A recent meeting of Catholic leaders with PM Modi has set off speculation on whether the Kerala Church is moving to the right.

Members of the Syro Malabar church meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi
news Politics Wednesday, February 03, 2021 - 13:44

Mathew is a farmer from Kannur district and has been a strong Congress supporter for decades. Today, he finds himself at a crossroads, unsure of whether he needs to change his political allegiance. "Congress doesn't have much scope at the Centre, though they are still strong in Kerala. We are not interested in the religious politics of BJP but it is not appropriate to lock horns with the Sangh Parivar. We are also not ready to follow Pinarayi Vijayan," he says.

Though Mathew’s words may not reflect the sentiments of lakhs of Christians in Kerala, his stand to be wary of the BJP but not outright reject the party seems to be the tone adopted by most Catholic churches in the state.

On January 19, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Cardinal Oswald Gracias of the Latin-rite Church, Mumbai, Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, and Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Church, there was speculation over the Catholic church moving closer to the BJP.

While the religious leaders were quick to assert that there was no politics involved in the meeting, the Indo Asian News Agency reported that they discussed the bogey of ‘love jihad’ in the meeting. What church leaders did convey to the Prime Minister is their sense of dissatisfaction over the Muslim community apparently getting more benefits out of minority welfare schemes. 

Mixed signals from the Church

The Catholic Church in Kerala, keeps sending mixed signals on how they perceive the BJP’s politics. While the Church opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and slammed the Union government, it speaks the BJP and the Sangh Parivar’s language when it comes to the bogey of ‘love jihad’ and schemes for the Muslim community. This Islamophobia is reflected in many acts of the Church and its auxiliaries. 

Deepika, a newspaper started by Christian priests in Kerala, had recently written an article against the Muslim community alleging that they were enjoying welfare schemes. The article went on to allege that 80% of funds for minorities have been spent on Muslims and only 20% is distributed among other minority communities. 

What Deepika did leave out in its article is that multiple government surveys have over the years revealed that Muslims are one of the most backward communities in the country as far as socio-economic indicators are concerned - being the poorest after Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and have the lowest educational attainment among its youth. The paper also failed to highlight that the 2011 Census found high poverty and low literacy among Muslims, while the literacy rate among Christians was the highest, as per a 2013 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation. 

In its article, Rashtra Deepika also took potshots at the Muslim community for being non-receptive to criticism and lashed out at Kerala Minority Welfare Minister KT Jaleel. The article highlighted that he was once a member of the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and alleged that he continues to be communal. Jaleel, who was recently embroiled in a controversy regarding distributing Qurans from UAE in Kerala, has always maintained that he left SIMI to join a mainstream political party, and his politics too has shifted. 

It isn’t just the Rashtra Deepika. There are a number of pages on social media- all connected to small Christian groups- that are on a mission to spread hatred against the Muslim community.  Though they don’t have a huge number of followers, their posts highlight how Christians are attacked across the world by Muslims. From Boko Haram attacks to crimes in Kerala where the accused are Muslims, everything makes its way to these pages. Many of these messages make their way to platforms like WhatsApp.

The Catholic Church’s decision to not distance itself from the BJP and Sangh Parivar is also fuelled by the fact that the national party actively woos them. With Christians constituting 18.38% of Kerala’s population as per the 2011 Census, Muslims 26.56% and Hindus 54.72%, the BJP believes that it has a chance to convince a section of Hindus and Christians, who are open to a choice other than the CPI(M) or the Congress. Syrian Christians, who form a large block of Christians in Kerala, are being wooed by the BJP. For the BJP, striking a chord with the Chiristian voter is an effort to challenge the binary politics in Kerala.

What explains the Church’s stand?

J Prabhash, former Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kerala and Head of Department of Political Science in Kerala University, says that the church's stance should be seen as a reflection of the global scenario, where tension exists between Christians and Muslims, and where Islamophobia is rampant.

"What we see in Kerala is a reflection of the global scenario,” he explains. Prabhash, however, says that in reality there are many interfaith marriages between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Hindus and Muslims and Hindus. Noting the inherent patriarchy of religious communities, he points out, “It is not that a particular religion targets girls from other religions. But these communities are worried only about their girls marrying men belonging to other religious backgrounds.” 

Joseph Velivil, working president of the Joint Christian Council, a movement by christians that works to call out the church’s mistakes, says that the Church is merely playing to the gallery as several of its constituents are unhappy with inter-religious marriages, especially women marrying Muslims. "The Church is scared that when the number of followers decrease, their income will also reduce," he says. Joseph cautions that the Church should not fall into the anti-conversion vortex at a time when it too insists on conversion. 

Both Prabhash and Joseph agree that the Church is insecure about the BJP’s politics, but choose not to outright reject them. Prabhash points out that the Catholic Church in Kerala traditionally worked with the Congress and sank with it as the Congress’ influence waned across the country. “No similar alternate power is emerging. Therefore, church leaders feel threatened. They are insecure about Sangh Parivar politics, but they don’t want to offend them,” he says.

Adding that the Church is always in need of political patronage, Prabhash says, “Though they don't have the same relationship with the BJP as they maintained with Congress, they are in need of patronage. Moreover Christian leaders are also worried that if they lock horns with BJP, they will face trouble." Joseph also says the Church also does not want the government to create problems for it, especially on matters like funds.   

Besides Catholic Church leaders, the Prime Minister had in December also met representatives of the warring church factions - Jacobite Syrian Christian Church and Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. All these meetings point toward a political gain for the BJP as the state Assembly Elections approach in May 2021, say political observers.

But is there a Christian vote bank in Kerala?

Both Prabhash and Joseph argue that Christians don’t necessarily vote as a block. 

"People here have clear political views. They will stand by their political ideologies when election comes. Political leaders are misguided by church leaders claiming that believers cast votes according to their advice. But it is not true," Joseph of Joint Christian Council says.

Prabhash says that there are no communal vote banks in Kerala. "Maybe these leaders can influence 10 % of their followers, but not more than that. It's the same with IUML, Nair Service Society or Christian leaders. Maybe very few followers will listen to leaders," he says. But this 10% could very well make the difference between winning and losing an election, especially since the difference between the vote percentage of LDF and UDF in Kerala was less than 5% in 2016, and 1.2% in 2011

Moreover, the trend of changing governments in Kerala every five years is proof of the nonexistence of a vote bank, says Prabhash, who is the Head of Department of Political Science in Kerala University. "For the last many decades Christians were in support of UDF. So if there was a vote bank only the UDF would have won all the elections in the state. Anti-incumbency leads to government change in Kerala every five years, not the influence of religious leaders," Prabhash emphasises.

Varghese George, the Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD) leader says there is no political significance to Christian leaders meeting the Prime Minister. "The minority communities including Christians and Muslims have joined anti-CAA protests in Kerala. Kerala Panchayat election results also show that people from minority communities largely voted for the Left Democratic Front. So there is no vote bank in Kerala based on the religious community," he says.

Prabhash, in fact, argues that it was the Church that followed its followers in supporting the Congress party and not the other way around. "It was the people in the Church who started supporting and joining Congress and later the Church followed them," notes Prabhash, adding, “The Christian community in general supported the Congress. There were many reasons for this support- some of the ancestors in the community took part in the freedom struggle; they were interested in accumulating assets; were against communism”. 

Despite this, however, all political parties resort to vote bank politics in every election. "The main issue is with political parties who think that there is a vote bank. Their candidates will belong to the majority community in a constituency. But that is not true, people don't vote based on community politics. These political parties don't give a chance for people to prove that there is no community vote bank," he argues.  

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