Kerala priest hit by car inside Poonjar church premises, issue takes communal color

The incident has been given a communal colour, with some calling it an attack towards the Christian community. However, it contrasts starkly with police findings, which indicate no evidence of premeditated religious targeting.
Protesters at the Poonjar church
Protesters at the Poonjar churchTwitter
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The Kerala Police arrested 27 students, including 10 minors, in connection with a Christian priest being hit by a car in Kerala’s Kottayam district. The incident took place at the St Mary’s Forane Church in Poonjar on Saturday, February 24. Fr Joseph Attuchalil, the assistant vicar of the Poonjar church, was allegedly hit by a car after he asked a group of school students who had entered the church compound with cars and motorbikes to leave the premises. The incident however has been given a communal spin, even though the police have said that there was no premeditated religious targeting.

According to the police, following a farewell party at the school, the students allegedly congregated on the church premises in eight cars, around 12.45 pm on Saturday. As their arrival in vehicles caused disruptions to the worship that was going on inside the church during that time, Fr Joseph asked them to stop the noise and exit the compound. However, the students allegedly refused to comply. The situation escalated when the priest tried to close the gates and one of the cars allegedly hit him on the way out. 

Initially, 10 students were arrested on the day of the incident. On Sunday, 17 others were also arrested. All 27 accused are class 12 students of the Erattupetta Government Higher Secondary School, aged below 21.

Police findings refute communal narrative

The incident has been hijacked for political benefits and given a communal colour, with some calling it an attack towards the Christian community. It has given rise to a divisive narrative of a “Jihadi assault” on the Christian faith, mainly propagated by certain Christian right-wing YouTube channels and social media pages.

The BJP has alleged that the accused in the case include Muslims, and that the police is refusing to reveal the names of the accused for this reason, even though only 10 of them are minors. BJP leader Vishnu Vardhan Reddy said, “Because the attackers are from the minority community, the police haven't even released the names of the attackers.” 

Some drew parallels between the Poonjar incident and the violence in Manipur, propagating a narrative of religious animosity. This campaign, spearheaded by Sangh Parivar and Christian right-wing factions, contrasts starkly with police findings, which indicate no evidence of premeditated religious targeting. 

According to the police, the incident was not planned, and there were no communal issues in Poonjar in connection with this incident. They also said that the complaint did not mention any communal reason behind the incident.  

This is not the first time that Poojar is witnessing communal polarisation. The Poonjar Assembly constituency, located in the eastern side of the Kottayam district, consists of 19.1% Muslim voters, 37.6% Christians, and 43% Hindus. It is here that PC George, who recently joined the BJP, made polarising claims during the campaigns for the 2021 elections and lost his sitting seat. Geoge had been the MLA from the constituency since 1996. 

In 2021, he antagonised the Muslim community with his remark that the ‘love jihad’ bogey was prevalent in the constituency. "There is love jihad in Erattupetta and so far, 47 girls from the region, including 12 Hindu girls, have fallen victim to the practice,” he had alleged. Erattupetta is a municipality in Poonjar where the Muslim population is relatively high. During a campaign in Erattupetta, voters publicly showed displeasure by booing him. George then abused his critics and declared that he didn't need their votes. He has been using the recent incident also for his political gains.

Church demands strict action

Church authorities also said that they are not blaming any particular community for the incident. According to Fr Joseph Thadathil, the vicar general of the Pala Eparchy under which the Poonjar church falls, there have been incidents of people bringing vehicles into the church compound before. “However, they would leave when we requested them. But this time, they tried to harm a very important person in the church. Several people from the community were sentimentally hurt by this incident and we tried to console them. But at the same time, we don’t want to go to any extremes. We are not pointing fingers at any particular community, some people came and did this,” he added. He was addressing members of the church after the incident.

Following the incident, church members, led by priests and church authorities, took out a protest march on the same day, demanding strict action against the accused.

Police booked the accused under section 307 (attempted murder) of the Indian Penal Code. They were presented in front of the court, after which the 17 students who are 18 years or older were shifted to a borstal school (housing adolescent offenders between the ages 18 to 21) and the rest were shifted to a juvenile home.

Additionally, the  Kottayam Cyber police has registered a case against two individuals for spreading religious hatred through social media related to this incident. 

Five protesting church members were also booked by the Erattupetta police for allegedly manhandling a cop during protests.

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