Manipur Violence Is a Setback for Modi’s Christian Outreach Moves in Kerala

In areas where Christians are in a minority, they are less threatened by Hindutva politics. But the recent events in Manipur may come as a reminder that they too can come under attack.

The recent move by a section of the Church in not-so-polarised Kerala to soften their stance
towards the Bharatiya Janata Party can be seen in the light of a similar stand taken by the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party in Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir in the past. In the Northeast states, where Christians form an overwhelming majority, regional political outfits did not hesitate in joining hands with the saffron party. This had happened even in Manipur, where Hindus and Christians are almost equal in number. Kukis, who are predominantly Christians, lent their support to the BJP in last year’s assembly election.

The proclivity of some Christian groups towards the BJP sounds somewhat puzzling for the co-religionists living in the rest of India, as they are repeatedly being targeted by Hindutva groups. Vandalisation of churches has not stopped and BJP governments in the states are making anti-conversion laws, yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy wooing Christians, especially in Kerala, where he on April 24 held a roadshow. This followed a visit to a church in Delhi on Easter Sunday (April 9).

With elections not in sight in Kerala, why has the BJP suddenly turned its attention towards the southern state? And that too when only about 2% of Christians voted for it in the 2021 assembly polls, against 10% in 2021? Some commentators are of the view that these exercises are being undertaken keeping in mind the G-20 Summit scheduled in September.

The other view is that the BJP is trying to drive a wedge between two minority groups – Muslims and Christians – who together form 45% of Kerala’s population. Though at present both the Left Democratic Front and Congress-led United Democratic Front are strong, the BJP has a long-term plan to emerge as a political alternative, as in West Bengal where many Marxist office-bearers and workers had crossed over to join it.

Also read: The Mysterious Case of the Imposition of Article 355 in Manipur

Apart from this, the BJP is trying to exploit the situation which has emerged following the weakening of the Kerala Congress, a regional outfit not to be confused with the Indian National Congress. Kerala Congress is considered to be the representative of Christians of the central part of the state. A couple of Christian leaders of the Kerala Congress on April 22 formed the National Progressive Party. Though the NPP founders deny that it is a pro-BJP outfit and claim that it espouses the cause of rubber-growing farmers in central Kerala, political observers are of the view that the new party may become a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance.

But the bigger question is why after Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and even Manipur, some Christians in Kerala are showing their inclination towards the BJP? There may be some differences with Muslims in Kerala, but Christians elsewhere in India realise that in the long run, befriending the BJP may prove counter-productive.

Little to fear in Kerala, Northeast

At the very outset, it should be understood that there is no scope for Christians in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram to face a security threat from any extremist elements, as is the case in the rest of India. In the same way, Christians in Kerala, who are 18.4% of the population, have less to fear from outfits like the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which are not very strong there – though the RSS is expanding its influence. Besides, Kerala has 26.5% Muslim population and 54.7% Hindu population.

So in the Northeast and Kerala, Christians in general do not fear attacks on their houses, churches, schools, seminaries etc. and nobody is questioning their eating habits. In these places, even hardened BJP leaders and workers belonging to this community eat beef. However, it is also true that the Enforcement Directorate is working overtime against some of their priests.

Anti-Christian violence in Odisha

This is not the case with Christians living in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha etc. They have not forgotten the Kandhamal (Odisha) riots of 2007-08. Officially, 39 Christians were killed, but unofficial figures vary between 100 and 500. At least 40 women were sexually assaulted, and 395 churches and 4,000 houses destroyed. In all, some 60,000-70,000 Christians were rendered homeless and thousands others were forced to convert to Hinduism.

In 2007-08, the BJP was not in power at the Centre, but was an alliance partner in the state. Just ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha and assembly polls in Odisha, chief minister Naveen Patnaik broke an 11-year-long relationship with the BJP.

As there is hardly anything to fear in at least three Northeastern states and Kerala, Christians here do not mind treating the BJP as another political party. They know that there is no scope for witch-hunting and ‘ghar wapsi’ (return to the Hindu fold), so why not give the BJP a chance? In the small Northeast states, which enjoy special category status, the ruling party always wants to befriend the party in power in Delhi and enjoy all sorts of grants and concessions.

Manipur developments

However, the situation in Manipur is somewhat different. The large-scale clashes between Meiteis and Kukis has acquired communal overtones, as the former are mostly Hindus and the latter Christians. The state has 41.39% Hindus, 41.29% Christians and 8.4% Muslims.

There are historical reasons behind the latest bloodbath between the two equally strong communities. As churches are being targeted in Manipur at a time when Modi is trying to woo Christians down in the south, the communal nature of rioting has come as a setback to his outreach. Christians across the country are alarmed over the recent developments in Manipur.

Also read: Seven Reasons Why the Violence in Manipur Cannot Be Considered a Sudden Occurrence

Kerala’s specific problem

A sizeable number of Keralites live abroad, especially in the Gulf countries. As there are several issues – for example the Palestine problem – on which Christians and Muslims may differ, it is bound to have its impact back in the state. Muslims and Christians are upwardly mobile communities in Kerala and they differ from their co-religionists in the rest of India. There are instances of inter-community marriages too, which some Christians, like the Sangh parivar, call love jihad.

Though the Indian Union Muslim League is an alliance partner of the Congress-led UDF, the voting patterns of Christians and Muslims are almost identical. In the 2021 assembly polls, 39% Christians as well as Muslims voted for the LDF, a slight rise from 2016. In the same way, 57% Christians and 58% Muslims voted for the UDF. Only 2% Christians voted for the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, over two-thirds Christians and Muslims voted for the UDF, which bagged 19 out of 20 seats. If these figures are taken into account, there is nothing for the BJP to cheer about in the near future.

If some Christians of Kerala are looking towards the BJP, they are just imitating the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party. This is obviously because the thinking of Muslims of the rest of India is not in consonance with that of Jammu and Kashmir, where Muslims are in majority.

If we go back to the pre-Partition period, we would observe that Mohammad Ali Jinnah played up the security card among Muslims more successfully in the states where the community was in a minority. In the North Western Frontier Province, where Muslims formed more than 90% of the population, the Congress formed the government under Dr Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan after the March 1946 election and remained in power till the creation of Pakistan. He and his younger brother Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi, continued to oppose NWFP’s inclusion in the new country.

Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.