Puthuppally bypoll: CPI(M) candidate bats for segment’s lone saint amid clamour for canonising Oommen Chandy

The late chief minister's tomb at Puthuppally in Kerala has become a pilgrim centre, attracting hundreds of people daily.

ByK A Shaji

Published Aug 15, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Aug 15, 2023 | 9:38 PM

People cutting across religion and political ideologies visit Oommen Chandy's tomb at Puthuppally in Kottayam. (Supplied)

The CPI(M)-led LDF in Kerala will be fighting two factors in the by-election to the Puthuppally Assembly constituency.

One is the battle of ideologies between two individuals. The second one is against a “divine” aura the late Oommen Chandy has left behind. The LDF fears the latter more.

The UDF candidate, Chandy Oommen, had remained in his father Oommen Chandy’s shadows but for occasional appearances — like his active participation in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. As a person, Chandy Oommen is less known outside Puthuppally.

His rival, Jaick C Thomas, however, is the better-known of the two. He has been the face of CPI(M) in newsroom debates and had twice taken on Oommen Chandy, who in life, was the undisputed and invincible leader of Puthuppally.

Thomas even managed to bring down Chandy’s victory margin below 10,000 votes in 2021.

However, Thomas now has the unenviable task of taking on Chandy Oommen, the might of the UDF, and Oommen Chandy’s aura in the 5 September bypoll.

The by-election in Puthuppally follows the 18 July demise of Oommen Chandy, who had wrested the constituency from the CPI(M) in 1970 and retained it for 53 long years — till his death.

Related: After Oommen Chandy: His legacy, and political possibilities in Kerala

Lingering memory

Kerala witnessed Oommen Chandy emerging stronger in death than in life when the cortege carrying his body meandered through the milling, grieving crowd that lined up along the road on 19 July. A journey that would normally take 3.5 hours to reach Puthuppally in the Kottayam district from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, took close to 30 hours.

Chandy

Oommen Chandy. (File photo: KB Jayachandran)

In life, the former two-time chief minister had drawn his energy from crowds.

A special tomb was arranged for Oommen Chandy at a place reserved for the departed clergy in the St. George Orthodox Church, Puthuppally. Kerala bid him adieu without state honours according to his wish on 20 July. However, it was just the beginning.

People from near and far still throng the church, light candles, offer floral tributes, and pray at the tomb. Prayers seeking favours — ranging from debt relief to success in examinations — are being written and submitted.

“Sir, I inherited a parcel of land. Four other plots surround this land, and the owners of the adjacent plots are unwilling to grant me passage. I humbly request your prayers to God to assist me in finding a solution,” read one of the submissions.

The St George Orthodox Church has become a pilgrim centre for people from all religions. For them, Oommen Chandy has become a saint.

Related: Popular politician who strode God’s Own Country like a colossus

Pilgrim centre

According to tour operator Jison K Mathew of Kottayam, the tomb of Oommen Chandy has now become part of a pilgrimage circuit covering St Alphonsa’s tomb in Bharananganam, and St Kuriakose Elias Chavara’s at Mannanam.

Chandy Oommen. (Facebook)

K Prashanthan of Vishwa Sree Tours and Travels at Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram concurred. He operates a 49-seat luxury bus daily to the St George Orthodox Church, charging ₹500 per head.

“It is unprecedented in Kerala,” he said. “No other politician has emerged stronger posthumously. No other politician’s tomb attracts visitors in huge numbers even a month after his death,” Prashanthan added.

Several members of the Malankara Orthodox Church have written to the church demanding the canonisation of the late leader. They reminded the church authorities that Oommen Chandy still is the biggest asset of the oriental independent church headquartered at Devalokam in Kottayam.

The CPI(M) and the LDF have been watching the developments with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. So has its the candidate, Jaick Thomas.

“Puthuppally has only one saint, and He is St Geevarghese (St George),” Thomas said on 11 August, a day before CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan officially announced his candidature.

“This is not a fight between individuals. This is a battle of ideologies,” Thomas has been trying hard to drive home his point. The LDF, too, has decided against throwing personal barbs at the rival candidate.

Ironically, Thomas mentioned Puthuppally’s “only saint” close on the heels of his party comrade and Assembly Speaker AN Shamseer sparking a fierce “myth vs science” debate in Kerala.

Also read: Why NSS put ‘faith above science’ while CPI(M) sees ‘myth as myth’

CPI(M) banks on myth

St George’s most famous exploit is a myth, that he slayed a dragon to save a princess.

Jaick C Thomas, the CPI(M) candidate. (Facebook)

Jaick C Thomas, the CPI(M) candidate. (Facebook)

“Most Christian churches across the world have stopped following St George since he is largely a mythical character,” social thinker Tomy Mathew said. “There is no evidence of him in history. Worshipped earlier in Britain and Georgia, he has now takers only among the oriental churches in Kerala.”

“I wonder why a CPI(M) leader is giving credence to his existence. They can denounce Chandy, but St George is a myth,” he added. St George is the patron saint of England.

Yuhanon Mar Diascoros Metropolitan, the Orthodox Bishop of Kottayam, was candid in his response. “Never in its history has the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church awarded sainthood to a member of the laity,” he told South First.

“A section of Chandy sir’s followers urged us to bend the rules. But even in the case of priests, sainthood could be awarded at least 50 years after the death. We have no practice of awarding sainthood immediately after death,” he said.

“Chandy sir has already emerged as a taller personality in Kerala. If he attains sainthood in the people’s minds, it is welcome, and we have nothing to do with it,” the prelate further said.

On the Church’s preference between Chandy Oommen and Thomas, the bishop said both are young and the children of the church.

“Let them fight democratically. We are close to both of them. And we keep equidistance from all political groupings,” the metropolitan said.

However, the church’s stand is not deterring people from projecting Oommen Chandy as a saint on social media.

Also read: LDF nominates Jaick Thomas to take on Chandy Oommen

Blessing to Rahul Gandhi

A section of Congress workers has even linked the reinstation of Rahul Gandhi’s Lok Sabha membership with Oommen Chandy’s blessing. They claimed that the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Gandhi, the MP from Wayanad, was a result of Oommen Chandy’s benevolence.

Chandy

Oommen Chandy with Rahul Gandhi. (KB Jayachandran)

Gandhi had paid obeisance to the departed in Bengaluru, where Oommen Chandy passed away, besides attending his funeral at Puthuppally.

On 4 August, the Supreme Court stayed the conviction of Gandhi in a 2019 defamation case in connection with his Modi surname remark.

The Orthodox Church has so far canonised three metropolitans: St Baselios Yeldho (Kothamangalam Bava), St Gregorios of Parumala (Parumala Thirumeni), and St Geevarghese Mar Dionysius Vattasseril.

Among those seeking sainthood for Oommen Chandy is Yuhanon Mar Policarpos, a Metropolitan of the Angamaly diocese. He was the first to raise the demand at an Oommen Chandy commemoration meeting organised by the Ernakulam District Congress Committee.

“I have suggested to the Orthodox Church secretary. It is not mandatory that only a priest should be canonised,” he told the meeting, also attended by Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church and Cardinal of the Catholic Church, George Alencherry.

However, Fr Johns Abraham Konat, Principal Secretary to the Catholicos of the East, said canonization is a time-consuming and complex process.

“It is a long process. It involves intercessory prayers by followers and reporting of miracles based on such prayers. It takes at least two to three decades to complete the process. The Church cannot declare anyone a saint without completing this process,” he told South First.

Related: Books by political rival, ex-DGP put Chandy back in spotlight

Chandy, the new reality 

Meanwhile, CPI(M) State Committee member K Anilkumar wrote an open letter to the Leader of the Opposition, VD Satheesan, requesting not to mythicise Oommen Chandy, who was a reality till 18 July.

Opposition leader VD Satheesan. (Facebook)

Opposition leader VD Satheesan. (Facebook)

“He wasn’t a myth. We, the Communists, experienced Chandy’s obduracy and ferocity on several occasions. The Congress under Chandy killed Meenadom Avaran during the Emergency,” Anilkumar said.

Anilkumar viewed the clamour for Oommen Chandy’s sainthood as part of a political strategy. He reminded Satheesan of the intraparty squabbles during Oommen Chandy’s active days.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Alencherry favoured sainthood to Oommen Chandy, subject to the Orthodox Church rules. “Chandy was a great messenger of mercy, which is the highest form of love,” he said.

“We have no vested interest in the sainthood issue. We respect the collective decision of the Church, and its traditions and rules must be honoured. Oommen Chandy continues to enjoy the love and affection of the poor in Kerala. It’s unprecedented and a new reality,” Opposition Leader Satheesan told South First.

Meanwhile, Thomas is harping on the lone saint, St George, After all, as British historian Ian Mortimer pointed out, “St George stands for the courage to face adversity.”