A dark cloud in Kerala’s sky of communal harmony

The remarks made recently by Mar Joseph Kallarangatt, the Bishop of the Catholic diocese of Pala in Kerala on “narcotic jihad” have caused a major controversy. In a speech at a church in Kuravilangad in the State’s Kottayam district, he had said that Christians ought to be vigilant against “narcotic jihad”, allegedly an organised effort to destroy the lives of non-Muslims by getting them addicted to narcotic drugs.

Pala is one of the dioceses of the Syro-Malabar church in Kerala. Soon after the bishop’s speech, some nuns from Kuravilangad accused another Christian priest of delivering a hate speech against Muslims, asking nuns not to buy vegetables from Muslims or travel in autorickshaws driven by them. The nuns reacted by walking out of the mass. In their comments to the media, four nuns expressed their disapproval of the communal remarks made by the priest and the bishop. “Christ did not teach us to sow communalism,” one of the nuns said.


Uptick in polarising rhetoric

The claim about “narcotics jihad” comes on top of the long-standing allegation by the church authorities that there is a “love jihad” in Kerala, allegedly an organised effort to lure non-Muslim women into marrying Muslim men and converting to Islam. Investigations by agencies, including the National Investigation Agency, have found no evidence to support this claim.

These incidents are part of a definite uptick in anti-Muslim rhetoric by some sections among Christians in Kerala in the recent months. Earlier this year, when Israel bombed Gaza following the forcible eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, some Christian social media handles (in Malayalam) came up with vicious propaganda against Palestinians and Muslims. Videos with outright falsehoods about the history of Palestine and Israel were circulated. They completely ignored the fact that Palestinian Christians, being victims of Israeli brutalities as much as other Palestinians, are very much part of the resistance against Israeli occupation.

More recently, there was the demand that the name ‘Eesho’ (Jesus) given to an upcoming movie be changed, with the film-makers facing intense hate speech from fringe groups. Meanwhile, booklets with anti-Muslim rhetoric are being distributed by the Syro-Malabar church authorities in several parts of Kerala; most notable among these being a booklet by the Thamarassery diocese. There are media reports that following protests, the diocese has expressed regret.


All these militate against the long-standing tradition of Kerala as a place where people of different religions have lived peacefully and in cooperation with one another. Working people’s movements, governments, and society in general have by and large focused on material concerns, which made significant improvements in human development and living standards possible, while the religious communities of the State co-existed in harmony. Christians — among whom levels of education and prosperity are the highest among Kerala’s religious communities — have been an integral part of this process. But these recent developments, if left unchecked, do threaten to unravel the path to further progress.

The virulent messages propagated by some major religious figures in the Christian community, and amplified by social media, are cause for concern. What is it that has changed in the recent past that has provided the backdrop for these outbursts?


Strong causative factors

An important, but under-appreciated, factor relates to the economic conditions that provide a fertile breeding ground for communal hatred. Trade liberalisation has hit plantation agriculture (most importantly, rubber) hard. India joining the World Trade Organisation in 1995 and a Free Trade Agreement (which came into effect from 2010 onwards) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were followed by bouts of decline for the real prices (prices adjusted for inflation) of rubber. Christians constitute a large section of peasants who cultivate plantation crops, and these price crashes have meant that many of them have found their economic conditions stagnating or deteriorating. Two consecutive years of intense floods in Kerala (in 2018 and 2019) and the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis that followed — damaging livelihoods across the globe — have not made things easier. In such circumstances, hate-mongering, which blames other communities for hardships, finds a lot of takers. Those who have something to gain by polarising people on communal lines find it easier to train their guns on other communities rather than on deleterious economic policies.

Also read | Senior priest differs with Bishop on jihad remark

The pandemic has had some peculiar effects on the church authorities. Protracted periods of lockdowns and restrictions on the number of people in church gatherings have meant that church attendance has fallen steeply. Apart from adversely affecting church revenues, these developments seem to have caused a feeling of insecurity among some sections of the clergy who feel that the faithful are slipping away from their influence. In this context, fiery rhetoric that polarises communities while seeking to consolidate their own followers would be a ploy to bring the flock back to their own orbit.

At the same time, more people have taken to attending church services using television and the Internet. This has exposed the laity more than ever to the algorithms of social media, where provocative content tends to get more traction. The number of views for a video is likely to go up if its content is more inflammatory and provokes more comments. This algorithm of hatred, in turn, has meant that many video creators, including some clergy, end up believing that such videos are the need of the hour.


The shadow of politics

The weakening of the Indian National Congress — which the Catholic church authorities in Kerala have traditionally favoured — seems to have accentuated the insecurities of the church leadership, and a section of the church authorities could be seen as aligning their positions more in line with that of the Hindutva forces.

Certainly, the actions and positions of some communal organisations have served to increase tensions. Notable among these were the horrific attack in 2010 on a college lecturer, T.J. Joseph, by the Islamist fundamentalist Popular Front of India, and the endorsement by some Muslim communal organisations of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conversion of the historic Hagia Sophia in Turkey into a mosque. But responding to communalism with communalism has a self-propelling dynamic — the shriller the communal rhetoric from one community, the more it strengthens communal forces in other communities.

Peace appeals

For the sake of Christians themselves and that of society in general, the Catholic clergy must return to a position of reason and restraint. Many Catholic and non-Catholic Christians — apart from others — have urged a walk back from preaching hatred.

Also read | Religious fervour migrating to minority politics: CPI(M)

A former spokesperson of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council is among those who have criticised the Pala bishop’s statement. A bishop of the Orthodox church has cautioned against church leaders getting trapped in the Sangh Parivar’s design to divide minority communities, while a bishop of the Jacobite church has said that the altar should not be used to propagate the politics of hatred. In a joint press conference recently, a bishop of the Church of South India and the President of the Kerala Muslim Youth Federation called for peace.

It is heartening that sane voices are fighting back. It is a battle they must win to save the soul of Kerala as a society where religious communities live in harmony and prosper together.

Subin Dennis is an economist at Tricontinental Research. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 5:44:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-dark-cloud-in-keralas-sky-of-communal-harmony/article36526042.ece

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