Jehovah’s Witnesses: All about the Christian sect with a theological difference and disposition

The probe into the Kalamassery IED blasts must go deep to understand the psychology of the incident, given its potential ramifications for the future

ByK A Shaji | V V P Sharma

Published Oct 30, 2023 | 4:30 PMUpdatedOct 30, 2023 | 4:30 PM

Jehovah's Witnesses Kerala Blast

It is perhaps the first time in recent times in India that a Christian sect, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW), is in the news for facing the brunt of supposedly an “anti-cult” activity.

Such confrontations have so far been confined mostly to the United States, the anti-cult groups including secularists, status quoists and, of course, the official investigative agencies like the FBI.

At Kalamassery in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, it was a former JW follower, Dominic Martin, who allegedly exploded an Improved Explosive Device (IED) at the venue of a JW congregation. Three have died so far, and many have been injured, some seriously.

Also read: Death toll in Kochi blasts rises to 3 with death of 12-year-old

Must ascertain attacker’s motive

Martin, who surrendered himself to the police, claimed the JW was “anti-national” and so, his violent protest. Possibly building his defence, he said he was a “non-serious” member of JW for 16 years but was reportedly offended by the group’s “anti-national” preachings. He had several other grouses against JW.

The alleged perpetrator’s current political or religious leanings are still to be established, but the incident, though isolated, certainly is worth an exhaustive probe.

Rationalist Dr NM Arun from Palakkad told South First: “It’s worrying to see that they get more members and them organising huge prayer meets. The government must ensure a close watch on such cults as they are disturbing phenomena.”

Also read: Government must control secular narrative, says CM Vijayan

American roots of the group

Jehovah’s Witnesses is a US-based religious group. Over there, its supporters call it a New Religion, and its opposers use the word cult pejoratively to describe it.

Its birth dates back to the late 19th century when a pastor, Charles Taze Russell, proposed to gather together a flock of like-minded Christians who sought the truth of “God’s Word”. He said he was “God’s Mouthpiece”. He tried to analyse the origins of Christian doctrine and traditions.

The group is today administered by a governing body in New York. Its doctrines are based on its interpretation of the Bible. It believes in Armageddon and is eager to establish “God’s Kingdom”. It claims to have over eight million members.

The JW’s India connection

The group claims to have around 60,000 members in India. Their website says they have been present in this country since 1905, initially in Mumbai and now having a considerable presence in Kerala, among other states.

Rationalist Dr Arun says: “Members of this cult predicted the end of the world at least 12 times in the last 150 years. In Kerala, they are numerically weak and invisible. So, the mainstream was never involved in any clash with them. And they have scant regard for democracy and coexistence. So, they don’t involve themselves in any social process.”

Giving details of its presence in India, the website makes an observation: “Jehovah’s Witnesses generally worship without hindrance in India. However, in some states, they have been victims of mob attacks and other acts of religious intolerance.”

They claim to “have been the target of over 150 violent mob attacks since 2002” for various reasons linked to intolerance. They don’t name the offending parties.

They insist their “tradition teaches tolerance”, adding: “Jehovah’s Witnesses in India continue to meet with government officials and to apply to the courts in order to protect their right to practice their religion freely.”

Fr Paul Thelakkat, a veteran theologian with the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, told South First: “We don’t consider them as Christians as their perspective clearly contradicts our core divine concepts, including the trinity. Across the world, Catholics are maintaining a clear distance from them and not engaging in any form of interaction with them.”

Also read: Kerala blast and mischievous links to Israel-Palestine conflict

Distinct religious and social traditions

Jehovah’s Witnesses have their distinct socio-religious traditions. They “do not venerate the cross or any other images”. They adhere to God’s “original standard of marriage”, with sexual immorality being “the only valid basis for divorce”.

They worship “the one true and Almighty God, the Creator, whose name is Jehovah. He is “the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus”.

JW regional spokesperson TA Sreekumar told South First that his organisation has never caused any disturbance to the social harmony in Kerala. “We are just using our democratic right to be a distinct religious minority. Our organisation never challenged governments or prevailing social order.”

They recognise the Bible as “God’s inspired message” to humans. While they accept the entire Bible, they are “not fundamentalists” and “recognise that parts of the Bible are written in figurative or symbolic language and are not to be understood literally”.

Jehovah's Witnesses blast in Kerala

New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures as used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. (iStock)

They honour “Jesus Christ as our Saviour and the Son of God” and “thus, we are Christians”. They have a caveat: “However, we have learned from the Bible that Jesus is not Almighty God and that there is no scriptural basis for the Trinity Doctrine”.

They have their popular Bible. It is the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. They feel it uses God’s name, is accurate and has clarity.

Fr Thelakkat asserts: “They misinterpret the Bible and mislead people. In Kerala, they are seldom visible and create unnecessary controversies like the refusal to sing the national anthem.’’

Sreekumar has a counter: “We always advocate our people to reform themselves as models capable of influencing others positively. We have no hatred or intolerance to others.”

Also read: All-party meet in Kerala resolves to battle intolerance, mistrust

The national anthem case

This group hit national headlines in 1985 when three children were expelled from a Kerala school for refusing to sing the national anthem. They stood respectfully when the morning assembly was rending the anthem but did not sing, saying it went against their faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Their father moved the Kerala High Court against the expulsion, arguing it infringed on his children’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression under Article 19 and freedom of religion under Article 25.

The high court dismissed the case, saying there was nothing in the national anthem capable of offending religious convictions.

The father went on appeal in the Supreme Court. It held that the expulsion violated the student’s rights to freedom of expression and religion and ordered the Kerala government to re-admit them to school.

The court stated that standing up silently “clearly does not prevent the singing of the national anthem or cause disturbance to an assembly engaged in such singing”.

In the course of arriving at its verdict, the court examined several civil liberties cases of JW in the West, particularly in the United States and Canada. It remarked: “Even though the religion may appear strange or even bizarre to us, the sincerity of their beliefs is beyond question.”