The camaraderie of Christians and Muslims who joined hands for the dismissal of Kerala’s first Communist government led by EMS Namboothiripad has got ruptured recently. Paradoxically, the drifting apart of Kerala’s Muslims and Christians commenced at a point when they collaborated to destroy the life of a Syrian Catholic, Prof T.J. Joseph, in 2010. The professor was then teaching Malayalam in Thodupuzha’s Newman College belonging to the diocese of Kothamangalam. In a question paper, the professor gave four sentences from a published screenplay to mark punctuations. Exam over, the college emptied out as usual, but when a Catholic priest who taught in the college went through the question paper, he smelt a rat. Within hours, copies of the question paper reached every Muslim household in Thodupuzha.
When the Church authorities got wind of the Popular Front’s plan to attack a church situated in the heart of Thodupuzha, they called up a very senior police officer. The officer’s experience of pitting the RSS and radical Muslims against each other to forestall communal violence came into play immediately. He phoned up an RSS leader of Thodupuzha and informed him that Muslims were ganging up to attack a statue of Garuda standing on a traffic island in front of the town’s Hindu temple. Some 50 RSS cadres gathered with sticks to confront the Muslim crowd. That took the steam out of the plot to attack the church. The professional acumen of a police officer thus doused a communal fire that would have swept across Kerala in no time. But matters did not end there. In Taliban-model, eight members of the Popular Front waylaid Prof Joseph as he was returning home from church with his family and chopped off his hands at the wrist. The college management dismissed the professor and did not reinstate him despite the courts declaring him not guilty, until a day before his retirement and a week after the suicide of his distressed wife.
That episode sowed the seed of Islamophobia in Kerala’s Hindus and Christians and of dislike for the hard hearted church hierarchy in the general public. Fast forward to 2020, and the Syro Malabar Synod takes everyone by surprise with this statement: “It is a reality that love jihad is happening in Kerala in a planned manner targeting Christian girls.” In 2009, the Kerala High Court had found indications of ‘forceful’ religious conversion under the garb of ‘love’ in the state. Central and state agencies investigated into the Synod’s claim of coordinated love jihad operation, but discovered no evidence to substantiate it.
That put a lid to the controversy, but it continued to simmer in those who were behind the claim. A year and a half later, Bp J. Kallarangatt read from the prepared text of a homily on 8 September 2021, “In a democratic country like ours, since it is not easy to use weapons to destroy people of other faiths, jihadis are using means which are not easily identifiable… Two of such widely-discussed means today are love jihad and narcotics jihad… they are trapping women of other faiths through love or other means.” The homily also contained passages that could be construed as a call for the economic boycott of Muslims. That instantly drove a wedge between Kerala’s Muslims and Christians, who together form some 42 % of the state’s population. And the divide it has created is widening by the day.
These moves were unwarranted, thoughtless and provocative. The alibi that the bishop was warning his faithful of an existing danger does not hold water. After a pause of ten days to find out which way public opinion was blowing stronger, the Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, came out with data that disproved the existence of organised love jihad or narcotics jihad in Kerala. That rendered the position of Bp Kallarangatt pathetic. He had no data at hand to counter it, despite the Church’s network of parishes he had at his disposal to gather them. When you make a claim that has serious social implications without hard data to back it, you lose your credibility.
Answering a question on love jihad, Loknath Behera, the outgoing DGP of Kerala, admitted that jihadis recruited Keralites during 2016-17, but timely intervention by the police prevented further such attempts. He also added that Kerala’s police system was well prepared to counter any such future moves. In the light of this statement, the bishop is now accused by some of flogging a dead horse. The general feeling is that he should have dealt with so sensitive a subject with greater caution. There were ample avenues available to him to bring his apprehension to the notice of the government and the Muslim leadership and win their cooperation to dispel it. We would expect of a bishop to exhaust them before resorting to what could be interpreted as scaremongering. While the Pope is braving thorns to cut a path to peaceful coexistence with Muslims, some are choosing the easy way of setting fire to the forest.
The BJP is fishing in troubled waters. They were the first to gather in front of the bishop’s house in Pala to raise slogans in support of the bishop, hoping against hope that what Sabarimala could not do for them, Pala will.