Kerala’s Communists and Catholics

The hammer and sickles checker the thick, green landscape along the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Written in the local languages, Malayalam and Tamil, many of the posters, billboards, and murals bear the same Latin letters: CPI-M, the Communist Party of India — Marxist. But how does the atheist doctrine of the party mesh with the deeply religious environment of India?

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, communism, or a form of it, has taken hold in the southern Indian state of Kerala. A recent piece from The Guardian noted the CPI-M was more established than any European communist party. “They’re different. They’re governing. It’s a social democratic party — there’s nothing revolutionary about them. They’re in a communist coalition. They’ve been in power regularly since the mid-1950s.”

Kerala is well known for its tea plantations, agriculture, luxury river boats, and seafood, and has continued to drift into the western consciousness. Chef and TV show host Anthony Bourdain stopped by in 2010 to film an episode of his show No Reservations. Comedian Aziz Ansari also helped put southern India on the map when he visited the country in 2016 in search of his Tamil heritage. Amid the many trials facing India, Kerala has long stood out in India as a success story with a 95 percent literacy rate, and exhibits leading marks on healthcare and educational institutions. Infant mortality is on per with most western countries.

Enter Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala’s Chief Minister, who leads the state through a coalition of local communist and left-wing parties called the Left Democratic Front since May 2016. On November 1st, the government celebrated its 61st anniversary of Kerala’s statehood. In April, local press outlets noted that Vijayan, like the state’s first Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad, was a member of the Communist Party. Vijayan has positioned himself nationally as a progressive leader standing firmly against the recent rise of the privatization and growing Hindu nationalism. At a recent conference, he invoked Periyar, the late activist and political figure who advocated for atheism, Dravidian nationalism, gender equality, and worked to end the caste system. Vijayan recently warned that the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to economically isolate Kerala by hurting their tourism industry and is spreading “fake news.”

Kerala’s politics has always stood out apart from the other Indian state governments and the Washington Post ran an article in October that hailed the state’s development and pondered the future of the CPI-M and whether it can adapt to a younger generation more accustomed to the globalized, consumerist-oriented world.

However, the party faces other challenges as well. Violence has periodically risen with the mostly leftist southern parties and the BJP. Kerala’s northern city of Kannur has been dubbed “India’s political murder capital.” A local driver remarked to Raddington, over the years, many communists have gone missing only to be later found dead. Most of these come from tic-for-tac killings with the Hindu nationalist faction connected to the BPJ called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The Modi’s government has sought to implement Hindu-oriented policies that have faced regional backlash. Most infamously was the proposed beef ban that was deeply unpopular with India’s Muslims and Christians. The left-wing parties of the south were at the forefront in opposing the religiously motivated measures. Last May, Kadakampally Surendran, a CPI-M member and the Kerala State Minister for Tourism took part in a beef fest to protest the ban. V. T. Balram, a member of the center-left Congress party in Kerala’s state assembly, gave up vegetarianism in a show of solidarity.

With the BPJ more popular than ever and dominant in the north, the party has set its eyes on the south. State visits by BPJ figures are more common than ever. The opposition Congress Party has appeared helpless and leaderless. With the media largely supportive of the party and influential in the country’s universities, some commentators have warned that India could be on its way to becoming a one party state.

All of this has led to a marriage of convenience with the mainly atheist communists and India’s southern Christians. In Kerala, the Saint Thomas Christians (sometimes called Syrian Christians) tracing their history and liturgical roots back to the 1st century Christians of the Middle East. The largest group is the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which is under the authority of the Roman Catholic pope.

However, the relationship between sectarian minorities and the state’s ruling communists hasn’t been easy. In the late 1950s, land reform initiatives often sparked violent confrontations with the churches and Catholic schools that brought about mass mobilization and sustained protests lasting from 1958 to 1959. This period was called the Vimochana Samaram, or Liberation Struggle, and united Kerala’s Christians and Muslims to take down the government of E.M.S. Namboodiripad. To this day, the communists continue to brand the campaign as an undemocratic conspiracy.

From time to time, tension from the past still rises. In 2007, Vijayan sparked mass protests for calling Paul Chitilapally, a local Catholic Bishop, a “wretched creature” for saying former Communist Party member allegedly asked for last rites on his death bed. Catholic community closed schools across the state in protest. It wasn’t until 2013 before the two sides decided to put the matter to rest.

Despite this, Vijayan typically maintains good relations with the church. When Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a priest who was kidnapped in Yemen, returned home, the Chief Minister was on hand to welcome him back and showered him with praise, “Father Tom held on to hope with his spirit of determination in front of death. He is an illuminating lamp in the darkness of suffering. He is a model to us.”

Still Vijayan faces headaches with his planned development projects. The Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) pipeline has been rocked with protests organized by the Congress Party and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The protest leaders said that the CPI-M was only taking a hardline stance with words and not actions in an effort to win over religious minorities opposed to the BPJ. Furthermore, they said the CPI-M was doing nothing to protect journalists from being attacked by Modi supporters.

Occasionally, as with any national politician, local leaders put aside political ideology to celebrate new projects, such as when Vijanyan and Modi attended last June’s inauguration of the Kochi Metro together.

Police heavy-handedness against the GAIL protesters has caused shock on social media. Negotiations including all of the state’s political parties and demonstrations are ongoing to resolve the standoff, but Vijayan is adamant the project should be allowed to go forward. The delicate balance between Kerala’s communists, Catholics and other religious minorities will continue to take shape as the BPJ and Modi rule over India. But for now, foreign visitors can forego the political bickering, gaze past the hammer and sickles as well as crosses before watching going to watch Kerala’s traditional dance, the Kathakali.

Author’s note: This article was originally published in November 2017 for Raddington Report. However, the site now appears to be offline, so I wanted to repost it here.

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Christopher Solomon

Christopher Solomon

Chris Solomon is a writer and analyst specializing in Middle East history and international politics. He is the author of In Search of Greater Syria.