Updated: February 11, 2021 07:18 AM GMT
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters attend a public meeting addressed by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Haldia, about 120km south of Kolkata, on Feb. 7. (Photo: AFP)
Ahead of state elections in Kerala state, Catholic bishops have cautioned people against misleading political campaigns that polarize people on religious lines in this Indian southern state.
The bishops' warning came after a political leader justified the takeover of the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Turkey and turning it into a mosque.
"It is true. The efforts are on to create a Christian-Muslim divide in the state ahead of the elections with fake, misleading and maligning campaigns," said Bishop Joseph Pamplany, chairman of the media commission of Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council (KCBC).
The KCBC urged political leaders to abstain from any act that polarizes voters on communal lines in a statement issued on Feb. 5.
State elections are due in Kerala in April-May to elect 140 legislators for the state's 33 million people as the current government's five-year term ends on June 1.
The state is set to see a fierce battle for power as the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the federal government, tries to find a foothold in Kerala.
The BJP is looking to garner Hindu votes in the highly secularized state, where Hindus form some 54 percent of the population, while Christians and Muslims together form 45 percent.
Muslims are 26 percent and Christians 18 percent of the population, but both are decisive in certain areas where they are a majority.
"Misleading and fake news are passed on in social media and other platforms to divide Christians and Muslims," said Bishop Pamplany.
The BJP made history in the last Kerala election when it won a seat. It has now vowed to win at least 30 seats this time, converting the polls into a tight three- cornered fight.
Until now, the state has witnessed see-saw politics where the Congress party-led alliance of the United Democratic Front (UDF) has fought directly with the communist-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), with each coming to power by unseating the other.
However, unlike in the past, opinion surveys predict the ruling communist-led alliance is likely to retain power. Communists have a strong support base among all religious groups — Hindus, Christians and Muslims.
"Now certain vested interests are out to create communal division among peacefully living Christians and Muslims in the state," Bishop Pamplany told UCA News on Feb. 10.
"They are trying to project that Christians are against Muslims for raising the issue of love jihad," the prelate added. The term alludes that young Muslim men feign love and marry Christian women and convert them to Islam.
"It is again totally fake and misleading information to create hatred among Christians and Muslims. The reality is that the Church's stand on love jihad is not against Islam. We are only against certain elements who are involved in such acts," the bishop said.
The bishop admitted that the strong coalition politics of the UDF and LDF "is the need of the state," indicating the rise of the BJP in the state should be "a matter of concern for everyone."
During the December 2020 elections to local bodies, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance bagged 15 percent of the vote share, showing a growth in support for the BJP in Kerala.
The Congress-led UDF could gain only a 37 percent vote share, with some poll analysts saying it was because more Christians have switched loyalty to the communists. Christians in the state traditionally voted for the Congress alliance.
However, Bishop Pamplany denied the allegation. "It is the infighting" in the Congress and their alliance partners "that led to the loss in the local body polls, and Christians should not be blamed for that."
"The Church has not sided with any political party. Instead, it always stood with parties that promote secularism and democratic values coupled with a development agenda for the welfare of all," said Bishop Pamplany, who is also the auxiliary bishop of Tellicherry Diocese.
Political observers say a Christian-Muslim divide can help the BJP improve its position in Kerala, although it has no chance to capture power.
"We often see some Muslims on social media targeting Christians. But such social media IDs are often fake. In reality, these IDs are owned by persons with Hindu religious identities," said Shaiju Antony, a Catholic leader.
Such campaigns are part of "a well-orchestrated plan to create a communal divide among Christians and Muslims. Sometimes, we see violent reactions from Christians under such fake posts," he told UCA News on Feb. 10.