Manipur violence and UCC push leave pro-BJP Christian leaders in Kerala miffed; Church-BJP ties hit

Church leaders Alencherry and Pamplany have made volte-face, holding the BJP responsible for the continuing bloodbath in Manipur.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jun 30, 2023 | 12:50 PMUpdatedJun 30, 2023 | 12:50 PM

Mar Joseph Pamplany, the Archbishop of Thalassery, wearing the traditional farmers' cap. (Supplied).

The Union government’s purported move to draft a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the unabated ethnic violence in Manipur seem to have thrown a spanner in the BJP’s efforts to woo the Christian minority in Kerala.

Widely perceived as one of the key Church figures backing the BJP, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Thalassery diocese of the influential Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Mar Joseph Pamplany, likened the Manipur violence to the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.

Four months ago, Pamplany had promised the BJP that the Christian community in Kerala would ensure it won one Lok Sabha seat in the state if the Union government ensured minimum support price of ₹300 for natural rubber.

The BJP has never won a Lok Sabha seat from Kerala, and currently does not have a single MLA in the 140-member Kerala Assembly.

Related: Will Kerala’s rubber politics take Christian community closer to BJP?

What the archbishop said

“Being the party in power at the Centre, the BJP can decide the policy. The rubber-growing families are getting only ​₹120 per kg for the product​. The production cost is estimated to be ​₹​220. If the Centre ensures ₹300 per kg of rubber, the farmers affiliated with us will ensure an MP for the BJP from the state,” he said in early March.

“The farmers would vote for any political formation if they receive a minimum support price of ₹300 per kg for natural rubber​,” he said while addressing a meeting of Christin farmers.

On Thursday, 29 June, Pamplany had changed his tune, and was training his guns on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Manipur’s Chief Minister N Biren Singh.

Apart from the continuing violence in the northeastern state, Modi’s recent pitch for a Unified Civil Code (UCC) in India, too, has apparently rubbed the archbishop the wrong way.

Related: Will Kerala Christians toe Sangh Parivar line, as PM Modi expects?

Dashed hopes?

Pamplany had earlier adopted a soft stand on the Gujarat riots and even pushed the so-called “love jihad” bogey in an apparent move to appease the Sangh Parivar.


Mar Joseph Pamplany, the Archbishop of Thalassery. (Supplied)

He had accused the UDF and LDF — the Opposition and ruling formations in Kerala — of ignoring the interests of the Christians in the state while cosying up to Muslims.

On Friday, 30 June, when South First reached out to him, he sounded a different note. He said his past statements supporting the BJP were blown out of proportion with a clear agenda to create a controversy and tarnish his image

Pamplany said he never supported the BJP-RSS, and the media distorted his statements supporting farmers to create an impression that he was pro-BJP.

“The people of Manipur have reasons to believe that the state and Union governments are protecting the forces that fuel the ethnic conflict. The governments must prove that they are not supporting the violence that targets Christians in that state,” he told South First.

The archbishop’s latest statement might have dashed the BJP’s hope of seeing the lotus blooming on rubber trees.

Related: ‘Church leaders giving a foothold to BJP-RSS hate politics in Kerala’

LDF welcomes ‘change’

LDF convener EP Jayarajan was quick to respond to Pamplany’s statement. The turnaround was the outcome of the Opposition he has been facing within the Catholic Church, outraged over the Manipur developments.

LDF Convener EP Jayarajan. (Supplied)

LDF Convener EP Jayarajan. (Supplied)

“This is not the case of Pamplany alone. The Manipur developments have created a situation in which pro-BJP Christian leaders in Kerala swallow their previous statements supporting majoritarian communalism and stand as defenders of minority rights,” Jayarajan told South First.

“We welcome the transformation, but it would be difficult to ignore the reasons behind it. It is high time Christian leaders in Kerala ended their overtures towards the BJP,” the CPI(M) leader added.

Congress leader and Lok Sabha member from Ernakulam Hibi Eden shared his experience in Manipur at a meeting of the Pastoral Orientation Centre (POC) under the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference (KCBC), organised in Kochi.

The lawmaker termed the Manipur violence a part of the RSS agenda to wipe out Christians from regions where they were strong.

“Manipur is teaching many lessons to the Christians in Kerala. It’s a positive development that Church leaders are correcting their previous statements endorsing the BJP-RSS. The developments prove that only secular and democratic forces can safeguard the interests of minorities in a multicultural democracy,” Eden told South First.

The parliamentarian, along with fellow Lok Sabha member from Idukki, Dean Kuriakose, had visited Manipur recently.

Related: Bishop Pamplany draws CPI(M) ire for denigrating political martyrs

Manipur effect

Pamplany was not the only prelate to take a U-turn. Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, too, seemed to have changed his opinion with Manipur in flames.

Cardinal George Alencherry. (Supplied)

Cardinal George Alencherry. (Supplied)

In a pastoral letter read out in parishes, the cardinal said those persecuted and killed in Manipur reminded “us that no power on earth can dissuade a believer from his attachment to Christ. History shows that persecution and threats always failed to dissuade believers from their chosen paths to Christ,” he said.

Hardly two months ago, Alencherry termed Prime Minister Modi an excellent leader. He added that no Christian has been persecuted anywhere in the country under Modi’s rule.

Within hours of making the statement, a significant number of priests and believers ridiculed the prelate, saying he was making such a statement to protect himself from a probe by central agencies into a land scam allegedly orchestrated by him.

Church observers said the impact of Manipur violence would be felt in Kerala, and it has almost completely derailed BJP’s outreach programme to win Christian votes in the Lok Sabha election that now less than a year away.

Among Kerala’s Catholic bishops, at least half a dozen, including Alencherry and Pamplany, regularly issued statements indirectly supporting the BJP. They have all now backtracked.

Kannur Bishop Joseph Vadakkumthala and Thiruvananthapuram Archbishop Thomas J Netto issued strongly-worded statements ridiculing the governments’ failure in containing the violence in Manipur.

Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) president Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis made scathing remarks against the Union and Manipur governments for failing to restore peace, the rule of law and democracy.

Related: Kerala BJP leaders visit prominent bishops in Kerala for Easter

BJP may take a hit

Senior Catholic priest and writer Dr Paul Thelakkatt, said the violence in Manipur, along with the Union government’s move to draft a UCC, would prove detrimental to the BJP’s political interests in Kerala.

BJP inroads into Kerala Christians

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in discussion with Catholic Bishops Confrence of India president Andrews Thazhath, who is also arch bishop of Thrissur in Kerala. Also seen are union ministers V Muraleedharan and Rajeev Chandrasekharan. (Twitter)

“The BJP, so far, was using some leaders from the community to create a rift between the minorities in the state. Those leaders now seem to have understood their mistake, if the press statements they had issued over the past two days are any indication,” he told South First.

“These developments remind us of the need to ensure unity among minority communities and the secular and democratic forces. Minorities in Kerala are safe only because of the strong vigil maintained by secular political formations against the sinister designs of the BJP and RSS,” he said.

​The Manipur developments have forced the Christian settler farmers in central and north Kerala to reconsider their political preferences.  ​With immense political and social clout​, these farmers had recently tilted towards the BJP, saying the Congress and Left parties had failed to protect their interests and succumbed to the collective bargaining by Islamic organisations.

KCBC’s media outreach officer Fr Jacob Palakkappilly ​said the Union and Manipur governments ​ failed miserably in ​containing the violence, and the communal agenda has been preventing the Centre from declaring President’s rule in that state.

​When asked about the past pro-BJP stands of its leaders, he said the Church never endorsed any political formation openly, and the members could choose their political preferences without being influenced by the leadership.​

​Across the state, the Church has been organising prayer meetings ​extending solidarity with Manipur victims, further diminishing the chances of the BJP to win sympathisers in the Christian community.

Related: A new party in Kerala meshes Catholic, Sangh Parivar concerns

Solidarity meetings

​Sensing the prevailing mood, the LDF and UDF have started organising meetings extending solidarity with Manipur victims. Leaders like Eden and Kuriakose have been travelling across the state​, sharing the grim picture they saw in Manipur.


Catholic Bishops with Union Home Minister Amit Shah. (Supplied).

The KCBC would be organising a public meeting on the Manipur violence in Kochi on 5 July. It would further aggravate the political polarisation against the BJP. ​

“Over 300 institutions under the Church have been vandalised, and Christians from the Meitei and Kuki tribes are being selectively targeted. The ongoing violence in Manipur forms part of a larger plot by the Sangh Parivar to eliminate the Christians in India,” Palakkappilly said​.

​The Catholic Church has also initiated a fund-collection drive to support rehabilitation camps in Manipur. ​All these developments have rendered the efforts of the BJP, including Modi’s recent meeting with Kerala bishops, futile. ​

Christian demographics

For the BJP, its survival and growth in Kerala depend largely on wooing a sizable share of the Christian vote bank, especially Catholics, in central Kerala.

​​Going by the 2011 Census, Christians account for 18.38 percent of the state’s population, Muslims constitute 26.56 per cent, and Hindus comprise 54.73 percent. ​Among the Christians, the Catholics form the single-largest entity.

The BJP had high hopes when a sizable section of the clergy considered radical Islam a common enemy of Hindus and Christians. Till Manipur started burning, the Church leadership, in general, felt getting closer to the BJP and the Union government would help it benefit more from minority welfare programmes.

The Church has a long tradition of supporting the Congress in the state, but a section of its leaders felt till the party has become a spent force with remote chances of returning to power.

“The Christians in Kerala are now watching who are all reaching out to the Manipur people. They know the difference between the approaches of Modi and Rahul Gandhi,” Opposition Leader VD Satheesan told South First.

The Congress and Rahul are reinforcing their inclusive vision in Manipur, which would influence the Christians in the state. Minorities in Kerala would stand with Congress forever,” he added.