Indian Church loses friends and makes new enemies

A march taken out by different Christian organisations in support of Bishop Mar Joseph Kallarangatt in Pala on September 12, 2021. Photo courtesy to The Hindu

No boat on a choppy Sea of Galilee would have been tossed as violently as the Church in India finds itself shaken today, trying to negotiate its way between competitive political space with Muslims and Hindus in distant Kerala, rampant persecution by non-state actors in the north and central states, its resources constricted by increasingly vindictive state policies, and its institutions, its social face for two centuries, staring at an uncertain future in many regions.

This is perhaps a moment of its greatest challenge since independence, a time to conserve its strength, consolidate its unity and reach out to friends in civil society for support. Instead, the church leaders find themselves rapidly losing allies, even as they make new enemies, and widen the many internal fractures of dogma, doctrine, racialism, and caste. The struggle of women against a patriarchal religious leadership, gathering pace in recent years, gives the crisis just that critical momentum to pitches it to the international stage for everyone to see.

The collateral damage is the secular image of Kerala, and the history of communal peace, if not genuine amity, that has marked relationships between Christians and their larger Muslim and Hindu neighbours. And in a development not foreseen by the leaders, it may well impact relations with the Islamic countries of the Gulf where large numbers of Malayalis of all faiths work and send home the precious remittances that underpin the home state’s economy. 

Hindus at 54.7% of the 3.34 Crore population, or 1.82 Crores in the 2011 Census, remain the dominant community in Kerala, followed by Muslims with 26.5% [about 88 lakhs] and Christians at 18.3% [61 lakh]. Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains are below 5,000 each and 95,773 people have not stated their religion. The 2021 decadal national census has been delayed in the Covid lockdowns, but experts say the population may be close to 3.58 Crore at a growth rate of about 7.2%. Christians fear their numbers, in absolute terms and as a proportion of the state’s population, may come down drastically with family sizes shrinking from the post-Independence figures of six or more children per family to three or less now. 

Islamophobia has not been mentioned publicly, but the caste-ridden Christian community finds itself more at ease with their Hindu neighbours than with the Muslims, who before the discovery of oil in West Asia and the job boom, were economically less well off. They are more active politically now, with a presence in the Left Democratic Front led by the CPM, as also in the Congress coalition. Christians had till recently seen as tied to the apron strings of the Congress. There is much truth in this. Over the years, an incestuous relationship has firmed up between political leaders who depend on the patronage of the hierarchy for votes and are then interlocutors to safeguard the material and political interests of the church. 

The Marxists lost the plot way back in 1958 in their first elected government led by Comrade EMS Namboodiripad angered vested interests with his move against church-owned educational institutions. The outrage eventually led to his dismissal by the Jawahar Lal Nehru government in New Delhi.

This is imprinted in the community’s racial memory. Recent fears are of state funds by way of scholarships and development grants going largely to the Muslims at the of the Christian community. There is some truth in this, as the Marxist government deviated from national norms saying more funds should go to the Muslims which were more underdeveloped. The retraction came after the damage had been done.

Taken together, it was a keg of powder, and with a very short fuse.

It was lit by Pala Bishop Mar Joseph Kallarangatt who in an address said jihadists were trying to sow the seeds of communalism and intolerance in Kerala and forcibly converting people belonging to other religions. Adding to the bogey of Love Jihad – a term invented in Kerala more than a decade ago – Kallarangatt implied that Muslim youth were now snaring Christian youth and making them drug addicts. 

Reactions were immediate, an early one coming from the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Women’s groups, Christian priests and human rights activists followed. Muslim groups staged protests, one a march to the bishop’s residence.  

Stunned by the protests, the bishop’s staff sought to make amends, saying the remark had been taken out of context as the religious head was but cautioning drug menace ravaging in the state. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference repeated this explanation, in the hope that the furore would die down.

But the Kerala church, as in fact the Indian Christian community, is not a monolith. It reflects the scores of denominations and sects, and even cults as some would say, in the country. To begin with, the Catholic group itself is three independent entities, united in their allegiance and affiliation to the Pope while maintaining their separate cultural and liturgical identities as the Syro Malabar Catholics, the Syro Malankara Catholics, and the Latin Catholics.

The independent status of the Syrian churches is of recent times, and after decades of acrid and bitter confrontations, wars of words, and appeals to the Pope. The two Rites now have dioceses also in Australia, North America, and the European-West Asian region, making them the richest church group in India, if not in Asia. 

Pala, with neighbouring districts, has possibly the most compact population of the Syro Malabar Catholic Rite. This has also made them an important instrument in political calculations in the State. It also makes them the target of suspicion, scorn, and jealousy.

The Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church expressed his disapproval of the Plan Bishop’s statement, deriding attempts to aggravate communal divides in Kerala. Metropolitan Yulios Geevarghese of the Malankara Orthodox Church followed suit, demanding a public apology from Kallarangatt.

And then is the gathering revulsion and opposition from within. The most polite say the Bishop spoke out of turn even if drugs and radicalisation were a national issue. He used a dog whistle which accentuated the islamophobia that the BJP and the Sangh are assiduously fanning as they seek a foothold in this politically important state. 

The women groups, including those of the Nuns who have been waging a high publicity guerrilla war on sexual abuse in the church, have scored a point, charging the church with coining Love Jihad to control women’s agency, and especially their sexuality, while remaining blind to evils of dowry and domestic violence. 

Sexual abuse is a big elephant in the room, keeping company with the equally heinous matter of caste discrimination. Dalit Christian groups have waged a brave battle against the Union government in the Supreme court to be given the protection of the law as given to Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists. They have now sued the church in high courts. They have also petitioned the Pope to recognise them as a full-fledged Rite on the pattern of the two Syrian Rites.

Nuns in the Kuravilangad Convent, with Sr. Anupama, opposed the attempt of a priest to “preach communal poison against Muslims” in the Sunday worship in which he repeated the call for an economic and commercial boycott of Muslim businesses. 

This has found an echo among Catholic employees in Gulf countries, one of whom wrote if the bishops wanted them to carry out this boycott in the country where they work. Many fear there will be consequences for the millions of Indians working in the region.

Christians, often of the smaller churches, say the powerful Catholic hierarchy has abandoned them in the face of a continuing assault by state governments, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where sometimes even rations and water are being denied in villages to Christians. The violence by radical Hindutva activists now seems routine and is often in the presence of the police.

The coup de grace comes from India’s most celebrated Catholic human rights activist, Jesuit Fr Cedric Prakash of Ahmedabad. In an open letter to the bishops, he witheringly wrote the utterances of some Bishops clearly demonstrate of how easily one can fall into a meticulously planned trap of the Sangh Parivar that clearly negates the right to freedom of religion. It also reinforces the attitude of the Church towards women. Civil society is wondering why the Church has been painfully silent when several nuns have committed suicide or have been murdered over the years. 

The government of India in its replies in Parliament has said there are no instances of the so-called Love Jihad.

John Dayal is a writer and activist. He is a former President of the 102-year-old All India Catholic Union.