Kerala bishop’s comment on martyrs stirs up a row

With his overt support for the BJP and the RSS, Archbishop Pamplany has courted controversy in the past also


The Metropolitan Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Tellicherry has sparked a political row in Kerala with a statement denigrating political martyrs, which the ruling Left and the opposition Congress-led UDF have strongly objected to.

Mar Joseph Pamplany of the Archdiocese of Tellicherry, one of the five Archeparchies of the Syro Malabar Church in Kerala, is no ordinary priest in the ranks of the Syro Malabar Catholic denomination.

The boundaries of the Thalassery ecclesiastical province are extended to Mangalore, Chickmagalur, Mysore and Shimoga in Karnataka and Ootty in Tamil Nadu.

He was chosen by the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church to succeed Mar George Njaralakatt as the Auxiliary Bishop of Tellicherry on January 15, 2022.

Joseph Pamplany, however, is no stranger to controversy; in fact, most of his overt political stances have a rightwing political leaning, particularly when it comes to Kerala’s Left-leaning political parties.

Controversial remark

The Archbishop was speaking at celebrations organized by the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM), Thalassery Archdiocese, at Cherupuzha in Kannur when he made the controversial statement.

Referring to the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, he said they were not like the political martyrs of the current times “who died getting into unnecessary quarrels or slipping from barricades while fleeing from the police after a demonstration”.

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Even though he did not name any political party, it was well meant to be against the ruling CPI(M), which has a string of martyrs which it reveres highly.

No wonder the CPI(M) leaders were the quickest to react to the Archbishop’s statement.

The Bishop may have had in mind the RSS or BJP workers who possess the tendency he alluded to, according to the party’s district secretary for Kannur and former MLA M V Jayarajan. Mahatma Gandhi as well as the communist martyrs perished for the good of the people, while the RSS and BJP were always on the opposing side, he said.

It is not surprising that Archbishop Pamplany targeted the martyrs, said P Jayarajan, another CPI(M) leader and ex-MLA from the district. This particular priest does not have the support of his own people, quipped Jayarajan, who is considered a ‘living martyr’ by his party after surviving a brutal attack by RSS workers in 1999 nearly severing his arms.

BJP support

It is interesting that K Surendran, the state president of the BJP, came out in favour of the Archbishop and directed his criticism at the CPI-M leadership in no time.

“Both the LDF and the UDF are attacking the Archbishop for voicing concerns against their politics of violence,” said Surendran. The CPI-M has the habit of painting anyone and everyone as martyrs, and the bishop was pointing out the same, added Surendran.

Even though the Archbishop toned down his criticism of the martyrs, saying his words were taken out of context, no official clarification was issued.

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With his overt support for the BJP and the RSS, Archbishop Pamplany had courted controversy in the past also. His offer to vote for the BJP if the price of rubber was raised to Rs 300 had created a political stir in March. Later the church had to issue a clarification.

The Archbishop, however, has not climbed down from his stance even though he tried to soften it saying that he did not intend a particular party.

The CPI(M) mouthpiece Deshabhimani had come up with an expose that the Archbishop was in touch with BJP-RSS leaders before he made that controversial statement. However, the party’s state leadership chose not to react further, given that they are in alliance with Kerala Congress (Mani), which is a pro-Church party having deep roots in the Christian belt of the central Kerala.

Murmurs in Church

There was dissatisfaction among the Catholic church also over Joseph Pamplany often making overtly political remarks. His earlier statements had drawn criticism from Sathyadeepam, the magazine run by Kerala’s Catholic church, for “oversimplifying” the issues facing farmers and limiting the definition of “farmer” to only include those who grow rubber.

The editorial in the March 29 issue of Sathyadeepam objected to the archbishop’s remarks and claimed that they had done more harm than good for the cause of farmers.

A week ago, Ajimon Puthiyaparambil, a 46-year-old priest created shock among the Church when he announced his resignation from active ministry in the Church, citing the “general decay” in the organisation that drifts away from Jesus in a letter to the faithful in a couple of parishes he had been serving. According to the priest, the Church suffers from moral turpitude and lack of financial transparency. “There are court cases against bishops and many of them openly indulge in political alliance,” he added, implying to the Church’s political hobnobbing with the rightwing.

With the Lok Sabha elections in mind, the BJP and RSS are making every effort to win over the Christian community in Kerala. These overtures included everything from the prime minister’s Easter Sunday Church visit to the covert blessings for a political group of Christians led by former MLA Johnny Nellore and others.

But following the widespread violence in Manipur and attacks against churches, those pushing for a tactical alliance with the BJP were left without a voice.

Marxists, Congress

A section of leaders in both CPI(M) and the Congress suspect an RSS agenda behind the Bishop’s slur against the martyrs. “Archbishop Pamplany has been maintaining relationship with the RSS and BJP leaders. They had been in touch with them that day before he made that controversial statement about giving votes for the BJP. It cannot be ruled out that he has some ulterior political moves in association with the Sangh Parivar,” a CPI(M) leader told The Federal.

“We have seen Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, endorsing the Union government saying that Christians do not feel insecure in this country,” he added.

After Joseph Pamplany’s remarks on martyrs, the leaders of The Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (CASA), a Kerala-based radical Christian movement, defended him. CASA leader Stanley Sebastian even said on a television debate that they are waiting for a whistle from Delhi and Nagpur to spring into action.

(With Agency inputs)