Kerala Christians are cosying up to the BJP, but at what cost?

Recent attacks on churches are a reminder that they are playing with fire. 

Published : May 18, 2023 11:00 IST - 13 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with bishops of different denominations in Kerala, in Kochi on April 24. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with bishops of different denominations in Kerala, in Kochi on April 24.  | Photo Credit: PTI

Towards the end of the Lenten season every year, many Christians in Kerala participate in commemorative ceremonies known as the “Way of the Cross”. Carrying heavy wooden replicas of the torture apparatus on which Jesus was crucified, they walk for several kilometres on roads winding up from the plains to the passes of the Sahyadris (Western Ghats). This year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also lent a shoulder, metaphorically speaking.

To say that the Malayali Christian community is beset by trauma similar to that experienced on the path to Calvary would be an exaggeration. However, some of the challenges it faces have the potential to transform modes of existence. Pressures from sources outside the community appear intractable, even unfathomable. Internal tensions also do not seem amenable to easy resolution. Already caught up in a state of anxiety and confusion, Christians in Kerala are now being enticed by a political force that they have thus far viewed with suspicion.

It is sometimes difficult to determine which of the community’s several dilemmas is the most fundamental. Is it the souring of a century-plus dream of ever-increasing prosperity; the economic and social pressure from another group driven by a different faith; the disintegration of ecclesiastical structures that held sets of believers together; or, the rest of the country’s general shift from a value system that reserved a special niche for Christians?

An analysis of the situation is made more difficult by the fact that each of these phenomena impact on separate segments of the community in different ways.

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People outside Kerala might not know that the Malayali Christian community as a whole comprises different groups. Each of these is distinguished by its history, the theology it believes in, the liturgy it follows, its organisational format, and its leadership. While some of these denominations subscribe to variations of the Eastern Orthodox system, others are under the administrative ambit of the Vatican and broadly observe Catholic rites tweaked to their own traditions. In addition to these more traditional orders, there are also Protestant and evangelical groups.

For the purposes of this article, the Syro-Malabar congregation of the Catholic stream is being taken as a representative of all since it has the largest number of adherents—2.35 million of Kerala’s 6.41 million Christian population. It also appears to have been affected the most by the pressures outlined above and to have become the main target of the BJP’s charm offensive. Other denominations, too, face the same pressures to the same degree often enough so the Syro-Malabar (or Syrian Catholic) experience can be taken as a common one.

The economics of rubber

From the beginning of the twentieth century, the Syrian Catholics got themselves onto an ascending curve of prosperity. They ventured into the plantation sector in Travancore-Cochin and then Malabar well before non-Christians did.

While the bulk of them went into rubber farming, some pioneering families moved on to the cultivation of tea and coffee. In 2010, their dreams began to fade after India and ASEAN signed the Free Trade Agreement, allowing the entry of Vietnamese rubber into the country. Already facing the pressure of high input costs and shortage of labour, Malayali farmers now had to cope with a drastic fall in sale price.

Already facing high input costs and labour shortages, the largely Christian owners of rubber plantations have to also cope with a drastic fall in sale price. 

Already facing high input costs and labour shortages, the largely Christian owners of rubber plantations have to also cope with a drastic fall in sale price.  | Photo Credit: MUSTAFAH KK

With domestic industry and international partners unlikely to relent, the Centre will not be able to impose non-tariff or tariff barriers on the entry of ASEAN rubber. Aware of this, Kerala farmers have instead tried to get the Centre to establish a minimum support price. Currently, the demand is for an MSP of Rs.300 a kilo. Some say if the cost of freight and insurance is included in it, the price of Vietnamese rubber (apparently Rs.150/kilo currently) could well-nigh be this figure by the time it reaches the Indian manufacturer, but this is not said publicly.

A non-remunerative sale price is the latest and probably the most intractable crisis in the rubber sector. A dearth of health and education facilities in their relatively remote regions had plagued an earlier generation of plantation owners and workers.

While significant improvements have been made in this over the years, the more recently raised ecological concerns have created a new hurdle for planters. Recently, the Supreme Court provided some relief by diluting the verdict which enforced a one-kilometre buffer zone around protected forests. This has eased fears about farms and homesteads being uprooted. However, there are still the ever-burgeoning man-animal conflicts in plantation zones. Elephants, wild boar, and gaur have re-emerged as threats to lives and livelihoods. Reverse migration from the high ranges and the slopes of the Sahyadris has not reached epidemic proportions, but there is no guarantee it will not.

Socio-economic factors

In addition to being victimised by insentient forces, a section of Malayali Christians now believes that another community has begun to target them. For perhaps the first time in the history of Kerala there have been signs of increasing friction between Muslims and Christians; the antagonism stems from economic and social causes and a combination of the two. While some Christians say their community is being assailed by “love jehad”, Muslims insist that such talk is yet another manifestation of Islamophobia.

If Christians have come to view the present as a time of arrested ascent, Muslims in Kerala have reason to see themselves as a rising community. Their younger generation is entering professions where their presence was marginal in the past, and their hold over the State’s commerce appears to be widening. According to their detractors (Hindus and Christians), this growth is also due to the “communal” approach of Muslims—they help their co-religionists regardless of merit. These critics cite instances of Muslims who have refused to sell land or other assets to people from another community or of Muslims “ganging up” to push non-Muslims out of certain markets.

The rights and wrongs of such issues are impenetrable, but what matters is that the perception of “unfairness” causes resentment or serves to justify unreasonable grievances.

Reports of Christian-Muslim tensions stemming from commercial causes have largely come from the southern districts. This region, especially the central Travancore interiors, has been a stronghold of Christian-based parties in Kerala politics. That the community has begun to feel jittery in its home turf indicates other weaknesses.

Going by anecdotal evidence provided by locked-up houses and lay impressions, this region is undergoing some degree of de-population. Migrant workers from these parts are to be found in large numbers in the healthcare sector globally. And people who have spent their working lives in the US, Europe, and Australia are usually unprepared to return home after retirement. Their children are even less likely to return to a homeland they have never known. In the central Travancore region, it is often the Muslims who have the money and the inclination to buy migrants’ property that is being put on the market.

A community’s fear of losing its daughters to another could well be a byproduct of this pattern of retreat on the one side and advancement on the other. There is no evidence that an epidemic of inter-communal elopements has broken out. However, once again, it is a matter of perception and not facts.

A single case of cross-communal marriage is enough to agitate large numbers in areas where insularity, not openness, is the norm. The one case of a Christian girl being converted to Islam and landing up in an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan still resonates years after the event.

  • For the first time in Kerala’s history, there is evidence of growing animosity between Muslims and Christians, mostly derived from a combination of economic and societal social factors.
  • At this point of anxiety and confusion, they are being lured by a political entity that they have previously viewed with suspicion: the BJP.
  • The polarising politics of Hindutva goes against the grain of Kerala where different communities have lived and worked together for well over a millennium. 

Leadership vacuum

At a time of mounting pressures, Malayali Christians have to also cope with a decline in leadership. K.M. Mani, the foremost Syrian Catholic leader, passed away a few years ago. P.J. Joseph, who sometimes challenged Mani for leadership and accepted a secondary status at other times, has not been able to fill the gap. A.K. Antony and Oommen Chandy, who are held in much respect across denominations (and communities), are not as healthy or vigorous as they once were, and their lieutenants have not grown out of their shadows.

The absence of towering political figures puts the community at a disadvantage in another way as well. Without the counter-balancing weight of political stalwarts in play, leadership is too often exercised by the clergy. Their performance has not been very encouraging.

Allegations of sexual misconduct and associated crimes have been plaguing the Syrian Catholic priesthood for quite some time. More recently, charges of misappropriating property entrusted to them have been added to the list. Several cases are pending in courts, and associations of the laity are constantly questioning the probity of the clerics. The vast properties in all parts of India under its control and the foreign funding it receives make the clergy vulnerable to predatory actions by Central agencies.

Large organisations are susceptible to such frailties, and the laity might have been more supportive if the church hierarchy evoked more affection. It does not seem to and the reason could lie in an authoritarian streak. A recent controversy is illustrative. In parishes in certain parts of Kerala, the Sunday Mass was performed with the priest facing the congregation for part of the service and the altar for the remainder. This was a practice that the laity was comfortable with. But the Major Archbishopric of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese insisted that the Mass be conducted facing the altar only. It claimed that the Vatican had so decreed. Even non-Christians were unwilling to believe that the Vatican headed by Pope Francis would be so narrow-minded.

Most people who are familiar with educational institutions run by priestly orders of the Syrian Catholic Church would be impressed by the financial and marketing smarts on display. So why has the church failed to apply the same sort of active intelligence to the hard issues facing the community? The educated and aware laity in Kerala bemoan the contrast between the church here and its counterparts in other parts of the world. When priests in Latin America have crafted liberating doctrines by learning lessons from the lives of the masses, why do churchmen here plod through the same conservative routines, they ask.

This perception of the church as a none-too-vibrant institution has led to the disintegration of the niche it once occupied in society.

Decades ago, church-run educational institutions and hospitals were among the most prestigious in the country. Today, such institutions run by other entities offer facilities and programmes that are as good, if not better. While Hindutvavadis have undoubtedly worked hard at stripping away the respectability once accorded to the Christian community, its failure to reinvent itself so as to cope with the changed circumstances is also undeniable.

The BJP: A cross for Christians to bear?

The church’s incapacity to see the big picture is evident in its confused response to the BJP’s overtures. Several leading clerics have been echoing the BJP’s tirades against “love” and “narcotic” jehads. As previously stated, Christians have problems with what they perceive to be aggressive approaches taken by Muslims. But did these priests need to adopt language that puts them squarely in one camp? This question was already troubling sections of the laity when the Archbishop of Thalassery, Mar Joseph Pamplany, went a step further and promised to help the BJP secure one Lok Sabha seat from Kerala if the Central government set an MSP of Rs.300 for a kg of rubber. (Procurement of Kerala’s rubber output at this price will necessitate an outlay of several thousand crores, which seems a very high price to pay for one seat.)

Leading clerics from almost all denominations met Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Kerala in late April. A couple of days later, Cardinal George Alanchery, the head of the Syrian Catholic Church, said that it was merely a friendly visit. Since no announcements have been made, it can be presumed that all groups will mull over the matter for some more time.

Apart from their alleged need for support against Muslims, the clergy will undoubtedly factor in the strength and spread of the BJP’s appeal among the laity. Not everyone in Kerala has developed immunity to the message that the Modi years have transformed India.

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Critics of the BJP, within and outside the Malayali Christian community, will certainly highlight the record of Hindutva attacks on churches in other parts of India. The BJP will respond by pointing out that these charges did not prevent Christians in Goa or in the north-eastern States from voting for it.

This argument got devalued after Christians were targeted by rioters in BJP-ruled Manipur. It can be further argued that these episodes only prove that minorities are safe only in their strongholds and not elsewhere; that there is an implicit restriction for them to move and settle anywhere in the country.

What gains, if any?

Within Kerala, a tie-up with the churches, especially the Syrian Catholic Church, could help the BJP enhance its electoral prospects in the Kasaragod Lok Sabha constituency. In other seats—such as Kottayam and Idukki—only a Christian candidate is likely to get the ticket. (Thrissur could well turn out to be an alliance breaker). At best, a pooling of forces can help the BJP increase its vote share and perhaps make a maiden entry into the Lok Sabha from Kerala. What will the Christian community stand to gain from this?

A group of Christian devotees walking to the pilgrimage centre at Malayattoor Church during Lent, a file picture.

A group of Christian devotees walking to the pilgrimage centre at Malayattoor Church during Lent, a file picture.

Even if all the churches in Kerala tie up with the BJP (not all will), the community’s vote will not shift en masse. Both the United Democratic Front and the Left Democratic Front will retain big chunks of their following in the community. Recent successes, if they can be called that, indicate how much further the BJP has yet to go.

It has won over one individual with a famous father (A.K. Antony’s son Anil) but no followers. Other well-known Christian leaders with a saffron tilt have preferred to park themselves in a half-way house called the National Progressive Party. This group is believed to have the blessings of a segment of the clergy and could in time become a part of the National Democratic Alliance.

It is not just that the polarising politics of Hindutva goes against the grain of Kerala where different communities have lived and worked together for well over a millennium, it is also the jettisoning of reason, scientific temperament, and fact-based knowledge—all characteristics of the current BJP leadership—that are deeply offensive to an aware and progress-oriented people.

In a way, the choice before Malayali Christians is a simple, albeit tough one. Do they want a short-cut out of current problems that can lead to deeper troubles in future? Or do they want to be part of a secular (in civic matters, not ecclesiastical) citizenry striving to resolve difficult problems so that everyone can have a better future?

Kesava Menon is a commentator and analyst. He is the author of Never Tell Them We Are The Same People: Notes on Pakistan.

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