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Religion and Society

The Amazing Secrets of Kerala

Journey in the most pluralist and tranquil state of India. Hindus, Muslims and Christians coexist steadfastly together and do not want to give in to the calls of fundamentalism which are starting to be heard.

“We are different flowers of the same plant”. Basheer Rawther, a lawyer in Changanacherry, chooses this image to describe the relationship between the Hindus, Muslims and Christians living in Kerala. It is of no importance that Rawther belongs to the Muslim community. Ask anyone in the street and more or less they will give you the same answer. This region in south-west India seems to be a world apart with respect to the image that this country has given of itself over the last few months. Here, all things considered, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which is just over a thousand kilometres away, and the pogroms against the Christians of Orissa, are seen as dramatic but distant events. Today Ghandi’s country seems to have few reasons to hope for a future of coexistence and peace. And yet its very existence, since midnight 15 August 1947, is there to show the world that a coexistence between different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups is possible. This can be said without closing one’s eyes before the thousand contradictions that contribute towards moulding the identity of a country that is unyielding to easy conventions. Violence and hatred have always painfully scarred this state and the roots of today’s tensions are to be found in a recent past that is just as turbulent. In this context, Kerala stands out as an exception that cannot be ignored.

 

 

On arriving in Kerala it is not long before one understands that things work differently with respect to the big cities of the country that everyone looks to for economic records. None of the splendours of the Bollywood that sparkles in the Mumbai hotels, none of the Silicon Valley-like activity to be felt in Bangalore. Life goes on slowly, like the small canoes sailing down the internal waterways, the backwaters, which run along the coast and make their way into the interior. Here the boats cross the shallow lakes fringed by palm trees and scattered with Chinese fishing-nets and go along narrow shady canals where coconut fibre, copra (dehydrated coconut fibre) and cashew nuts are loaded. On their journey they sail past small villages with mosques, temples and schools, and tiny groups of houses where people live on narrow strips of reclaimed ground, just a few metres wide. Well before sunrise, at the sides of the badly tarmacked roads crossing lush woods, people walk along quickly to reach the small towns. They are going to their place of work or about their own business. The women wear almost exclusively saris or the salwar kameez (tunic and trousers) and it is rare to see them dressed in the western style. For the men it is different, even if the lungi, a piece of coloured material that is wrapped around their waists, is the most common form of clothing for everyday life. In Kerala it is not rare to see large elephants in the roads used as working animals: they transport tree trunks or are used as hoists in timber-yards. It also happens that they become dangerous, like when last February one of them, raging, spread panic for three hours in the centre of Kochi before being sedated by vets and police. A few days before that another elephant that had escaped control had trampled over a woman, killing her and injuring nineteen people at a festival in the temple of Ernakulam, also in Kochi. These are episodes, one would say, of other times.

 

 

The 35 million inhabitants of Kerala live on an average pro capita income of €550 a year. The two staples of the local economy are fishing and agriculture, so much so that the hundreds of thousands of excellent graduates coming from local universities are forced to look for work in the rest of India or on the other coast of the Arabian sea. Almost one million and a half of the inhabitants (about 4%) live abroad, particularly in the countries of the Persian Gulf. It is no mystery that it is the remittances of the immigrants that maintain the local economy and now that the development of cities like Dubai is paralysed by the economic crisis, it is foreseeable that the flow of money from abroad is destined to slow down.

 

 

But Kerala boasts other records. In 1957, in fact, it became the first region of the subcontinent where the democratic elections were won by a Marxist party. It is also the first Indian state as regards literacy: 91% against 65% in the rest of the country; it is the first Indian region for longevity (ten years more compared with the national average age of 69) and has the lowest number of socio-economic inequalities between men and women or between castes. Lastly, Kerala is the Indian state with the highest rate of religious pluralism. This is in fact a concrete example of real coexistence, notwithstanding the mosaic of communities forming it: most of the population is Hindu, but 25% is Muslim and 20% is Christian. This is a huge percentage if one thinks that the average Christian population in India is calculated at 2.3%.

 

 

Apart from the economic development which is still behind with respect to the rest of the country, Kerala is reminiscent of the splendours of the Lebanon in the 60s. The coexistence among the different religious groups, in fact, dates back to time immemorial. Saint Francesco Saverio, the Spanish Jesuit missionary who landed on these Indian shores in the wake of Vasco da Gama, was surprised to find a considerable number of Syriac rite Christians. The arrival of Christianity in India, in fact, dates back to 52 AD according to tradition when the Apostle Thomas arrived in Kerala owing to the contacts with the colonies of Jewish merchants already present on the coasts of the Arabian sea. The Apostle’s tomb is kept in Cennai (Madras) and the Christians of these areas are called Thomas Christians, the Christians of Saint Thomas. Even though historically speaking there is no certainty about the arrival of the Apostle on the coasts of Kerala, the local churches – in particular those of Syriac rite – are proud of their direct connection with the apostolic tradition. The peaceful arrival of Islam dates back to the VII century; this came about by means of the Arab spice merchants. Two thousand years of real coexistence between the three big religions have handed down a deep respect among the different communities.

 

 

For Seeman and Deepa, two young Syro-Orthodox Christians, it is the most important day: they are getting married in their parish. As well as the Orthodox priests, at the altar there is also a Catholic one, a friend of the bride’s family. The saris are brightly coloured for the occasion, the small choir begins to sing the intricate Syriac melodies sung in Malayalam, the censer filling the air with the perfumed smoke of incense. The church is full of people, but even though there are still seats inside, at the entrance a large group of about fifty people assembles without coming in. They are the non-Christian guests: Hindus and Muslims. They wait until the end of the ceremony, when they too will take part in the wedding reception, like the other friends.

 

 

Side by Side, at School and at Celebrations

 

 

At Fort Cochin all the complexity of the culture and history of Kerala can be felt. The traces of the colonial age, the baroque churches and the Portuguese style houses with their deep blue window frames alternate with the little shops selling typical products, craftsmen’s workshops, humble precarious houses. In Fort Cochin one can also visit an ancient synagogue that bears witness to the presence of a small Jewish community. Almost everywhere, stuck on the brick walls, can be seen the electoral posters of the local Communist Party. In the main street of the old part of the city there is one of its two offices with a mural depicting Che Guevara. The bizarre pantheon of this Marxist party in fact houses, besides the Argentinean guerrilla, also Saddam Hussein and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It is even possible to see the three faces looking out on posters during public protests. What Saddam Hussein and Mother Teresa have to do with it can soon be explained: along with Che Guevara, here in India they have become the symbol of the fight against poverty and the colonial power of the west.

 

 

Even though it is true that the Muslim community is concentrated in the north of Kerala and the Christian one in the south, it must be emphasised that ‘ghettoes’ inside the towns and villages do not exist: Christians and Muslims are often neighbours. From the terrace of one of the many shops in Fort Cochin, the old Portuguese colony around which present day Kochi has been built, you can see a mosque, a church and a Hindu temple practically in the same neighbourhood. The children of the different religions begin to live side by side sitting at their school desks. From being classmates, they will often go on to be colleagues at work. At Changanacerry, for example, everyone knows how important is the friendship, which began at school, between H. E. Msgr. Joseph Powathil, emeritus Archbishop of the local diocese and former president of the Indian Bishops’ conference, and Narayana Panikker, secretary general of the Nair Service Society, a charitable Hindu association with 5,600 sections in Kerala for a total of 6.5 million followers. There exists a heartfelt friendship between them that has encouraged and promoted the good coexistence between the Christian and Hindu communities. Even during one of the most critical periods in the history of India, between 1967 and 1970, when 1,365 incidents between Hindus and Moslems were recorded, only 142 took place in the south of the country.

 

 

But what gives the physical sense of this coexistence is above all the religious feasts, of which there is a great number. On saints’ days hundreds of stalls selling all sorts of objects appear in the streets which are lit up with a thousand coloured lights. Life comes to a halt in the town or village and everyone, also Hindus and Muslims, take part in the feast. Nobody would ever miss the traditional firework display and children, adults and the elderly of the different religions find themselves side by side with their faces tilted upwards, watching the sky light up. Jointly, behind the statue of the saint carried by the faithful, a group of percussionists make their way with traditional music. Nine times out of ten the musicians are Hindu. The same happens for the Hindu religious feasts, which are just as numerous. It is not rare for the Muslim families to invite their neighbours of other religions for the festivities at the end of Ramadan. The relations between the different religions, in some cases, border on syncretism: it happens that the Hindus worship Christian saints seen as incarnations of their one divinity.

 

 

Conversions among the different groups are rare, but there are some. In Kerala nobody practises proselytism except the hardened Pentecostals. It can happen that some Hindus convert to Christianity without incurring too many objections from their family. In a small parish of Kottayam, for example, one of the parishioners converted from Hinduism. She is an illustrator of children’s books and on Sundays she stays after the mass to wait for her twelve year old daughter to come out of Sunday school. In the same parish a Muslim woman married a Christian and was baptised. They speak about it openly, without any fear at all. This in unthinkable in many Muslim countries. The fact that this woman has incurred no problems, or that she is still alive, says a lot about the general attitude in Kottayam. H. E. Msgr. Abraham Mar Julios, Bishop of Muvattupuzha, recounts that recently thirty Hindu families in his diocese, who had immigrated from Tamil Nadu, converted to Christianity. They are very poor families, which came to Kerala because the breadwinners had found work in a gravel quarry. What convinced them to leave their own religion? “The people I spoke to” – says Mons. Mar Julios – “told me that they had been captivated by the parish community of their village. They were hit by the fact that the Christian community is a ‘praying community’, by the fact, that is, that Christians pray together and that they are conceived as a community. Hindu prayer is always individual and rarely does the keeper of the temple know the people who go to the place of worship to any extent. The parish priest usually knows all his parishioners by name”. Father Lorenzo Buda, on the other hand, is a monk of the Piccola famiglia della Resurrezione of Cesena. He has a long white beard growing down over his orange habit in which his painfully thin body is wrapped. He lives in a monastery in the middle of the jungle on the southern Ghat mountains, on the border with Tamil Nadu. The village is called Idukki and is little further than 60 kilometres from Kottayam. Here the people are very simple and very poor. Fifty people have asked him for baptism during his ten years in Idukki. “It’s difficult to say why they ask to become Christians” – explains Father Buda – “but some people told me that they had never felt loved in such a way before”.

 

 

Undying Hierarchy

 

 

‘There is no doubt’ – explained the French anthropologist Louis Dumont in his monumental Homo Hierarchicus in 1966 – ‘that often the Untouchables, by converting (to Christianity), answered the call of an equalitarian religion preached by the powerful, but it does not appear that their social standing has in fact improved, either in the Hindu environment or for that matter in the Christian one’. If, on the one hand, it is true that the burden of the caste system still weighs upon the society of Kerala, as in the rest of India, the promotion of education by the Church has undoubtedly made it possible to mitigate the rigid hierarchical system of society and has given many children belonging to the lower castes and the untouchables the possibility to improve their social condition. On the other hand, it is also true that, as Dumont states, not even the Christians of Kerala are completely free from conceiving society from a caste point of view. Basically the caste is stamped on the fate of Indians by their family name. And that name is borne right to the grave. This, in any case, is also true for the Christians.

 

 

Even though Kerala must be considered, and rightly so, an example of inter-religious coexistence, there have been several clashes among the different communities in the last years, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. With regard to the Christians, the episodes of violence have until now only involved things and rarely people. It can happen, in fact, that a church may be the target of stone-throwing or a votive chapel be destroyed, but in Kerala nobody has yet gone so far as killing for religious reasons. In 2004 in a village near the town of Kozhikode (Calicut), 35 people, armed with iron bars and shouting Hindu slogans, attacked four nuns and three brothers of the order of Mother Teresa. Some of the assailants ordered the nuns to leave the village and to stop converting Hindus to Christianity. This is however an isolated case. It is true, though, that in the last decade the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party in power in India until 2004 but a minority in Kerala, has been more and more vehement in its claims for ‘an India of the Hindus’. At the same time the episodes of violence have increased that are ascribable to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), considered the armed branch of the BJP. In the Islamic madrasas the preaching of the Jihad against the Hindu oppressors has begun. On different occasions Islamic militants have been arrested while fighting in Kashmir, and it happened that the Islamic organisations themselves considered fundamentalist openly condemned the use of the madrasas as hiding-places for arms and explosives. Furthermore, it is known that the financing comes directly from Iran, Pakistan and other middle-eastern countries. Over the last years the National Development Front (NDP), an Islamic movement working for the defence of the socio-economic rights of Muslims, dalits and other backward classes has become increasingly successful. Recently the NDP announced that it will seriously commit itself to the Dawa, the missionary preaching to other communities and has accused the other Moslem associations of neglecting this type of activity. The Jamaat-Islami, an organisation that seeks to spread ‘the true awareness’ in the Muslim society and to cleanse it from all the non-Islamic rituals and superstitions, is on the rise. At present in Kerala this movement is taking on a more moderate approach than in the rest of India and has declared that it is open to dialogue with the other religions. The other emergent organisation is the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) which calls for the “liberation of India” by means of its transformation into an Islamic state.

 

 

The fact remains that the majority of the mappilla, as the Muslims of Kerala are commonly called, have not yet given in to the voices of fundamentalism. “The Muslims of Kerala” – explains the Islamologist Father James Narithookil – “can be distinguished from the Muslims of the rest of India, first of all by the language which is Mappila Malayalam, a mixture of northern Kerala dialect and Arabic, while in the rest of India the Muslims speak Urdu. In fact, Arabic was the language of commerce on the coasts of Kerala well before the spread of Islam. Compared with the Muslims of the rest of India, those of Kerala are more educated and more sociable. They are certainly more inclined to harmony and inter-religious coexistence and they are more willing to cooperate with Hindus and Christians for social and moral progress”. According to Roland E. Miller, the author of Mappila Muslims of Kerala, the reasons for the peculiarity of the Islam of this region are to be found in its linguistic, cultural and geographical separation from the rest of India. It is a fact that the mappila did not take part in the imperial Islamic civilisation of central-north India. At least until the historic rebellion of the mappila against the English colonisers of 1921, which ended in an Islamic bloodbath, relations with the Muslims of the north of the country were rather cool and limited to sporadic contacts, usually coinciding with pilgrimages to Mecca. When the armed rebellion took place, explains Miller, “the symbolic importance of the mappila in keeping alive and advancing the Muslim League earned the community of Kerala a respect with the Muslims of the north that it did not have before”. At a later date, the birth of Pakistan in 1947 showed how in the mappilla the sense of ‘otherness’ of their community with respect to the Hindu majority did not coincide with a sense of ‘non-Indianness’. The solidarity with people of the same religion, even in the case of the subsequent birth of Bangladesh, clashed in the Muslims of Kerala with the sense of belonging to the Indian nation. This awkward embarrassment only intensified the awareness of being a minority both in Kerala and in India. This sense of being a minority, states Miller, is in fact one of the decisive characteristics to describe the self-awareness of the mappilla.

 

 

The Cradle of Fundamentalism

 

 

But what really is the secret of Kerala? What is it that allows this handkerchief of land to remain an oasis of coexistence, despite its exceptions and contradictions? If the Christian, Hindu or Muslim is asked why Kerala has not yet become Orissa, their answer is always the same: “education”. Ignorance is the cradle of fundamentalism and violence. As mentioned before, in this region the rate of literacy is the highest in India and is certified according to European standards. There are various reasons for this record, but there is no doubt that the presence of a sizeable local Christian community dating back thousands of years has promoted, through a visible commitment, the spread not only of schools and universities but also of a mentality that would otherwise be impossible in the rest of Hindu and Muslim India. Even before the arrival of the Portuguese, it was the Christian priests that began to teach the faithful to read and write Syriac so they could follow the liturgy, considering that the only schools existing before that were basically training centres for the highest caste, the Brahmins. Today the presence of the Christians in the region is undoubtedly considerable. It is thought that as far as concerns the Catholics alone they number about 4.8 million, with 29 dioceses, over 4,200 parishes, 8,000 priests, 31,000 nuns. In a mostly Catholic country like Italy, the ratio between priests and the entire population is one to 1,800. Here, where the Catholics are 20%, the ratio is one to 4,300 but, if only the actual Catholic churchgoers are considered, the ratio rises to one to 600. Another record held by Kerala is the flourishing of religious vocations. In fact, almost all the dioceses have a minor seminary and Kerala is one of the few regions able to ‘export’ priests and nuns. The reasons for this phenomenon are various and not easy to identify. According to Msgr. Joseph Perumthottam, the Archbishop of Chaganacherry, the main reason is to be found in the education that these young people get at home: “there are still many families who are deeply devoted to religion and have a profound respect for the vocation to priesthood. As a result they do not try to stop their children from undertaking this path a priori. It must be said however that even here the numbers are slowly diminishing”. Such a great wealth of ‘labour force’ makes it possible for the Catholic church to run over 5,800 schools and universities: 1,800 nursery schools, 1,300 junior schools, 650 middle schools, 1,000 secondary schools, 600 professional schools and several universities. If one thinks that the local government subsidizes about 12,000 schools and that not all the Catholic schools are subsidized, it is clear that the Church of Kerala supports 50-60% of the religious instruction. These are schools that are open to everyone and where Muslims, Hindus and Christians – as well as receiving a first level education – learn to know each other, respect each other and to even become friends. As much as it may sound strange to a European way of thinking, the Christian schools, for the most part Catholic, are not perceived by the Hindus as a threat or an instrument of proselytism. Some years ago Soli Sorabjee, chief appeal court prosecutor of India until 1990, met some of the ex alumni from St. Xavier's College of Mumbai, the university that he had attended as a young man, along with other various dignitaries, ministers and former ministers of the government of Delhi. In his official speech he remarked as a Hindu: “The lecturers of this university did not convert me, but transformed me”. But if it is true that education is not limited to the field of instruction, since it is a wide-ranging cultural process, the influence of the Catholic Church on the mentality of the local population also passes through a deep commitment in the social sphere. The numbers speak for themselves here too: 300 orphanages, 400 rest homes, 440 hospitals and 91 publications.

 

 

If the role played by the church in society is without doubt central, above all in education, there also exists a positive effort in this direction by Muslims and Hindus. The Samastha Kerala Jameyyat ul-Ulama is an important school of thought of ‘tradionalist’ Islam, which is against so-called ‘modernist’ Islam. This organisation, widespread in Kerala since before Indian independence, has conceived a model of ‘part-time madrasa’, offering, that is, a type of religious education that lets pupils also regularly attend secular schools. This has encouraged, as well as literacy also a greater integration of the society of Kerala and a more serene relationship with modernity on the part of the local Muslims.

 

 

In this rather composite framework, the Communist Party of Kerala, which has the majority in the local government, plays a decisive role in the future of Kerala. Over the decades, it is true to say, the Communist Party has alternated with Congress but it has always been the first party to obtain consensus from all the religious groups of the region. At the last elections held two years ago, the communists came back to power and began a confrontation with the Catholic Church. The point at issue was the freedom of education. In 2007, in fact, the government proposed a reform of the education system which according to the Catholic Church is aimed at creating political control over the subsidized schools, taking away the right from those running them to choose collaborators and enrol students. Also from the cultural point of view, the policy in state schools is going in the direction of discrediting religious experiences, so that it was not only the Muslim, Hindu and Christian associations that protested against the introduction of text books furthering atheism, but also secular organisations. The bishops of Kerala do not miss an opportunity to express their concern. According to H. E. Powathil it was an electoral strategy to attract attention in view of the recent general elections. So much so that over the last few years there have been various provocative proposals put forward by government committees: sanctions for the third child, the introduction of euthanasia and so on. For the head of the Syro-Malankara Church, the Catholicos Mar Baselios Cleemis, it is the advance of secularism and atheism, and their effects at a social level, that constitutes one of the biggest challenges not only for the Church but also for Kerala. The stakes are high: if it is true that the Church plays a prominent role in maintaining the peaceful nature of coexistence in Kerala, to attack its role in education can only weaken the immune system of the region against its fundamentalist opponents. Those who are in power today do not seem to realise this. Probably because they do not understand what the example of Kerala can mean for the future of the whole of India.

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