Thousands of Christians Joined BJP in TN’s Nagercoil? Locals Say No, BJP Argues
The claim made by the BJP's Tamil Nadu President that thousands of Christians joined the party is false.
Thousands of Christians joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tamil Nadu’s Nagercoil on 1 January 2022, claimed the party's State President K Annamalai. Did they really? Prominent Christian leaders in the district told The Quint that Annamalai's claim is false.
On 2 January, Annamalai took to Twitter to share images of people attending a party meeting in Nagercoil.
The Claim and the Rebuttal
Annamalai reiterated, as he spoke to The Quint, “Nearly 1,700 Christians were brought by a local leader Sagayam to join the BJP. Due to COVID norms, we did not conduct a meeting outdoors with 5,000-odd persons; and instead conducted it in a hotel. We are noticing that popular influencers of the Christian community are also coming forward to join the party.”
However, The Quint spoke to several members of the Christian, fisherfolk, and Nadar (caste) communities to understand that no membership cards were issued to any of the participants. Annamalai, however, said that is only a procedural matter – Christians have joined the party, but cards will be issued in due course, he said.
Why is the BJP interested in Christians in Tamil Nadu, even as attacks on churches and Christians are mounting in other states including TN's neighbouring state, Karnataka. The BJP in Karnataka had recently passed, in the state's Legislative Assembly, an anti-conversion bill to curb unlawful religious conversions.
The meeting on 1 January was presided by Syed Ibrahim, BJP National Secretary (Minority Morcha), party’s legislative leader Nainar Nagendran and Nagercoil MLA MR Gandhi.
“With the zealous efforts of Mr Sagayam, the arrival of over a thousand members of the Christian fishing community @BJP4TamilNadu on the Internet is the beginning of a new upsurge,” read one of the tweets by Annamalai.
Father Churchill, general secretary of South Asian Fishermen Fraternity was also invited to this gathering. He, however, did not attend it due to a prior commitment. He said, “I was also invited to participate in this meeting to voice out the concerns of Christians and the fishing community. If I had gone for the meeting, the news would've projected that Father Churchill was part of a key meeting and probably became a member." He further said that the gathering was in fact a minority welfare programme.
"It is a false claim that everyone who attended the meeting became members of the party. Not denying that a few people may have joined the BJP that day.”
Several local reporters corroborated the fact that thousands of persons, were not present at the venue.
“Nobody was given membership cards and they were not even briefed about this. There is no way thousands of Christians even attended the meeting,” said Anthony, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Fishermen Welfare Union.
However, Annamalai lashed out stating, “Anytime a Christian community member joins the BJP, the ecosystem gets rattled in Kanyakumari. Congress leaders can make all sorts of allegations but it is a fact that Christians are coming to BJP. This function is just a beginning of what's to come.”
Sagayam, the Man Bringing the Men
Sagayam, who is also known as Iyyappan, has been instrumental in inducting people from the fishing and Christian community into the saffron party. It is to be noted that he had earlier served as a member of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and then Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK).
Sagayam, being the people’s favourite, is also the go-to person when it comes to gathering support for party meetings. While people across communities showered praises for the man, they also pointed out that his claims were false.
Sagayam, who is also the Chairman of the Kanyakumari Fisheries Welfare Committee said, “Minorities are not just Christians. They also includs Nadars and fisherfolk. This event was just our first step towards including minorities in the BJP. All of the participants were 20-35 years of age and part of Salvation Army, CSI, Roman Catholic and Pentecostal (churches) backgrounds." He further stated that Annamalai has asked him to "bring in at least one lakh minority persons to join BJP". In the coming months, the numbers will grow, he said.
When questioned why there was no proof that these persons joined the party, Sagayam brushed aside the allegations saying once the COVID restrictions are eased, the party will call for a meeting and issue cards.
Senior BJP leader and former Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan told The Quint that the district unit “will distribute the cards soon.”
Annamalai too said, “This meeting was more of an introductory meeting so that the local leaders could meet the people. After this the booth level leaders will reach out to the persons and issue cards.”
Father Churchill, like many others, questioned the BJP, "What I’d like to ask is, when Christians join DMK or AIADMK, their religion is not mentioned. BJP is not a party for the Hindus alone as it is a national party." The priest said Annamalai, who is a trained IPS officer, should not have referred to the people who attended the gathering as Christians.
In Nagarcoil, the BJP, however, has plans for the Christians.
A Show of Strength?
Several leaders also confirmed that contrary to the BJP's claims, the meeting was indeed a grievance meeting wherein fisherfolk could interact with BJP leader L Murugan, who is currently serving as Minister of State in the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying. The minister was not present at the event.
“A lot of fishermen here have strongly opposed the Draft Marine Fisheries Bill. Many have given their representations as we believe this move is completely against the fishing community. This is false news that was created by BJP to promote their agenda that support is pouring in for them,” said Johnson Charles, secretary of fishermen's union Meena Meenavar Oruinappu Sangam, explaining why the BJP is interested in Christians in the coastal district.
Nagercoil falls in Kanyakumari district where the BJP has a considerable presence due to the long-standing popularity of BJP senior leader Pon Radhakrishnan. Also, in the 2021 Assembly elections, Mavilai Ramasamy Nadar Gandhi alias MR Gandhi, a BJP veteran, was elected as the MLA of Nagercoil. He is one of the people responsible for laying the foundation for the emergence of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in Kanyakumari in the late 60s.
Why BJP is Wooing Christians in Kanyakumari?
According to the 2011 Census, Kanyakumari accounts for 48.65 percent of Hindus, 46.8 percent of Christians and 4.20 percent of Muslims. Until 2011, political parties had only fielded candidates from the Christian community. If one looks at the election history of Nagercoil, from 1971 to 2011, both the Dravidian parties and the Congress have given seats to Nadar Christians.
The candidates' fates were decided by the Christian votes. But there was a major shift in 2011, when the AIADMK pulled Christian votes to their side despite fielding as their candidate a Nadar Hindu. This trend continued in 2021 too.
The fortunes of BJP seem to be inextricably tied to the changing mood of the voters here.
“BJP has a stronghold in the Kanyakumari district. Sagayam is someone who is influential enough to make these youngsters join the party. He has helped people easily access central and state schemes, helped communities progress forward so people will definitely listen to him. Maybe not now but in a span of five years, we can expect a substantial number of Christians joining the BJP,” opined a source.
While Father Churchill believes “there no room for minorities to adopt the BJP as their political ideology,” the party strongly believes that it will soon see membership boom in the southern most part of Tamil Nadu.
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