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Orissa Backlash in Faraway Kerala

By: R.Sajan
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Kerala has the largest number of Christians accounting for 20 per cent of its population, constituting 26 per cent of the total population of Christians in the country. Nowhere else but in Kerala might the backlash of the Orissa violence be strong enough to create never-before communal schism. That Kerala priests and nuns proselytizing in Orissa are directly involved and affected is unfortunately not the reason, though.

The Catholic Church in Kerala has been finding itself very unpopular ever since it gave a call for a "vimochana samaram" or Liberation Struggle against the LDF government in the State. Government"s half-hearted initiatives to curb unreasonable profiteering by Church-owned educational institutions had provoked the call. Such call had worked in 1959 to pull down the State"s first Communist ministry. Things however, are different fifty years thence and the princes of the Church were aghast when the faithful themselves came out on the street against clerical avarice.

Driven to the wall, the Church managers chose offence as best defence and began a negative campaign against the CPM "to protect God". They however, chose wrong issues like the Textbook affair, in which a new Social Studies textbook of the Seventh Standard was alleged to be anti-religion. The UDF led by the Congress immediately took up the Church"s cause and the student wing of its constituent the IUML, burned a truck-load of the textbooks at Malappuram. This was soon condemned by even Moslem organisations because the burnt lot also contained Arabic textbooks with the holy Qur"an verses therein. The campaign was further muddied when Moslem students beat up and killed a Christian Headmaster, while trying to break up a teachers" conference called by the Education department. The UDF and the IUML thereafter found it tough to save their face and gave up the campaign.

Similar was the furore against the State Women"s Commission"s comment that recruitment of nuns should not be allowed till the girls were at least 18, after it received complaints from parents of many young Catholic nuns. The KPCC President Ramesh Chennithala went furious at it, demanding the resignation of the Commission and alleging that the Chairperson was not sound of mind. After the stunning defeat to the Assembly two years ago, the UDF badly needs a passably good show in the Parliament elections in a few months. The Christian vote bank is crucial to this. That Oommen Chandy, A.K.Anthony and P.P.Thankachan, all Christians are the men that matter in the State Congress, with Sonia Gandhi at the top might also be reason for the party"s supplication to the Church.

In between, added attention on the Church [this was more due to the militant tones of the representative-clergy on TV than anything else] caused re-kindling of interest in the Sr. Abhaya murder case in which the Church has been accused of successfully impeding the course of law for 16 years. It was soon revealed in the High Court that even the CBI reluctantly investigating the case had been made to mess with evidence by suppressing the CDs of the narco-analysis tests conducted on the suspected priests and nun.

But worse was still to come in the form of the suicide of 22 year old Sr. Anoopa at the Port Kollam convent on 11th August. In her suicide note, the nun had accused her Mother Superior of driving her to suicide. The next day, all hell broke loose when the nun"s father, himself the Bishop"s cook came out with the story of the older nun"s sexually abusing the young nun and causing the suicide.

The Church is hard put to explain its side of the issue in the scandal. As usual, the clergy and the selected representatives of the laity plead an LDF conspiracy behind the controversy. As with Sr. Abhaya, charges of mental illness were hurled at the family of Sr. Anoopa also. The investigation in the case is on and the Mother Superior has sought anticipatory bail.

It is in these times of high embarrassment that the Orissa incidents have come as a heaven-send within ten days of the Anoopa suicide. The pro-Church and pro-UDF section of the media now try their best to portray the travails of Kerala nuns and priests in Orissa. They are described as hiding in the forests sheltering orphan children without food and water, even as they talk live to the TV anchors on phone. Bands of murderous Hindus roam in search of them. That clashes which result in a death toll on both sides involve Christians on one side is suppressed.

On the Kerala TV channels, the defenders of the Christian faith and the saints of secularism spit fire. The pious priests talk of Hindus killing meek Christians and driving them into the woods for safety. The plight of the orphans being saved by the missionaries is highlighted. As against this, the BJP politicians who are permitted little time to explain, come out diffident to speak out in Christian-dominated Kerala. That there had been ten earlier attempts on the life of the murdered VHP leader is only suggested and not argued by them, while the Christian and Congress spokesmen repeatedly mention a Hindu genocide of Christians.

It might be that the BJP, VHP and the RSS in the State have enough in their hands already, being made to defend themselves against the Moslem NDF and the CPM, both of whom treat them as common enemy. It would as such be too much to have the Christians also against them daggers drawn . Nevertheless, the State BJP"s keeping its steam low and its rebuttals subdued is preventing an escalation of violent feelings.

But not so the Christian spokespeople. In their anxiety to shift attention from the scandals and re-consolidate a disillusioned and sceptic following, they are being careless in their tone and in their vocabulary. In a place like Kerala where such talk has never been even in the pre-TV times, these men of the robe are letting themselves off with abandon, little realising that they might be igniting fatal fires in a peaceful region. They that take the sword...


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