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India remembers its rebellious Kerala priest

Remembering Father Thomas Kocherry, a man of the poor and the sea reporter, Thiruvananthapuram

May 6, 2014

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For fishermen in India and across the world he was a leader. For anti-nuclear activists, he was an inspiration. And for the Church, he was an unorthodox priest who simply could not be disciplined.

On Monday, hundreds of well wishers including priests and nuns descended on the funeral of Redemptorist Father Thomas Kocherry held in tiny Muttada parish, 10 kms north of the Kerala state capital Thiruvananthapuram. Following his death from a heart attack, aged 73, at his south Kerala home on Saturday, Kocherry was laid to rest in the parish cemetery. 

Born in the south Kerala town of Changanassery, 20 kms from the sea, Kocherry spent 43 years as a priest but rarely in a routine role. He started out his parish life in the coastal town of Punthura, teamed up with poor local fishermen and soon began running traditional nets with them out at sea.

The currents against the left-leaning South American liberation theology which had reached Kerala’s shores by the 1970s meant Kocherry came in for heavy criticism from within the Church. He simply ignored it.

At a time when priests were not supposed to wander much farther than the church gates, Kocherry was vocally demanding workers’ rights for fishermen on the streets of Kerala, eventually organizing them into unions for the first time.

“They were uneducated. He gave them direction and prepared them to fight for their rights,” said TJ Anjalose, former MP for the coastal Kerala town of Alappuzha and himself a fishing union leader. “He had the guts to challenge the authorities.”

In 1978, Kocherry was instrumental in setting up a cooperative for poor fishermen, saving them from exploitation by mechanized boat owners. Five years later, he was leading them into fasting protests in which he threatened to continue until his own death.

In 1983, on the 21st day of the fast, the under-pressure government finally agreed to a ban on trawling that remains in place during the monsoon spawning season until this day, protecting fish stocks for poorer fishermen who operate in shallow waters.

“Many people could not understand his actions. Many said his social actions were unbecoming of a priest,” said Sister Philomene Mary, a Medical Mission nun who fasted with him 30 years ago. “He worked for the poor, and they were his only concern. History will record him as a great man who put into action what Jesus taught.”

In 1997, he was unanimously elected coordinator of the World Forum of Fish-workers and Fish-harvesters when the new global NGO was set up that year in New Delhi, making him the leader of some 100 million fishermen in 42 countries.

He made headlines during this period for refusing to accept a US$150,000 award from the Pew Foundation which was at the time sponsored by the Ohio-based energy firm now known as Sunoco – accepting the award from a sea polluter would betray fishermen, he argued.

Kocherry was never a celebrity, and although he won Norway’s International Environment and Development Prize in 1999, he never received similar recognition by either the government or the Church in his own country. Instead he faced harassment: Kocherry was jailed 13 times during his life.

Hard work and stress began to take their toll on his health, leading to four heart-bypass surgeries during his old age.

Still, last year he travelled to the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu to continue his 15-year fight against a planned Russian nuclear power station in a small fishing village. It was one of his final acts of defiance.

“In 1989, when he found out about the government’s plan for the plant in Koodankulam, he led a massive rally of fishermen to tell they government they are doing a rubbish job and that they had no right to endanger these poor fishermen in the name of development,” said SP Udayakumar, head of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy. “He was a great visionary.”

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