exception. Its human development index, at 0.792, is the highest in India. According to the 2011 census, Kerala’s literacy rate stood at 93.91 percent, compared to the national rate of 74 percent.
Long before the Gulf migration began, Kerala’s public intellectuals were following the socio-political developments of the tumultuous Arab world.
One such intellectual was Vakkom Mohammed Abdul Khader Moulavi, founder of the newspaper Swadeshabhimani (The Patriot) in 1905. An expert on West Asian politics, he used his newspaper to educate people on issues concerning Palestine and other regions of the Middle East.
“Such efforts apparently resulted in the publication of the first Malayalam book on Palestine in 1930. Written by journalist and socio-political observer Muhammed Kannu, the book, titled Palestine Prashnam (The Palestinian Problem), was published 18 years before the formation of Israel and 49 years before the creation of Israel. years before Edward Said wrote The Palestinian Question in 1979,” MV Bijulal, chairman of the Center for West Asian Studies at Mahatma Gandhi University, told Al Jazeera.
Palestine Prashnam, using historical documents, reveals how Britain used Palestine, a former colony, for political purposes. Author Kannu was also a member of the editorial board of another newspaper, Al Ameen, founded by Congress leader Mohammed Abdur Rahiman.
“Kerala provides an ideal platform for international political discourse. What we are witnessing today in Kerala is the solidarity of an informed society with the Palestinian cause,” Bijulal said.
Additionally, newspapers published by ideologically opposed Muslim groups in the state have also raised community awareness about Palestine. These organizations, belonging to Sunni, Salafist and Jamaat-e-Islami tendencies, put aside their theological differences to publish articles condemning the Israeli occupation and its daily attacks, dehumanization and humiliation of the Palestinian people.
“It helped their supporters understand the seriousness of the problem,” author and political observer Mujeeb Rahman Kinalur told Al Jazeera.
This is not a Muslim problem
But that doesn’t mean Palestine was a Muslim issue in Kerala, where 27 percent of its 35 million people are Muslim, nearly twice the national average of about 15 percent, according to the latest census. carried out in 2011. Christians constitute 18 percent while Hindus constitute 18 percent of Muslims. form the majority with around 55 percent.
Palestine, however, remains an issue that does not divide the state, mainly due to the unambiguous stance of its main political parties – the Indian National Congress, its closest ally, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Communist Party Indian (Marxism). ).
All of these parties have criticized the Hindu nationalist federal government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for its support for Israel and its abstention in a recent United Nations vote calling for a ceasefire. fire in Gaza. In his social media posts and speeches, Modi has repeatedly called Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu a “close friend” as his government has built close trade and strategic ties between India and Israel.
MA Baby, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that iconic Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi and the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed that the Palestinians were leading an independence movement, much like this that the Indians did against the British colonists.
“By supporting Palestine, (the) people of Kerala are taking inspiration from India’s freedom struggle. Modi might have forgotten the sacrifices of our greatest leaders, but we would continue to emulate them,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The issue here is the liberation of Palestine. This is not a Muslim issue at all.
Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal of the Indian Union Muslim League said only “wicked minds” would see the Palestinian struggle as a Muslim issue. “People of different faiths live in Palestine and are engaged in a struggle for their land. We are at their side. Religion is not a problem here.
Congress leader VT Balram told Al Jazeera that his party had always denounced Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “This has been the declared policy of the Congress since the Nehru era. This is why we vehemently oppose the decision of the Narendra Modi government to support Israel in the ongoing war,” he said.
Over the past decades, the people of Kerala have supported Nelson Mandela in his fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa or the people of Vietnam in their war against the United States and France. The state sent millions of tons of food and medicine to Cuba when the country was subject to U.S. sanctions in the early 1990s. During the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the state witnessed of several anti-war rallies.
In fact, Arafat remains one of Kerala’s most revered personalities.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, photos of Yasser Arafat adorned the walls of many Communist Party offices in Kerala, alongside (Karl) Marx and (Frederick) Engels. This showed the strong anti-imperialist stance (of the people of Kerala),” Bijulal told Al Jazeera.