‘The Kerala Story’ row: Was Communist icon VS Achuthanandan an Islamophobe as some now claim?

A reality check confirms his quoted comment targeted only the PFI, which chopped off the hand of a college professor.

ByK A Shaji

Published May 04, 2023 | 2:34 PM Updated May 04, 2023 | 10:54 PM

VS Achuthanandn

VS Achuthanandan is the last living member of the 32 leaders who broke away from the united CPI to establish  the CPI(M) on 7 November, 1964.

Now confined to his home at Barton Hill in Thiruvananthapuram following a stroke, Achuthanandan, popularly known by his initials VS, was no stranger to controversies.

He has often forced even his party on the back foot with his straight-from-the-heart comments and actions — one being his visit to (now MLA) KK Rema’s residence after her husband and breakaway CPI(M) leader TP Chandrasekharan was killed by the party’s henchmen.

Known to be a “true communist”, VS has once again stoked controversy at the age of 99. This time over a press meet he had held years ago in New Delhi.

Unlike earlier instances, the latest controversy was unintended, The remarks he had made at the Delhi press meet were quoted out of context to show Kerala in a bad light.

The reference is to VS’s quote in the controversial movie, The Kerala Story. It was one among 10 scenes deleted based on the directive of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), or the censor board,

Also Read: Tamil Nadu likely to ban The Kerala Story

Opportunistic narrative

VS seldom responds to even normal conversations initiated by his immediate family members. His family is not entertaining any visitors on doctors’ advice.

A poster of The Kerala Story. (Wikimedia Commons)

A poster of The Kerala Story. (Wikimedia Commons)

His son VA Arun Kumar gives regular Facebook updates on the nonagenarian’s health. It is all that Kerala knows of its former chief minister,

The Kerala Story by Sudipto Sen catapulted VS — a 99-year-old in his sunset years — once again into the thick of a controversy over a fake narrative, as Kerala believes.

Many feel Sen added VS’s statement from the Delhi news meeting to advance his initial theory that more than 32,000 young Malayali women were made to convert to Islam on false promises of love and trafficked abroad to fuel the Islamic State (IS).

Sen’s narrative ran into stiff opposition in Kerala. Offers worth ₹1.21 crore were made, asking him to prove his claim. He did not respond. Instead, the makers of the film scaled down the number to three from over 32,000 overnight.

With the film’s credibility under the scanner, Sangh Parivar outfits rose in defence of Sen.

Right wing attacks

RSS mouthpiece Organiser and BJP IT Cell chief Amit Malviya were among those who quoted Achuthanandan to defend Sen and his accusation of Kerala as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism.

In Kerala, the CPI(M) is facing demands from Muslim organisations to clarify VS’s quote.

Some CPI(M) rivals even went to the extent of painting VS as an Islamophobic left leader.

They even referred to another instance in which he expressed doubt over the high pass percentage of Muslim school final students in the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district.

BJP state president K Surendran further termed him the first truth-speaking Left leader. VS, however, cannot respond.

Also Read: The Kerala Story bigger than politics and religion: Adah Sharma

IUML seeks clarification

Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) state secretary PMA Salam is not sharing the Sangh Parivar narrative. But he wants a clarification.

Sudipto Sen's movie has met with resistance in Kerala. (Kerala)

Sudipto Sen’s movie has met with resistance in Kerala. (Facebook)

“The CPI(M) is duty-bound to explain the context, time, and motive of the statement by the former chief minister as it is being misused across the country by Sangh Parivar elements,” he told South First.

“A statement by the ruling party on the matter will help counter the adverse propaganda to which many people outside the state might fall victim,” he added.

South First contacted several CPI(M) leaders for their stand on VS’s old statement. They refused to comment, saying the party State Committee and secretariat are going through the issue and will decide soon on whether to explain or not.

Meanwhile, supporters of VS in and outside the CPI(M) continue to consider him as a leader who valiantly fought both majority communalism and minority fundamentalism throughout his life.

They also said that he had opposed obscurantist elements among the Muslim clergy and the corrupt leaders.

“His life is an open book. Quoting Achuthanandan out of context is cruelty being meted out to a towering leader with an inclusive vision, who devoted his life to promoting harmony,” Joseph C Mathew,  a close aide of VS, told South First.

“He had never said anything tarnishing the Muslim community,” Mathew, an advisor of VS during his term as the chief minister, added.

Several others pointed out VS’s statement against the self-appointed cow protectors. He had famously asked whether the vigilantes would consider oxen as their fathers.

The reference was to a section of people who considers cow, ostensibly, as a mother.

Also Read: The Kerala Story makers face a ₹1 crore challenge

A bitter enmity

There is also another narrative in the wind. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and VS had been at loggerheads for much of their later political lives.

The bitter enmity, they felt, is preventing the CPI(M), now under Vijayan’s iron control, from making a public statement and defending VS.

In his active years, VS had defended himself.

The film’s trailer, released last week, showed a female character screaming that a former chief minister had confirmed that Kerala would become an Islamic state in another 20 years.

Sen confirmed that the chief minister mentioned by the character was Achuthanandan.

Though the director added visuals of the Delhi press meeting by Achuthanadan at the film’s end, the CBFC has now instructed him to remove it.

However, Sen continues to say that the 2010 statement of Achuthanandan inspired him to make the film.

According to the prominent leftist thinker and social activist Azad Malayattil, VS’s statement was not a confirmation of the so-called “love jihad”, which Hindutva elements said was prevailing in Kerala at that time.

In reality, that statement was made in the context of an untoward incident in which activists of the now banned Popular Front of India (PFI) chopped off the right hand of TJ Joseph, then professor and head of the Malayalam Department at Newman College at Thodupuzha in central Kerala.

Also Read: Vijayan brands The Kerala Story Sangh Parivar propaganda

Achuthanandan’s reference

Joseph set a “controversial” question in a paper for an internal exam in Malayalam for second-semester BCom students after selecting a passage from a book on cinema by CPI(M) activist and award-winning filmmaker PT Kunju Muhammed.

In the controversial question, a person with schizophrenia asks Padachon — Allah — a stupid question.

Though it was a passage taken from the filmmaker’s book, the man speaking to God was unnamed in the original text. Joseph named the man Muhammad in the question paper.

It led to an interpretation that the Christian professor had insulted the Muslim community and its holy text, that too in front of several students with different religious backgrounds.

Joseph went into hiding, was caught, and released on bail. However, the college’s Christian management dismissed him.

He survived several murder attempts, but while returning from mass, he was waylaid by a 13-member gang, who severed his right hand in front of his relatives on June 4, 2010.

The hand was later reattached through a prolonged and complex medical procedure.

The Delhi press meet

Referring to the incident, VS told reporters in Delhi: “They began as NDF by recruiting youngsters and giving them training, money, and weapons. They trained these youths to kill all those who were against them.”

“In some cases, they hack hands and legs. It is their modus operandi. People have started understanding all these,” the then-chief minister continued.

“So now they are participating in the national (Independence Day) celebrations on August 15. Their motive is to convert India… Kerala as a Muslim-majority country after 20 years. To achieve it, they reach out to youngsters and convert them to Islam by offering money,” VS said.

The movie quoted VS’s remarks to supplement its theory that more than 32,000 Malayali women were converted and made slaves to IS. PFI was then known as the National Democratic Front (NDF).

The Kerala Story row: No large-scale IS recruitments in Kerala, say police

The real story

“Achuthanandan harped on the attack on Joseph by the PFI. His observations were exclusively on PFI. He discussed PFI’s attempts to turn Kerala into an Islamic country,” G Sakthidharan, a former senior journalist of CPI(M) mouthpiece Desabhimani, who was expelled for his proximity to the then chief minister, said.

“No Muslim organisation in Kerala is supporting PFI and its extremism. The same is the case with people who believe in secular values. Then why is Achuthanandan being misquoted now while he is not even healthy to respond,” he asked.

Soon after Achuthanandan made the statement, organised attempts were made to make it controversial.
Some Muslim outfits questioned his intentions beyond targeting the NDF.

However, Achuthanndan stood firm on his words, saying his target was the fundamentalists.

He also clarified in the state Assembly that his statement was not against the Muslim community.

Also Read: Kerala’s youth, political organisations intensify protests

The Senkumar report

Some people who were members of Achuthanadan’s staff then confirmed that an intelligence report prepared by the now-retired police officer, TP Senkumar, was the material he relied on while making the scathing attack.

Though Senkumar was not part of the vigilance wing of the state police at that time, he prepared the report and handed it over to the then-chief minister.

Senkumar later joined the Sangh Parivar.

People close to Senkumar confirmed that pamphlets and other propaganda materials seized from those who had hacked the professor prompted him to prepare the report and hand it over to the chief minister.

In the press meeting, Achuthanandan used mainly the contents of the seized pamphlets.

Throughout his political life, VS opposed fundamentalism, and he never spared majority or minority organisations that propagated regressive ideas.

He was the state secretary of CPI(M) in 1984 when the party decided to sever its ties with a breakaway faction of IUML to position itself as an outfit that fights communal elements.

Unwavering communist

Party veterans remember a speech by eminent historian and left fellow traveller Irfan Habib in 1984 while inaugurating a Kerala state conference of the DYFI in Kozhikode.

Habib wanted the party to end its affiliations with organisations dealing with minority fundamentalism in the context of their opposition to the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano Begum case. The judgement favoured paying maintenance to divorced Muslim women.

Achuthanandan was present at the meeting along with the CPI(M) national general secretary and idealogue EMS Namboodiripad, and they together decided to stand against fundamentalism.

In the later years, Namboodiripad and many CPI(M) leaders watered down their stand and favoured tactical understandings with the IUML, its breakaway faction, the Indian National League (INL), and Abdul Nazar Mahdani’s PDP.

But Achuthanandan remained adamant.

He opposed minority communal organisations representing Muslim and Christian causes occupying the Left platform.

He was always aggressive against BJP-RSS and other Hindutva forces. His politics was not opportunism.

VS cannot respond now. Else he would have come out in his trademark white jubba and dhoti, shoulders raised in a show of machoism and defended himself in his style that dragged words that needed emphasis.