Kerala: Ethnic violence in Manipur brings RSS–Church bonhomie to abrupt end
For the past three months, Joseph Pamplani, the archbishop of Thalasseri arch diocese had been a darling of the Sangh Parivar.
On March 13, when he made those controversial remarks that if rubber price is hiked to Rs 300, the BJP will have its first Lok Sabha member from Kerala, state BJP chief K Surendran was the first to pat him on the back. When the entire Opposition, especially the Left leaders, came down heavily on the bishop, the BJP leaders defended him.
Three months down the line, however, with the violence that has gone unabated in Manipur for over two months, the tone and tenor of public pronouncements of the archbishop has completely changed. Bishop Pamplani did not mince words while criticising the Union government for failing to bring peace to the strife-torn northeastern state.
He went ahead to dub the ongoing ethnic violence a “deliberate genocide”. “A deliberate genocide with government support is taking place in Manipur,” said the high priest at a press conference in Kunnur on June 29.
Jibe at PM Modi
The archbishop also took a potshot at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for making a claim during his recent US visit that there was “no question of discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, or religion” in India. Minorities of the country will no longer buy it, Pamplani said.
Interestingly, two weeks prior to this, Pamplani had cautioned the Opposition parties against using the Manipur violence for political purposes, calling it “a clash between two tribes”. An apparent reason behind Pamplani’s volte face is the widespread resentment within a section of the Christian community over the Manipur violence against the church leadership hobnobbing with the Sangh Parivar. Many of the priests had started openly expressing their displeasure.
‘Quit, if can’t protect Manipur’
After almost a month of continued violence in Manipur, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, the apex body of Catholic churches in Kerala, rose in protest against the ‘pogrom’, slamming the ruling party at the Centre and its mentor organisation RSS. The church held demonstrations across the state in protest against the state-sponsored violence in Manipur.
“Prime Minister Modiji, you should quit if you cannot protect citizens in Manipur,” priests and nuns were heard shouting political slogans such as this during the demonstrations.
Catholicos Baselios Marthoma Mathews III, the supreme head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kerala, also alleged that the Centre had failed to ease the communal strife in Manipur. Mathews III had called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently in Delhi and invited him to the church headquarters in Kerala.
End of euphoria
The recent developments are believed to have put an abrupt end to the bonhomie between the BJP and the Catholic Church in Kerala. For the BJP, it may have taken years of ground work for it to find favour with the powerful church in Kerala. The euphoria around this relationship, which reached a crescendo recently with Modi presiding over a meeting with leading bishops and Kerala BJP leaders visiting Christian homes, during last Easter, is over now.
The BJP leadership has neither made any official statement on Manipur so far nor responded to the protests by the church. There is a feeling among the community members in Kerala that even if the Manipur situation is brought under control, the pain and scar inflicted upon the Christian community there would not go away. “There should be some visible action on part of the prime minister, if any kind of reconciliation is to be real,” observes Rahul Easwar, a right leaning political commentator.
Pushed to wall
“People had started posing tough questions to us and the church was finding it difficult to answer them. So, this is for good that we finally decided to raise our voice against the attacks our brothers and sisters are facing there,” a senior priest told The Federal.
Sathyadeepam, the mouthpiece of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, went a step further while putting out a strongly worded editorial accusing the BJP-led Manipur government of supporting the genocide of Christians in the state. “Those who asserted that the discussions between the Church leaders and the prime minister in Kochi were productive are obligated to respond to this,” Satyadeepam said in its editorial.
Many political observers in the state believe that Rahul Gandhi’s Manipur visit also played a significant role in the change in the Church’s stance. The senior Congress leader, who has a tremendous following among the community members in the state, won the hearts of many church-goers by his visit, and it was evident during the Sunday mass in some churches in central Kerala last week.
Respite for Congress
The Congress and the United Democratic Front in Kerala must have heaved a sigh of relief, as it had been widely speculated that Manipur violence might have led to the erosion of the Congress’ vote base in favour of the BJP.
Congress MPs Hibi Eaden and Dean Kuriakose from Kerala were among the first to visit Manipur, even before Rahul. Jose K. Mani, the leader of Kerala Congress (M), a constituent of the LDF, also visited Manipur last week, with a delegation from Kerala.
“There is a clear agenda behind the violence in Manipur,” said Hibi. “One major complaint we heard there was the state government’s visible bias in favour of the Meitei community and some alleged that the chief minister himself encouraged the militants among them.”
With the BJP and the Christian church falling out, now the usual contenders for the Christian vote bank in central Kerala are back in the fray trying to win over the church leadership.