Kozhikode, Kerala – A monetary reward of 10 million rupees ($1,22,280) has been announced by a Muslim group in the Indian state of Kerala for providing evidence of claims in an Indian film that thousands of Hindu and Christian women from the state were recruited into the ISIL ( ISIS) armed group.
Members of the Muslim Youth League, affiliated with the Indian Union Muslim League opposition party, set up so-called “evidence collection counters” in all 14 districts of Kerala on Thursday, a day before the film is released in Hindi. Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu languages.
According to the film’s trailer on YouTube, The Kerala Story, produced by Vipul Amrutlal Shah and directed by Sudipto Sen, claims to capture the “lives of innocent girls, transformed and trafficked for terror” from Kerala.
“A chilling, never-before-told true story – revealing a dangerous conspiracy hatched against India,” reads the caption below the trailer.
The filmmakers say the 138-minute film is a “compilation of true stories of three young girls from different parts of Kerala”.
An earlier figure included in the text was that 32,000 girls were forced to join IS, a claim contested by Muslims and other groups, as well as opposition political parties in Kerala and other parts of India.
“If 32,000 Hindu girls joined ISIS from the state, that would be 10 girls from every village in the state. How can anyone miss it?” asked General Secretary PK Firos of the Muslim Youth League.
What is the movie about?
The creators of The Kerala Story reference the Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory of “love jihad” to support their claims in the film. They say the film shows true stories of a Muslim “love jihad” plot, in which non-Muslim girls and women are supposedly romanticized, tricked into converting to Islam through marriage, and then forced to join ISIS .
This plot is central to the film, despite the fact that India’s Secretary of State told Parliament in 2020 that there is no such thing as “love jihad” and that government inquiries have dismissed the allegations.
The filmmakers say the inspiration behind their film is a real woman named Nimisha, who converted to Islam in 2015 and married Bestin Vincent, another convert. According to Indian officials, the couple traveled to Afghanistan via Sri Lanka to join IS the following year.
In 2021, India refused to repatriate four Indians who had joined ISIL fighters in Afghanistan. Nimisha was among those who wanted to return home after her husband was killed. According to Indian media, she has a daughter and they are both in an Afghan prison.
“Thousands of innocent women have been systematically converted, radicalized and their lives destroyed. It’s their side of the story,” says the film’s trailer on YouTube. “The truth will set us free!”
The film’s director told Al Jazeera that he stands behind his work and the claim that 32,000 girls were indoctrinated and recruited into ISIL. The latest trailer for the movie revises that number to “thousands.”
“We have a humanitarian agenda,” Sen said, adding that he has evidence to support his claims and that the film will be his response to all criticism.
“We are not against any particular community,” said Sen. “We are against terrorism and we do not believe that terrorism has any religion. Our movie had a Muslim scholar because we didn’t want to go wrong presenting Islam. We had other Muslim crew members.”
Monetary rewards for evidence
But Firos of the Muslim Youth League told Al Jazeera that the film reinforces “Islamophobic tropes”.
“This is to tarnish the reputation of our state and the Muslim community,” he said. “We felt that making statements or issuing legal notice would make no difference. We wanted people to make a decision before watching the film.”
The Muslim Youth League is not alone in campaigning against the film.
Nazeer Hussain Kizhakkedathu, a Kerala resident who has settled in the United States, also announced a reward of 1 million rupees for evidence related to only 10 girls and women – not thousands, as the film claims – who were forcibly converted and forced to join ISIL. He encouraged a lawyer friend to offer an additional 1.1 million Indian rupees as a reward.
“This is part of a cultural genocide. We know that Nazi Germany made such movies before they killed thousands of Jews,” Kizhakkedathu, 51, told Al Jazeera.
The New Jersey-based software engineer said that while he is an atheist, his marriage to a Hindu woman could also be considered a case of “love jihad” if the film’s premise is accepted without scrutiny.
“Most of the Indian people who have reportedly joined IS are from Muslim families, so Muslims are the real victims here. The film erases their pain and slanders them,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to a 2020 US State Department report, 66 fighters of Indian descent are known to have joined IS. In 2021, India’s National Investigation Agency said it was investigating 37 cases related to Indians joining the group and had arrested 168 people.
‘Factory of Lies’
The ruling communist coalition government in Kerala and opposition leaders are seeking action against the film. Chief Minister of State Pinarayi Vijayan wrote on Facebook that the film is an “attempt to spread hate propaganda” and threatened legal action against the filmmakers.
“This fake story is a product of Sangh Parivar’s factory of lies,” he wrote. “Justifying those who use cinema only to sow discord with the argument of freedom of expression is not right. Freedom of speech is not a license to unite this country, spread lies and divide people.”
Sangh Parivar refers to a collection of Hindu nationalist groups led by the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Propaganda films and berating of Muslims should be seen in the context of several attempts by the Sangh Parivar to gain an advantage in electoral politics in Kerala,” the chief minister wrote.
The BJP has so far failed to make significant progress in Kerala, one of India’s best-governed states where power fluctuates between the left and the Indian National Congress party.
“[The film] is an insult to the women of the state,” VD Sadeeshan, Kerala’s opposition leader from the Congress Party, told Al Jazeera. “People who believe in the rule of law, democracy and secularism will disagree with the theme of this film.”
“Interfaith marriages are very common in Kerala. We are tolerant of such ideas. We are a progressive state,” said Sadeeshan, adding that the film will create tensions in a “relatively peace-loving state.”
According to the 2011 census, Kerala’a’s population is 54 percent Hindu, 27 percent Muslim and 18 percent Christian, making it one of the most diverse Indian states.
Sen questioned the politicians who accused the film of being part of a ‘Sanghi [Sangh Parivar] agenda”.
“I will not dance to the politicians’ pipes,” he told Al Jazeera, which declined to comment on the monetary reward for evidence. “We are talking about human tragedy. This is not a joke.”
Several petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court of India and the Supreme Court of Kerala, seeking a delay in the film’s release.
The Kerala Story received an “adult” certificate from India’s Central Board of Film Certification after the agency recommended nearly a dozen cuts and some changes in dialogue, the filmmakers said.
Critics say The Kerala Story is part of a new trend in Indian cinema that seeks to amplify far-right Hindu narratives with little regard for facts. The trend, they say, started after Modi came to power in 2014.
Last year, a film called The Kashmir Files sparked controversy by claiming that thousands of Hindus were killed in Indian-administered Kashmir, forcing them to leave the valley as an uprising against New Delhi’s rule in the only Muslim-majority region erupted. of the country began at the end of last year. the 80’s.
According to official figures, 219 Hindus, known as Pandits in the valley, were killed when the uprising began. Still, the film was praised by Modi as “supporting facts” and many BJP-ruled states granted tax cuts to it.
Screenings of the film featured hate speech against Muslims in and outside theaters.
Incidentally, Sen was part of the jury at the International Film Festival of India last year, whose chairman, Nadav Lapid, an Israeli filmmaker, dismissed The Kashmir Files as “propaganda” and a “vulgar film.” Sen later distanced himself from Lapid’s comments.
“I don’t want to make this movie worthy [The Kerala Story] with a response,” film critic Anna MM Vetticad told Al Jazeera. Citing examples of similar films made in recent years, she denounced the “absolute bluntness” of Hindu supremacist propaganda in India.