The import of the Quran to Kerala has triggered debates around its legality and religious morality, putting minister Jaleel in a spot of bother. Equally interesting is a look at why the holy book from UAE is special for Malayalis.
Two-and-a-half months ago, Kerala woke up to the sensational news of a seizure of 30 kg of gold at the international airport in Thiruvananthapuram. The yellow metal that reached the southwest Indian coast on July 3 was part of an air cargo addressed to the UAE consulate in the state capital. That made the consignment, which came by an Emirates Airways flight, classified as diplomatic baggage. The tag gave it immunity from search: they cannot be opened or detained.
Subsequent probes by central agencies revealed the involvement of a wider network. The case took a new twist into the second half of July when investigators stumbled upon earlier imports of Quran boxes — again from the UAE and using the diplomatic baggage route. One such consignment of the holy book from the Gulf in March put a Kerala minister in a spot.
K T Jaleel, who holds the portfolios of Higher Education, Welfare of Minorities, Wakf, and Hajj in the state government, was learned to have distributed the holy book in his native Malappuram district. The 53-year-old independent legislator had won from upstate Thavanur constituency with the support of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that led the Left Democratic Front coalition in the 2016 state assembly elections. The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front swept the polls, and veteran Pinarayi Vijayan became the Chief Minister.
Minister Jaleel, for a string of phone calls with Swapna Suresh who is allegedly the kingpin of the serial gold smuggling, has not yet been named in the case. Investigations will prove if he violated protocols while accepting religious books from the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. In July, targetting Jaleel, UDF convenor Benny Behanan wrote to PM Narendra Modi saying the minister had breached provisions of Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 in distributing Ramzan kits. The UDF demanded a probe in the matter.
It all began when probe authorities found a diplomatic consignment that reached Kerala from the UAE earlier this summer weighed 4,479 kg. The March 4 baggage, Jaleel revealed in the second week of August, were “Quran boxes” for distribution in Kerala, adding it was an “annual affair”.
The minister said he facilitated the transport of the holy books, this time said to total 6,000, through the official vehicle of Kerala State Centre for Advanced Printing and Training. According to media reports, the Customs officials noted the weight of the consignment, in that case, should be much more than what is officially mentioned. Sensing a chance of the boxes containing “sinister materials”, the Customs sought to know from the State Protocol Officer how ‘exemption certificates’ were being given (since 2017) for the consignments when they carried religious books for free distribution that were outside its purview.
Towards last weekend, on September 18, the Customs registered two cases against the state administration for allegedly accepting Quran consignments. This was along with thousands of kilograms of dates (18,000 kg in 2017 as part of a relief package following a massive flood that ravaged the state) imported by the UAE consulate officials for their personal use through diplomatic channels. The probe further branched onto certain influential people who seemed to have violated the laws.
Notwithstanding the ongoing debates over the legality of its import, the copies of the Quran that reach Kerala from the Gulf have a special flavour to Malayalis. That is because the state has this holy book from West Asia printed in Classical Arabic considered authentic vis-a-vis any of its translations. Classical Arabic is a purist’s delight because it is believed closest to the spoken language of Prophet Muhammad.
In Kerala, though, the widely available Quran is one that follows a writing system involving a Dravidian language as well. Arabi-Malayalam, as the language is called, is a variant form of the Arabic script, with its special orthographic features. The script, which originated and developed in Kerala, is prevalent among the migrant Muslims in Eastern countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. Currently in use in certain primary education madrasas of Kerala and the Lakshadweep Islands to its west, the script is with which the folklore Islamic Mappila Pattu songs are traditionally penned.
As for the Gulf-imported Quran, calligraphy in the Arabic language has its set of rules even as the style is within the limits of the script during the caliphate of Uthman (579/583–656), son-in-law of Mohammed. An authentic committee of specialized scholars supervises the printing of the Quran in each country.
As the National Investigation Agency is questioning Jaleel at the central body’s Kochi office, the minister is pleading innocence. Blaming his rivals’ “ulterior movies” in their “vicious campaign meant to spread untruths and fabricate stories”, he says such people did not merit a reply.
“They sought to know about the distribution of the Quran made available by the UAE consulate and whether I accepted any gift or money from them,” he told The Hindu. “I did not take any favours from them and no financial transactions were involved in the distribution of Ramzan kits or Koran. My hands are clean.”
Jaleel maintains it was in his capacity as a minister that he took phone calls from the gold-smuggling case accused Swapna, a former executive secretary at the UAE Consulate-General’s office in Thiruvananthapuram. “Truth will prevail. Only the truth. Even if the whole world opposes it, nothing else will happen,” he wrote on Facebook.
LDF backs Jaleel
CM Vijayan and the ruling CPI(M) have supported Jaleel on the matter. Party and the CM refused demands from the Opposition parties for the minister’s resignation. An agency interrogating a colleague was no reason for his sacking or resignation as a minister, Vijayan said this week. He snubbed the “tactics of politicising” the reception of religious books and Ramzan kits, claiming that the Opposition was seeking to “mix two unrelated issues” for political gains.
The CPI(M) said it was as a witness the minister was summoned by the NIA, claiming communal elements were trying to “denigrate” the Quran by making the gold-smuggling case an excuse. “It is not a criminal act to distribute a few copies of the holy book as requested by the UAE consulate in the state capital. The minister is in charge of the Waqf Board also,” the party’s state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said in an article in the CPI(M) mouthpiece Desabhimani.
The Opposition Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kerala conducted separate demonstrations in the state capital, burning the minister in effigies and demanding his resignation.
Congress veteran Ramesh Chennithala, who is Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, claimed it was for the “first time a minister has been questioned by central agencies”. “The Chief Minister is protecting Jaleel… How long?” he said, talking to media persons.
The Muslim League, an ally of the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala, said the CM and fellow ministers were shying away from discussing and clearing the doubts of the Opposition. The party’s all-India General Secretary P K Kunhalikutty told the CPI(M) was creating a smokescreen by spreading information that the Quran was being discredited by those questioning the propriety of using the holy book as an alibi for smuggling gold. Making the Quran something that has to be brought under cover amounts to defiling the holy book, the party says.
What the BJP says
BJP workers, led by the party’s state president K Surendran, took out a march in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, demanding Jaleel must go.“We will organise strong protests across the state until the minister puts in his papers,” he said, adding Jaleel should explain the “secrecy” of his conduct after the grilling by the investigating agency.
The Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a voluntary organisation, went to the extent of alleging that gold smuggling in Kerala in the guise of UAE importing the Quran.