Communal Violence in Kerala

Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios

Kerala has a long record of harmony among the religious communities – about equally divided between the four main groups – “high” caste hindus, scheduled caste hindus, muslims and Christians. We often brag of 2000 years of harmony and tolerance. Perhaps our memories are blissfully short. The economic interests of the four communities have often been seen as in conflict with each other; but the fire of communal hatred, if it ever flared, has always quickly died down. The communities have usually always been wise enough to perceive, sometimes after an initial bout of emotional outbursts, that our separate interests are best served by all seeking the common interest.
It was a shock therefore, and a source of much anxiety, that Kerala has recently had a spate of communal clashes, first between ‘upper caste’ Hindus and Muslims and then between Hindus and Christians. The issues varied; some raw nerve was always touched and religious emotions were roused.
The latest instance was the Nilakkal issue. As early as 1902, what was believed to be the remains of an ancient Christian church and cemetery were accidentally discovered in the forest regions of the south of the Western Ghats, on the road to the ancient Hindu shrine of Sabarimala in the practically inaccessible mountain recesses.
The British, the Christian colonial masters, were here at that time, and the local British administration took an interest in the discovery. There was a slight possibility that the ancient church might go back to the first century, when St. Thomas the Apostle was was supposed to have established seven churches in Kerala. One of these was called, in the tradition, Nilakkal or Chayal. In any case, Pulikkottil Joseph Mar Dionysius, the Malankara Metropolitan in 1902, Wrote to the Dewan of Travancore, that this site was one of the seven churches established by St. Thomas, that the British Resident, Mr. Hannington, had promised Rs. 20,000 to build a church on this site. One of the arguments used by the Metropolitan to convince the Dewan about the need of a Church on this site was that “the establishment of an intermediate settlement at Nilakkal will be a great boon to the thousands of Hindu devotees who annually repair to the forest temple” of Sabarimala. Nothing came out of the petition, obviously.
The site was discovered again, once more by an Orthodox layman serving in the Forest Department of the Government of Travancore, in the late thirties or early forties. Obviously a bell and a large cross had also been found. Again the Orthodox Church appealed to the Dewan of Travancore, to assign the land to the church, The response of the Dewan, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer, no friend of the Christians, was an order to remove the bell and the cross to some unknown place, and to begin construction of a Hindu temple on the spot. The present Hindu temple in Nilakkal was thus built in 1946.
The third ‘discovery’ of the site was in independent India, in February 1957, this time also by a priest of the Orthodox Church, The basement of a Church (believed to be) and several graves, all east west, were regarded as conclusive evidence that this was a Christian spot. The priest occupied the land, and the matter was reported in all the newspapers of Kerala.
Now rival claims to this church sprang up from the other churches. The net result was eviction of the Orthodox priest, the take over of the neglected Hindu temple by the Devaswom Board, its restoration at government expense, and suppression again of the evidence. It was also decided by the left front government to give some land to the Christians, in the area, provided that they all agreed.
The recent ‘discovery’ of a cross by a Roman Catholic priest took place a few weeks after your Editor had visited the spot and seen some ancient ruins, clearly of a church wall. Following this visit, there was a plan to claim from the government some land for an ecumenical church to be controlled by four or five denominations, It must have been to forest all this, that people from one particular denomination claimed to have “discovered” a cross there, and occupied the land on that basis.
It was an act of malafides of which the Christian church has to be ashamed. The furor created by this illegal occupation by a Christian priest of a site near a Hindu temple was precisely the occasion, which Mr. Parameswaran, the veteran organizer of the R.S.S, was looking for. He was able to appeal to the communal emotions of the ‘upper’ caste hindus, to win their support for the R.S.S., and to pave the way for a Hindu-Christian conflict which could have soon led to much bloodshed. There were enough fanatic and unprincipled elements on the Christian side, which made the situation extremely volatile. 
We should be grateful to God that better counsel has prevailed, and that both Hindu and Christian leaders have conferred together in find a peaceful settlement. Both communities should be commended for this.
What has been revealed, however, is frightening. Behind the facade of mutual tolerance and respect, there is a lot of distrust rivalry and cheap emotions. Leaders of all communities in Kerala should take some salutary warnings from this incident and should refrain from any activity that would lead to the ignition of the volatile underground.

(Editorial, Star of the East, Sept. 1983)