news Saturday, May 16, 2015 - 05:30
A group of social activists in Kerala are on a mission to ensure that a gram panchayat fulfills a promise made to a Jewish community 60 years ago. In 1955, before the last remaining Jews in Mala village of Thrissur district left their centuries-old home for good, they made an agreement with the panchayat asking them to maintain their cemeteries and synagogue. Historical evidence suggests that the first Jews arrived on the Malabar coast in around the 1st century AD, and that there were 40 families in the colony in Mala. After 1948, they began to leave their settlements and colonies to go to Palestine, where the British had settled the Jewish people who had escaped the Holocaust of World War II, and where the state of Israel was eventually created. The then Mala Gram Panchayat President A Joseph met with Jewish community representatives at the Israel Consulate in Mumbai and signed an agreement, according to which, the panchayat was bound to preserve and maintain both cemetery and synagogue with its own funds. Members of the Paithruka Samrakshana Samiti (PSS), who are on a mission to preserve the Jewish monuments in Mala which are said to be 1,000 years old, say that the panchayat has broken its promise. Second signatory of the Mala Jewish agreement Mr. Pallivathukkal Eliacha can be seen ( sitting left ) in the photo provided by Joshua Yaffa, great grandson of Mr.Eliacha The synagogue, located half a kilometre away from the cemetery, was renovated in 1971, but has now fallen into disrepair. A portion of the land has also been encroached. A community hall now stands next to the synagogue. A shopping complex built on the land some time ago was demolished after people protested, he says. Spread over four acres originally, the cemetery had around 40 graves of which only three remain intact, says PK Kittan, secretary of PSS which is trying to get the panchayat to save the village’s archeological heritage. Small village roads have been built over destroyed tombstones. Today, two-and-a-half acres of the cemetery’s land have been taken over by the panchayat to build a stadium. “When they took over the land for the stadium the panchayat said they had a court order. This was in 2000, and we could not cross-check their claim because there was no RTI. But actually, they did not have a court order,” Kittan says. Construction began in 2001 and the stadium was inaugurated in 2005. It is now called the K Karunakaran Memorial Sports Academy. Jewish associations and other activists have approached the courts, seeking legal intervention into the matter. “In court their main defence was that the agreement with the Jews is not valid anymore. The district court had said several times that the agreement is still valid and that the panchayat is bound by it,” Kittan says. In 2013, what little remained of the cemetery was also under threat as the Tourism Department proposed to set up a park on one-and-a-half acres of land on the western side. Following strong protests from activists and a petition filed by two Jews in Kerala, many alterations had been brought to the proposal of the park. Construction has not yet begun as the PSS and other activists continue to protest. “Now as part of the 60th anniversary celebration of the contract, we have been conducting seminars and awareness camps in different parts of the district to enhance the monuments’ preservation,” Kittan says. An official of the Archeological Survey of India who requested anonymity, says that the monuments cannot come under its jurisdiction unless a proposal from the state government is sent to the centre. Over the years, Kittan and others such as Malayalam writer Anand, historian MGS Narayan, writer and activist Sarah Joseph have built enough pressure to ensure that what little is left of the old monuments, does not disappear entirely by the onslaught of modern development. All pcitures courtesy- Mala Jewish Monuments Facebook page.