(This story was first published on 12 September 2021. It is being republished on 2 November in view of the Pala Bishop getting booked for his 'narcotics jihad' remark.)
A revered Catholic Bishop of Kerala, Mar Joseph Kallarangatt, has coined a new term – 'narcotics jihad'.
In early September 2021, the Bishop of Pala, Kottayam district, warned Christian youth against ‘narcotics jihad’ – a term to describe alleged attempts by Muslims in Kerala to lure Christians towards Islam using drugs.
While Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has condemned the statement, reformers within Kerala’s Catholic community are not surprised by Kallarangatt’s claim. The Bishop was merely echoing longstanding Islamophobic sentiments of Kerala's Syro-Malabar Church, which has also been accusing Muslims of ‘love jihad’, they say.
The Syro-Malabar Church, which is the world's second-largest Eastern Catholic Church, has been claiming since 2018 that dozens of women of its fold were converted to Islam and taken to Syria to further the Islamic State’s ‘jihadist’ activities. In December 2019, the church drew a parallel between ‘love jihad’ and the Islamic State's execution of female Christian captives in Nigeria.
Kerala's Home department, which is handled by CM Vijayan, has denied the claims.
Then why are the Catholic churches, and by extension the Christian churches of Kerala, anxious? In fact, the ‘jihad’ claim of the Bishop and his church is indicative of a political shift within Kerala’s dominant Christian community.
Roman Catholic Church’s BJP Slant
On 19 January 2020, a delegation of the Syro-Malabar Church apprised Prime Minister Narendra Modi of its campaign against ‘love jihad’. Also, Bishop Kallarangatt has been airing his pro-Hindutva and anti-Muslim rhetoric for quite some time. In March 2021, he even invited RSS’ Kottayam district secretary to the diocese office and contributed towards the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
While overtly supporting the Hindutva outfits – BJP and RSS – the Bishop seems to have challenged the Catholic church’s traditional support for the Indian National Congress.
"Other than Islamophobia, the statement aims at bringing the church into the good books of the Union government. The church is expecting better patronage from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union government in areas of common interest like education and health," observes leading political analyst Dr Azad.
The Syro-Malabar Church’s dalliance with Hindutva has directly resulted in political growth for the BJP in Kottayam, the district where the church is the most powerful. Pala town of Kottayam is even known as Vatican of Kerala.
Noble Mathew, BJP president of Kottayam admitted the church’s influence in his political journey. It is with the blessings of Bishop Kallarangatt that he left the sectarian yet secular Kerala Congress (Mani) three years ago to join the BJP, he told The Quint.
"I am a proud BJP activist who hails from Pala diocese and enjoys the complete support of the bishop. What's wrong with the bishop's statement against ‘love jihad’ and ‘narcotics jihad’? He read out a carefully drafted speech involving his direct experiences and information gathered from independent sources."Noble Mathew, BJP
The Syro-Malabar Church’s support for the BJP is understandable as Bishop Kallarangatt’s statement has found takers in the Catholic church, especially among the youth. When contacted, Pala Diocesan youth director Father Thomas Thayil said the Bishop was only trying to “protect Catholic families”. According to him, the shrinking Christian population in Kerala faces enormous challenges from 'jihadist' groups, which are operating tacitly. "We are not targeting Muslims of the state in general. Our opposition is only confined to Islamic State and its agents in Kerala, who target Christian youths, especially women," he explained.
Meanwhile, Mar Pauly Kannookadan, Bishop of Irinjalakuda, Thrissur district, on 10 September endorsed the Pala Bishop’s statement and cautioned laity to protect children from falling for 'love and narcotics jihad'.
The BJP’s state unit has now taken up the Bishop’s claims and has asked for an independent enquiry into 'narcotics jihad'. After Kallarangatt's statement courted controversy, BJP’s Union Minister V Muraleedharan strongly defended the Bishop saying that 'narcotics jihad' must also be probed on the same lines as ‘love jihad’.
But why is the Church courting the BJP?
The Demographic Challenge
According to independent observers, a perceived demographic threat is at the heart of Kerala's Catholic community’s disaffection towards Muslims. Going by 2011 census, Kerala has 33 million people. Hindus make up 54.73 percent of the Kerala population, while Muslims represent 26.56 percent and Christians 18.38 percent.
As per 2001 Census, the population of Hindus in the state was 56.16 percent whereas that of Muslims was 24.69 percent. Christian population in the state was at 19.02 percent.
"Going by the census data of the last three decades, the population of Muslims in the state is steadily increasing. In general, Catholic leaders are worried about Muslims' educational and financial growth in the state and improvement in their ability to collectively bargain with both the ruling Left Democratic Front and United Democratic Front,” academic and writer Sunny Kapikkad said.
As the Congress party is no longer in a position to protect Christian interests through administrative measures, a large section of Catholic leaders feel it would be wise to support the BJP which is in power in the Centre, he said.
For the Catholic community, another worry is the ageing of its flock. Catholic youth have been migrating out of Kerala for education and employment, leaving only their aged relatives behind. The church has been objecting to scholarships and schemes that provide relief to Muslim youth, as the leadership feels the LDF and UDF governments have been trying to retain only young Muslims within the state’s boundaries.
According to a senior catholic priest in Kerala who preferred anonymity, if Kerala's Christians continued with their present negative growth trends, by 2050, half their population would be aged. Echoing the Hindutva stalwarts V D Savarkar and M S Golwalkar, the priest said, Christian piety should procreate more and not limit the size of the family. He blamed the ‘micro-family’ syndrome of Catholic couples for the demographic decline.
However, Kerala’s civil society, including some prominent Church leaders, have condemned the Syro-Malabar Church’s stand on Muslims.
Widespread Condemnation of ‘Narcotics Jihad’ Claim
Kallarangatt's statement was condemned by fellow Bishop, Geevarghese Mar Coorilos, the Metropolitan of Niranam Diocese of the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. Speaking to The Quint he said, church altars must not be used for heinous propaganda that jeopardises social solidarity and communal amity. "Such irresponsible statements will only help communal and casteist forces, which want to create divisions between India’s minorities," he added.
Islamic youth organisation Samastha Kerala Sunni Yuvajana Federation’s State General Secretary, Sathar Panthaloor, asked Bishop Kallarangatt to prove his allegations. He also urged the state government to initiate legal action against the Bishop for spreading hatred.
"Such poisonous campaigns are ill-motivated, and they will irreparably vitiate the friendly atmosphere existing among different religions in Kerala," said Panthaloor.
Several organisations, including Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM), have filed police complaints against the bishop, but the police are yet to book him.
Noted social observer and academic J Devika said the state must collectively resist attempts to create notions such as ‘love jihad’ and ‘narcotics jihad’, which are used to demonise the Muslim community. According to Devika, several Catholic priests and leaders had tried to appease the BJP and RSS.
"However, the complete rout suffered by BJP in Kerala Assembly election turned into a big embarrassment for the Christian priests who were campaigning and promoting the RSS brand of hatred."J Devika, Academic and Social Observer
The Additional Director-General of Police's report to the National Minority Commission dated 10 February 2020, had clearly stated that the police had conducted a detailed enquiry into the allegations of ‘love jihad’ raised by the Syro-Malabar Church. “All those girls were majors who voluntarily chose to marry and no force or coercion of any type were behind their marriages," the report read. The report further stated, "The allegations and concerns raised by the Synod of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Kerala, in their representation to National Minority Commission are not based on facts. The complaint of "love jihad" is not found to be true."