Interview: Church leaders giving a foothold to BJP-RSS hate politics in Kerala, says priest who quit in protest

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil wants Kerala's Catholic Church to keep itself away from the politics of hate and division.

ByK A Shaji

Published May 20, 2023 | 12:31 PMUpdatedMay 20, 2023 | 2:40 PM

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil Catholic Church Kerala

It is no secret that the Catholic Church in Kerala is divided over the attitude to be adopted towards the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), given their Hindu majoritarian worldview and often violent anti-minority politics.

A section of the state’s Christian leaders, especially those affiliated with the Oriental Catholic Church segment of the broader Syro-Malabar Church, do not seem averse to establishing closer ties with the Sangh Parivar, both for economic and ideological reasons.

A better price for rubber would benefit the plantation owners of central Kerala who are largely Catholics, and then there are those in the community — both in the priesthood and among the laity — who share the Sangh Parivar’s Islamophobia and are in agreement with it on discredited ideas such as “Love Jihad”.

Just recently, in what was seen as a move that has the backing of the BJP, former MLA Johnny Nellore, who had resigned from the Kerala Congress (Joseph), announced a new political outfit — the National Progressive Party (NPP).

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil

The new political party — which has been quite open about its intentions to cosy up to the BJP — was set up, as South First had earlier reported, with the active support of two powerful central Kerala bishops who have had what were termed as “secret meetings” with the BJP central leadership.

Not everyone, however, is enamoured of the idea of the Church aligning with the BJP.

One such person is Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil, who strongly objects to Christian leaders in Kerala finding a common cause with the Sangh Parivar in propagating Islamophobia. He feels aligning with the “hate politics” of BJP-RSS contradicts the fundamentals of universal love propagated by Jesus Christ.

On 13 May, Fr Puthiyaparambil, 46, created headlines when, in a letter addressed to his parishioners in Mukkom and Nooranthodu parishes, he announced his decision to quit “active ministry” in the Church over its getting close to the right wing, as well as the “general decay” in the institution that is “taking it away from Jesus”.

In this exclusive interaction with South First, Fr Puthiyaparambil explains why he took the unusual decision that sparked intense debate within the Church about the approach to be taken against majoritarian communalism. Edited excerpts:

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Q. What do you mean by quitting active parish ministry? Are you leaving priesthood forever?

A. I will continue to be a sanyasi, closely adhering to the founding principles of the global Catholic Church and the catechism laid out in the Holy Bible. It’s up to the Church leadership to disrobe me as a priest. Whatever the disciplinary actions they take, I will continue to be a sanyasi, spreading the inclusive message of Christianity that reaches out to the meek and poor, transcending religions and politics.

I believe in spirituality not fragmented by communal and casteist preferences. I have written to the administrators of the Thamarassery diocese under the Syro-Malabar Church, declining to accept any parish ministry. In a way, it violates the principles of obedience and loyalty to the Church. But I believe it’s my protest against the decay within the Church organisation that must be addressed and rectified.

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Q. You have accused the leadership of the Catholic Church of compromising on the values of secularism and finding common cause with those who propagate the politics of hate and division. Are these mere allegations or a reflection of what you have come to believe in 20 years of priesthood?

A. There is no eminent secularist other than Jesus Christ. He divided the sacred and profane by saying, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil

In my case, the objections are not limited to Kerala’s Christian leadership helping the BJP-RSS to implement its communal and divisive agenda. The Christian Church must not be involved in any active kind of politics. Spiritual leaders must stay away from political parties, and their opinions must not influence the political preferences of the laity. Let people choose their political alliances using their own social experiences and wisdom. Why should religious leaders dictate their terms?

In Kerala, the Catholic Church has a long and dubious legacy of opposing communist parties on flimsy grounds and supporting the Congress. When the Congress became weak, the Church leadership is now mending fences with communists on one side and the BJP-RSS on the other. It smacks of sheer opportunism. What’s spiritual involved in it? What is the larger public interest in it? Some Church leaders need undue favours from the governments in power.

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Q. Your decision shows the Kerala Church in poor light and as subservient to the BJP-RSS? Do you apprehend repercussions?

A. Honestly, I don’t know what awaits me in the future. I am 46 years old and spent most of these years being trained as a priest in the seminary and administrating churches after attaining priesthood. I wrote a letter to the parishioners in Mukkam and Nooranthodu, disclosing my decision to quit. They were the parishes under my control. I had also written to the diocese administration.

I wish to term it as a prophetic call to pursue the teachings of Christ in their real sense. While the Church is going away from Jesus, it would be my duty to differ. In the case of the Kerala Church, many scandals have rocked it in recent years, ranging from sexual abuse to financial misappropriation. Those bishops facing court cases and central agency probes are now trying to appease the BJP-RSS and the Union government. They wish to escape the proceedings. The compromise with communal politics is happening at the expense of social accountability and financial transparency.

All of us know one senior functionary is embroiled in court cases after attempting to sell Church land for prices cheaper than market rates and incurring huge losses for the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. That person now publicly endorses a Christian tie-up with the BJP-RSS. He subscribes to unsubstantiated Sangh Parivar accusations like “Love Jihad”.

What’s spiritual in the liturgy dispute in the Kerala Church? Everything is being undertaken to divert the faithful’s attention from burning issues haunting the Church’s very existence. Gone are the days when bishops and priests followed the humble life of Jesus. Now they are making money and leading luxurious lives. When core values are getting compromised, we have to fight them.

Related: PM Modi has closed-door meeting with Kerala bishops

Q. If some social media posts are to be believed, the Church leadership has termed your decision to quit as a move to join one of the Orthodox churches in Kerala, where celibacy is not mandatory. Are you using all these issues as an excuse to get married?

A. This is absurd. Dirty minds are attempting to belittle me and my intentions. I already told you I would continue to be a Catholic sanyasi. I will not go out of the Church. I will continue to stand with the teachings of the Catholic Church. How can a sanyasi get married? I am talking about the moral and ethical degradation of the Church. But they are countering me by raising such flimsy allegations.

Q. The Archbishop of Tellicherry, Mar Joseph Pamplany, promised to back the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls in 2024 if it increased the minimum support price (MSP) of natural rubber to ₹300. How do you view it?

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil

Fr Ajimon Puthiyaparambil

A.  That is cheap bargaining politics. He has lost his senses. I have known him for a long time; earlier, he was logical. Now he is making illogical statements on everything ranging from “Love Jihad” to rubber prices. Who is he to decide the political preference of Christian farmers? I, too, had been involved in many farmers’ agitations. I have observed indefinite fasts for the cause of farmers.

Everybody knows how the Union government’s Exim policies have caused the price of natural rubber to fall. Instead of protesting those policies, these Church leaders are trying to allow a foothold to hate politics in the state.

In Manipur and other states, Christians are getting targeted by the Sangh Parivar. Their faith is at stake. Their life and properties are under constant threat. Here in Kerala, the leadership is forgetting everything. They are spreading fear and invoking the tool of discipline to silence dissent. We have to break our silence. It’s a historic duty.

Also read: KPCC chief’s ‘pro-RSS’ remarks leave Congress red-faced

Q. Where are you living now? Are you still conducting holy mass?

A. I have already left the accommodation provided by the Church. Now I live with my friends. The future is yet to be decided. For the time being, there is no directive against me conducting holy mass. I will conduct it till the Church allows it. And I will intervene in any matters of social relevance with a broader mind.