Kozhikode, India – Thousands of kilometres away from the Gaza Strip, which is undergoing what many observers call a “genocide”, people in southern India’s Kerala state are flocking to public spaces to join protests and candlelight vigils in solidarity with the Palestinians.
More than 11,300 Palestinians – nearly half of them children – have been killed in Israeli air strikes and ground attacks on Gaza since October 7 when Hamas, in an unprecedented move, entered Israel and killed 1,200 people, according to official figures.
Israel’s unrelenting and disproportionate killing of civilians and siege on hospitals providing critical care has outraged people across the world, with dozens of solidarity marches held for more than a month now.
In Kerala as well, political parties, rights activists, cultural groups and Muslim organisations have held rallies and events, calling for an immediate ceasefire in the besieged enclave and censuring Israel for its alleged war crimes.
Last week, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurated one such rally organised by his Communist Party of India (Marxist) and attended by more than 50,000 people cutting across political affiliations in Kozhikode.
The November 11 rally marked the 19th death anniversary of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader, Yasser Arafat, an icon of resistance against the decades-old Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In his speech, Vijayan unleashed a scathing attack on Israel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support of the country’s far-right Zionist regime.
“India is the biggest consumer of weapons manufactured in Israel. Indian taxpayers’ money should not be given to kill innocent Palestinian children. So India should scrap all military deals with Israel and sever diplomatic ties with it,” he said.
“Israel is one of the biggest terrorist countries. The Indian government’s decision to abstain from a UN voting that called for a ceasefire in Gaza was shameful. The ‘Zionist’ bias of the current rulers of India was not a surprise at all,” he added.
In response, K Surendran, the Kerala state president of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), dared Vijayan to condemn Hamas.
“Only bearded moulavis [Muslim preachers] were present on the dais at the [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] rally. This has raised doubts among people that the left-wing party has changed its name to the Communist Party of Moulavis,” he told reporters.
On October 26, Kozhikode also saw the biggest-ever Palestine solidarity march in India, as more than 200,000 people rallied after the regional party, the Indian Union Muslim League, asked them to hit the streets to oppose the war on Gaza.
The Indian National Congress, the main opposition party in the southern Indian state, has also announced a solidarity rally on November 23.
‘Informed society’s solidarity’
So what makes Kerala so sensitive to the Palestinian cause?
“The Palestine issue garners widespread support in Kerala because of the historical connections between the region and West Asia, particularly the Arab world,” KM Seethi, former professor of international relations at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala’s Kottayam town, told Al Jazeera.
Seethi said the migration from Kerala to the Gulf beginning in the early 1980s exposed them to the struggles of the Palestinian people, leading to a “natural sympathy” for their cause. Nearly 3.5 million people from the state work in the Middle East, forming a majority of the Indian expats in the region.
But there is more.
In India, which finds itself at the bottom of many human development indices such as education and health, Kerala is an outlier. 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, as opposed to the national rate of 74 percent.
Long before the Gulf migration began, public intellectuals in Kerala had been following the sociopolitical developments in the tumultuous Arab world.
One such intellectual was Vakkom Mohammed Abdul Khader Moulavi, founder of Swadeshabhimani (The Patriot) newspaper way back in 1905. An expert in West Asian politics, he used his newspaper to educate people about issues concerning Palestine and other parts of the Middle East.
“Such efforts apparently resulted in the publication of the first Malayalam book on Palestine in 1930. Written by journalist and sociopolitical observer Muhammed Kannu, the book, titled Palestine Prashnam (The Palestine Problem), was published 18 years before the formation of Israel and 49 years before Edward Said wrote The Palestine Question in 1979,” M V Bijulal, chairperson of the Centre 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 gains. The 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 discourses. What we are witnessing in Kerala now is an informed society’s solidarity with the Palestinian cause,” said Bijulal.
In addition, journals published by ideologically opposed Muslim groups in the state also educated the community about Palestine. These organisations, belonging to the Sunni, Salafi and Jamaat-e-Islami persuasions, set aside their theological differences to publish articles condemning the Israeli occupation and its daily attacks, dehumanisation and humiliation of the Palestinian people.
“This helped their followers understand the gravity of the issue,” author and political observer Mujeeb Rahman Kinalur told Al Jazeera.
Not a Muslim issue
But that didn’t mean Palestine was a Muslim issue in Kerala, where 27 percent of its 35 million people are Muslim – nearly twice the national average at around 15 percent, according to the last census conducted in 2011. Christians constitute 18 percent while Hindus form the majority at around 55 percent.
Palestine, however, remains a non-divisive issue in the state, mainly due to an unambiguous stand on it by its prominent political parties – the Indian National Congress, its closest ally the Indian Union Muslim League, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
All these parties have criticised the federal Hindu nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for supporting Israel and abstaining from a recent United Nations vote calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. In his social media posts and speeches, Modi has repeatedly called Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu a “close friend” while his government has built close business and strategic India-Israel ties.
MA Baby, a senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, said iconic Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi and the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru believed that Palestinians were waging an independence movement, much like what the Indians did against the colonial British.
“By supporting Palestine, [the] people of Kerala are taking a leaf out of India’s freedom struggle. Modi might have conveniently forgotten the sacrifices of our tallest leaders, but we would continue to emulate them,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The issue here is the liberation of Palestine. It is not a Muslim issue at all.”
The Indian Union Muslim League’s Panakkad Sayyid Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal said only “the wicked minds” would see the Palestinian struggle as a Muslim issue. “People from different faiths live in Palestine and they are engaged in a fight for their land. We stand by them. Religion is not an issue here.”
Congress leader VT Balram told Al Jazeera his party has historically denounced Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “It is the stated policy of Congress since the Nehru era. Hence we vehemently oppose Narendra Modi government’s decision to support Israel in the ongoing war,” he said.
In the past decades, the people of Kerala had come out in support of Nelson Mandela in his fight against South Africa’s apartheid regime or the people of Vietnam in their war against the United States and France. The state sent millions of tonnes of food and medicine to Cuba when it was put under sanctions by the US in the early 1990s. During the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the state witnessed several anti-war rallies.
In fact, Arafat remains one of the most revered personalities in Kerala.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, photos of Yasser Arafat adorned the walls of many Communist party offices in Kerala, along with [Karl] Marx and [Frederick] Engels. It showed the [people of Kerala’s] strong anti-imperialist stand,” Bijulal told Al Jazeera.