Kochi: Issues like conversion of the ancient Hagia Sophia church in Turkey to a mosque, incidents of ‘Love Jihad’ and ‘harassment’ of nuns in a moving train in Uttar Pradesh, will be reflected in the April 6 assembly polls, say voters in Christian dominated Central Kerala constituencies.
Several heavyweights,including senior Congress leader and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Kerala Congress(M) leader Jose K Mani, a key partner of the CPI(M)-led LDF, two Rajya Sabha BJP MPs K J Alphons and Suresh Gopi are trying their luck from the constituencies, spread across Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam and parts of Thrissur.
Central Kerala is considered a stronghold of the Congress led UDF, but the LDF put up a strong show in the December 2020 civic polls, winning many local body seats.
BJP-led NDA is also trying to make inroads in these areas by reaching out to the Catholic Church, raising the issues like “Love Jihad” and “Hagia Sophia”.
Their campaigns saw senior BJP leaders, including union ministers, supporting the Church’s views on the issue.
Both the rival fronts, the LDF and UDF are concerned over BJP’s growing proximity to the Church on these matters, but have remained silent, fearing a Muslim backlash in the polls.
Their campaigns focus on attacks in the country against people of the minority communities, allegedly by right wing outfits under the BJP rule.
Both CPI(M) and Congress have sought to corner the BJP over the alleged harassment of the nuns.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi, addressing a poll rally in Thrissur last week, flayed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘silence’ on the matter.
M Alexander, associated with activities of the Catholic Church in Pala, said the faithful have strong views on “Love Jihad”, conversion of Hagia Sophia church in Turkey to a mosque and the harassment of nuns in a train in Uttar Pradesh, allegedly by activists of Sangh Parivar.
“People discuss these issues in various platforms, including in our families. But we don’t know how these issues are going to get reflected in the elections,” he told PTI.
He said the community is also not satisfied with BJP in view of alleged attacks on minorities in many parts of the country.
Tony P Emmanuel, a regular churchgoer from Elanji in Ernakulam district, said there was resentment against the stand taken by political parties, including the UDF and the LDF, on the issue of “Love Jihad”.
Citing a recent statement by Chandy Oommen, son of former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, reportedly justifying conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, Emmanuel said they never expected such a statement from the son of a senior Congress leader.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council had also come down on Chandy Oommen for his statement.
Oommen, addressing a function organised by the Youth League,the youth outfit of IUML,had said thousands of churches were converted into dance bars and no one had any issue.
Emmanuel alleged that Congress leaders were even silent over an article penned by Muslim League leader Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal, hailing conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque by the Muslim administrators of Turkey.
“All such issues still remain unaddressed. We are keeping silent now because we don’t want to divide people along religious lines during the elections,” a Church official, who did not wish to be named, told PTI.
He said the Church is also equally worried about the growing clout of the Muslim League in the Congress-led UDF and the stand of the CPI(M)-led LDF on the issues like Love Jihad.
It was Kerala Congress(M) leader Jose K Mani, contesting from Pala Assembly seat as the LDF candidate,who first raked up the “Love Jihad” issue at an election programme this week.
He said the matter should be addressed if the public has any apprehensions about it, drawing support from the influential Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, which claimed that “Love Jihad is a reality” in the state.
However, Mani withdrew his statement a few hours later, apparently sensing that it did not go down well with other constituents of the LDF, including the CPI and CPI(M).
CPI State secretary Kanam Rajendran had termed the remark as Mani’s personal opinion, while Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan sidestepped queries on the topic.
Hitting out at Mani for withdrawing his statement even after KCBC extended support to him, Kerala Janapaksham leader and Poonjar MLA P C George said “Love Jihad is a reality” and alleged that Mani changed his stand as he was scared of some forces with extreme views.
While UDF and LDF remain largely silent over the issue, BJP has promised a law against “Love Jihad” if voted to power.
BJP state general secretary George Kurian, who is also former vice-chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, said the issue is a matter of serious concern and the Christian community is a “soft target”.
He said both Fronts have not said anything about the matter though certain investigations revealed that it has connection to terror activities.
“We have taken a strong stand against it.If we are voted to power, we will definitely bring a law against Love Jihad,” he told PTI.
However, BJP’s bid to win the support of the Church in the polls on these issues had not yielded the desired results.
The Church has criticised BJP in an article on the organ of the Thrissur archdiocese, saying some forces are trying to make India a country based on religion.
It has also cautioned voters against those trying to woo them, raising religious issues.
The article also hit out at the ruling LDF over alleged corruption and nepotism during its rule, but however, did not mention anything about UDF.
Though things appear to be calm on the surface, political parties fear the issues may cause undercurrents in the central Kerala constituencies, where heavyweights are in the fray.
Oommen Chandy, who completed 50 years as representative of the Puthuppally Assembly constituency, is contesting the polls from the same home turf in the Kottayam district.
While UDF constituent Kerala Congress’s leader P J Joseph is fighting the polls from Thodupuzha, his sitting seat, Jose K Mani is seeking mandate from Pala constituency, held by his father K M Mani, for 50 years till his demise in 2019.
The BJP has fielded its Rajya Sabha MPs K J Alphonse and Suresh Gopi from Kanjirappally and Thrissur assembly constituencies respectively.