It has become the church vs. state in Kerala. Again.
The Syro-Malabar Church organized a rally here on Sunday to “protect the rights of minorities” and such rallies are likely to become commonplace across Kerala as the powerful church steps up its campaign against the state government.
Speaking at the rally, the head of the the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, spoke out against moves by the Left-ruled state government related to educational institutions and what he dubbed as violation of the rights of minorities.
The rally is the most overt sign of a campaign that has been underway over the last few weeks with clergy in several churches using the Sunday mass to read out letters from bishops, instructing them to form vigilante groups and protect the “minority” interests and defend against the “attack on minority-run” educational institutions.
The undertone of the pastoral letters is unambiguous: there must be a concerted effort to protect the rights of Christians, who constitute around 20% of Kerala’s population of around 32 million.
The Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council has also alleged that a conspiracy was being hatched to “destroy the institution of Christianity, using the government,” and it is important that true believers fight this at any cost.
Kerala is witnessing what is a repeat of 1959, with pastoral letters from churches rallying against the government. That movement led to the ouster of the first elected Communist government in Kerala through what was dubbed as a “liberation struggle,” led by religious and communal groups, with the support of the Congress.
Since then, the church had come close to the Left after the growth of the Sangh Parivar and threats against missionaries across India, including the killing of missionary Graham Steins in 1999. But, it has now slowly started moving away from the state government.
The immediate provocation for turning against the Communist-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government here is the state’s education policy. The government has tried to rein in self-financing professional colleges, run mainly with the support of the church. Currently, there are 49 private self-financing engineering colleges and 29 medical colleges in the state.
The schools took off in the ‘90s when then government allowed the establishment of self-financing professional colleges to stop the outflow of money from the state in the form of large student donations to professional colleges in neighbouring states.
However, students and youth wings of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India are now opposing such colleges. And the LDF has tried to check these self-financing colleges by imposing a fee structure and limiting the number of seats for the management to 50%.
According to the government plan, 50% of the students should be admitted from a merit list and their fee was fixed at Rs15,400 per annum, with a deposit of Rs1.5 lakh per student. For the remaining 50% students, admitted under the management quota, the government allowed the institutions to fix the fee between Rs 40,000 and Rs 90,000. Within this, 15% seats were under non-resident Indian (NRI) quota, where the fees could be as high as Rs1.5 lakh.
The state government passed a bill to this effect but that has been struck down by the Kerala High Court. An appeal is now pending before the Supreme Court. The church saw the state’s efforts as an attempt to curb its rights and exclude Christians from the definition of minorities.
According to state education minister MA Baby, discussions will be held with the managements of the institutions to sort out things. The managements of some of the self-financing professional colleges, which tried to hold a common entrance exam for its colleges last week, saw Left students organizations disrupt the effort, forcing the managements to move the Supreme Court and hold the examination under protection of armed central forces.
The church has also come out against what it alleges as a government move to allow local bodies to interfere in the academic activities of government-aided schools, mostly run by the church. However, Baby and local administration minister Paloli Mohammed Kutty deny any such move and dub the church’s allegations as “fabrication of imagination”.
Kerala Chief minister VS Achuthanandan says that under the Panchayati Raj Act, local bodies have been given rights to oversee the activities of educational institutions in their respective areas. This right was given under the Modernization Government Programme (MGP) during the previous Congress-led government whose constituents are now backing the Church, he claims.
Political observers here say that a repeat of 1959 struggle is unlikely for now as the ruling LDF is looking to hold a dialogue with the church. But, the call by the CPM leadership to the church to withdraw the pastoral letters has been turned down and moves by a section of the LDF, through some of its ministers, to patch-up with the church have also yielded no results so far.