The Church has waded into the snowballing diplomatic (and political) row between India and Italy over the killing of the two fishermen and the subsequent arrest and detention of two Italian Marines. The Catholic news agency Fides in Rome has quoted the Kochi-based Cardinal Mar George Alencherry as revealing that he has “urged” the Congress-led Kerala government headed by chief minister Oommen Chandy “not to act precipitately”.
To my mind, the revered Cardinal’s prompt intervention was timely. (See my earlier post
.) But it raises some serious issues, too. Conceivably, the Cardinal could not have voiced a personal opinion so publicly to Fides
. Fides is also the organ of the Vatican
. The heart of the matter is that Alencherry made the remark while in Rome.
Actually, only four days back Alencherry was consecrated as a Cardinal
by Pope Benedict XVI at the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. If the Vatican has in any way been associated with the Cardinal’s sensational remarks, the diplomatic row between India and Italy assumes another controversial dimension. The western public opinion comes into the picture. In such situations, western opinion usually consolidates. The Cold War history is replete with instances of the West pitting the Vatican against the Kremlin.
But the secular Indian public opinion is sure to firmly reject the Vatican’s locus standii in the matter. However, far more important, in Kerala itself, the bombshell by Alencherry is going to play out differently — and, perhaps, explosively. For one thing, the Church in Kerala is not a monolithic institution. From the animated web ‘chat’, it appears that the Cardinal’s intervention has provoked animosity
even among people with distinctly Christian names.
The fishing communities in the coastal regions of Kerala who are particularly agitated about the current issue of the Italian Marines’ resort to summary killing, do not subscribe to the Syro-Malabar Church. In sociological terms, the latter consider themselves to be the ‘aristocrats’ of Kerala’s Christian society with an extremely eclectic culture (which could be the envy of any religion). They are a prosperous community led by ’status quoists’ and conservatives, unsurprisingly.
On the contrary, the teeming christian communities of the ‘working class’ milieu in the coastal belt of Kerala are militant and restive, imbued with shades of “liberation theology”. (The Communist Party of India (Marxist) during its recent party congress in Thiruvananthapuram hailed on its red banners Jesus Christ as a liberator
Last year in May, Alencherry was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as the head of the entire Eastern Catholic Syro-Malabar Church and according to the Syro-Malabar tradition, he claims the title of “Patriarch of Mar Thoma Nasranis and the Gate of All India”. It added to Alencherry’s influential role in Kerala’s society and politics.
But the issue is how far his halo appeals to the teeming fishing villages of Kerala and Alencherry would probably infuriate them today. The paradox is that while the Mar Thoma Church in Kerala holds hardly any sway among the Christian communities of Kerala’s coastal belt, it is an immensely powerful voice in Kerala politics today. And Chandy’s government came into being thanks to the huge support from the Church of Kerala.
Alencherry may have spoken with an eye more on the forthcoming Piravom state assembly by-election
on March 18 (on which the fortunes of Chandy’s government hangs by a thin thread) rather than the future of India-Italy strategic partnership in the multipolar world or the death of a poor fisherman at the hands of the Italian Marines, who all three happened to be christians.
Of course, Chandy’s government will be greatly embarassed by Alencherry’s remarks. Chandy himself takes pride in being a staunchly secular-minded political leader and he is indeed a charismatic figure in Kerala politics today, Alencherry has done a disservice by exposing Chandy to an unsavoury impression that he is a mere helpless captive of the Christian religious establishment and communal politics.
Chandy has become inexplicably silent on the issue itself and has let the Italian affair be a matter of ‘due process of law’, which would lend credence to the feeling that Alencherry’s magic worked, after all. Simply put, Chandy doesn’t look good in this quagmire. The night of the long knives may be beginning within the faction-ridden Congress unit in Kerala.
All this raises some serious issues about Kerala politics today. The heart of the matter is that despite a high literacy level, the average Malayali is highly susceptible to caste and communal politics. To my mind, this and this alone — Congress party’s vulnerability to communal politics in the Piravom bypoll — has tied the hands of South Block in Delhi from handling the present issue optimally at the diplomatic level
with a view to find a rational, mutually acceptable and swift solution to this curious Indo-Italian fracas instead of letting it degenerate into the stuff of the bazaar of Congress politics. External Affairs Minister S.M.Krishna should be given a free hand to talk with his Italian counterpart Guilio Terzi who is expected in Delhi