'Narcotic jehad' controversy

Pulpit polemics: Bishop’s homily on ‘narcotic jehad’ catches Kerala by surprise

Print edition : October 08, 2021

Joseph Kallarangattu, bishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, said an unseen war was being waged in Kerala by Islamist elements.

A march taken out by Christian organisations in support of the bishop in Pala on September 11. Photo: By Special Arrangement

V.N. Vasavan , Kerala’s Minister for Cooperation and Registration, with Joseph Kallarangattu in Pala on September 17.

Geevarghese Mar Coorilos, Metropolitan of the Niranom diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church. “The altar and church rituals should not be used by anyone to speak and propagate the politics of hate,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Nuns protesting against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, a rape accused, in Kochi on September 22, 2018. They walked out of a chapel attached to their convent in protest against the communal message delivered by a priest during Sunday mass expressing solidarity with Joseph Kallarangattu’s views. Photo: PTI

The timing of a bishop’s warning to his flock against the dangers of ‘narcotic jehad’ and his vehemence catch Kerala by surprise. And the BJP finds in the controversy an opportunity to woo Christian voters in the State.

It was with a sense of relief that Kerala realised that the strongest condemnation against the highly divisive, volatile message delivered by an influential bishop of the Syro-Malabar Church during his homily at a church in Kottayam district on September 8 came immediately from within the Christian community itself, especially from some prominent members of the bishop’s own congregation.

Soon after the news and videos of Bishop Joseph Kallarangattu’s address at the Martha Mariam Archdeacon Pilgrim Church in Kuravilangad went viral on social media, several radical Muslim organisations held marches to the Bishop’s House in Pala, shouting slogans and blocking the road, demanding action against him for trying to create communal discord in the State.

He had alleged that an unseen war was being waged in Kerala by some Islamist elements with a jehadi zeal to destroy non-Muslim youth in various ways, particularly by entrapping them in love affairs or with narcotic drugs in order to convert them.

Rival rallies expressing support to the bishop and solidarity with his views also soon erupted on the streets of Pala. With the leaderships of the main parties in the State, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, seemingly caught unawares, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) quickly rallied behind the bishop, holding demonstrations and many of its State leaders issuing statements in support of the bishop and paying a visit to his residence.

George Kurien, general secretary of the State BJP, wrote to Union Home Minister Amit Shah claiming that the bishop’s statement reflected “the fear among non-Muslim communities in Kerala” and seeking his intervention and “necessary action to protect the bishop and the Christian community” in the context of what he alleged was the “wholehearted support the jehadi elements were receiving from the CPI(M) and the Congress” in the State.

The bishop’s homily

Joseph Kallarangattu, the Bishop of Pala, known as a soft-spoken, scholarly person, read out his address to church members on the occasion of the nativity celebration of Mother Mary at the Kuravilandgad church, a well-known Christian pilgrimage centre.

The fact that the written address was later published in full as a leader-page article in the church-run Deepika daily, popular among the laity, showed that its intention and timing were not accidental and that it was meant to be widely circulated. Moreover, with the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) issuing a statement extending its support to Kallarangattu, and office-bearers and other bishops endorsing it, it was made clear that the homily was the Syro-Malabar Church’s official view on a highly controversial and volatile topic in Kerala.

From the beginning, the address seemed to focus on the familiar but emotive issues of ‘love jehad’, which the KCBC had been raising for several years to reasonably good effect among believers despite several investigations by the police and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) finding no evidence of such cases.

This time, however, the church introduced another facet to the allegations, with the bishop claiming that there is also the threat of “narcotic jehad” that is being resorted to by “a few” Islamist groups in the State with the aim of “destroying non-Muslim communities”.

According to the bishop, “the jehadis endear themselves to girls of other religions through love affairs or through other means in order to achieve their objective of religious conversion, the use of new converts for extremist activities, forceful conversion, and economic gain”.

Observing that a few motivated groups in the State hold the extreme view that “in order to establish justice, peace and Islamic religion in the world, they have to struggle and engage in war”, the bishop said: “Jehadis who have realised it is difficult to destroy people of other faiths with weapons (in a country like India) make use of other methods for it which are not easily detectable. In a jehadi’s view non-Muslims are to be destroyed. When the aim is religious propagation and destruction of non-Muslims, the methods that are used take various shapes. Love jehad and narcotic jehad are two such means.”

The bishop also claimed that jehadis with extremist views have “cast their nets in schools, colleges, hostels, shops, training centres and in all such places where people gather”. He said: “This is a war tactic. It is a simple question, what is wrong if a young man and a woman fall in love with each other, even though they are from different religions. But it remains a big question how they come into such marriages and what happens to them afterwards. We see that girls are led into forced conversion and subsequently into terrorist camps. It is this ‘love jehad’ that we are opposing. The number of parents amongst us who have lost their children are increasing.”

Narcotic or drug jehad, the bishop said, is “a scheme of making non-Muslims, especially the youth, addicted to drugs in order to destroy their lives”, and that the increasing trade in ganja and narcotic drugs in Kerala “pointed towards it”.

However, there were only two alleged instances of love jehad in Kerala that the Bishop could quote. As he described it, they were: “Fathima, who was converted and eventually found herself in the terrorist camps in Afghanistan, was Nimisha, a Hindu. Similarly, Ayisha was a Christian, Sonia Sebastian.” However, he said, “These are but only a few examples. We need to study carefully how these people who were Hindu and Christian believers reached terrorist camps. It is said that jehadis obtain expert training on how to woo girls.”

Sweeping allegations

The bishop also did not provide any specific instance to substantiate his sweeping allegations regarding the so-called narcotic jehad he said was taking place in the State. He merely said: (a) “(The fact) that such people who work in the proximity of ice cream parlours, juice shops, and hotels run by jehadists holding extremist views are using various narcotic drugs in order to see the destruction of non-Muslims is a point of discussion in our society”; (b) “rave parties meant to popularise the use of narcotic drugs and the details about those who get arrested there bring this issue again to our attention”; and (c) “we see so many examples of people who had their lives destroyed because they get addicted to narcotic drugs and stop their studies or lose their jobs.”

Other things on the bishop’s list that symbolised the kind of jehadi threat in the State were “religious hatred/rivalry in the field of art and culture; programmes that deride or demean the rituals of other religions; trade gimmicks such as special food and halal food; big land transactions that involve price much above the market price; parallel telephone exchanges, weapon shops”.

He also criticised the media for trivialising or submerging “such news” and urged young people to be eternally vigilant and show “wisdom like a snake” while choosing friends, to seek to know more about Christian belief, and to be aware that friendships gained through social media such as Instagram, Facebook and Clubhouse have the potential for greater risk, and to ponder wisely “whether they should go to dinner parties with people belonging to other religions with extremist views”.

Though the immediate provocation for such a homily by a church leader remains unknown, it was clearly aimed at the sense of insecurity and the atmosphere of fear and mistrust that has been lingering in the minds of people from the two minority communities in the State for some time now, ever since the growth of Hindutva forces and the rise of competitive communalism in the State.

Even as early as October 2009, soon after the first such allegations of ‘love jehad’ and the subsequent campaign by Hindutva forces about “large-scale conversions” began, the State police, after an inquiry, informed the Kerala High Court that “it is not established that any particular organisation is actively engaged in such compulsive religious conversions; and that there is no clear evidence regarding financial support from abroad for any such organisation or connection between a ‘love jehad’ movement and counterfeiting, smuggling, drug trafficking and terror activities in the State”.

Baseless charges

No doubt, in the years that followed, but for a handful of well-known instances—of three non-Muslim women, Nimisha, Sonia Sebastian and Merryn Jacob, along with some 18 others, fleeing Kerala between 2016 and 2018 with their husbands to join the ISIS—evidence to base such allegations had been but scanty.

An NIA probe into alleged cases of ‘love jehad’, conducted on the orders of the Supreme Court issued after examining 11 cases of interfaith marriages in Kerala, too failed to unearth evidence of coercion in those marriages or “any prosecutable evidence” or “a larger criminal design”.

In February 2020, in reply to a question in Parliament, the Union Home Ministry also admitted that there were no known cases of love jehad in Kerala. But despite such scanty evidence, the campaign has been going on incessantly, preying on the fears and concerns of non-Muslim families in the State.

Voice of sanity

Yuhanon Mor Meletius, the Metropolitan of the Thrissur diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, was among the first to caution Bishop Kallarangattu and his supporters “against the possibilities of church leaders getting trapped in the Sangh Parivar’s design to trigger a division between minority communities”.

He said Christians, particularly the clergy, should be more judicious and discreet when making statements on public issues and said that “we must not overlook the fact that if our children are consuming narcotic substances, it also means that we have not groomed them well. What is the point in blaming others for this predicament?”

The views of the Syro-Malabar Church leadership on the issue of love jehad was already well known, and a synod of its bishops had in January 2020 (just before some of them met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi) issued a statement on similar lines. But it was the timing of the Pala bishop’s statement and its unwarranted vehemence that caught Kerala by surprise.

Even as the other political parties were calibrating their responses to the bishop’s statement on such a sensitive issue, the BJP jumped in with the demand that “the Christian community and the bishop must be given protection from terrorists” and sought Home Minister Amit Shah’s intervention.

But was it really the response that the Syro-Malabar Church wished to hear or was the BJP only making use of a good opportunity to its benefit?

Again, it was the saner voices from within the Christian community itself that first expressed their concern at the curious turn of events.

Geevarghese Mar Coorilos, the Metropolitan of Niranam Diocese of Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church, wrote immediately on his Facebook page: “The altar and church rituals should not be used by anyone to speak and propagate the politics of hate. At a time when secularism is increasingly under threat, those in responsible positions should desist from making statements that help it deteriorate. Pulpits should not be misused for polemics.”

He later said in a television interview: “It is the intention of those who wrote the script for this controversy that it should continue forever. This is a time when fascism is gaining strength in India. We should all be able to stand together and oppose fascism, especially the minorities. But instead of that, fascist forces are trying to create a divide among the minorities and strengthen fascism. Knowingly or unknowingly Christian churches and their leaders are succumbing to such intentions.”

In an article published in UCA News (Union of Catholic Asian News), Fr Paul Thelakkat of the Syro-Malabar Church and former spokesman of its Synod of Bishops said: “Bishop Kallarangattu’s statements are without foundations and his new coinage ‘narcotic jehad’ is uncalled for. The police chief he referred to did speak of sleeper cells of terrorists but never mentioned any religion in the context. Love marriages, inter-caste and inter-religious marriages are facts of life in Kerala. The Church authority has to tolerate such marriages, respecting the freedom of adult men and women.”

He said the bishop “seems to have a sorry view of Christian girls in Kerala families. He sees them as easy prey to any sinister gang and goon. I am sorry to say he is prejudiced. A majority of medical nurses working in Arab countries are brave Christian women from Kerala and such communal remarks can have dangerous consequences for them. Bishops and priests must learn to respect women and their decisions.”

The article by Thelakkat, who is also the editor of Light of Truth, a church-run biweekly from Kochi, says: “Bishops are respected as mature and responsible leaders of society, who make timely interventions to guide not only Christians but also the general public in matters of inter-communal relations. But that noble image of people with ethical power stands shattered now…. Such hate language and communal utterances are being heard at a time when Pope Francis is… particularly aiming at a relationship of dialogue and reconciliation with the Muslim world.”

In a considered response to the controversy on September 16, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that narcotic drugs were not an issue affecting a single community but the whole society. “No religion promotes such drugs. Its colour is anti-social,” he said. He also said that spiritual leaders should be cautious not to let their words be twisted out of context by forces that seek to divide society for political gain. Though such forces have lost their relevance and people of Kerala have relegated them to political insignificance, “they could use the slightest opportunity to demonise people of a particular minority faith to stoke fear and insecurity. The government was committed to protecting the State's secular and progressive legacy”, the Chief Minister said.

The BJP’s best bet

With every other election in the State putting a damper on its hopes, the BJP’s only hope of liberating itself from the gridlock of the bipolar politics in the State was by gaining the votes of the two minority communities that together account for over 46 per cent of the State’s population. Given the antipathy of the Muslim community to its kind of politics, the BJP’s considers the Christian voters in Kerala as it best bet.

The majority of Christian voters in Kerala had traditionally supported the Congress-led United Democratic Front. But, with the gradual waning of the Congress in the State and the split in the Kerala Congress party following the death of its veteran leader K.M. Mani, the church leadership, with its vast economic interests in the State, especially in education and health sectors, had been seeking fresh political patrons to further its cause.

In the local body elections and the Assembly elections, the community obviously moved closer to the Left Democratic Front, if the results from Kottayam and Pattanamthitta were any indication. But the BJP too made some gains in the Christian-dominated central districts.

Church leaders’ meeting with Modi

It is in this context that the BJP’s State leadership organised a meeting for the church leaders of Kerala with Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi in January 2021, just before the Assembly elections. After the meeting, Cardinal George Alencherry of the Syro-Malabar Church said that “the Church has no untouchability against the BJP”.

“Though the Church had some apprehension in the past against the BJP, it is all history. We do not have any special ties with any of the political parties,” he said.

The statement received much political attention in the State as already several members of the church leadership in Kerala had found themselves in the news for all the wrong reasons.

In September 2018, the streets of Kochi witnessed unprecedented scenes of a group of five nuns from the Missionaries of Jesus congregation of the Syro-Malabar Church (which is the largest Eastern Rite Catholic Church with over 30 dioceses spread over India and elsewhere and with over 2.5 million members) demanding the arrest of a bishop, Franco Mulakkal, for sexually abusing and raping a nun. The Kerala Police finally arrested the bishop on September 21, more than a year after the nun raised the complaint and 86 days after she filed a police complaint about it. He is now on bail.

Similarly, the church had been facing a publicity nightmare ever since Cardinal Alencherry himself was accused of corruption in a dubious land deal relating to the Church.

In August this year, upholding the verdicts of two lower courts, the Kerala High Court ordered the cardinal to face trial for the sale of various holdings of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese four years ago. Amidst public demands for the removal of the cardinal, a member of the church had filed the cases, alleging several criminal offences against the cardinal. The case is now before the Supreme Court, with the cardinal deciding to go on appeal.

Nuns’ appeal

It is perhaps a coincidence that the same group of nuns who led the struggle against Bishop Franco three years ago registered their opposition to Bishop Kallarangattu’s controversial homily at the Kuravilangad church most effectively. On September 12, they walked out of a chapel attached to their convent in protest against the communal message delivered by a priest during Sunday mass expressing solidarity with the Pala bishop’s views.

Sister Anupama, who stood firmly with the rape victim and led the struggle against Bishop Franco, later said: “The priest who was deputed to conduct mass instead made a speech supporting the Pala bishop. In between, he made several communal remarks deriding our Muslim brethren, and said such things as you should not hire autorickshaws driven by Muslims, that you should not buy stuff from shops run by Muslims, that you should avoid having food such as biriyani, or kuzhimanthi, that are made by Muslims, and so on. That is when we decided to protest by saying that he should not say such things in the chapel, that we were there only to take part in the mass and not to listen to such things.”

According to Anupama, the priest said he was only sharing an advice for the younger generation. “We told him that we go to shops run by Muslims to buy medicines; that there are Muslim doctors who treat us and Muslim teachers who teach us and there are Muslim brothers who come here as part of the police detail at the chapel. None of them have behaved in a bad manner to any one of us. We are also not aware of them misbehaving with any of our relatives too and therefore you should not mention such things in the chapel. When he refused to stop we walked out. Christ has not taught us that we should spread communalism. Christ taught us about love,” the nun said.


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