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Indian archbishop’s overture to PM Modi’s party draws flak

The prelate pledged to help the pro-Hindu party to win a seat in Kerala if rubber prices are hiked
Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry

Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry (Photo supplied)

Published: March 20, 2023 11:41 AM GMT
Updated: March 21, 2023 05:31 AM GMT

A Catholic archbishop based in southern Kerala state has courted controversy after he publicly promised to support the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the coming parliamentary polls if it hikes the prices of rubber benefiting Catholic farmers.

Syro-Malabar Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry made the promise when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, which is aiming for a third consecutive term, is keen on wooing the Christian community in the southern state.

The prelate's call at a meeting of rubber plantation farmers, a core community of the Kerala-based Eastern Indian Church, on March 18 has irked many Christian leaders who now want him to clarify his stand.

“It is pathetic,” reacted Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit rights activist based in the western state of Gujarat, which has been ruled by the BJP for nearly three decades and is among the states that have enacted a sweeping anti-conversion law.

“First of all, bishops and priests should refrain from gathering votes for any political party,” Father Prakash told UCA News on March 20.

He said pro-Hindu groups associated with the BJP continue to attack Christians and Muslims, undermining the secular fabric of the constitution. Still, if the prelate wants people to vote for the BJP “he should clarify in a written statement,” the Jesuit said. 

Pamplany’s support for BJP in the general elections “is fraught with many socio-political ramifications,” said Father Babu Joseph, former spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

Although his comments may send the right signal to the distressed rubber growers of Kerala, “it may not go down well with all sections of the community,” the Divine Word priest told UCA News on March 20.

Chacko Kalamparambil, a leader of the Catholic Congress, a Christian-based political party, however, defended the prelate, saying that “farmers in the state are facing an invincible poverty” and Pamplany was highlighting their woes.

Addressing the farmers’ meeting in the northern district of Kannur in Kerala, Pamplany urged the Modi-led federal government to fix Rs. 300 (US$3.6) as the basic support price for natural rubber per kilogram. It will help farmers support BJP, which currently has no lawmakers from Kerala.

Currently, rubber farmers are getting 120 to 150 rupees for a kilogram of rubber, after incurring a production cost of 250 rupees, farmers said.

More than 1.5 million people are reported to be rubber plantation farmers in Kerala and the majority of them belong to the Syro-Malabar Church, one of the 22 Eastern rites in the Catholic fold.  

Kerala sends 20 lawmakers to India’s Lok Sabha or the lower house of Parliament. Though BJP has been at the helm in New Delhi since 2014, it failed to win a seat in Kerala.

To win a seat in Kerala, Modi’s party needs the support of either Christians or Muslims.

Muslims make up 26 percent while Christians 18 percent of the southern state's 33 million population. 

The BJP leaders reportedly have kick-started talks with Christian leaders in Kerala to woo the community ahead of the general elections in 2024.

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2 Comments on this Story
JESTINE JOHN
Some may want to extend the benefit of the doubt to the archbishop who justified his comments as righteous indignation at government apathy towards the travails of Syro-Malabar Catholic farmers. But I was wondering if the bishop wants to or will speak for ALL Catholics (at least in Kerala) at the receiving end of state apathy. There is a set of Catholics worthy of passionate defence in Kerala itself - the predominantly Latin coastal communities and fishing workers. The coastal Latin Catholics have been historically marginalized by caste discrimination from caste elites, including the Syrian Catholic Christians. At present, their ways of life and livelihood are threatened by the degradation of marine ecosystems and coastal erosion — both results of climate change and mindless 'development' (development for whom?). Governmental apathy to the existential threat they're facing is as grave (if not more) as that of the Syro-Malabar farmers. One only has to travel along the coastline from Thumba to Anjuthengu in Kerala to see the precarity of coastal lives. Only compound walls separate the houses of marginalized Catholic (and other) fishing families from the roaring seas. What strikes you instantly are the Bible verses painted onto the compound walls of Latin Catholics. For sure, they know that their faith is the only refuge and succour in the face of centuries of state and societal indifference to their sufferings. If anyone wants to bring party politics to the equation here, we all saw how the supposed arch-rivals (BJP and CPM) came together to hound the protestors of Vizhinjam. So the question I ask is simple: Will the prelate speak with the same passion and ostensible sincerity for the historically marginalized coastal Catholic communities too? Or would he rather not antagonise the BJP, who also shares his antipathy towards the Muslim 'Other'? I mean, history has no dearth of examples of UNHOLY alliances between Catholic priests and fascist forces — Jozef Gašpar Tiso being only one example. Or will that favourite figleaf of KCBC — the technicality of 'rite' differences between Syro-Malabar and Latin denominations at play in crucial junctures like the Franco Mulakkal rape case — cloud his judgment too? Given the recent history, it appears that as long as their (caste-class) interests are met, these spiritual merchants WILL NOT mind the injustices meted out to other Catholics (like the Dalit Catholic priest-cum-theologian Stan Swamy or any other marginalized Indian Catholics, including those persecuted by the Sangh Parivar). When caste-class interests are at stake, the Syro-Malabar definition of 'marginalised Catholics' shrinks considerably in scope. Instead of the Bible, which they swear by every day of their lives, these prelates resemble fixers playing by the rulebook of slick politicians. So, in the current state of things, aside from token statements (if at all), there is no hope for real and meaningful solidarity from most Syrian Catholic prelates to the struggles and pains of Latin and Dalit Catholics, non-Catholic Christians or non-Christian minorities in contemporary India. Certainly, such hypocrisy, callousness and selfishness were the traits of a certain species the Nazarene of Galilee identified in his lifetime. He had used the most prescient of metaphors to describe them -- 'offspring of vipers' (Matt 3:7) and 'whitewashed tombs' (Matt 23:27)!
ISAAC GOMES
It is very shocking that Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry of Syro-Malabar Church has promised votes for BJP to help the party get a foothold (at least one seat in Kerala) in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Giving the benefit of doubt to the bishop, he must have said it out of sheer desperation to project himself as the Messiah of rubber farmers in Kerala, the majority being from the Catholic community. However, it must be reiterated here that no cardinal, bishop or priest of the Indian Church has the authority or would ever advise voters on a preferential candidate. The NDA has already made decisive inroads into the Indian Christian citadels in Goa, Meghalaya and Nagaland showing the carrot of “Aachhey Din.” Going by the account of a Christian IPS from the North-east, the NDA has brought about rapid development of infrastructure along with pumping in a lot of money from the Centre. Another reason for NDA’s success in the region is the very early presence of RSS pracharaks and it repeatedly pointing out the role of China, Pakistan and Bangladesh agencies in fomenting trouble in this region, a reality corroborated by independent sources, academics, journalists and intelligence agencies (Source: First Post 15 May 2022). Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany must recall what the doyen of women’s self-employment and empowerment late Ela Bhatt said during an interview on 14th December 2013 on NDTV: “First and foremost, we must recognize that poverty is violence. It is violence perpetuated with the consent of society – a society that is silent or looks the other way in the face of poverty. It is giving consent to exploitation, injustice and war. Poverty strips away a person’s dignity, humanity, it corrodes the human spirit. There is no justification for poverty in India.” The Bishop must realise that poverty is a social evil and no political party has the real inclination to eradicate it. They just make tall promises before elections. Basically, the NDA is systematically replicating its Goa and North-east formula in Kerala. It must be repeated that no cardinal, bishop or priest of the Indian Church has the authority to advise voters on whom to vote for or not to. It is for the voters of Kerala to see His Light.
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