April 16, 2023

BJP’s Cynical Approach towards Christians in Kerala

THE visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi on Easter day was notable, as it was his first visit to a church since becoming prime minister over nine years ago. On the same day, Easter Sunday, BJP leaders conducted an outreach in different places by visiting church leaders and houses of Christians to greet them on Easter.

This sudden turn towards Christians has surprised many, but the motivation for this move was indicated by Modi himself.  While addressing a meeting at the BJP headquarters to celebrate the election results in three north-eastern states, Modi highlighted how the BJP had succeeded in Christian-dominated Meghalaya and Nagaland and claimed that it was a signal that the BJP had become acceptable to the Christian community; he declared that the next target of the BJP would be Kerala.  The claim about Christian support in Meghalaya and Nagaland was itself hollow, because the BJP could win only two seats out of 60 in the former and was a junior partner in the ruling coalition in the latter.

The BJP has been striving, without much success, to establish itself in Kerala, a state where Muslims and Christians constitute 45 per cent of the population.  Realising that it cannot make any headway among the Muslim population, the BJP has been trying to gain some influence among the Christians, who constitute 18 per cent of the population.

For this, it has adopted a two-pronged approach: firstly, it has sought to fan anti-Muslim feelings amongst the Christian community, particularly the Catholic church known as the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala. In the recent period, some church leaders have spoken against ‘love jihad’ and a fringe Christian front organisation was floated, which conducts anti-Muslim propaganda and cooperates with certain RSS front organisations.  The BJP-RSS hopes to benefit from a Christian-Muslim divide.

The other prong is the tried and tested method used by the Modi government to intimidate and subdue anyone who does not fall in line with the BJP-RSS politics.  Kerala has seen investigations by the Enforcement Directorate against leaders of various church denominations like Bishop Dharma Raj, the moderator of the Church of South India and other religious leaders like KP Yohannan and Paul Dinakaran. 

The highest leader of the Catholic Church, Cardinal George Alencherry, Archbishop of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese is now being probed by the Enforcement Directorate.  It has filed a money laundering case against him over alleged irregularities in the sale of properties belonging to the Archdiocese. 

Pressure is also being mounted through the stringent Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) by which the foreign funding received by churches for charitable and educational work is sought to be cutoff.

It is after “softening up” leaders of various churches through such methods that now apart from threats, blandishments are offered.  Modi’s visit to the cathedral and the outreach of BJP leaders to church leaders in Kerala must be seen in this context.  The BJP hopes that this mailed fist in a soft glove approach will help them to penetrate the Christian community.  But this dubious charade in Kerala stands in glaring contrast to what is happening to Christians under BJP rule in the rest of India. 

Ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014, there has been a steady increase in the attacks on Christian places of worship and the Christian community.  The hostility and violence against the Christians originate in the RSS ideology, which views both Muslims and Christians as alien to Hindu society, and the second RSS sarsanghchalak, MS Golwalkar, talked about three internal threats – Muslims, Christians and Communists.

The Christian population in India constitutes a tiny minority and it has been declining over the decades. In 1971, it was 2.53 per cent, in 1991 – 2.43 per cent, in 2001 – 2.34 per cent and in the last Census in 2011, it came down to 2.30 per cent. This small minority is under siege now in many parts of the country. 

According to the United Christian Forum (UCF), the survey it conducted showed attacks on Christians reached a peak in 2022. There were 598 cases of violence against Christians in 21 states.  The steady increase in the acts of violence against Christians can be seen by the fact that in 2018, there were 292 incidents, in 2019, there were 328 cases and in 2020, there was a dip with 279 cases due to the Covid pandemic and lockdown.  The cases shot up in 2021 when 505 incidents occurred. 

The last quarter of 2022 saw widespread attacks against Christian adivasis in Chhattisgarh.  Under the name of Janjati Suraksha Manch, which has been set-up by various frontal organisations of the RSS, a vicious anti-Christian campaign has been conducted resulting in widespread attacks and violence in three districts of southern Chhattisgarh. Thousands of Christians were forced to leave their villages because of the violence and various forms of social boycott enforced on them.  A comprehensive report on the attacks on Christian tribals in Chhattisgarh prepared by a CPI(M) delegation which visited the areas has been published.

The attacks on Christian tribals in Chhattisgarh must also be seen in the context of the campaign being conducted by the RSS-led adivasi organisations, who are demanding that Christian adivasis be delisted from the Scheduled Tribe reservation.  They claim that those who had converted to Christianity amongst tribals cannot be entitled to reservation.  The implications of this demand are huge.  For instance, many of the tribal communities in the north-east are Christians and this demand of the RSS would deprive them of their ST status. 

The other form of attack on Christians is to accuse them of forcible religious conversion.  In Karnataka, which is next door to Kerala, the BJP government has pushed through a draconian anti-conversion act titled ‘The Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act’, which was adopted in September 2022. This law has draconian provisions by which churches and priests can be arrested on nebulous charges of forcible conversion based on complaints by persons even outside the family circle of a converted person.  Various denominations of churches in the state have been unitedly protesting against this law and have now gone to court for redressal.

In Kerala, due to the relentless pressure of the BJP rulers at the centre, some church leaders have caved in and compromised such as Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of the Thalasseri Archdiocese.  Even Cardinal George Alencherry, whose petition in the Supreme Court to quash the criminal cases against him was rejected recently, came out on Easter Sunday in an interview stating that Modi is “a good leader” and that Christians are not insecure under BJP rule. 

It would be a mistake to view these statements by certain church leaders as expressing the views of the church and the community as a whole.  Some sections of the Catholic Church have countered the views of Pamplany. Christians in Kerala are very much part of the secular fabric, which has got deeply embedded in Kerala society. They are aware of the anti-Christian nature of the BJP-RSS and the lived experience of Christians all around the country. The Left movement and the Left Democratic Front in Kerala can be trusted to do everything necessary to counter this manoeuvre of the BJP and the Hindutva forces. 

(April 12, 2023)