20071130

Gods, Comrades at Arms Again

COMMUNISTS VS CATHOLICS



The faultline between the Church and the CPM in Kerala resurfaces after a bishop claims a party MLA received the sacrament before his death.



KA SHAJI
Thiruvananthapuram



COMMUNISTS across the globe say religion is the antithesis of Marxism and believers have no place in the movement. The Church reciprocates the sentiment labelling Communists as agents of Satan and their rationalism as the “main threat” to the world. In Kerala, too, the relationship between the Church and the Communists is typically antagonistic.

In 1959, the Church in Kerala led the infamous “liberation struggle”, toppling the world’s first democratically elected Communist government of EMS Namboodiripad. Even earlier, the Church refused to bury the mortal remains of MP Paul, a wellknown Malayalam literary critic. Paul was not a Communist but the Church found fault with his opposition to religious orthodoxy. Paul’s brother, being a monsignor, was not allowed to attend the funeral. It may be recalled that the late party ideologue, EMS Namboodiripad, had asked Kerala Congress leader PJ Joseph to disown the bishops in public before joining the Left Democratic Front.

However, the Church’s vehement opposition to the Communists in Kerala started to mellow after 1959. The softening of the Church’s position in the 1960s and 70s was reciprocated by the stance of a sizable proportion of the Marxists in Kerala. Even during the nineties, many of the Kerala’s CPM men occupied positions in temple administrative bodies with the consent of the party. During elections, pragmatic CPM leaders including Pinarayi Vijayan visited religious leaders, seeking votes and party funds. For its part, the Church stopped its open canvassing of votes for the anti-Communist outfits. Neither the Church nor the party raised any objection over the cremation of AP Kurian, former Kerala Assembly Speaker and veteran Communist, at
the Church’s ground.

In 2007, however, the ghosts of a bygone era of spiritual and religious warring have come to haunt Kerala. The controversy arose over the Church’s statement that CPM MLA Mathai Chacko, who died in October 2006, was given the last sacrament by a priest on his deathbed. The statement, issued by Bishop Paul Chittilappilly, was furiously disputed by Pinarayi Vijayan,secretary, Kerala State Committee of the CPM. Vijayan called Chittilappilly “a wretched creature and a drunkard” who tried to help the Congressled opposition by questioning the “Communist morality” of Mathai Chacko. Chittilappilly, later,changed his earlier statement saying Chacko was unconscious at the time of the last sacrament.

A week later, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’Conference condemned Pinarayi’s attack on Chittilappilly. While diocese representatives demanded an apology from Pinarayi, CPM youth organisation DYFI’S president P. Sriramakrishnan said the bishop must apologise for lying in public.

Meanwhile, the Congress was quick to take its cue. “In a democratic set-up, everyone can voice his opinion. But Pinarayi, who insulted Bishop Thamarasseri, should apologise,” said KPCC president Ramesh Chennithala. The situation, now, is turning murkier. The Church authorities have distributed documents apparently showing that Chacko married his wife Mercy in a church at Kochi. The signature in the issued documents, however, does not match with the signature of Chacko as found in the state Assembly register. This latest revelation prompted CPM party workers across the state to accuse the Church of fabricating documents to defame the leader. “The bishop had visited my husband at the hospital. He said he would send a priest to pray for him. A priest came to the hospital but he didn’t give the last sacrament,” said Mercy when contacted.

Nevertheless, the issue has provided a sense of unity in the faction-ridden party. Even Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan came out in support of his bĂȘte noire in the party. The CPM is also planning to “expose” the church through public meetings and marches.

But it has also raised a number of questions about the standards of the CPM on religious issues. Cremations rituals of many leaders from the Christian and Muslim communities have been conducted in the recent past. Poomoodal, a mode of worship that appeals to a goddess to eliminate adversaries, was held at the famous Kadampuzha Bhagavathy temple last year in the name of Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and his son, which Kodiyeri has repeatedly denied.

LAST YEAR, the party allowed two of its legislators to take their oaths in God’s name. For Aisha Potti, CPM area committee member in Kollam, and MM Monayi, member of the party’s Ernakulam district committee, the swearing-in was also a chance to proclaim their faith. Potti is a Brahmin; Monayi a Syrian Christian. Potti said, “We’ve been committed to Communism and the party. But we’d never given up our faith while being in the revolutionary movement”.

The Left in Kerala has changed over the years. Professor Ninan Koshy, former director of the World Council of Churches, said, “Till the mid-1970s, the CPM had resented members expressing their religious affiliations. The party has obviously learnt to accept minorities and those of other faiths into its ranks without asking them to denounce their religion first.” But Pinarayi’s latest statement and the support he gets from his rivals in the party threaten to end the bonhomie.


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