KA SHAJI / Kottayam

KERALA’S OLDEST newspaper, Deepika (tiny lamp), is no more the leading light of the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful and influential of Kerala’s churches. The paper, hitherto the mouthpiece of the church, has been handed over to dubious NRI businessman MA Pharis, who has been using the paper for making frontal attacks against Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. Pharis, who was recently in the news himself for shadowy deals with Pinarayi Vijayan loyalists in the CPM’s Kerala unit, is the new chairman of the paper.

Resentment is brewing among the clergy and followers against Kanjirapally Bishop Dr Mathew Arakkal and Deepika’s managing director Fr Robin. On August 12, a convention of the Inter-Church Council held in Kottayam to protest against the LDF government’s educational policies was marred by the shouting of slogans against Arakkal, Robin and Pharis. The 120-year-old Deepika, which was launched in 1887 from Kottayam by venerated Christian evangelists like Nidheerikkal Mani Kathanar and Chavara Kuriakose Elias, was officially taken over by a new board of directors led by Pharis Aboobacker in mid-August. Renji Panikkar, a prominent screenplay writer in Malayalam films, was nominated as the vice chairman. This ended the rich legacy of Elias, who was recently elevated to the position of “The Blessed” by the Vatican. It is for the first time that the Deepika has a non-Christian as its chairman and members of the Christian laity, who had invested huge amounts of money in the company, are now making a last-ditch bid to recapture control. But it is unlikely that the decision will be revoked.

Pharis has begun using the newspaper to attack Achuthanandan. The paper has been regularly writing Page One editorials targeting the chief minister and his family. At the same time, the Vijayan faction has come out in Pharis’ support. Local administration minister Paloly Mohammed Kutty said the Deepika now looks more a progressive paper than a church paper. The church, for its part, doesn’t know which side to take. Spokesperson of the Catholic Church, Fr A. Adappoor, said: “Why are they attacking Achuthanandan and projecting Pinarayi as the future of Kerala? Both are Communists with no regard for Catholic values.” Adding to the worries of the church, the newspaper has started relegating church-related news items to the margins to make space for big colour pictures of Kutty and Pinarayi and articles praising their “practical” Communism.

“Deepika is acting as the unofficial mouthpiece for Pinarayi. Taking up cudgels for one politburo member against another is a curious role for the newspaper which led the Vimochana amaram (Liberation Struggle) in 1958 against the Godless Communist Government of EMS Namboodiripad,’’ pointed out Fr. Mathew Chandrankunnel, former executive editor of the paper .

The newspaper was operated by CMI Fathers of Catholic Church until 1989, when ownership shifted to “Rashtra Deepika Limited”, a newly created public limited company. Lay people, dioceses and congregations shared ownership of the company that increasingly incurred heavy losses. According to church sources, Pharis came into the picture in 2004 with a donation of Rs 2 crore to the ailing company, officially known as Rashtra Deepika Private Limited (RDL), following its decision to sell shares through private channels. On July 20, 2006, Arakkal sent out a note to shareholders saying, “I made sincere attempts to mobilise funds from within the community but the responses were very disappointing. In these circumstances, I contacted Mr MA Pharis, a Muslim NRI entrepreneur of considerable resources. He agreed to advance a small interest-free loan of Rs 2 crore to RDL for two years. He said if we were unable to repay the loan it would be considered as zakat (charity).” After getting the loan, Arakkal gave Pharis a seat on the board of directors and later made him vice chairman of the company. Pharis is said to have advanced around Rs 10 crore to the company since then and has been dictating its editorial policy.

The Catholic community is now slowly realizing its folly. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC) is a divided house over the issue. Most of the bishops now believe it was none other than Arakkal who surrendered the interests of the church to Pharis. In fact, in a recent issue of the respected Catholic weekly Sathyadeepam, Adappoor has advised the Bishops to issue a Pastoral letter informing their flock of the present state of Deepika’s affairs. That, according to him, is the only way to prevent the paper entering Christian homes in a pseudo-Christian guise.

AWORRIED CHURCH had recently decided to raise Rs 10 crore to repay Pharis but he refused to accept the money. At one point there was an agreement between the Church and Pharis that the Church would retain its properties at the headquarters at Kottayam while all other offices and properties of Deepika would go to Pharis.

According to conservative estimates, the assets the Church was willing to part with, including a multi-storey building on prime land in Kochi, were worth more than Rs 20 crore. But the agreement could not be implemented as a court ordered a stay following a number of suits filed by shareholders challenging the terms of the agreement. Journalists working in Deepika are now talking about a voluntary retirement scheme introduced by Pharis to lay off excess staff, which was actually used to remove journalists who resisted his policy changes.

With the court staying the division of the Church’s properties in March 2007, there has been a stalemate with the Church keeping out of the paper and Pharis running the show. In view of sharp criticism within the ranks, the Church leadership has decided to make known the fact that Deepika is no longer a Christian paper through a declaration in its various dioceses. It is now only a matter of record for the Church to admit that its centuryold property is no longer in the service of the Church and its laity.


shaju Jose said...

Good report Shaji. It is a shame that a single businessman bishop is able to surrender such a traditional newspaper at his whim and fancy. I am sure any agreement made with MA Pharis to transfer property will not go through as the decision would not have been ratified by share holders as it is a Public Limited Company. Its good that now at least the share holders realised the folly of entrusting assets to the care of clergy.(who now a days unfortunately more look and act like professional business men than servants to the leity). The unholy marriage of mutual benefit will fall apart when challenged in court.

Anonymous said...

hello shaji...

You are correct....Not Pharis only but Fr. Robin Mathew also should be prosecuted in civilian's court...