- “Abraham was a Dravidian”; ”Saivism and Vaishnavism are branches of Christianity”; “in ancient times the whole world spoke Tamil”—these are some the beliefs propagated by the Church in Tamil Nadu
- Evangelical organisations have grown to wield enormous political clout in the state, and openly support one party and denounce another
In Tamil Nadu elections, the Roman Catholic Church (RC) as well as the Protestant Church (Church of South India, CSI) have always been silent but powerful forces. During the elections, particularly in southern Tamil Nadu, they announce for whom their flock should vote. In Kanyakumari district, the Church always provides clear cut instructions as to whom to vote for and whom not to.
Recently, the clout of the Churches has been on the rise with rival Dravidian leaders competing with each other to placate them. The current Chief Minister was fed cake at a Christmas function by the Chennai Roman Catholic Archbishop. Apart from the regular Churches, charismatic evangelists also subtly hint at – and at times openly declare – whom the believers should support. Both Uma Shankar IAS, Mohan Lazarus (whose massive prayer meets have been attended by rationalist Dravidian leaders like Stalin) and Dhinakaran are known to pray for the victory of specific political parties or divine retribution against a specific party.
For the 2016 assembly elections, the Bishops have openly supported the Congress-DMK alliance. The Church has a stranglehold on the populations of the coastal villages of South India. There have been frequent rebellions by intellectuals in the coastal community against the control of Church in their day to day affairs. But the all-powerful Church has been the final winner in almost all confrontations.
The Church forms an invisible barrier around the coastal communities. It is also the only interface between the communities and the state. The Church will decide what stand the coastal communities should take on a specific national or regional issue and, in turn, it will have the power to bargain with the government and hence the party in power. This has helped the Church exercise enormous power in post-independent India, particularly in Tamil Nadu (and Kerala).
This can be compared only with the power that the Church had in medieval Europe during the dark ages. For example, in 2006, the then DMK government meekly complied with the demands of the Church and banned the screening of the movie Da Vinci Code. In many of the scandals involving the mysterious death of girl students in Church-run institutions in Tamil Nadu, which may indicate widespread abuse not dissimilar to the child abuse within the Church in the West, the state governments of alternative Dravidian parties have remained a silent spectator.
The recent announcement by the Bishops to support the Congress-DMK alliance also comes from a confluence of evangelical and political interests.
Chithbavananda, the famous educationist seer of Tamil Nadu, in his tract on Hindu-Christian encounters recorded an interesting confession by a Madurai Bishop. It said that the Dravidian movement was a time bomb set by the Church to destroy Hinduism. The Church, cutting across denominations, has constantly tried to create and propagate a false history that combines Dravidian racism with evangelical Christianity. In this narrative, Abraham was a Dravidian. St.Thomas brought this Dravidian monotheism back to Tamil Nadu which was then besieged by Brahmins (who else!)— Aryan mercenaries of their pagan religion. Thirukural was the result of the teachings of St.Thomas! Saivism and Vaishnavism were branches of Christianity brought by St.Thomas. Cunning Brahmins corrupted them into present Hinduism.
Rev. Jegath Gaspar Raj, a Catholic priest, grew in importance in the cultural affairs of the state under the previous DMK rule. A veritable Rasputin of the DMK reich, Gaspar tried to secularize Hindu folk traditions. They could be later Christianized through minority educational institutions subsidized by secular government. Simultaneously, he also launched a publication house that propagated the works of ‘scholar’ Ma.Se.Victor who claims that Tamil was the language of Adam spoken by all humanity before the Tower of Babel was destroyed by God. Such crank theories are kept in incubation to take over the Dravidianist narrative and they find forced advocacy under DMK regime. So when DMK gets supported by the Bishops there is more than vote-bank politics and ground level bargaining of concessions. There is ideological vested interest in the form of promoting a racist Dravidian ideology against Hinduism and Hindus.
The Church is also known to give tactical support to internal separatist conflicts in India – either to carve out a separate sovereign linguistic state where it can become a major player or to increase its control as well as bargaining power with the government. In the process it seldom cares what happens to the livelihood of its own flock. For example, when the separatist LTTE abducted Tamil fishermen in 2007, the Church turned into a propaganda wing of LTTE rather than actively campaigning for the release of the abducted fishermen, most of whom were Catholics. In the case of the Italian marines killing South Indian fishermen including a Tamil Nadu fisherman, the Catholic Church took the side of the Italian killers.
The underlying problem in all these is the concept of minority rights. A person belonging to a particular religion is considered a minority and is given special institutional rights in the secular realms. In the context of Indian culture, ‘matham’ the word for religion actually means an opinion. One cannot become a minority based on the opinion and demand concessions in secular realms.
Consider a set of scientists who hold a minority view differing from the mainstream scientists that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs; can they demand preferential treatment in paleontology department because they hold a ‘minority’ view? Can physicists supporting Bohm’s Implicate order demand reservations for their children in educational institutions? Then why should reservations be given if someone holds a minority view in a realm that is even more speculative and is on flimsier ground than the robust realm of theoretical physics?
Both Dr. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi were united in the idea that the term minority should not have a religious basis. Dr. Ambedkar said that religion ‘cannot be a good and reliable test for minorities’ but ‘social discrimination’ is. In a rare concurrence of thought, Gandhi too accepted this view that social discrimination rather than religion should be the basis of categorizing minorities. Thus in a secular society minorities based on secular categories like gender, ethnicity, language should take precedence over minorities with religion as the defining category.
At the same time there is no denying the fact that any socio-cultural group that finds itself numerical minority in a society should be given psychological comfort in a way that is healthy for democracy. But when the same group becomes expansionist as Dr. Ambedkar pointed out in the case of Muslims, then they should be seen as an aggressive element which should be dealt with and should not be appeased.
Interestingly, the Modi government has acted in tune with the vision of Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi. This government took special efforts to bring back the Catholic priest abducted by Islamists in Afghanistan. It took special care to liberate the nurses from Kerala from almost certain death and dishonour and majority of them were Catholics. Modi participated in all cultural programmes organized by the minority religious groups.
While in Tamil Nadu the political parties indulging in vote bank politics eagerly handed over the community leadership to the fundamentalist forces campaigning against the internal diversity of minority communities, as in the case of ‘Shirk annihilation campaign’, Modi proactively organized World Sufi Forum to provide an alternative Indic model of Islam fine-tuned for co-existence in a pluralistic world. But all these do not stop the Dioceses and Bishops from supporting the Congress-DMK alliance. Clearly, vote bank politics in the name of minority welfare is batting for their own total control of the believers rather than empowering religious minorities as equal citizens in a secular democracy.