Along the lush green border of Karnataka and Kerala lies Manjeshwaram, a small but significant assembly constituency in Kasaragod district. At first glance, the coastal town is calm, the sea breeze blows constantly and, like many small towns, the place rolls down its shutters and sleeps by 9 pm.
But, according to one Vishwaraj, 22, the town is anything but sleepy. Communal vigilance was on the rise, he said. “Even if one bike touches another bike, people will first ask which religion the two bike owners belong to.”
Sitting outside his friend’s house, Mohammad Ali, 58, a retired sub-registrar who has lived all his life in the area, described Manjeshwaram differently. “All this talk of communalism was started by politicians. The Manjeshwaram I know is a land in Kerala with its heart in many places. People here can speak many languages.”
Manjeshwaram is known as the sapthabasha bhoomi sangam, that is, “land of the seven languages”. While almost all residents of this little place speak seven languages, Kannada, Tulu, and Malayalam are the most prominent. Older residents like Ali can speak up to 16 languages.
Ali went on to explain how with language came culture. “If a politician wants to speak to his people, he has to speak to their hearts, their cultures. So for a politician to win hearts in Manjeshwaram, he has to win the hearts of so many different cultures,” he said.
With the election dice rolled, the battle for this little taluk on the northernmost tip of Kerala has begun.
Why is Manjeshwaram important?
According to the 2011 census, Kasaragod district is dominated by Hindus who account for 55.84 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 37.24 percent, and Christians at 6 percent.
Nevertheless, over the last six assembly elections, the Indian Union Muslim League, or the IUML, won the seat five times. The IUML, along with the Congress, leads the United Democratic Front, or UDF, alliance in Kerala. In 2006, the CPI(M) won in Manjeshwaram. The BJP has finished as runner-up since 1987.
In the 2016 election, while IUML’s Abdul Razak retained hold on the constituency, BJP state president K Surendran lost to him by a mere 89 votes. Afterwards, Surendran filed a case in the Kerala High Court alleging voter fraud. But two years later, when the IUML legislator died of a cardiac arrest, the BJP leader the case.
BJP state president K Surendran, centre, who is contesting from Manjeshwaram again.
In 2019, a byelection necessitated by Abdul Razak’s death was held in Manjeshwaram. The IUML won again but, this time, its candidate, MC Kammaruddin, had a clear margin of close to 8,000 votes. Several BJP workers whom Newslaundry spoke with called it “the sympathy margin” due to the previous legislator’s death.
Within a year, Manjeshwaram was again left without its MLA when Kamaruddin was in a gold cheating case.
The BJP had come very close to victory in this constituency in the 2016 election. That is why the party has fielded Surendran this time as well, as he’s one of their strongest candidates. Surendran is also contesting from Konni, the epicenter of the Sabarimala agitation.
The IUML has responded by fielding their strongest candidate, AKM Ashraf, a local. “I can speak the three major languages fluently and I know this land like the back of my hand,” he said.
IUML candidate AKM Ashraf.
The CPI(M) has also found strength in their candidate VV Rameshan, former chairman of the municipality in neighboring Kanhangad. Moreover, the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front, or LDF, won the local body elections held in December. “This place needs development not ideologies,” Rameshan said.
‘CAA protest is where we drew the line’
Sheikh Kunju, 58, runs a small tea stall in Manjeshwaram. On the afternoon of March 16, with the election just three weeks away, Sheikh served tea to Ashraf who had stopped for a break between campaigning. When Ashraf finished his tea and prepared to leave, he shook Sheikh’s hand and said, “I hope you know who to vote for.” Sheikh nodded.
Once the IUML leader had left the tea stall, Sheikh told Newslaundry that for him, this election was not a big deal. “I’m not interested in who becomes an MLA, because whenever I have any problem, I go to my panchayat where LDF is in power,” he said. Sheik is happy with the work his panchayat leaders are doing.
Though he isn’t too passionate about the election, Sheikh said no matter what, he won’t vote for the BJP. It was the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, and the crackdown on the resultant protests that put him off the BJP. “India made the biggest mistake of its life voting this party into power. I will do my bit to ensure it doesn’t come into Kerala,” he said.
Abdul Razak, 59, another retired sub-registrar who has lived in Manjeshwaram all his life, agreed. “When CAA happened, we Muslims saw that the BJP was ready to make us second class citizens. Manjeshwaram will not forget that,” he said.
His friend Mohammad Ali elaborated that every time prime minister Narendra Modi or Amit Shah visited Kasaragod for a rally, the resolve of the Muslims to not vote for the BJP only became stronger.
He added that during campaigning, while the CPI(M) and the IUML candidates visited homes and met people, the BJP candidate rarely visited Muslim areas.
The IUML has a loyal base in the constituency. Aziz Abdul, 25, and his friends always vote for the party even though a few members of his own family vote for the CPI(M). When asked why he voted for the IUML, he said whenever he was in need, the IUML helped him. In 2015, Abdul was arrested for 15 days in a sand mining case. While refusing to go into the details of the case, Aziz said it was the IUML which helped him get bail. For this, he is forever indebted to the party, he said.
Religion vs development
In 2015, Sachita Rai put up a Facebook picture of herself wearing a scarf. Within a matter of weeks, BJP supporters who saw her picture began threatening her. “They accused me of converting to Islam. They said they would kill me, rape me, and I used to be scared just walking home. How will I become a Muslim simply by wearing a scarf?” she asked.
Now 24, Rai works as a government schoolteacher. She said she was tired of both the IUML and the BJP, as both take a hardline on religion.
“No Muslim woman here can step out without a burkha. IUML doesn’t allow women candidates to be too political either and they mostly support men of their own community,” she claimed.
This is why she is not only voting for CPI(M) but also campaigning for it.
Most of the people Newslaundry spoke with said Manjeshwaram was far too dependent on Mangalore, Karnataka, for healthcare, education and accessing other basic amenities. And it’s an issue that candidates of all three parties agree upon and promise to resolve if voted to power.
Mohammad Abbas energetically shook CPI(M) candidate Rameshan’s hand, promising to vote for him. Asked if he had always been a CPI(M) voter, he said he voted for the IUML but was now tired of them. Like Ali, Abbas also believed that politicians, specifically the BJP and the IUML, were driving people into a communal frenzy. “If I make biryani in this house, a share of it will always go to Joseph,” he said, meaning his neighbour. “If Joseph makes a Christmas cake in his house, he will always send it here. All that will change, if I don’t vote for CPI(M) now.”
When Udhaya Sarang, 36, is not busy teaching IV standard students at a government school in Manjeshwaram, he teaches drama and works as a theatre director. With a cloth bag slung over his shoulder, Sarang said political awareness is palpable even among the children of Manjeshwaram but only to the extent where they know chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s name.
When asked why this was the case, he explained that until last year, the children in government schools did not have proper books for their classes. Teachers would have to make multiple photocopies of textbooks at their own expense and distribute it among students. This changed after the LDF won the local body elections. “Now, all the books arrive well before classes start. Every child has a book in hand and Pinarayi Vijayan’s name on his lips,” he said.
The RSS presence
Given its proximity and close ties to Mangalore, parts of Kasaragod, including Manjeshwaram, fall under the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which has a stronghold in Mangalore.
“We get all our orders from Mangalore,” said Prasad T, 46, who has been associated with RSS in Manjeshwaram since he was 10. He has been helping the BJP with campaign work. Prasad’s link to the RSS runs deep. His father, TKR Bhat, 93, started an RSS shaka in Manjeshwaram. Bhat joined the RSS when he was eight and spent his life working for the Sangh. In 1948, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, and during the Emergency when the RSS was banned by the government, Bhat spent time in jail.
Prasad has enrolled his two sons, aged 20 and 15, in the RSS. Everyday from 8 pm to 9 pm, the boys go to the shaka where they are taught the Sangh’s ideology and made to do yoga.
“Only the RSS supports us now. It’s important for us to stick together”, he said. Prasad said the accusations of communalism are false. This was echoed by Surendran. “All these accusations of communalism are entirely baseless,” the BJP candidate said.
When asked why the BJP has been unable to win in Manjeshwaram despite the Sangh’s influence, Prasad claimed it was because Muslims always stuck with the IUML whereas Hindus voters were split between the BJP and the CPI(M).
Regarding the CAA that made the Muslims angry with the BJP in Manjeshwaram, Prasad claimed that the lay Muslim was being misguided. “We’re not asking any Muslim to leave this place. They should stop blindly listening to everything their leaders say,” he said.
Anil Kumar, 38, a BJP supporter, said the only reason the BJP had lost in 2016 was voter fraud. “The victory was ours, but it was stolen from us,” he alleged.
Surendran said he was sure of winning Manjeshwaram this time around. Once in power, he said the BJP would prioritise bringing in laws against “love jihad” and cow slaughter. “We need to save our daughters who are being radicalised by Islamic fundamentalists who are being supported by ‘left-jihadist parties’,” he declared.
Asked what he meant by “love jihad”, Surendran referred to the time in 2016 when 11 people, including women, had . “This has to stop and for that we need a law against love jihad,” he claimed.
Kerala goes to polls on April 6. The BJP will wait with bated breath, hoping to secure the seat in Manjeshwaram. “Our RSS hold here is strong, we have faith,” Surendran said.
Meanwhile, despite the IUML also being accused of breeding communalism, the supporters and leadership of the party along with the CPI(M) agreed that if the BJP came to power, Manjeshwaram would see communal violence.
If there’s one thing that supporters or all three parties agree upon, it is that Manjeshwaram is far too dependent on Mangalore, in Karnataka. “We youngsters are now tired of talking about religion. We want a Manjeshwaram that has good roads, infrastructure and amenities. And hopefully, that’s what we will all vote for,” Rai said.
With inputs from Dhyanesh Vaishnav.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.
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