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Divisive Forces on the Prowl

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
06 Nov 2023

A bomb blast that killed three people including a child and seriously injured more than 50 at a prayer convention of Yahovah Witnesses (a Christian sect) at Kalamassery in Kerala on Sunday, October 29, 2023 sent shock waves across the State. Some people thought that the blast had some connection with the Hamas-Israeli war and it could be a terrorist act to express solidarity with Hamas. BJP leaders from Kerala, including a central minister, even accused LDF government and the Chief Minister of encouraging and supporting sympathizers of terrorists by following a policy of appeasement. “Dirty shameless appeasement politics by discredited CM (and HM) @pinarayvijayanbesiged by corruption charges. Sitting in Delhi and protesting against Israel, when in Kerala open calls by Terrorist Hamas for Jihad is causing attacks and bomb blasts on innocent Christians,” wrote MoS Rajeev Chandrasekhar on social media platform X.

While investigations were progressing, a man who was a member of Yahovah Witnesses group in Kerala confessed his crime in a Facebook Live, before surrendering himself in a police station. He admitted that he had planned and executed the blast because he believed that the group was teaching wrong values to people and it did not heed his advice to change its ways. The case will be further probed by the National Investigation Agency which specializes in counter-terrorism operations.  

Even before any investigation started, the BJP leaders jumped into conclusion that it was an act of terrorism by extremists belonging to a particular religious community. Social media had already been filled with speculation of bomb blasts having been committed by radical Islamist groups. The barbaric and horrendous act of killing 1400 innocent Israelis, almost half of whom were children, by Hamas needs strictest condemnation, and those who support Hamas’ killing are supporting terrorism. At the same time, attributing to the members of a particular religious community any act of violence taking place in any part of the world is a gross injustice.  Any organization that believes in hatred and violence and indulges in them is a terrorist organization irrespective of the religion to which it belongs. Hatred and violence wherever they take place are to be condemned.  

The swift identification of the culprit averted a dangerous communal flare up. What is alarming is the shameful tendency of extremist groups and communal political parties to exploit any human tragedy as a means to divide people. It is a great misfortune that spewing the venom of hatred against the followers of other faiths has become a strategy of some organizations, and extremist groups are patronized by certain political parties in a state that has been known for harmonious coexistence of different religions for centuries. 

It is to be appreciated that an all-party meeting convened by the Chief Minister of Kerala condemned the incident and expressed solidarity and empathy with the victims of the bomb blast. The meeting unanimously resolved to urge people not to indulge in baseless accusations, speculative campaigns and rumour-mongering in the wake of the blasts. In a highly polarized and hate-filled political atmosphere, the statement issued by the all-party meeting is in tune with the heritage of Kerala marked by centuries-old harmonious coexistence of three main religions: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. This is a lesson for other states where political parties foment communal riots and make use of human tragedies to promote hatred and division among people on the basis of religion.   

Kerala is unique among the states because of its unique religious composition of about 57% Hindus, 23% Muslims and 19% Christians. For several centuries, the followers of the three religions coexisted harmoniously. Because of its trade links with other regions, Christians and Muslims came to Kerala in the early years of the origin of their respective religions. According to tradition, St. Thomas, an Aramaic Jew and one of the apostles of Jesus, reached Kerala coast in AD 52 and converted local inhabitants including many from the upper caste known as Nambooodiri Brahmins. Islam also came to Kerala through trading contacts in the very same century in which it was founded in Arab regions.

Because of polytheistic nature of Hinduism, it was not difficult for Hinduism, India’s dominant religion, to accept and integrate the two religions that came from outside. According to tradition, Hindu kings donated land for the construction of some ancient Christian churches in Kerala. Thus, people belonging to the three religions have been living together with an attitude of give and take for many centuries. But the current scenario is worrying and dangerous. The venom of hatred that flows through the veins of the society in the north and the central India is spreading to Kerala. Similarly, religious fundamentalism is tightening its grip on the three main religions, giving birth to extremist groups.

Against this backdrop, it is pertinent to refer to a 2009 book “Sacred Kerala -- A Spiritual Journey” by Dominique-Sila Khan.  Most part of the book deals with a long-standing tradition of religious overlapping or shared religious identities. In contrast to much of north India, inter-community relations in Kerala have always been fairly harmonious, although the situation is beginning to change today. At the popular level, economic and social ties and interdependence between Kerala’s different religious communities have given birth to a strong sense of Malayali identity that transcends religious boundaries. This has been facilitated by the use of the Malayalam language by all of the state’s communities. Existence of active and vibrant Malayalee associations in many cities of India outside Kerala is a proof of the ability of the people of Kerala to transcend narrow religious identities.

According to the author, shared religious traditions and religious spaces can be seen as containing the seeds of a truly universal spirituality that transcends narrow creedal boundaries. The author has given many examples of shared religious traditions and spaces in Kerala. For example, at the annual Chandankulam festival in a remote Kerala village devotees of all faiths gather at a Catholic church, proceed to a Bhagvati temple and then congregate at a mosque. Pilgrims undertaking the strenuous journey to the shrine of Ayyappa at Sabarimala must first visit a mosque, and, after completion of the pilgrimage, often visit the shrine of a Christian saint. Ayyappa, one of the major Malayali Hindu folk deities, is believed to have been a close friend of a Muslim named Vavar, and also of a Christian priest.

The book also describes the rich internal diversities within what are ordinarily seen as homogenous religious communities. In the case of Hindus, the variety of cults and the diversity of castes is well known. But, even among communities in Kerala that subscribe to one or the other monotheistic faiths, sectarian, caste and other diversities remain stark, thus forcefully negating the notion of Christians, Muslims and Jews as being monolithic communities.

In the last part of the book, the author admits that ‘in recent years Kerala has witnessed the emergence of a number of right-wing communal and religious fundamentalist movements among Hindus, Muslims and Christians.’ These movements see the state’s rich legacy of shared religious traditions and spaces that bring together people belonging to different religious communities, as ‘superstitious’, ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant’. These movements have a major impact on Kerala society, and have succeeded in making communal divisions much stronger and clearly-demarcated. As per the author, these constitute a fundamental departure from Malayali tradition which is inclusive and open.

Along with religious fundamentalism, political parties also play a key role in dividing people to create their vote banks. Sometimes they compromise with the extremist groups within the religions, whose ideology and approach are violent and divisive, for the sake of winning elections. The BJP, whose ideology is Hindutva or transforming India into a Hindu Rashtra, has been trying for many years to gain a foothold in Kerala politics. The party has realized that as long as Christians and Muslims stand together to support secular parties, it will not be able to achieve its goal. Hence, the IT cell of the BJP has left no stone unturned to create division between Muslims and Christians in Kerala. Unfortunately, some Christian religious leaders and some lay leaders have become the victims of the traps laid by the BJP-RSS combine.

The response of the communal forces to the bomb blast in Kalamassery is a warning to the civil society of Kerala and reminds its responsibility to maintain harmony among the followers of different religions. If Kerala tops all other states with regard to education, health care, poverty eradication, social and economic equality etc, one of the main reasons is the liberal mentality of people, high level of critical thinking and political awareness that prevent them from becoming victims of blind faith and superstitions.  Religious fundamentalism coupled with communalism is a dangerous cocktail that prevents all kinds of progress. If the civil society is not vigilant, Kerala can easily slide into a communal hotspot. When political parties and religious leaders indulge in hate speech and create an atmosphere of distrust among the followers of different faiths, the civil society has to be proactive to build harmony and trust among different communities.

Christian Churches and groups can play a vital role in restoring Kerala to its pristine glory of communal amity by becoming agents of peace and reconciliation, promoting interfaith dialogue and educating people about the richness and relevance of the values of Indian Constitution. Educational institutions run by the Churches have to provide opportunities to students to learn about all religions without any bias. Often lack of proper knowledge coupled with prejudice is responsible for conflict among the followers of different religions.

If the Christian Churches have to become harbingers of peace and harmony, first of all, they have to undergo a metamorphic transformation by giving priority to the core teachings of Jesus: love and forgiveness, sensitivity and compassion, justice and non-discrimination and above all respect for the dignity of every human being and care for the environment, our 'common home'. It is a shame for Christians in Kerala that one among them resorted to a heinous crime of making and detonating bombs. Dogmas and rituals that divide the members of the Churches have to take a backseat, and inclusive love has to become the paramount law in order to defeat divisive and extremist forces. 

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