Kerala’s influential Catholics warn the Left government of violent struggle if their powers to run professional colleges come under review
The spectre of the Vimochana Samaram (liberation struggle), which culminated in the dismissal of EMS Namboodiripad’s first Communist government in Kerala in 1959, is back to haunt the VS Achuthanandan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. The Catholic Church, which stage-managed the show almost 50 years ago with the Nair Service Society, is now busy studying the mood of the faithful to re-enact its second episode.
“Kerala has turned into the devil’s own country under Marxist rule,” exhorted Thrissur Syro-Malabar Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazhathu. “We would not allow the atheists to control our educational institutions… The memories of the liberation struggle of 1959 are still fresh in our memories. And we will resort to that if the government continues its anti-minority policies,” the archbishop declared in a meeting of the employees of educational institutions run by the archdiocese.
“People still remember the liberation struggle of 1959 by which the Christians helped overthrow the world’s first democratically elected Communist regime. The struggle against the Communists (who assumed power in 1957) began in 1958 and ended with the government’s dismissal in 1959. The Achuthanandan government would suffer the same fate if it continues to interfere with the educational rights of the minorities,” the archbishop told Tehelka.
The archbishop is not sitting idle after making the statement. He has forced almost all bishops in Kerala to issue pastoral letters to the faithful, urging them to go to any extent to overthrow the government. The Indian Union Muslim League treasurer and former Industries Minister PK Kunhalikutty was the first politician who came out in the archbishop’s support. Recently, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) chief Ramesh Chennithala also called on the archbishop to express the party’s solidarity. But apart from the Left leaders, the lone Congress voice that differed from the party’s stance was that of Defence Minister AK Antony who dismissed the archbishop’s call saying the political scenario in the state had changed and that it is impossible to recreate 1959 now. The reason for this comment is very personal: When he was chief minister, Antony gave no-objection certificates to all minority professional institutions on the basis of a verbal assurance that they will give 50 percent seats to the government for admitting general category students. Later, the managements backtracked saying there was no written agreement between them and the state to go for 50:50 seat sharing. Left in the lurch, Antony made his most controversial statement: “I have been cheated by the minority managements. Minorities, as a united pressure group, are bargaining for more sops and concessions. They are least bothered about social commitments… It’s unfortunate.”
Now, the immediate provocation was the LDF government’s move to seek 50 percent seats for general category students in the professional colleges run by minorities; a folly committed by Antony earlier. Significantly, many professional institutions run by Muslims and other Christian factions have already accepted the government’s admission formula. Further, the government’s plan to bring all schools under the supervision of local bodies also irked them.
Soon after the archbishop’s exhortation, most bishops came forward to emulate him though he is not the head of the Syro-Malabar Church. The head is Major Archbishop Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil, a non-political leader who oversees the Eranakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. But Archbishop Thazhathu is spearheading the current agitation. According to political observers, the Thrissur archdiocese had been the nerve-centre of the first liberation struggle which was funded allegedly by the US Central Intelligence Agency, and therefore, the archbishop’s threat assumes significance. The archbishop is also organising ground-level meetings of the faithful to form a cadre-outfit to protect church institutions. According to Cardinal Vithayathil, it was “the folly” of the then EMS government that triggered the Vimochana Samaram. He hoped the current government would “not create a similar situation” that would compel the church to take “emergency action.”
Initially, other Catholic denominations like the Latin and the Syro-Malankara were less articulate in attacking the government. Even a Latin Catholic laity association publicly decried the pastoral letter issued by Archbishop Thazhathu. Sensing danger and division among the Catholic community, the Latin Major Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram, Susaipackiam, immediately issued a strong letter against the government. In line with that, Syro-Malankara Major Archbishop Baselius Clemmis Catholicose also deplored the government’s move in a press conference in Thiruvananthapuram. Linked to this is the decision of the Kerala University syndicate (dominated by the Leftists) to de-affiliate three engineering colleges run by these Catholic communities.
The main worry of the Catholic churches is that the LDF government is trying to impose its decisions through “skewed” tactics. “The LDF continues to violate the Christians’ constitutional right, as a minority, to establish and manage educational institutions. The government also runs politically motivated campaigns against church leaders and plans to revise Kerala’s education policy in a bid to eliminate ‘faith in God’,” alleged Archbishop Susaipackiam.
“The education department is planning to hand over our schools which receive government grant to panchayats and municipalities. The move will give more teeth to the local bodies in teacher appointments and administration,” said the archbishop.
Changanacherry Archbishop Mar Joseph Perumthottam, in his letter, exhorted all students and teachers to cooperate in the protest against politicising educational institutions and promoting atheism in schools. The archbishop alleged that the quality of education in Kerala was deplorable as none of the institutions figured in the best 40 in the country. “If you want to move ahead, more freedom is needed,” he added.
Kerala Education Minister MA Baby says the bishops’ worries are baseless. “There is no truth in the allegation that the government is trying not only to control appointments and admissions in the church-managed schools but also to propagate its ideology through curriculum reforms. In fact, the government wanted to bring in more transparency by making these schools answerable to local self-governments. Such an action would not curtail any right of the minorities,” said Baby.
As per the latest statistics, Christians form just 19 percent of Kerala’s 3.18 crore population. Irrespective of their numerical strength, they are economically very strong and politically decisive in many parts. Three Catholic denominations, two Syrian Orthodox factions and one Marthoma church make up the majority. But the idea of a second liberation struggle fails to enthuse even the hardcore among the faithful. Many are of the opinion that the success of any such anti-democratic struggle would definitely defeat the state’s efforts to curb the commercialisation of professional education. “The bishops always demand a free hand on appointments and admission. They have no faith in transparency or accountability to public. Such a moneymaking exercise is certainly against the teachings of Christ,” said Joseph Pulikkunnel, a Catholic reformer in Kerala. Eighty-seven-year-old Kulangara Chacko Antony, who had been part of the Vimochana Samaram in 1959, said the churches today do not wield the clout they did in the mid-50s.
But the rethinking among the faithful is not disturbing the church leaders. “If any action is taken against the Christian establishments, there would be a strong reaction. No minister will then enter Thrissur district,” warned Archbishop Thazhathu.
The 1959 struggle had been a strange cocktail of social forces. The bishops, irked by the radical educational reforms of Kerala’s first Education Minister Professor Joseph Mundassery, had successfully roped in other caste forces like the Muslim League and the Nair Service Society in the struggle against the EMS government. But now, the equations have changed. The powerful Ezhava community leader, Vellapally Natesan, is not supporting the church’s initiative and is toeing an anti-minority line: “This is not 1959. We will not allow Christians to cash in on our sentiments,” he said.
The CPM, however, is viewing the threat from the churches seriously. At least for the time being, the rival camps in the party have buried their hatchet to address the issue. After several months, Achuthanandan and CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan spoke in the same language to placate the bishops.