Saturday, October 11, 2008

Marxists and the Missionaries

Marxists and the Missionaries

The relationship between the Church and the CPI(M) in Kerala has reached an all-time low, with the Christian leadership reaching out to the Sangh for help. VR Jayaraj reports--

The Marxists and the Christian church in Kerala have never been good friends. They have forged transient friendships at times, when the situation suited them both, as had happened in 2006, leading to an arrangement which helped the CPI(M) take the Left Democratic Front (LDF) to a stunning victory in the Assembly elections. But on most other occasions, the two have remained foes.

This hostility has now reached a flashpoint, with the Church formally declaring its programme to isolate Leftists from even the smallest parish committees. Meanwhile, a 'shameless' CPI(M) is carrying out a pathetic effort to win Christian support with the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections in mind.

An unenthused Church, on the other hand, seems to prefer talking to the Sangh Parivar and Hindu sanyasis to re-establish religious bonhomie, to trusting Marxist promises. This has served as a huge setback to the poll plans devised by CPI(M)'s Kerala secretary Pinarayi Vijayan.

Vijayan had seen the anti-Christian violence in Orissa and southern Karnataka as an excellent opportunity to woo the Church in Kerala by raising pro-minority slogans. Naturally, the Marxist slogans were directed against the Sangh Parivar. Vijayan declared that the Communists alone had stood for minority rights. But the Christian clergy was not convinced. Former Archbishop Mar Joseph Powathil made this amply clear when he said that the indirect attacks (by the Marxists) in Kerala were far more dangerous than the direct attacks in Orissa.

Immediately after that, the Church took the initiative to hold a meeting between Christian heads and Sangh Parivar delegates and Hindu sanyasis to search for ways to re-establish religious harmony in Kerala and elsewhere in the backdrop of the Orissa-Karnataka incidents and the recent attacks on two churches near the Kochi international airport. Shaken by this, CPI(M) State secretary Vijayan confined his dismay to just one sentence: "Some priests are trying to whitewash the Sangh Parivar."

The Church and Marxists have had a love-hate relationship for more than 50 years. Almost always, the bone of contention has been the role of Christians in the education sector. The clergy has always claimed that Kerala "would not have been where it is now" if the Christians had not taken the pains to impart education to the Malayalees. And while for superficial purposes, the Communists agree with this point of view, Prof Joseph Mundassery, the Education Minister of the Namboodiripad Government, had other ideas in 1957. His Education Reforms Bill took away many of the powers of the Church over the educational institutions it ran. The reforms were "sweeping", and there was no way the Church could agree to this.

That was when the Church launched the famous Liberation Struggle with the help of upper caste Hindu Nairs with alleged "American funding". The Congress's young generation then found an opportunity, and the students jumped into the political whirlpool. That Liberation Struggle helped groom people like Defence Minister AK Antony, Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi and former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The struggle ended in violence, deaths and churned out a lot of historical lessons, but the Church lost absolute control over its educational institutions. That marked the start of the enmity between the Communists and Church.

The present round of battle between the CPI(M) and the Church has its roots in the LDF Government's -- more specifically CPI(M) Central Committee member and State Education Minister MA Baby's -- move to rein in the self-financing professional colleges, where the Church is a big player. A 2006 act to this effect found its way to various courts and Baby, a loyal follower of Vijayan in his neo-liberalist Marxist perspectives, faced a series of setbacks on the matter since then. Baby, who reportedly likes to be called "Second Mundassery", has made the situation so bad that other CPI(M) leaders have decided to leave the education sector alone.

Baby did not stop with the 2006 Act. He and Local Administration Minister Paloli Muhammad Kutty, another CPI(M) Central Committee member, joined hands to bring all Government-aided management schools under the control of local administration bodies which led to a stiff and immediate resistance from the Church. To complicate matters, the upper caste Hindu Nairs and Muslims -- both of whom had interests in the school sector -- formed an alliance against the move saying this was intended at "atheistisation" of the education sector. The Government tried to offer several explanations, but nothing worked. The clergy called for a holy war against the atheists, and individual Christian dioceses and parishes decided to keep the Communists away from all Church bodies. Thrissur Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazhath, known for his acid tongue and compelling oratory, even threatened a second Liberation Struggle.

Still, Baby would not stop. He refashioned the Social Science textbook for Class VII on the pedagogic model devised by Brazilian Paulo Freire. This invited further religious wrath even as the Christians, Muslims, Hindus and the CPI(M)'s political opponents found signs of Communist propaganda and atheism in the textbook. The struggle launched to demand the textbook's withdrawal is yet to end.

Perhaps the first major embarrassment the Church faced from the current bunch of Marxists came not from Baby, but from Pinarayi Vijayan himself, who made a controversial statement in an unguarded moment. The statement pertained to a dispute about whether the (late) party MLA Mathai Chacko, a "settler-Christian" who represented the Thiruvambady constituency, had received Anointment of the Sick, a religious rite, before he died of cancer. Chacko was not given a Christian funeral at a church cemetery: the Marxist party bought some land and buried him there in a clever move to develop it into a vote-churning memorial amid the colonies of Christian settlers of Thiruvamady.

Almost a year after Chacko's death, Mar Paul Chittilappally, Bishop of the Thamarassery diocese, under which Thiruvambady came, exploded a political bomb saying that the MLA had died after receiving Anointment of the Sick. The Marxist party took this as an affront, an effort to throw mud over the memory of the soul of a puritan Marxist -- a sworn materialist all through his life. Pinarayi Vijayan, at a public function, said that Mar Chittilappally, who had tried to spread "lies" about Mathai Chacko, was a "disgusting creature".Naturally, the Church was offended. This harmed Vijayan's reputation among the prelates, with whom he had stood in very difficult times when the Church-run Divine Retreat Centre at Thrissur was facing several criminal cases, including charges of murder and rape.

Vijayan had several occasions to recant, but his ego would not allow that. The CPI(M), as a disciplined party, stood behind him even as the different Christian dioceses of Kerala held Faith Protection Rallies against the party. Vijayan continued to justify what he had said about Mar Chittilappally, smug in the knowledge that an election was more than two years away. Now, with parliamentary elections coming, Vijayan is trying to woo back the Church.

These developments helped the Church heads consolidate their position among the believers, who had in the beginning been a little suspicious of the ways of the priests. For, there was a time when the laity had complaints against the priests, who were allegedly enjoying the high life with the money of the poor. There were even suspicions that the clergy was holding protests against the Government just to protect their financial interests. Now, the anti-Church actions of the Marxists have led to a situation where the faithful have lost their suspicions to a great extent.

With the elections round the corner, the CPI(M) finds itself trapped in one of the worst situations in its history. The upper caste Hindu votes, which the party had always won through carefully designed strategies, are not assured this time thanks to the administrative confusion the Government has created in the case of all big temples. There is no guarantee that the Muslims would vote for the LDF en masse as they had done in the 2006 Assembly polls, despite efforts to woo them through gimmicks like the move to implement the Sachar Committee recommendations.

The farmers are a disillusioned lot due to the inefficiency of the Government in the sector. The opposition from Dalits and backward classes is immense due to the Government's anti-poor stand on land issues.

The common people, who do not attach much importance to the Cross, the Trident or the Crescent Moon, are totally opposed to the Government for hiking the price of every essential commodity and service: power, bus, taxi/ auto, water, rice and milk, to name a few.

There is also much discontent and concern among the working classes due to the CPI(M)'s pro-liberal stand on issues like Special Economic Zones. In such a situation, the compulsion is huge on the CPI(M) to somehow bring the Church back to its fold.

It was in this context that Vijayan had begun to play the anti-Sangh Parivar card and condemn the attacks against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. The attack on two churches near Kochi international airport on the night of September 20 had come as a 'godsend' for the CPI(M) in such a situation. Vijayan was quick to accuse the Sangh Parivar of having a role in the attack. But before a week was out, the Church let it be known that it was not interested in being friends with the Marxists. Instead, it sent an invite to the Sangh Parivar and the heads of Hindu ashrams to sit together to discuss ways to re-establish religious harmony.

They all agreed on the most important point: that religious conversions through force and temptation were the basic reason for the current hatred between the communities.

There ended the Marxist dream of cashing on the Hindu-Christian conflicts.

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