Rise of Kerala Christian right is deeply rooted in Islamophobia: A look at Poonjar, Pala

The divisive seeds sown by the proponents of Hindutva extremism and the Bharatiya Janata Party were amply watered and spread by the Church leadership on several instances, especially in regions under the Pala diocese.
Rise of Kerala Christian right
Rise of Kerala Christian rightRepresentational image
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By the time Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt, the head of the Pala diocese in Kerala’s Kottayam district, cautioned the faithful against ‘love jihad’ and ‘narcotic jihad’ during a sermon in September 2021, the narrative that young Christian women were being wooed by ‘jihadists’ was firmly established in the minds of Syrian Christians. The divisive seeds sown by the proponents of Hindutva extremism and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were amply watered and spread by the Church leadership on several instances, especially in regions under the Pala diocese. The resultant mistrust between Christians and Muslims has had consequences in electoral politics too.

Take the example of Poonjar, one of the seven Assembly constituencies under the Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency. A Christian majority constituency within which lies the Muslim-dominated town of Erattupetta, Poonjar is an interesting case study to understand how Hindutva is capitalising on both the latent and obvious Islamophobia among Syrian Christians for electoral and other gains. Both Erattupetta and Poonjar, located 5 km from each other, lie on the eastern side of Kottayam district. Notably, Syro Malabar churches in Poonjar fall under Bishop Kallarangatt’s Pala diocese.

For 25 years – 1996 to 2021 – Poonjar was represented in the Kerala Assembly by PC George, a politician formerly associated with various factions of the Kerala Congress and currently a member of the BJP. Infamous for his vile language and problematic statements, most residents of Poonjar and Erattupetta agree that it was certain acts by George, done with an eye on political gains, that fanned the communal flames in the region.

Erattupetta town
Erattupetta town

It was in this atmosphere fraught with communal tensions that 27 Muslim class 12 students of the Erattupetta Government Higher Secondary School were arrested and charged with attempted murder on February 23. The alleged crime — they trespassed into the compound of the St Mary’s Forane Church in Poonjar in a group of cars and hit the assistant vicar on the arm with the side view mirror of one of the cars when trying to hurriedly exit to avoid being caught. The arrested students included 17 minors and 10 students aged above 18.

The issue blew up within a matter of hours, with the religious identities of the students highlighted to give it a communal spin. With the alleged involvement of PC George, his son Shaun George, and extremist organisations like Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (CASA) as well as hate mongering by Christian right-wing media channels like Shekinah TV and Goodness TV, the incident attained political significance in the state.

The subsequent events further strained the already delicate coexistence of the Muslim-populated Erattupetta and the surrounding Christian areas of Poonjar, Pala, and Bharananganam.

The Chief Minister himself got involved, but it only worsened the situation. At a press meet held on March 6, CM Pinarayi Vijayan called the arrested students “hooligans”, much to the chagrin of their parents and the larger Muslim population in Erattupetta.

TNM visited Erattupetta, Poonjar, and Pala weeks after the incident and spoke to various stakeholders including elected representatives, parents of the arrested students, church representatives, social activists, media persons, and commoners. The visit helped us understand the extent of division and communalism prevalent there.

The carefree drive that set it all off

Siyad* was just 18 years and 3 months old when he was arrested by the police along with 26 of his batchmates. While 17, including Siyad, who were above 18 years of age, were remanded and locked up in the Kakkanad Sub Jail, 10 others were taken to the Juvenile Home in Thiruvanchoor.

“On February 23, a Friday, following the farewell celebrations at their school, my son and his friends set out for a brief drive,” said Siyad’s father, whom TNM met in Erattupetta. “As they had set out from the school with the intention of going to the mosque for their Friday prayers too, only Muslim students had joined the outing.”

Travelling in six cars, the students entered the premises of the St Mary’s Forane Church around 12.20 pm. Located on a small hill, the church ground contains a parking space and a crucifix made of stone. The road in front of the church was under maintenance, which meant vehicles passing by would occasionally enter the church premises through the left gate and exit via the right gate to avoid the road’s poor condition.

St Mary's Forane Church Poonjar
St Mary's Forane Church Poonjar

According to Father Mathew Kadookunnel, vicar of the Poonjar church, while vehicles used to pass through the church compound to circumvent the bad road conditions, the students’ presence that day resulted in considerable noise. Upon seeing this, Father Joseph Attuchalil, the assistant vicar, attempted to lock the right-side gate, while a parishioner who was present there closed the left gate. Contrary to accusations that the students targeted the priest, the person closing the right-side gate was not wearing the cassock so the students could not have known that he was a priest.

In the chaos, one of the car’s side mirrors hit the assistant vicar’s hands, making him lose balance and fall. Attuchalil sustained minor injuries in the fall.

Soon, word spread and a crowd, mainly parishioners, gathered at the church. Certain YouTube channels as well as Shekinah TV and Goodness TV, known for their right-wing Christian stance, were swift to label it as a “jihadi attack” and a “premeditated murder attempt”. TNM learnt that the assembled crowd also consisted of members of CASA as well as politicians like PC George and his son Shaun. George blamed the incident on the residents of Erattupetta, where approximately 40,000 Muslims reside.

At 5 pm on the day of the incident, someone in the gathered crowd rang the church bell, prompting more people to assemble, as prolonged ringing typically indicates an emergency or a death. Church authorities said that they were unaware who rang the bell.

“PC George, his son Shaun, and CASA workers are all responsible for escalating the issue. Even in 2020, a similar incident had been escalated into a communal matter by right-wing groups within the Church. These incidents were crimes; but the issue arises when they target the religion of the accused, in this case minors,” stated Sheriff Panthalani, a journalist from Erattupetta.

The incident sparked a campaign against the Muslim community residing in Erattupetta. Protests were organised in churches in Idukki, Kottayam, and Thrissur following the incident. Calls for a National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe were echoed from various quarters, including by Pala MLA Mani C Kappan, who alleged it was a “planned attack”. A member of the Nationalist Congress Kerala, Kappan is part of the Congress-backed opposition United Democratic Front (UDF).

On February 24, the day after the incident, Erattupetta Municipality chairperson Suhra, the Imam of the Erattupetta Nainar mosque, and the Vicar of St George Forane Church in Aruvithura (another church under the Syro-Malabar Pala diocese located near Erattupetta town) went to Poonjar with a request for dialogue, but were not received warmly.

“People were consumed by rage and emotion; hence, convening a meeting immediately after the incident was not received well. What purpose would it serve?” reasoned Fr Joseph Thadathil, who is in charge of public relations in the Pala diocese.

Traumatic episode for the 27 school students 

The 27 arrested students were charged under the Indian Penal Code’s sections 307 (attempt to murder) and 447 (criminal trespass). They were released on bail after 10 days.

The incident took place mere days before the class 12 final exams were held in the state. Seven of the arrested students were from the Science batch and missed their first exam, which was on March 1. Parents said the whole episode was deeply traumatic for the students.

However, the little semblance of normalcy that had returned post the students’ bail was shattered following the CM’s remark that all 27 students arrested in the case were Muslims. On March 6, he had fanned the flames of the burning issue by responding to questions about the incident with, “What hooliganism was shown [in Poonjar]? That priest was hit by a car. There were only people from the Muslim community in the group; Muslims were not intentionally targeted by the police when filing the case.” The remarks made in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram reignited the issue in Erattupetta and Poonjar.

On March 8, various Muslim organisations took to the streets in protest. Suprabhatham, the mouthpiece of the Sunni organisation Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama, said in its editorial, “Rather than acknowledging this as the wrongful actions of a small group of students and responding accordingly, branding the attackers as Muslims was a policy of the Sangh Parivar.”

A diocese that doesn’t hide its Islamophobia

“Have you seen their protest against the Chief Minister for telling the truth? They are on a mission to strengthen their religion and establish power,” gushed a priest who entered the office of Fr Thadathil in the Pala diocese’s Bishop’s House, where TNM was interviewing the latter.

The diocese has seen several instances of hate speech against ‘them’ – the Muslim community – by those occupying positions of power, including the current head, Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt. Following Kallarnagatt’s controversial ‘love and narcotic jihad’ speech in 2021, a large rally of Muslim groups from Erattupetta marched toward Pala. Christian groups protested against Muslims in Pala. “There was potential for communal violence at that time, but somehow it was contained,” recalled Abraham*, a retired government employee from Aruvithura.

On the other hand, Thadathil stated that the diocese would not retract Kallarangatt’s statement. “It was a warning issued to our children during a private church event. We stand by that statement, which has proven to be true as ‘such cases’ continue to occur,” he affirmed.

During TNM’s visit to Pala, Erattupetta, and Poonjar, we encountered multiple instances of hate speech by those from the Christian community against the Muslim population.

When asked about the sudden escalation of the Poonjar church incident into hate-mongering, Thadathil remarked, “The accused are said to be minors. We did not advocate booking them under section 307 (attempt to murder), nor did we oppose their bail. The issue transcends this; there’s already an assault on our faith here.”

On the other side, Muslim leaders and community members of Erattupetta accuse PC George and organisations like CASA of stoking communal hatred in the region.

However, the church asserts that while they do not endorse CASA or George, they also do not disavow them. “We do not endorse CASA nor do we support everything they do, but some of their stances are commendable. See, CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s statement on the Poonjar issue was appropriate and welcomed. This does not imply our support for him; it is the same with CASA,” clarified Thadathil.

However, church representatives and many Christian communities blame PC George for the current situation. “He was the one who supported the Muslim community, aiding them in various matters for votes. However, his sudden reversal only fueled further animosity and increased hatred towards us,” remarked a priest from the region.

Meanwhile, it hasn’t helped that parishes under the Idukki diocese of the Syro Malabar church screened the propaganda film The Kerala Story for school-going minors. The film has been accused of spewing lies and hatred in the name of raising awareness about the ‘love jihad’ bogey. While the Thamarassery diocese’s youth organisation also announced screening of the film, the diocese administration has, however, distanced itself from the decision.

Read: The Syro Malabar church is lapping up the propaganda in The Kerala Story 

The rise and fall of PC George in Poonjar

According to TM Rasheed, former municipal chairperson of Erattupetta, PC George used to occupy “a special place in our hearts”. “[George] acted as a bridge between the Muslim and Christian communities in the region, and communal tensions were virtually non-existent during his tenure. However, things took a turn after the second Modi government.”

In 2019, George, then an independent MLA, established a new political party called Janapaksham, years after breaking alliance with the UDF. His attempts to align with the UDF and LDF in the state didn’t see results due to his reputation for using obscene language and making derogatory remarks against women and Dalits.

In 2019, Janapaksham aligned with the BJP-led NDA for the Lok Sabha elections. “Even before this, he had started spreading hatred against Muslims, which enraged the community. In January 2019, at a public event in Erattupetta, people jeered at him and he responded poorly. Such incidents strained his previously good relationship with some Muslim religious leaders,” stated Khader, a local politician.

Anticipating defeat in Poonjar in the 2021 Assembly elections, during a meeting with then opposition leader Oommen Chandy to discuss an alliance with the UDF, George requested the Kanjirappally seat. But his request was denied, leading him to contest as an independent candidate. He tried to woo Christian and Hindu voters by taking a rigorous right-wing stance. However, he lost by 11,104 votes to the LDF candidate Sebastian Kulathunkal.

Following the election, his initial response was to accuse Erattupetta of betrayal.

“Until then, he had won with the support of the SDPI and the Muslim community in Erattupetta. However, his divisive politics ultimately backfired and worsened societal divisions,” Rasheed noted.

Since then, George has launched a series of attacks against the Erattupetta Muslim community. In May 2022, he was arrested by the Kerala police after advising non-Muslims in Kerala to boycott restaurants run by Muslims. During a programme organised as part of the Ananthapuri Hindu Maha Sammelan in Thiruvananthapuram, he alleged that “tea laced with drops causing impotence” was being sold in Muslim-run restaurants in an attempt to render people infertile and seize control of the country — an allegation previously debunked as fake news.

Police allegations of ‘terror concerns’ in Erattupetta

The Christian community highlighted a police report issued in December 2022 indicating Erattupetta was proof of the Muslim community’s ‘problematic’ nature. The report, submitted by Kottayam district police chief K Karthick to the Director General of Police regarding allocation of land owned by the police department in Erattupetta for a mini civil station, stated, “Considering the unique circumstances involving religious matters, terrorist concerns, and law and order issues in this locality, the land held by the Erattupetta police station should remain under the control of the police department.”

The Muslim community has, however, denounced the report as a manifestation of Islamophobia and the state systems’ bias.

Journalist Sheriff alleged that the former circle inspector filed this report as advised by PC George. “It stereotypes the Muslim community in the region. George doesn’t want development in Erattupetta as retaliation for his political setbacks, and he is unable to tolerate the current MLA gaining popularity,” he said.

The retired government officer Abraham told TNM that Erattupetta is the stronghold of the Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI), explaining the police’s perception of ‘terrorist’ elements. “Out of 29 members in the Erattupetta municipality, 28 are from the Muslim community. Similarly, around 90% of the merchants here are Muslims, predominantly traders who procure goods from Christian farmers residing in and around Kottayam. The affluent Christian families considered themselves superior and often held an attitude of aversion toward Muslims. On the other hand, the Muslim community tended to remain within closed circles and were astute in business dealings. The rise of the Muslim community in power, population, politics, and wealth has stirred unrest among Christians and others, stemming from a sense of insecurity,” he explained.

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