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Christians on the campaign trail

Caste often trumps religion in Tamil Nadu politics

Congress (I) leader G K Vasan addresses a roadside meeting at Colachel's Kanyakumari district Congress (I) leader G K Vasan addresses a roadside meeting at Colachel's Kanyakumari district
  • Vincent D' Souza, Chennai
  • India
  • April 12, 2011
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The first of a series looking at the Church's role in this week's elections in India

Tamil Nadu state, along with neighboring Kerala and Pondichery, goes to the polls tomorrow to elect a new state assembly of legislators. Local campaigning is revving up in the town of Colachel which hugs the coast of the Indian Ocean in the deep south, in the district of Kanyakumari.

Coconut farms flourish on one side, fishing villages dot the coast and the main road snakes its way from the district headquarters of Nagercoil to Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the neighboring state of Kerala.

In the searing heat of April, a cavalcade of the Congress (I) grinds to a halt at the traffic junction in Colachel and partymen and people alike crowd around it. From an opening in a SUV, Congress leader and union minister G. K. Vasan addresses the crowd. The act is over in 15 minutes and the Vasan convoy heads to Nagercoil, with many stops planned on the way.

"Different people are saying different things. The election will be a close fight," says Amirthayya, a local fisherman in the crowd.
Christians are a significant section of the electorate
The previous night, just outside Colachel, crowds gathered at another junction as a group of traditional percussionists played rousing music to keep people entertained. They were expecting a young leader of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam DMK party to stop here. Kanimozhi, a member of parliament and daughter of the chief minister of the state, is two hours late. But when her convoy drives in, there is a buzz and the roadside speech is over in 15 minutes.

Kanimozhi has many issues to cover with her audience of about 200 people. She points out it was the opposition AIADMK party which brought in an anti-conversion law in Tamil Nadu and that the DMK government has done much for the fishermen.

Christians are a significant section of the electorate in the three southern districts of Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin. These are areas where missions have worked for two centuries and the Church has deep roots. As such, the politics of the region impinges on the Church and its community, a majority of whom are fishing folk.

[caption id="attachment_12205" align="aligncenter" width="465" caption="Armed police deploy in Tamil Nadu to ensure an orderly campaign"][/caption]

In Colachel, Father J. Joseph, vicar forane of the region says that political parties are still not willing to put leaders from fishing groups on their tickets. Their decisions are dictated by caste equations.

In neighboring Killiyoor constituency, composed mainly of fishermen and almost completely of Catholics, political parties have not chosen a candidate from either group. "Political representation is a must and we are asking for it," says Father Joseph.
The Church has developed a political consciousness
While Church has so far failed to gain that representation, it appears to have developed a political consciousness. "People are aware of local issues and they always engage with the legislator whichever party he may belong to. They cannot be ignored," says Father Joseph.

In Colachel, both the candidates of the leading parties, Prince of the Congress (I) and Lawrence of AIADMK, are Christians and local.

At the Bishop's house in Nagercoil the next morning, vans and cars of the DMK convoy are parked in the campus. In the chamber, the DMK's Kanimozhi has an informal meeting with Bishop Peter Remingus of the Kottar diocese. Bishop Remingus is willing to meet but he does not want to talk about the election. "The Tamil Nadu Bishops Council has issued a note. It's all there," he says.

While politicians of every hue come to see the Bishop and get his blessing, he makes sure they do not take pictures and share them with the local media. He has to walk a tightrope and cannot be seen siding with either the fishing community or the dominant caste group.
'We will oppose the BJP at any cost'
Radical Hindu outfits and the right-wing BJP party have also been very active in this region and are in the thick of the electoral battle. In the past, there have been severe tensions and the scars run deep.

"We will oppose the BJP at any cost," says S. Eugene, a member of the state's laity commission. But this time, he says, the community faces a dilemma. It sees the DMK as corrupt and has let down local fishermen on security issues with neighbouring Sri Lanka.

The AIADMK is seen as an anti-Christian party and no one has forgotten the anti-conversion law that its leader J. Jayalalithaa brought in when she was in power. "But if we do not vote for either, it may allow BJP to win in some places," says Eugene.

Since the time of Congress leader K. Kamaraj, who first recognized the Christians and appointed a woman legislator of the community as state fisheries minister in his cabinet, the community has sided with the Congress. In the 1957 and 1962 state elections, the TN bishops council asked the laity to support the Congress.

Later, when actor-turned politician M G Ramachandran (MGR) led the DMK campaigns, he roused the fishing community - MGR had acted in two films based on fishing. This won the vote for the DMK despite a call by the Church to continue support for the Congress. That was in 1967. Only Colachel had voted for the Congress then.

Loyalties have since been divided.
Catholics here tend to vote on caste lines
With more than 500,000 Christians in Kanyakumari district, of which half are from fishing villages and coastal areas, the local Church has had to deal with the caste issues that also affect it. Catholics here of the dominant caste tend to vote on caste lines - it doesn't matter to them if a candidate is Catholic or not.

And in the fishing communities, there is little in the way of political leadership. "Fishermen themselves don't relish leaders and the political awakening is slow. The Church now remains apolitical," says Father Kildos, Head of the Coastal Peace and Development agency of the local church.

At a rally in Nagercoil, AIADMK leader J. Jayalalithaa who studied at a Catholic convent in the state capital Chennai, promises to review the local reservation for minorities and says she will fight for rights of fishermen.

In neighboring Tirunelveli district, Catholic community leaders show a distinct disapproval of the DMK. Their sentiments are expressed by Bishop Jude G. Paulraj of the Palayamkottai diocese. There are about 200,000 Christians in this region.

He faults the DMK on three issues. Not passing laws to treat scheduled caste Christians as Most Backward Castes (MBC) and to treat backward caste Christians as MBCs and not approving grants to government-aided schools that were upgraded, thus leaving managements to either pay teachers low salaries or lose them.

"Karunanidhi is a shrewd man. He welcomes us all to visit and talk but he doesn't act," says the bishop. But on election eve, he has had visits from DMK candidates to solicit support.
Community should 'follow its conscience'
The let-down is severe because in the 2006 elections to the state Assembly, the Church openly asked its flock to vote for the DMK. This time around, it has asked the community "to vote according to its conscience."

Similar is the feeling in Tuticorin district where once the Portuguese missions worked, the coast is dotted with grand and heritage churches and where now a modern sea port and power stations is driving industry and business.

Bishop Yuvone Ambrose has refused to entertain any politician and refuses to talk politics. "We are circulating a leaflet that lists what this government has done and not done. It is for people to decide on this basis," he says at his office in this coastal town.

The campaign is being carried out by leaders of the Christuva Vazhvurimai Iyakkam (Christians Right to Life Movement) which was set up about two years ago.

While local politicians are wary of the impact that this campaign may have among the 108 parishes and 370 sub-stations with a population of about 400,000 Catholics, the game is again driven along caste lines. "We have been let down by the DMK. Only one woman among the candidates in the region is a Christian. Yet, we are animating the people on issues before them," says Father James Victor, co-ordinator of this diocese's commissions.
'Muslims are heard today. We need to do the same'
However, this distinction does not seem evident in CSI quarters. The CSI has a huge number of churches and institutions in the three districts in south Tamil Nadu. Insiders say leaders tend to side with both political parties and thus manage the outcome.

Some CSI lay leaders and priests have been shown on private TV channels greeting Jayalalithaa and extending their support. This makes good propaganda in the media run by the parties and confuses the community.

Clearly, in Tamil Nadu the Catholic community is yet to be politically active. It does not count for parties at election time. But some efforts are being made by activists inside the Church. "The Muslims have got together and are heard today. We need to do the same," Says Father Victor.

IA13923.1649

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