The role of the Church in Kerala’s politics
Bishops carry considerable clout and their views affect the preferences of the community. This explains the BJP's interest in wooing senior Church officials.
Bins Abraham (52) owns a 12-acre rubber plantation in Erattupetta, a plantation town nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats. All he wants is an assurance of a minimum support price of ₹300 for every kilogramme of procured natural rubber — if the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) can promise that after the 2024 general elections, his vote is theirs, he said.
Kerala’s rubber plantations are facing a crisis: Climate change has threatened plantations and production, which is on the decline; the import of synthetic latex has cut into the demand for natural rubber; and different trade agreements made by India have affected the profit margins of plantation owners.
Many affluent Christian farmers in Kerala, who cultivate lucrative crops such as rubber, ginger, pepper, coffee, cardamom, and areca nut, regard Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany of Thalassery as a leader who represents their interests. The senior Church official has openly expressed willingness to support the BJP in the next Lok Sabha election if a fair price for rubber is offered.
"The BJP is heading the Union government, and only those in power can enforce policy changes to bail out farmers from the crisis. The BJP is likely to remain in power for one more term, and our farmers would starve if we are not strategically placing our farmers in their agenda," said Pamplany, adding that he has no communal interests to safeguard as rubber farmers hail from all religious backgrounds.
Besides Pamplany, Catholic bishops Cardinal George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese and Dr Remigiose Inchananiyil of the Thamarassery diocese have also accused the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the opposition Congress of cheating rubber farmers with false promises. They say the Roman Catholic Church will support any formation or ideology that benefits the farming community.
“Many people are abandoning farming due to low product procurement prices, increased wages and other expenses. About 70 per cent of those engaged in farming in the past dropped this profession. The remaining farmers are living in poverty and debt. So we would support the BJP in the next election if it promises to solve the farm sector crisis, especially the issues concerning rubber farmers. The Congress and Left parties have done nothing to protect the farmers' interests so far,” Inchananiyil said.
Many people are abandoning farming due to low product procurement prices, increased wages and other expenses. About 70 per cent of those engaged in farming in the past dropped this profession. The remaining farmers are living in poverty and debt. So we would support the BJP in the next election if it promises to solve the farm sector crisis, especially the issues concerning rubber farmers. Congress and left parties have done nothing to protect the farmers' interests so far,
There are predominantly six sects of Christians in Kerala — Catholic, Jacobite, Orthodox, Marthoma, Church of South India and Pentecostal — and the Church plays an important role in their social lives. For the southern state, which comprises 18.38% Christians, 26.56 % Muslims and 54.73% Hindus, as per the 2011 Census, the words of high-ranking Church officials matter a great deal. Bishops enjoy considerable clout and their decisions often impact the political and social preferences of the community.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cited examples of how the Christian communities in Goa, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland have helped the BJP come to power, and, during a recent visit in April, he even met bishops of different Christian denominations and expressed a wish to have a similar relationship with the Christian community in the state.
The overtures made by these Catholic bishops to the BJP, and its ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are not new and till now, their attempts have been met with strong objections from among the laity.
A few months ago, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church head Cardinal Mar George Alencherry said it was improper to say that Christians were unsafe under the BJP rule. He also said that the BJP was gaining acceptance across the state. Within days, Sathyadeepam, the mouthpiece of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese which falls under the same Cardinal, came out with a scathing editorial accusing Alencherry of trivialising the attacks of Christians outside Kerala even as the community was fighting against it legally and by staging demonstrations.
The editorial also warned that time would not forgive church heads who failed to speak about the danger against democracy and secularism for petty benefits. A number of priests and believers of the church also came out in the open against Cardinal Fr Paul Thelakkat, the editor of Sathyadeepam, who has been a longtime critic of the church's overtures to BJP-RSS.
In the third week of May, Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church resigned from the post of a parish vicar and priest to register his objection against Christian leaders in Kerala who find a common cause with the Sangh Parivar in propagating Islamophobia. He said that aligning with the “hate politics” of BJP-RSS contradicted the fundamentals of universal love propagated by Jesus Christ.
These positions seem to be aligned with the Communist Party’s stated position that the Sangh Parivar was targeting the Christian community across the country and said such crimes against minorities would not work in the state – a stand reiterated by Kerala chief minister (CM) Pinarayi Vijayan in December 2021.
Abraham, the rubber plantation owner, doesn’t disagree with the CM’s view. But, he said, he needs to recover his losses. As per the data available from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), there are approximately 1.8 million families engaged in rubber cultivation in Kerala with a significant majority being Christians, particularly Catholics. Additionally, there are 1.45 million families in the state who depend on rubber plantations for their livelihood as workers, buyers, and sellers.
The same month, Pamplany issued a letter to his parish in which he urged young girls to remain cautious against “extremist elements” trying to “ensnare them by feigning love”. He also wanted initiatives within the church establishment to make teenagers aware of the dangers of "love traps" set by extremists.
“There has been a rise in the number of Christian girls being trapped in the guise of love. This comes against the backdrop of a section of the Church raising concerns about alleged ‘love jihad’ cases targeting Christian women. We must be vigilant against attempts of Muslim extremists to lure away our girls by feigning love,” he said.
Though the term “love jihad” was coined by Right-wing Hindu groups in 2007, the Catholic Church in Kerala began to use it as an instrument to discourage inter-religious marriages. The late Idukki Bishop Dr Mathew Anikuzhikattil and retired Kanirappilly Bishop Dr Mathew Arakkal were among the first to do so.
As instructed by the church, BJP leader and vice chairman of the National Minority Commission George Kurian approached Union home minister Amit Shah in September 2019, urging for a National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe into the practice of "love jihad". He had also handed over a report by the Kerala Catholic Bishop Council that claimed that over 4,000 cases of “love jihad” were reported in Kerala between 2005-12. However, dissenting leaders of the church dismissed the report as a figment of imagination, lacking any truth.
The Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (CASA), formed around this time, began a hectic social media campaign against Muslims who allegedly converted Christian women and forced them to join the Islamic State. CASA is facing a number of criminal cases now in Kerala for attempting to disrupt prevailing communal harmony.
In January 2020, the synod or highest administrative body of Syro-Malabar Church chaired by Cardinal George Alencherry had issued a circular equating “love jihad” with the Islamic State's execution of female Christian captives in Nigeria.
The term, “love jihad” gained legitimacy in Kerala in 2009 when the Kerala high court ordered the Centre and state governments to probe “love jihad” in a case involving two college women who were produced in court after they eloped with their boyfriends, but later changed their stand and told the judge that they wished to return to their parents. In 2010, Justice M. Sasidharan Nambiar of the Kerala high court held that inter-religion marriages were common in Kerala and could not be seen as a crime, and closed the investigation. NC Asthana, the former Director General of Police (DGP) of Kerala, confirmed this when contacted.
After the release of The Kerala Story across the country, Kerala's Christian leadership refrained from commenting on the merits of the film or the messages it attempted to convey. But their silence is a vindication of their sentiment towards Muslims in the state and tacit support to the BJP for gains.
“After the release of The Kerala Story across the country, Kerala's Christian leadership refrained from commenting on the merits of the film or the messages it attempted to convey. But their silence is a vindication of their sentiment towards Muslims in the state and tacit support to the BJP for gains. In that process, they are not even ready to condemn the anti-Christian attacks across the country,” said noted academic and author J Devika.
To be sure, it is not just BJP functionaries and supporters in the state who use the language of "love jihad". Kerala Congress (M) leader Jose K. Mani in March 2021, told Manorama news channel that the issue of ‘love jihad’ should be addressed and the apprehensions of the society about it have to be cleared. “Such an issue has come up in society and it has to be examined,” he said, but later withdrew his remarks under pressure from the CM for the embarrassment it caused the government. Kerala Congress (M) is part of the Left Democratic Front.
“Even if BJP is creating a Hindu Rashtra, Christians would be safe in it,” said Abraham, who has worked for the Kerala Congress factions. Abraham argued that “radical Islam” was a bigger threat to Kerala's Christians.
That the Narendra Modi government has told Parliament that no such crime as 'love jihad exists in the country, and the Kerala Police too has denied the existence of love jihad, in the state makes no difference to Abraham. He said, “Love jihad is a reality. I believe it exists.” He hasn't watched The Kerala Story yet.
“Protect our interests”
Magi Kallarakkal (62), a homemaker from Pala near Kottayam, who holds admiration for Indira Gandhi, said that her family has a close relationship with the Kerala Congress leadership. She actively participated in efforts to support the late KM Mani, a prominent figure in the United Democratic Front (UDF), during his electoral campaigns. However, Magi's sentiments towards KM Mani's son, Jose K Mani, have changed since he joined forces with the communist parties.
Magi expressed her frustration with Mani retracting his statements on "love jihad" under pressure from the Left. Like Abraham, she insists that the problem exists despite there being little to no evidence of it.
The former Kerala Congress (M) activist is now a state-level functionary of BJP's minority morcha. The Congress and CPI (M) appease Muslims, she said. The attacks by the Bajrang Dal on Christian nuns and priests — such as the one in Chhattisgarh's Patan in April 2023 — are “isolated incidents”, she said.
“I agree that some lumpen elements are inside Sangh Parivar, like the Bajrang Dal. They are responsible for isolated attacks on Christians,” she said. “I can say with authority that BJP-RSS never created discomfort for Kerala Christians."
If the Hindu Right was responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Magi points out that Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan changing the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul — originally founded as a cathedral — into a mosque was as bad.
“For us Christians in Kerala, we must protect our distinct identity and culture. In that process, we are discovering that not Hindus but Islamists are the enemies,” said Magi Kallarakkal, a former Kerala Congress (M) activist and now a state-level functionary of BJP's minority morcha.
Among the Christians in Kerala, 61% are Catholics, and 15.9% are Orthodox Syrian and Jacobite. They are members of different Pentecostal churches, the Church of South India, and other minority religious groups like Marthoma. The Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the Kerala Malankara Church are on opposite sides of a feud over property worth ₹90 million, yet the anti-Muslim rhetoric transcends this fight.
James Joseph Manimala, a 61-year-old local businessman and ambulance service provider in Kanjirapally, a Christian-dominated Assembly constituency, and his wife Ancy Manimala were regional leaders of Kerala Congress (M) until 2016. They supported the Indian National Congress for many years.
Ancy, who was a block panchayat member of the Kerala Congress from 1995 to 2000, and James, who was district president of the party's youth wing from 2000 to 2008, said they and their two children aged 36 and 32, started supporting the BJP after the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) started dictating terms to the United Democratic Front, of which the Congress is part.
They too echo the sentiments expressed by Magi and Abraham about “love jihad” in Kerala, but James Manimala added that he wanted to vote for a party with national relevance.
According to J Devika, a scholar who has studied the changing political scenario in Kerala, ”There are not many hurdles that separate Christians from BJP. A couple of wise and tactical moves by BJP may bring them to their fold.”
“Islamophobia is growing among upper-class Christians, like in the case of upper-caste Hindus in Kerala. The Christian leadership has a suspicion about Pinarayi Vijayan too. They treat him more as a pro-Muslim leader,” she said.
The Latin Catholics are believed to be the descendants of Scheduled Caste and fishermen communities who had converted to Christianity during the colonial period. Pentecostals, the Church of South India (CSI), and other Protestant groups such as Lutherans and Calvinists form 5.9% of the Christian population in Kerala. They, too, have rejected the “love jihad” theory.
“Some bishops may be soft towards the BJP. All of them are facing stiff resistance within the community for their swindling of funds and misappropriation of assets meant for total welfare. In Kerala, no church leader can force the voters to change their political preferences," said Riju Thannikkaran, leader of the laity association of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese.
What’s more, not all leaders believe in the "love jihad" theory.
"It is unlikely that the Catholics in Kerala will shift their political preference en masse to the BJP and Sangh Parivar, which are practising the politics of hate. There is no apparent need for such a shift," Fr Paul Thelakkatt, a senior priest of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese said.
Dr Yuhanon Mar Meletius, bishop of the powerful non-Catholic Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, shares the same view. "Christians in Kerala are not a collective entity obeying the dictates of their religious heads," he pointed out. "In general, Kerala has a solid secular democratic foundation, and the people across religions coexist without falling prey to the sinister designs of the communal forces. Why should any particular religious group have regressive agendas to disrupt the existing peace," he said.
In general, Kerala has a solid secular democratic foundation, and the people across religions coexist without falling prey to the sinister designs of the communal forces. Why should any particular religious group have regressive agendas to disrupt the existing peace
Church leaders raise objections to the scholarships and schemes offered to Muslim youth, as they perceive a bias in the LDF (Left Democratic Front) and UDF (United Democratic Front) governments' efforts to retain only young Muslims within the state's boundaries. While Kerala has a larger Muslim population compared to Christians, the issue of reservations for Muslims has been a longstanding matter in the state. Since 1936, there have been reservations for Muslims in government jobs and professional educational institutions, currently at 12 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
According to a senior catholic priest in Kerala who preferred anonymity, if Kerala's Christians continued with their present negative growth trends, by 2050, half their population would be aged. Echoing the Hindutva stalwarts VD Savarkar and MS Golwalkar, the priest said Christian piety should procreate more and not limit the size of the family.
"Catholic leaders view with fear the increasing ability of Muslims in the state to engage in collective bargaining with both the ruling Left Democratic Front and United Democratic Front," Rajesh Kamath, an assistant professor of Sociology at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, said.
The CPI(M) coming to power in Kerala through an alliance with the Kerala Congress (M) — a Christian party — is a significant political development. Many activists and leaders of the Kerala Congress (M) have ties to the rubber-growing sector, which led to a humorous description of their political flexibility aligning with the Left camp as matching the elastic nature of natural rubber.
Looking ahead, the BJP aspires to bring the Kerala Congress (M) into its camp, hoping for the Church's endorsement in the long run. The breakaway faction of the Kerala Congress (Jacob) is currently part of the opposition UDF, and the BJP also holds aspirations for it. The BJP aims to garner support from influential community groups like the Nair and Ezhava communities, seeking to establish a power-sharing arrangement with Christian-backed political parties.
"In Kerala, the Christian community in general always preferred a co-existence with their Hindu neighbours. Unlike in other parts of the country, mainstream Christian churches in Kerala are not promoting religious conversion. They have an effective cross-cultural relationship with Hindus and they even take part in temple festivals and religious events. So the emerging political alignment is not anything new. It's a continuation of the symbiotic relationship between Christians and Hindutva outfits that existed for long,''
The BJP-RSS leaders in Kerala may be anxious that minority community members, including Christians, do not always align with the political preferences advocated by their religious leaders. Similarly, the political inclinations of the Nairs and Ezhavas, two prominent community groups in Kerala, are not solely determined by their religious leaders.
In Kerala, the CPI(M) and the CPI, as well as the Congress, enjoy relatively stable support bases within the LDF and UDF respectively. These alliances have supporters from various religious and caste groups. Kerala is known for having a significant number of individuals who prioritise politics and electioneering beyond caste and communal considerations. Many people in the state value factors such as governance, development, and policy issues over narrow religious or caste affiliations when making their political choices.
In the last two months, BJP leaders in Kerala have been anxious about the unabated ethnic violence in Manipur targeting Kukis (Christians). The developments seem to have thrown a spanner in the BJP’s efforts to woo the Christian voters in Kerala. Many Christian leaders in Kerala have made open statements saying that they are pained and hurt by the continuing bloodbath in Manipur and said that Christians in Manipur have reason to believe that the state and Union governments were protecting those who fanned the violence.
Most recently, unrest in Manipur flared again after a video showing the bodies of two Meiti students, suspected to have been killed by Kuki militants, surfaced. The state has once again suspended mobile internet services even as a large demonstration of students was held in Imphal.