2002-12-31 00:00:00

Church leaders, politicians and farmers have mourned the death of a Catholic priest who led agrarian struggles and trade unions in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Father Joseph Vadakkan, a priest of the Syro-Malabar diocese of Trichur, died Dec. 28 after suffering an illness related to his advanced age. He was 84. A large number of farmers and Church leaders, led by Archbishop Jacob Thoomkuzhy of Trichur, attended Father Vadakkan´s funeral service on Dec. 30.

In a condolence message, State Chief Minister A.K. Antony hailed Father Vadakkan as "a legend among Catholic priests in India," and said the late priest "left an indelible mark on Kerala´s socio-political scene."

Antony said Father Vadakkan would also "be remembered as an eminent social reformer who fought for farmers´ causes." He added that the life and work of the Catholic priest would "be a source of inspiration for generations."

Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro Malabar bishops, commented, "Undoubtedly, he was a sterling leader of the Church in Kerala. His contributions to the people´s causes are immense."

Born in 1919, Father Vadakkan worked as a schoolteacher before joining the seminary at age 26. He was ordained a priest 11 years later. While still a seminarian, however, he launched a front in 1951 to fight the Communist Party of India that was then making inroads in Kerala.

"He was a revolutionary," recalls K.C. Mammen, a farmer leader who worked with the priest. Farmers in Kerala are "indebted to him because he was among the few Catholic leaders who understood the pulse of the farming community," Mammen told UCA News.

Mammen said the "greatness" of the late priest was "the fighter in him." He also noted that Father Vadakkan "did not care for the Church leadership or for what others thought about him. He did what he thought was right."

In work spanning more than four decades, Father Vadakkan coordinated hundreds of struggles for the farmers all over Kerala, particularly in the state´s hilly regions in the north. He also started three publications -- "Thozhilali" (worker), "Malayorasabdam" (voice from hills), "The Kerala Tempest" -- to highlight the plight of farmers and workers.

The priest shot to prominence during the Church struggle against an elected communist government in the state. The movement, popularly known as the Liberation Struggle, brought down the regime within a year of taking office in 1956. Father Vadakkan was one of the general secretaries who coordinated that struggle.

Father F.D. Susaimicheal Raj, 98, a priest in neighboring Tamil Nadu state, recalled that his fellow priest also worked for the first-ever Christian forum on development, jointly organized by Catholics and Protestants in New Delhi in the 1970s. Father Raj, the first director of the Social Service Society of Madurai archdiocese, said Father Vadakkan was instrumental in providing shelter to many poor people through a revolving-fund method he had devised.

Though he began as an anti-communist, Father Vadakkan later became a socialist sympathizer and co-traveler in the communist movement. Communist leader Pinarayi Vijayan says Father Vadakkan´s affinity with communism stemmed from a deep love for working-class people. "His commitment to social causes is something politicians lack," Vijayan told UCA News.

Father Vadakkan collaborated with communist leaders in the early 1960s to fight the eviction of farmers who had been settled in Kerala´s northern and eastern regions. That struggle eventually led him in 1962 to start a socio-political body called the Karshaka Thozhilali Party (farmer-worker party).

In 1984, Father Vadakkan toured Kerala addressing meetings of some 2,200 farmers across the state, and retired thereafter.

Father Thelakat recalled that Father Vadakkan criticized Church policies on the right of workers and farmers in the state, many of them Christians. The Church warned him to disassociate himself from the communists.

In 1971, he defied his bishop and offered Mass in a public area to protest Church policies, and this led to his suspension from priestly duties. But three years later, the diocese revoked the suspension and the priest "made up with the Church leadership," Father Thelakat told UCA News.

Former Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran said he also mourns the death of Father Vadakkan as a friend, whom he hailed as "a courageous person who raised his voice for the downtrodden."


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