The makers of the movie 'The Kerala Story' have claimed that 32,000 women in Kerala belonging to the Hindu and Christian communities have disappeared and have been trafficked to places such as Syria and Afghanistan to be sold as sex slaves to terrorist outfits such as ISIS over the last ten years.
This they claim has happened through 'love-jihad' -a term that describes a conspiracy theory peddled by the Hindu right that alleges an elaborate ploy by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into romantic relationships with the ultimate aim to convert the latter to Islam.
BOOM found that the makers of 'The Kerala Story' have grossly exaggerated the claim and that there is no data either by the Indian government or international organisations which supports the 32,000 figure.
While there have been instances reported (read here, here and here) where law enforcement agencies are probing women from Kerala being duped with promises of jobs or ISIS sympathy, no record reflects a number so large.
BOOM found that the reasoning provided by the makers of the film are based on extrapolation and sources from where they are yet to recieve replies, such as Right to Information (RTI) applications.
The movie is slated to be released on May 5 as a trailer was recently released for the film, which was followed by a slew of controversies. In a Facebook post, the Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, has lashed out against the film and so has his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, which is in opposition in the state.
Pleas To Halt Release Of The Kerala Story
Two cased have been filed in the Supreme Court asking for a stay on its release. LiveLaw reports that the first petition was through an interlocutory application, argued by Advocate Nizam Pasha. Pasha is quoted as saying that "the movie "is the worst instance of hate speech" and that it was "audio-visual hate propaganda"" with Advocate Kapil Sibal also joining the proceedings. The court did not entertain the plea and have asked the petitioners to go to the High Court or more appropriate fora. The Jamiatul Ulama-e-Hind has also approached the Court seeking a ban on the film.
Last November, the introductory teaser of the film - starring Adah Sharma, directed by Soudipto Sen and produced by Vipul Shah - was also released which had also garnered its share of legal attention. The Kerala state police chief filed a First Information Report (FIR) against the trailer.
In the trailer, Sharma portrays the role of one Shalini Unnikrishnan, a nurse from Kerala who is now Fatima Ba in an ISIS camp in Afghanistan. She says that like her, 32,000 women have been shipped off to places like Syria and Yemen — Kerala being its hub.
What have those associated with the film said about the number?
Adah Sharma told wire-news agency ANI in an interview published on April 30 on the 32,0000 number. "The story is really scary and the fact that people are calling it propaganda or are thinking about numbers before that girls went missing is scarier. Instead, it would have been the opposite that we would have discussed that girls are missing and then given a though about the number."
She added, "You won't be discussing the number once you will watch the film", saying that the film's preparation includes texts she received from a victim.
This can be read here.
In an interview to Rohan Dua published with The New Indian, Vipul Shah is quoted saying, "There was a reference to the number of women who have been trafficked from Kerala to the Middle East to become suicide bombers – 32,000. This number was doubted when the teaser was released. We have a lot of evidence, but we decided to file an RTI (Right to Information). We got an address to a website that unfortunately doesn’t exist. Everybody can interpret it in their own way."
The director Sudipto Sen said, "We went to 14 districts in Kerala and went to the police headquarters to ask for the number of girls missing in the last 10 years, the number of girls rescued, and the number of girls registered. We were told DGP Kerala would get back to us in 15 days. It’s been 4 months since there has been no response."
This can be read here.
In the same interview as Sharma, Shah also said on the numbers being exaggerated, "As a human, this story is heart-wrenching and is a human tragedy. Once I heard the story I was shocked that something like this is happening in our country so I decided to make this movie. Later we did additional research and prepared the script. The filmmaking process took three years and now the movie is ready. My say on the topic revolving around the stat of the 32,000 in the movie is decreasing the seriousness associated with the matter."
Further, while the teaser of the film and the tweet by Sharma (shared above) last November said that the film was a story of 32,000 women in Kerala, the recently released trailer of the film says that the film focuses on only three women. It has not used the 32,000 number in its recent promotions.
What calculations are going into this?
In an interview with a YouTube channel called Citti Media, Soudipto Sen provided the basis of his calculations.
He said that the numbers were based on a reply that former Chief Minister Oomen Chandy gave to the Kerala Assembly. "Oomen Chandy was Kerala's Chief Minister. He put a report on the floor of Kerala Assembly... In 2010 Oomen Chady presented a case being said that every year approximately 2800 - 3200 girls are being converted to Islam. This number - 2800 to 3200 - calculate it for 10 years, the number is a staggering 32(000) to 33(000) girls being converted".
His comments can be seen below.
What did Chandy's reply actually say?
BOOM was able to locate Chandy's reply, which was in June 2012 and in Malayalam. The question asked was the number of conversions in the state since 2012. To which, Chandy replies that 7,713 have converted to Islam and 2,803 to Hinduism. The reply does not differentiate on the basis of gender.
The second part of the question asks for details on the number of women who converted, their original and eventual religion (and caste, if available). The reply states that 2,687 women had converted to Islam, of which 2,195 were Hindu and 492 were Christian. From 2009 to March 31, 2012, 79 young women were known to have converted to Christianity. During the same period, 8 women converted to Hinduism through Thiruvananthapuram's Aryasamaj.
Next, the question asks if the majority of conversions have taken place to one particular religion and if there are any external forces behind it. The answer states an emphatic "No".
The fourth part of the question asks more about the third part, which the answer says is "not relevant".
The fifth part of the question asks if any action has been taken against mass conversion. Again, the answer given to that is a "no". The last part the question is "not relevant", the answer states.
The reply does not peg an annual figure for conversion, and nothing in the reply states that the conversions were a product of "love-jihad".
The reply can be read here.
What other sources do we know?
There are several publicly available sources that serve as a window into Kerala's role in the spread of ISIS, and other measurable numbers. The issue being checked in this story does not squarely fit under terrorism or trafficking. Therefore, BOOM looked at sources overlapping into both these areas.
1. The United Nations
According to the 26th report of the monitoring team for ISIL and Al-Qaeda to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that was released in September 2020, mentions have been made of "significant numbers of ISIL operatives" in Kerala and Karnataka.
However, there is no report of women from Karnataka or Kerala being smuggled or trafficked abroad.
The report states that ISIL's Indian affiliate has 180 to 200 members. The UNSC's findings can be found here.
Interestingly, the Indian government disagrees with this report.
"However, the said report [UNSC] claiming the presence of "significant numbers" of ISIS terrorists in Kerala and Karnataka, is factually not correct. The Government continuously takes necessary measures to put forth India's correct position through established mechanism in unequivocal and categorical terms at various international, multilateral and bilateral for and also through diplomatic channels", the government told Lok Sabha.
The reply to Lok Sabha further said that the government has registered 34 cases against those affiliated with the Islamic State and 20 against the Lashkar-e-Toiba through the National Investigation Agency. They have arrested 160 and 180 persons respectively from each of these groups.
2. The Observer Research Foundation
The Observer Research Foundation in 2019 released a study on Kerala's involvement in ISIS recruitment in India.
This study states 180 to 200 cases of ISIS presence around India, with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs itself having an estimate of 155. Regardless, Kerala was found to be having the highest number of people involved— 40 of these cases were from Kerala. The paper argues that this can be attributed to not only Kerala's inclination towards such radical ideology and teaching, but also to Kerala's deep history with the countries of the Middle East.
A regional accent also exists to how ISIS recruits across various pro-IS cases in other Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal were aimed more towards conducting attacks on local targets, and not necessarily joining the caliphate abroad, which is the common narrative in most Kerala cases. Moreover, the fact that Kerala has agenerally harmonious inter-faith dynamic may have prevented Keralites from choosing targets within Kerala.
The ORF paper lists why Kerala has so many cases of people joining ISIS. One of them, it notes, is the language. The report states that ISIS has adapted to the use od regional languages like Malayalam and Tamil, which have been largely ignored by organisations like Al-Qaeda, which focuses on Urdu. The paper also highlights the convenience through which people from Kerala can go to the Middle East, the state has four airports with the most short-haul flight destinations in the region.
However, this paper makes no mention of women being smuggled or trafficked abroad through "love-jihad". They neither provide an estimate for the time period even though the filmmakers claim it has been going on for 12 years.
The study can be read here.
The Observer Research Foundation also maintains knowns cases of those who went to join ISIS from 2014 to 2020. Its database across these seven years does not add up to 32,000, or even representative of the figure. Further, its scope spans not only Kerala, but also states like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka.
It can be seen here.
The National Crime Records Bureau of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has data on women trafficked which has been collated from the state anti-human trafficking units.
While they do release data on the trafficking of women and children, along with the women and children rescued, they do not maintain the same along religious lines.
The following information is available with them:
- If the victim of the case, and the victim rescued is above or below or above the age of 18
- The gender of the victim The purpose - prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour, petty crimes, forced marriage and domestic servitude, child pornography, organ harvesting and begging
- The disposal of these case
4. The US Department of State
The US Department of State has been releasing its annual report on global trafficking, called 'Trafficking in Persons' which covers all forms of trafficking-led exploitation.
Across these reports, India is a tier-2 country - which does not meet the minimum standard for the elimination of human trafficking but is making efforts to do so.
Rather than external trafficking, the 2022 report says that India's largest trafficking problem is internal. Bonded and underpaid labour is the biggest perpetrator here. According to a study that the report cites, there are 8 million trafficking victims in India, of which a majority are victims of bonded labour. There is also a significant portion on sex traffficking, but it does not include anything on the exploitation of women in Kerala.
It can be read here.
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