Catholic Church encroaches and plunders Western Ghats – II
Following protests and pressure from Catholic church and mining/quarrying lobbies, another 10-member high-level working group (HLWG), headed by Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan was appointed to study the Gadgil report, review and suggest measures for implementation. The Kasturirangan Committee submitted its report to the Ministry on April 15, 2013. It made several pro-farmer recommendations but demanded a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining in Ecologically Sensitive Areas (henceforth ESA) of the Ghats. The key findings of the Indian Network of Climate Change Assessment (INCCA 2012) were incorporated in the report. The Catholic church again made huge protests against the Kasturirangan Committee report.
A pastoral letter issued in November 2013, by Mar Mathew Anikkuzhikkattil, Bishop of the Idukki Diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church, asked farmers and people of the high ranges to deal with political parties and leaders supporting the panel reports in an organised manner. The violent agitations against the demarcation of ESA in Kerala were backed by the Catholic Church-led High Range Protection Committee. “Kerala will be another Kashmir,” thundered the Bishop of Idukki Diocese who admitted that the majority of the ESAs are inhabited by Christians.
Thamarasserry Bishop Mar Inchananayil went a step further. “Jallianwala Bagh will be repeated here” (Hindustan Times, November 27, 2013). The hartal and subsequent agitations were sponsored by newly formed organisations: The High Range Protection Committee, Western Ghats People’s Protection Committee and Western Ghats Protection Committee. They were all led by priests belonging to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
Through pastoral letters and public speeches by its priests, the Catholic Church fanned agitations against the Kasturirangan report. Widespread violence erupted across Kannur, Kozhikode and Wayanad districts of north Kerala following a hartal declared on November 15, 2013. The Forest Range Office at Kottiyur in Kannur district was set on fire. Police say more than a hundred case files of forest-related offences were burnt. A violent mob of around 500 men attacked the forest range office at Thamarasserry in Kozhikode. Seven vehicles were set ablaze, including one state transport bus.
A brief historical outline of encroachment of Western Ghats by farmers led by the Catholic church is necessary to understand the crux of the current problem. By the late 1930s, the forests of Malabar became the destination of a large-scale migration of farmers belonging to the Catholic church, looking for land to cultivate cash crops. Between the 1930s and 1970s, thousands of settlers entered Wayanad district in Malabar in search of land. Some settlers bought or leased forest land but the majority encroached forest land. With the formation of Kerala State in 1956, the immigration intensified with more steady and aggressive encroachments upon forest and vanvasi/tribal land.
The British in 1810 made the then ruler of Travancore, Rani Gowri Lakshmi Bai, appoint the British Resident, Col. Munro, as Dewan of the state. Colonel John Munro, who was also a committed missionary, seized huge landed properties of temples without compensation and liberally provided land to Churches.
A recent study by the Malabar Devaswom Department in Kerala has revealed that the largest encroachment of Devaswom land took place in Malabar region (The Hindu, September 24, 2008). According to official figures, more than 24,900 acres of land belonging to 353 temples under the Malabar Devaswom Board has been encroached upon (The Hindu, April 5, 2010).
Official records show that 245 temples under the Kochi Devaswom Board have also lost land to encroachment, but the extent of land lost has not yet been fully calculated. Around 3,000 acres owned by the Travancore Devaswom Board has been encroached, as admitted by the president of Travancore Devaswom (Times of India, January 5, 2016).
As an instance, in the remote areas of Pulpally in Wayanad, the Devaswom lost thousands of acres of forest land to encroachers. The Devaswom filed cases against the illegal occupants. What followed was a protracted struggle against eviction. As the settlers were well organized, backed by the church, they managed by and large to prevent any effective eviction. Father Joseph Vadakkan, a Catholic priest, started cooperating with the Communists, which led to the formation of Malanad Karshaka Sanghom which associated itself with the Communist-led Kerala Karshaka Sanghom in many agitations.
Later, the Karshaka Thozhilali Party or KTP was formed by Joseph Vadakkan and B. Wellington. It was a coalition partner in the Communist government in Kerala led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad from 1967 to 1969. The AICC secretary, Tom Vadakkan, is a close relative of Father Joseph Vadakkan. Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, condoled the death of Father Joseph Vadakkan, saying that in his death Kerala has lost a tall religious leader (The Hindu, December 30, 2002).
The Communist Party of India, which formed the first government of Kerala State, was supportive of encroachers under the Catholic church, whom they saw as rich vote banks of their constituencies. The land reforms of the 1960s greatly benefitted the settlers at the forest frontier in Wayanad. During the land tribunals in the 1970s, most settlers received ownership titles for the land they encroached. The 1980s and 1990s accelerated cash crops and trade in Wayanad. Pepper growers in the ‘Pepper Panchayats’ of Pulpally, Mullankolli and Poothadi became extravagantly rich. Wayanad transformed as an important earner of foreign currency in Kerala.
The Naxalite movement in Kerala emerged in Western Ghats region. It began at Pulpally in Wayanad and Thalasseri in Kannur districts, and was followed by insurgencies in Kuttiyadi and later in Thirunelli in Wayanad, when correspondingly large scale migrations under Catholic church took place. Usually, settlers avoid or are hesitant to come and settle in regions vulnerable to armed attacks and insurgencies. But settlers encroached the Wayanad region and after the occupation of extensive land by Catholic church settlers, Naxal insurgency ceased to exist in Kerala.
This phenomenon of the disappearance of Naxal insurgency after Catholic church became land owners has strong religio-political undercurrents. Did a planned Naxal insurgency take place for the convenience of certain religious and economic lobbies associated with migrant settlers in Wayanad region? The Naxal movement hardly cared to fight for displaced Vanvasi /tribal communities in Western Ghats. Venu Menon’s story in Outlook weekly (November 23, 1998) titled, Confessions of a Cop, observed, “the legacy of the Naxalite movement in Kerala is a dubious one”.
It is estimated that there are about 4 lakh vanvasi people living in Kerala and about half of this population resides in Wayanad region of Western Ghats. The British opened roads and the spread of commercial plantations accelerated migration of settlers to this region. During the 1940s, this migration massively displaced the vanvasis of the area. The vanvasis lost their land, declined demographically and currently live in a pathetic situation. The tragic events at Muthanga and Arippa in Kerala show the failure of successive governments to restore vanavasi land despite court directives. The Kerala government in February 2010 informed a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court that 14,200 tribal families still remained landless in the State. Simultaneously, the Catholic church with money and vote power encroaches ecologically sensitive zones and prevents vital reports from being implemented.
Recently, there are several instances of encroachment by Catholic church in Western Ghats region. The Little Flower Church, Pushpagiri in Koodaranji village, and St George Church, Chundathumpoyil in Kumaranalloor village in Kozhikode district, both under the Thamarasserry diocese, operated quarries in 1.75 acres and two acres of land respectively.
According to Kerala’s former home minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, currently CPI-M state secretary, the Believer’s Church, formed under a trust called Gospel for Asia, has received Rs 1,044 crore in foreign donations in the last 15 years. Using that money, Balakrishnan said, the church has purchased nearly 2,800 acres of land, including a 2,200-acre rubber estate (The Telegraph July 13, 2008).
As part of an official anti-encroachment drive, a 30-feet tall metal cross was pulled down in April 2017 in the hill station of Munnar, Idukki district, since it was erected on encroached land, nearly 30 acres, held by a Christian sect, Spirit in Jesus, in Pappathishola hills near Suryanelli in Chinnakanal village, around 25 km from Munnar town.
Bonacaud Reserve forest in Thiruvananthapuram district remains the target of the Catholic church. Bonacaud is located in Agastyar Biosphere Reserve, one among 20 World Biosphere Reserves added by UNESCO to its World Network of Biosphere Reserves in March 2016. Kerala Catholic Youth Movement (KCYM), the youth wing of CBCI chapter in Kerala, orchestrated a huge protest in August 2017 against removal of the cross. They claimed the cross was more than sixty years old and was demolished by forest officials and demanded the site be opened for pilgrimage and handed over to the church.
A probe is currently going on against a multi-crore land scam involving the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church which named Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, Major Archbishop, as one of the prime accused.
Madhav Gadgil, who headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, says that irresponsible environmental policy is to blame for the current floods and landslides in Kerala. He called it a “manmade calamity” (The Economic Times, August 17, 2018). The south west monsoon floods which have currently devastated Kerala are an outcome of the land encroachment of Ecologically Sensitive Zones in Western Ghats by Syro-Malabar Catholic Church intimidating and unleashing armed violence against environmental committees and reports, using vote bank and money power.