Kerala: On 10 September, Joseph Kallarangatt, the Bishop of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala’s Pala town, warned Christian women of the threat of “narcotics jihad”, which according to him involved “jihadis” entrapping the women through drugs.
It’s been weeks since his remark and a subsequent clarification by the Pala diocese, but the controversy surrounding it refuses to die down.
Last Wednesday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan held a press conference, in which he dismissed any connection between narcotics and ‘jihad’. “Such campaigns would tantamount to sowing seeds of hatred in a state like Kerala where people from all communities live together,” he said.
But Vijayan’s statement came after the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) as well as critics repeatedly accused the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government of “playing it safe” on the matter, and not taking a strong and unequivocal position against it from day one.
The CPI(M) had initially even suggested that the bishop’s intentions were not to “create enmity”.
That didn’t go down well with the UDF, which is concerned by the emerging rift between its two strong vote-banks.
The BJP, meanwhile, has explicitly backed the bishop’s statement, with its state leaders even writing to PM Modi requesting protection for the bishop in light of the protests against him.
CPM on backfoot, accused of ‘muted reaction’
In his first reaction against the Pala bishop’s remarks, the CM on 10 September said the problem of narcotics in the state does not have “religious hues”. He added that the context of the bishop’s statement wasn’t clear, but that people in positions of responsibility should ensure there are “no religious schisms” in society.
Days later, however, the CM said the statement wasn’t meant to create enmity, before ruling out any action against the bishop, since the remark was part of a sermon from the pulpit to believers, and not a public statement.
The CPI(M)’s troubles were compounded by a leaflet, prepared by the party, which warned of alleged increasing attempts “to lure educated young women to extremism” at professional colleges. The leaflet, which was distributed among its cadres at its local meetings across various districts of the state, was slammed for pandering to the “love jihad” narrative.
“We kept insisting that the CM must hold an all-party and all-religion heads meet in order to pacify the situation and not let it boil over. But the CM refused to do so. They kept tip-toeing around the matter. Their initial reaction was very meek,” V.D. Satheeshan, Congress leader and the Leader of Opposition in the Kerala assembly, told ThePrint.
What has further complicated matters for the CPI(M) is that its newest ally, the Kerala Congress (M), endorsed the Pala bishop’s statement with its leader, Jose K. Mani, saying the priest was only pointing out “social dangers”.
The Kerala Congress (M) had broken off its alliance with the UDF ahead of the 2021 assembly polls, and had joined the LDF, which was seen as an advantage for the latter, as the KC (M) is the predominant Christian party of the state.
Under continued pressure to take a stronger stance against the bishop, the CM Wednesday not only urged the clergyman to rectify his statement, but also presented data to show how no religious group is connected with drug peddling.
CPI(M) politburo member M.A. Baby denied there being any duplicity in the party’s reaction.
“The CM has categorically said narcotics should not be connected to religion. All of us stand by his statement,” Baby told ThePrint.
UDF at risk of its minorities’ vote-bank being further dented
Fearing a growing rift between the Christian and Muslim community, the UDF has taken a strong position against the bishop’s remarks.
With 26 per cent Muslims and 18 per cent Christians, both communities make for a significant chunk of the voter base in Kerala. Both the minorities have traditionally supported the Congress-IUML coalition.
In the April 2021 assembly polls, however, there was a shift in both communities towards the LDF. According to Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey data, nearly two-fifths Muslims and Christians voted for the LDF in 2021, a significant increase when compared to the one-third of both communities siding towards the LDF in the 2016 elections.
Speaking to ThePrint, M.K. Muneer, IUML leader and former social welfare minister conceded that “minorities are moving away from UDF”.
“This is because of the intense propaganda of the CPM. It’s only because the CPM believes in good optics,” Muneer said. “They will make strong statements against the CAA to appease the Muslim community, but they are not doing anything on ground for their empowerment.”
He further said that the CPI(M)’s “meek reaction” to the Pala bishop’s statement shows where the party “truly stands”. “They believe in political posturing, and want to make both communities happy without really doing anything for either,” he said.
‘Parties not taking on the bishop’
Experts said the LDF is likely to benefit from this concerted effort to “target and polarise the minorities”.
“Both Christians and Muslims are the backbone of the UDF. Polarisation among the two communities will only help the LDF as they will be able to chip away at the UDF’s two loyal vote-banks,” said political analyst G. Pramod Kumar.
But Kumar added that the Congress hasn’t taken on the bishop either, and is merely trying to “play peacemaker”.
“The UDF finds itself in a fix because they wouldn’t want to estrange either of the two communities. So while they want to seem like they are standing with Muslims, they are only speaking in a language of brokering peace, as opposed to confronting the bishop aggressively,” he said, adding that “except for the BJP, every party has tried to shove this matter under the rug”.
The Congress showed fissures of its own political position on the matter.
On Sunday, former finance minister P. Chidambaram wrote an article in The Indian Express slamming the Pala bishop for his stance, which invited the contempt of Kerala Congress president K. Sudhakaran, who said the KPCC was handling the matter and “outsiders need not aggravate the situation”.
‘Nothing wrong in what he said’: BJP backs bishop
The BJP has thrown its weight behind the Pala bishop’s remarks, given that it is in line with the party’s politics in the state.
The party had promised a law against “love jihad” in Kerala in its 2021 assembly election manifesto.
Speaking to ThePrint, K. Surendran, BJP Kerala president, said they are in “full support” of the bishop.
“This is not a new phenomenon. All over the world, the nexus between drug mafia and terror organisations is clear,” he said. “So the government needs to inquire and study what the Pala bishop has said; they shouldn’t be suppressing his opinion. There is nothing wrong in what he said.”
But even with the BJP, it’s not a coherent voice. The SNDP, an NDA ally and a prominent Hindu Ezhava party, has spoken against the “love jihad” narrative, saying it’s the Christians who are at the “forefront of conversions”.
Vellappally Natesan, general secretary of the party, said this in response to a comment by a Bishop Roy Kannanchira who accused Hindu Ezhavas of luring Christian women. Natesan not only hit back at the priest for his remark on Ezhavas, but also attacked Pala bishop for his “love jihad” comments. Bishop Kannanchira subsequently apologised for his remarks.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)