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Why Kerala’s Christians love, fear BJP

Updated on: 17 June,2024 06:54 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

It is the followers of the Syro-Malabar Church, the community’s elite in state, who believe an alliance with Hindutva can check Muslims from politically and economically overtaking them

Why Kerala’s Christians love, fear BJP

St Paul’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala’s Thrissur district

Ajaz AshrafGeorge Kurian did not contest the recent Lok Sabha elections, yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi included him in the Union Council of Ministers. Hailed as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Christian face in Kerala, Kurian is an argument for convincing the community to repose their faith in the party notorious for attacking churches, and assaulting priests and the laity countrywide.

The BJP must act against its Hindutva instinct in Kerala because of its demography—Hindus are 55 per cent, Muslims 27 per cent and Christians 18 per cent of the population. Since the BJP-Muslim relationship is too broken to be repaired, the party must weld a segment of Christians to its expanding base among the Hindus in order to emerge as a contender for power in Kerala.

It is from this demographic matrix Kurian’s importance arises. But herein lies a catch: Kerala’s Christian community is not homogenous. Kurian belongs to the Syro-Malabar Church, one of the three Catholic Churches there. The other two are Latin rite Church and the Syro-Malankara Church. All three differ in rituals of worship and in their relationship with the Pope.

Class also differentiates them. The followers of the Latin Church largely belong to marginalised communities. Categorised as a backward class, they have a four per cent quota in government jobs and educational institutes. By contrast, the followers of Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches are socially and educationally advanced, own land and educational institutes, and constitute an important segment of both professional and business classes.

They claim they are Brahmins who converted to Christianity centuries ago, and have what sociologists would call the “mentality of the upper castes.” Their worldview and the BJP’s have a natural fit, defined by their engagement to perpetuate the social hierarchy. Significantly, Syro-Malabar Christians are numerically the most dominant of all Christian dominations.

The BJP’s Christian policy in Kerala is not benign. I spoke on this issue to former principal of St Stephen’s College, Valson Thampu, who said a “canard” has been systematically spread that the Christians, particularly the followers of Syro-Malabar Church, have been facing an “existential threat from a hostile and conspiring Muslim community” intent on politically and economically marginalising them.

The other prong of the BJP’s strategy has been the Enforcement Directorate’s raids on a couple of bishops—Dharmaraj Rasalam of the Church of South India, and K P Yohanan of the Believers Eastern Church—which alarmed the community of church leaders. Several of them are, indeed, guilty of serious economic irregularities, Thampu said, adding, “They understood that they need the BJP’s goodwill to save their skin. Call this patronage-and-blackmail politics, if you will.”

Even George Alencherry, the previous head of the Syro-Malabar Church, was accused of being involved in a land scam, and was visited by tax officials. The Syro-Malabar Church has spoken in conflicting voices, with bishops as scared of the raids as smitten by the BJP’s outreach. Some have openly signalled their preference for Modi and others have opposed their views.

Yet the bishops’ fear of the State alone cannot explain the growing inclination of Syro-Malabar Christians towards the BJP. For instance, Union Minister Suresh Gopi could not have won without the support of Syro-Malabar Christians from Thrissur, where they have a substantial presence. Their shift toward the BJP is partly an expression of their economic insecurity arising from falling agricultural prices. They feel the BJP’s quest to expand in Kerala will have it promote their interests.

But it is also about anxiety dogging Syro-Malabar Christians as they watch Muslims, lower to them in the economic hierarchy, leverage their 12 per cent reservation entitlement and deploy their capital, largely accumulated in the Gulf, to advance both educationally and economically. Like the upper castes of north India, Syro-Malabar Christians rail against reservation and believe they are discriminated against.

Their ire is reserved particularly for the Special Minority Programme, which assigns 80 per cent of scholarships to Muslim students and 20 per cent to “other minorities.” Church leaders say since Muslims are 60 per cent of Kerala’s religious minorities, the allocation to other minorities should be 40 per cent. The Kerala High Court ruled against the 80:20 formula, but the government went in appeal against the judgement. Church leaders attribute this to “vote bank politics,” which they believe only the BJP can dismantle.

In this environment of competition and anxiety, many Syro-Malabar Christians have fallen for the bogus theory of love jihad. One Syro-Malabar Christian leader estimated that two to three per cent of “their girls” in every parish are married to Muslims. To this, a journalist-friend remarked, “The incidence of inter-faith marriage is rising among all communities. There is love, but no jihad.”

The inclination of Syro-Malabar Christians towards the BJP perturbs Christians outside the state. The United Christian Forum, a civil society group, maintains a helpline for community members to report attacks from Hindutva groups. Its national coordinator A C Michael said the helpline recorded 117 incidents of attacks on Christians in 2015. This number jumped to 731 in 2023. “It dismays me that Syro-Malabar Christians should lean towards the BJP, oblivious of attacks on the community elsewhere.” But then, elite groups are always open to unconscionable political bargains, even in God’s own country.

The writer is a senior journalist.
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