Hindu Christian Communalism;

An Analysis of Kanyakumari Riots

George Mathew




There is a common belief that south India was free from communal tensions and conflicts. An impression is created in the public mind that different religious communities lived in perfect peace and harmony and that only now bitterness has been created among people resulting in murder and destruction of property. This paper is an attempt to compare the recent Hindu-Christian communal riots in Kanyakumari, Thamil Nadu, with a period in early 19th century to show that there were Hindu-Christian communal tensions and conflicts in Tamil Nadu, especially in the regions adjacent to Kanya-kumari.

Our argument is that when a militant 'missionary' religion makes an entry in a traditional society (with a traditional religion) tensions are inevitable. If the new religion comes with the support of political power and with a distinct cultural identity, the tensions become serious creating permanent cleavages in society. However, if the 'receiving religion' has the capacity to absorb the 'new religion' into its social structure, and if the new religion is willing to adapt itself to the new milieu, harmony and peace between the religious communities are possible. Cultural symbols bereft of religious content can play a significant role in this process of integration. The nature and character of the State play a crucial role in the expansion or otherwise of a new religion and in determining the quality of the relationship between the religious communities.


Political power and patronage

The earliest confrontation Hinduism had with a religion born outside Indian culture was Christianity. Christianity first came to Indian soil through the trade link the Malabar coast had with the Arab world and Mediterranean countries. The fact that the beginning of Christianity in this country had no political connection contributed in no small way to its perfect adjustment in the local setting. The noteworthy sociological aspect was that the caste-ridden Hindu society could mould the early Christians into its case structure. The Syrian Christians in Kerala even today preserve a caste-like




social form. Perhaps, this blending of Christians into the caste society helped the co-existence of the communities without social conflict. The origin and development of Islam in Kerala also supports this argument. India's first Islamic experience was again in Malabar through trade connections with Arabs. The Muslim community struck root with Arab traders by marrying Indian women and by conversion. These 'Mappila Muslims' as they are known, lived in harmony with the Hindus and Christians of Kerala and religious strife was unknown.

We get a different picture when Christianity and Islam came to India with political and military power _while Islam came to North India with imperial power, Christianity touched again the western coast with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498. Since then the spread of Christianity in this country had elements of political power and patronage. There were cases in Goa and Bassein, near Bombay, of new converts to Christianity going back to Hinduism when political pressure declined. As far as south India is concerned the Portuguese power had a role in the conversion of coastal fishermen to Christianity (Roman Catholic). In the first half of the 16th century, Francis Xavier converted about 20,000 Paravar fishermen between Kanyakumari and Ramanathapuram. Between 1543 and 1544, he established 45 churches in the Travancore coastal areas. When the Portuguese power declined the onrush of converts to the Roman Catholic Church also decreased.

The English East India Company, which established its power helped the Protestant churches to take root and grow in Travancore and Madras Presidency. Mass conversions took place in southern Tranvancore and Tinnevelly from among the Nadar (Shanar) and Paraiyan (Sambavar) communities as a result of the work of the London Missionary Society and the Church Missionary Society. In 1818 alone, 3000 Shanars embraced Christianity. Later, when India came under the Crown, conversions continued unabated till about the 1930s.




Attitude of the Government

We now take a look at the 50-year social history of Madras Presidency ending 1847 to get insights into the conflicts and tensions prevailing at that time between Hindus and Christians. I have taken the data from R.E. Frykenbeg's excellent study of the Christian missions under the East India Company in Tamil Nadu. According to Frykenberg, a unique form of Hindu-Christian communalism developed in Tamil Nadu with advent of Protestant Christianity. These communal struggles were between Christian Communities and Christians and Hindus. All the aggrieved communities found the government (State) guilty. Tinnevelly was the centre of these conflicts where Nadars were joining the Christian fold in great numbers. Since Nadars had considerable strength also in South Travancore the present-day Kanyakumari district it had its repercussions there too. Strong negative reactions towards conversions took place in these places. The landed gentry resorted to severe persecutions and repressions. New settlements like Mudalur came up as 'Villages of Refuge' for many who had to flee their homes.

What was the nature of the Government (State) in the eyes of the people? Frykenberg says the Indian Empire was, in actuality, a Hindu Raj. The fact that the Company with few Europeans had to rule over so many people called for appealing the 'natives' rather than alienating them. Therefore, the Company propitiated the deities in each large and small locality and participated in their festivals. Rituals and symbols associated with great temples were honored. Such arrangements were formalized in Regulation VII of 1817 by which the Company took up the responsibility of maintaining each deity. Thus, the British were more 'interfering' in the local religion than 'natural' as those in London were given to understand.

Christian communalism grew on the charge that the Tamil Christians were not getting a 'fair deal' from a Christian government. In 1801 Christian communities had




appealed to the East India Company's government that due to their conversion, they were being persecuted and, on grounds of conscience, their lives and property were threatened. These converts had told the Madras authorities that 'as subjects of a Company whose officers were representatives of a Christian nation, they had a right to expect more protection than, in fact, had been afforded to them under Company rule.' On March 18, 1983 five hundred 'native Christian householders' sent an appeal to the British Parliament saying that the company not only had not exempted the churches from tax and not given help to build churches, but like the 'heathen kings' of old exempted temples from taxation and funded daily sacrifices, seasonal festivals and repairs of temples. On an ideological level they asked whether, by helping the temples and idols the 'Christian Company' considered 'these idols as truly gods.' After narrating a number of instances where Christians were not getting special treatment, the petition said:

If it were under the government of heathen kings that this injustice were shown to Christians. It would not be a wonder: but under the government of Christians and their servants, Christians should suffer injustice, and that by their means the increase of Christianity is prevented, is to us a matter of astonishment.


Organized movements

An organized movement of Hindus to protect their 'position' in society was brewing when they saw that the new religion had acquired special power and status. In 1817, the Hindus of Blacktown had complained to the government against the aggressive attitudes of Christians which threatened Hindu religious customs. They wanted to stall the Christian attempt to build a church and school in Blacktown. (The government subsequently conceded the Hindu request).




In Tinnevelly, a mass movement and 'aggressive leadership provoked reactions from the Hindu community. Oppression, outrage, violence and persecution took place. There were petitions before the Government, often with exaggerated claims and counter-claims. Sir Montgomery, the then Collector of Tinnevelly, had remarked: 'In cases such as these now under notice, where the religious passions and angry feelings of the parties towards each other are brought into full operation, the difficulties commonly felt are increased tenfold. The social reasons for the Christian converts' attack on 'heathens' and the effort of 'heathens' to thwart the spread of Christianity, according to Montgomery, were the growing independence of the lower castes which form the Christians, and the government's withdrawal from the management of the temples. The spirit of agitation and 'party feeling' continuously stirred up by church leaders caused continuous unrest. The Collector put the blame on the Christian attitude by saying:

The intolerant bearing of this class of persons (church leaders) towards the heathen and the notions which they inculcate(d) into the minds of the their ignorant hearers of the temporal advantages which (would) follow a change of creed.. .put(ing) themselves forth as the champions of every aggrieved or aggrieving Christian, thus making (each) cause the cause of party of opposition.

Communalism continued to grow. In 1845 with the support of Vibhuthi Sangam and the Veda Siddhartha Sabha (the Hindu organizations formed to protect Hindu interests) a large crowd of several thousands attacked the prayer halls, schools, houses and properties of Nullor Congregations. Hundreds of houses were destroyed, property and livestock taken, men severely beaten and women violated. About a hundred Hindus were arrested. Large crowds turned out along the route from Tinnevelly to




Madras hailing the arrested persons as heroes and defenders of Sanathana Dharm.

There were tensions because the authorities wanted to introduce Biblical knowledge in education. The first public examinations for entry into the 'uncovenanted' civil service were held in March 1846. Hindu candidates boycotted it when they learnt that some of the questions related to the Christian religion, its superiority, influence, etc.

By now, the Hindus realized that the term 'heathen' was derogatory. Large-scale protests began. In 1846 at a massive public meeting in Madras the Hindu community accused the Company of ingratitude, partiality and injustice against its most loyal native subjects. Three copies of a memorial in English with twelve thousand signatures on each copy were submitted to the authorities, strongly resenting the abuse to which they were subjected to by being called 'heathens.' In 1847, the use of the word 'heathen' to signify Hindus and Muslims was banned from official documents.


Conflict Among Christians

The report on communalism during this period would be incomplete without a look at the communal tensions and conflict among Christians themselves. This intra-Christian communalism was the result of caste in the churches. Although lower castes joined Christianity in large numbers through the mass movement in South India, in Tranquebar, Tanjore, Tinnevelly and Vepery, the earliest converts were Vellalars. They were caste Hindus. They wanted to continue as 'clean' without pollution from their unclean brethren. The missionaries in the beginning did not interfere because they were, as M.E. Gibbs puts it, 'partly following the usages common in the Roman Catholic Church, partly... the implications of caste were at first very imperfectly realized by the European missionaries.' Segregation prevailed between 'Pariah Christians' and 'Sudra Christian' in all aspects of church life.




The new generation of missionaries found that caste within Christianity was un-Christian and intrinsic to Hinduism. Dr. Daniel Wilson, Bishop of Calcutta banned in 1834 caste segregation in the church. Wherever this ban was enforced, it met stiff resistance. Vellalar Christians from Vepery and Tanjore sent series of appeals to the government at Fort St. George, to the Governor General in Calcutta, and to the Bishops in England. Social tensions prevailed in Vepery. When 'Pariah Christians' came and occupied Vepery church, Vellalar Christians abandoned the building. For defying the ban, 700 or more Tamil Christians were excommunicated from Vepery Tanjore, where the number excommunicated was well over 3000, witnessed incidents of violence and Vellalar Christians felt 'distressed, injured and forsaken.' On another level, Protestant soldiers of the Church of England had strongly appealed to the Government against their being asked to participate in the worship of the Church of Rome.


Kanyakumari: Demographic Profile

Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu was carved out of Travancore-Cohin State in the 1956 State re-organizataion comprising its four southern talukas of Thovala, Agasthees-waram, Kalkulam and Vilavancode. This district, according to the 1981 census, has a population of more than 14 lakhs (in 1971 it was 12 lakhs), but the latest community breakdown is not available. The 1971 census shows that Kanyakumari had 7 lakh Hindus, 4 lakh 30 Thousand Christians and 52 thousand Muslims. It is unofficially stated that today the gap between Hindus and Christians is closing fast. Mr. L. Ganesan, divisional organizer of the RSS,* says that the Hindus account for 49 per cent of the population and Christians for around 45 per cent. Rev. Arokiaswamy, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kottar, corroborates this. But some other estimates show that now the percentage of Christians in Kanyakumari has gone up to 45.6 per cent while it was only 40 per cent in the 1960s.




The increase in the Christian population is attributed, besides natural birth, to the intensive conversion activities of Christian groups like Pentecostals Christian groups with 'foreign money' had stepped up their 'proselytizing' activities. Today Kanyakumari has the highest Christian

Among the Christians, the Roman Catholic Church has about 4 lakh followers while the Church of South India and other Protestant groups have about 2 lakhs. Within the Christian community, the coastal fishermen are a caste considered to be of rather low status. There are Hindu Nadars and Christian Nadars in Kanyakumari. The Christian Nadars form the powerful mercantile community and they look upon themselves as superior to the 'Fernando Christians' as the fishermen are called. It is significant to note that in times of crisis, the primordial loyalty of caste prevails with the Nadars rather than their religious identity Christian Nadars Join Hindu Nadars or remain aloof.

When two religious communities of more or less equal strength with distinct religious practices co-exist within a given territory two situations can arise: (a) they try to live peacefully because one cannot 'devour' the other; (b) perpetual conflicts can occur when either of the communities suspects 'subterranean forces' at work in favor of the other community which may pose a threat to the existing community equation.


Qualitative Change

After militant conversions to Christianity declined by about the 1930s because of political factors, Hindus accepted the emerging situation. India's independence in 1947 was a watershed in the relations between the two communities. The crucial factor was the qualitative change in the character of the State. Hindus found themselves in a happier position. The colonial power to whose official religion they were losing a considerable number of their people, had left; the national leadership was in the hands of leaders of their (Hindu) faith. On the other hand, although




Christians were a major force in some districts like kanyakumari, as a religious community they were a small minority in the nation. They realized that their political protection or whatever patronage they could enjoy, no more existed. Theoretically, in the Constitution, equal treatment for all religions by the State and the right to propagate one's religious faith were assured. This was a relief for a 'missionary' religion like Christianity.

In the changed atmosphere, nationalism became a new factor in the life of the people. This had implications for religious sphere. Hindus considered themselves to be more nationalistic and thereby more patriotic than other religious minorities like Muslims or Christians. The suspicion about these religions in the Hindu psyche was because they were majority religions in powerful countries and in a 'hostile' neighboring country. The Hindus thought that the onus was on the minorities to prove their patriotism. The ideological position of the RSS vis-a-vis Muslims and Christians must be seen in this context.


RSS Perceptions

In the post-independence period Christian 'missionary' activity was continued by Indian Christians. Baptisms to admit Hindus into Christian Churches were not uncommon. This was perceived as a 'subterranean threat' by Hindus because, for them, Christian expansion, political power was something to be taken seriously.

In Kanyakumari district, conversion to Christianity were taking place. As a reaction to Christian expansion, the RSS became well established. Today they have 110 haka, branches the highest for such a small area with a relatively small Hindu population. They draw reinforcements from Madurai and Ramanathapuram districts and Kerala State. Along with the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Front have come into the picture. The Vivekananda Rock Memorial Committee (VRMO) has provided the nucleus of attraction for the Hindu groups. They believed




that the increasing influence of Christianity was a threat to Hinduism. (We are reminded of how the Vibhuthi Sangam and Veda Sidhantha Sabha had aroused the same feeling among Hindus about the expansion of Christianity under the Company Raj) The RSS objective, according to Mr. L Ganesan, is to 'safeguard the Hindu temples' and protect their rights from the 'aggressive' church.

The Christian groups used to distribute Christian literature at bus stops in buses, trains and even at Hindu festival gatherings, addressing the Hindus ('Oh sinners') at street corner meetings and painting 'Jesus comes' on the walls of Hindu houses. The Hindu revivalist organizations did not lag behind. During the months of December 1981 and January and February 1982 poster campaigns were conducted by the Hindu Front, RSS, Hindu Youth Front and Viswa Hindu Parishad. Hindus feared that there was a move by the Christians to change the name of Kanyakumari district to 'Kanni Mary' (Virgin Mary). They also complained that the names of about 127 villages were Christianized.


Religious Symbols and Institutions

In a plural society, religious conflicts occur around religious symbols and religious institutions either when the rival community tampers with them or when a particular community uses them without regard for the feeling of other communities. The proliferation of wayside shrines and temples without any rhyme or reason created the same 'subterranean threats' to the other community. These are done to acquire power and status through financial and organizational gains to individuals and groups. The gullible common people are used as their instruments and communalism flares up as the result. (We have seen that 150 years back in the vicinity of Kanyakumari, how on the question of schools, churches, temples and certain terminology, communal clashes took place.)




The events, which triggered the long chain of clashes between Christians and Hindus in Kanyakumari in 1982, also were centered on Symbols and institutions. The disappearance of a cross in November 1980, following the quarrel between two boys in Msandathatuvillai village made that area the scene of communal clashes. In February 1982, on the closing day of the World Week of Prayer, a Christian procession was taken out through the 'Monday Market' in Nagercoil and a Christian merchant placed an illuminated cross at the traffic island in the centre of the town. The cross was removed after the procession. Soon after, a local Hindu farmer installed a Ganesa idol at the same traffic island and started daily prayers. This was objected to by the Christian population. On the Mahasivaratri day, five days after the installation of the idol, the authorities removed it. Removing an idol on an auspicious night was a sacrilege and mass hysteria was whipped up with slogans of 'Hindu Unity' A hartal was declared and shops were closed. Hindu-Christian clashes followed in the neighboring villages.

When the project acquired a Hindu character Christians claimed that Francis Xavier also had meditated on the rock. Twice Christians removed the pedestal and plaque of the Vivekanand centenary on the rock and replaced it with a wooden cross. Hindus, in turn, threw away the cross. (According to tradition, revenue records and dwaswom records, the rock belonged to the Kanyakumari temple.) The Christians gave up but retaliated by obstructing the ferry service run by the Vivekananda Kendra to the rock Memorial. The reasons given for the eight-year old Ferry dispute (settled in 1981) was a piece of land and the danger dredging posed to their homes. But the real cause was deeper. Had vivekanda been projected as a symbol of Indian nationalism local or national support of people of all faiths for the centenary memorial would have been possible. One can safely presume that enlightened Christian leadership would have gladly associated with the project as a mark of their nationalist feelings. But, when religious meaning was




imputed to an otherwise national symbol, the chasm between the communities widened and suspicion and fears were fanned.


Communal Violence

When communities suspect each other, rumors can play havoc. The Mandikadu Bhagwati Amman temple 'Masi Kodai' festival, with a customary bath of devotees in the sea is an important occasion in Kanyakumari. A rumor spread on the first day of the festival in 1982 that women returning after their bath were molested by men who had assembled in the nearby Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Already a tense atmosphere prevailed with loud speakers blaring from the festival area and the Church. On March 1, a crowd had collected at the church and police had to fire 46 rounds killing 6 persons (unofficially 14). Widespread violence, looting and arson followed in the coastal villages of Rajakkamangalam, Eethanozhi, Kallukatti, Pillaithope and Nagercoil town. After a fortnight of the first firing, 3 more persons lost their lives 2 in police firing at Keelmanamelkudi and one in the communal clash in Kovalam village. Churches, temples, hospitals, balwadis and convents were destroyed. The worst affected were the fishermen whose huts were set on fire-680 of them in Pollamthurai. Many catamarans, fishing nets and other apparatus for fishing were reduced to ashes. (Each catamaran or net costs Rs 3000-4000). Their drinking water wells were poisoned with diesel oil, hundreds were hurt and thousands were arrested. Essential supplies were cut off to the villages of the fishermen.

The pattern in the communal clashes all over India throughout history was repeated here also. Religious communities nurture suspicion of each other based on political, economic, social (social position, status) or religious (conscience, symbol) reasons. Religious organizations whip up the feelings of the common people; rumors about the sinister moves of 'other' communities are




spread; violence breaks out on the occasion of simple, otherwise unnoticed, events and the poor in the communities become the victims.


Common Cultural Heritage

Christianity and Islam by nature are hierarchically organized religions. Hinduism is not. Christian churches, though organized, give outsiders the picture of division based on 'faith' and tradition. If the 'already organized' churches forget their denominational differences and come together at least symbolically, other religions will see that as a threat. In Kanyakumari, although the World Week of Prayer was an annual feature, the procession was organized for the first time, and the participants were from about 40 churches belonging to different denominations. The Hindu suspicion and fears were confirmed. By the same token, when an unorganized religion like Hinduism raises slogans of Hindu unity and facilitates the growth of militant organizations, Christians see a threat. This is all the more because Hindus are the overwhelming majority in the country. The Hindu Revival Conference held at Nagercoil on February 13 and 14, 1982 and the procession they took out on February 13 precipitated a 'situation' of tension and conflict.

In 'old societies' even when a 'new' religion takes root, the common cultural heritage cannot be wiped out for the adherents of the 'new' religion. However, when the protagonists of the 'new' religion' born and brought up in an alien culture, bringing the new faith to the 'old societies' try to transplant the cultural milieu, there will certainly be common bonds of cultural expression locally between the 'old' and the 'new'. These common cultural heritages will appear on the religious consciousness level also. This explains why the followers of different religions respect and even worship at each other's sacred places. The fishermen of Kanyakumari were traditionally afraid of the sea god, even after they became Christians centuries ago. The Christian




fishermen used to call St. Lucia, Kannamma and considered her the sister of Bhagwati Amma. They believed that during the Bhagawati Amman Festival at Mandai Kadu, there would be a good catch of fish. They made offerings at the Bhagwati Amman temple and their song was:

Kadal Vazhi Vantha Kannamma

Therai Vazhi Vantha Bhagwati Amman.

The Hindus used to make offerings to 'Sakayamata' church (church of Lady of Perpetual Help). This cultural anthropological fact is not an epiphenomenon. None of these religious people would like to see the relations between the communities destroyed. Their religious faith based on their experience is basic to their 'being'. Then how does communal conflict arise?



The radicals, the CPM, (Communist Party Marxists) Naxalities and Action Group support Christians against Hindu revivalist organizations. For the radical elements, the latter are extreme reactionaries keeping the ignorant masses under oppression. Among Christians, they see some signs of a progressive force in spite of the inequalities in the churches. In Kanyakumari the CPM, had categorically accused the RSS of attacking the fishermen. Various 'action groups' some inclined to the Vinod Mishra faction of CPM, supported Christians. It may be recalled that, in Kerala, the number one enemy of the RSS is Marxists. What about minority solidarity? Muslims in Kanyakumari came to the rescue of Christians. This happens in other situations too.

Christians cannot make India 'Christians' and Hindus cannot make India 'Hindu'. Christians must refrain from using slogans, which smack of 'selling Jesus' to Hindus. The Hindu revivalist organizations cannot get away with the slogans, which have political overtones. What is unfortunate is that future generations also will not be spared from




communal bloodbaths. In Kanyakumari, the canker of communalism was spreading to educational institutions with even school boys raising slogans against this organization or that. If our younger generation grows up this way, when will they realize that India is a country that belongs to everyone who lives here Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other?

It can be urged that when economic development and independence grow communalism will decline. Kanyakumari is one of the economically developed districts of Tamil Nadu. Perhaps that helped to limit the clashes to a few days. The growth of radical politics and a rapid rate of economic growth will certainly help communities to live in cooperation and peace.

Whether it is under the Company Raj or under today's secular, democratic and socialist Republic, religious communities will clash if their conscience, status, power and space are threatened. The threat can be real or imaginary. The crux of the matter is: all must observe the rules of the game respecting the basic humanity of man. Today, this is the meaning of secularism the main professed characteristic of the Indian Constitution. After all, secularism is faith in man and not faith in the plurality of gods.

The Hindu gentry of Madras was becoming a force to reckon with. The Hindu Literary Society was founded around 1830. In 1839, they collected about 70,000 signatures of Madras residents on a petition, which said inter alia that they represented the people of the country and that they deserved better treatment. They wanted to start schools and colleges. The opening of schools and a college by Pachaiyappa Charities was the result of this concerted action. Frykenberg notes that by 1842 there 'was an aggressive Hindu public ready to fight for its own privileged position'.

A country, which has rich cultural traditions can use these cultural symbols for social and political integration if the




symbols used are bereft of religious meaning and located in the national framework. Such an opportunity was lost in Kanyakumari. Swamy Vivekananda is not just a Hindu saint. He was one of the pillars of Indian renaissance and an able son of modern India who interpreted this country to the West. On the rock at the confluence of three seas, Vivekananda had meditated. In 1963 the birth centenary of this modern Sankaracharys, it was proposed to build a memorial on this rock. This was conceived and executed as a project of the Hindus. The Ramakrishna Mission, RSS and the Jan Sangh entered the scene and raised resources for the Rock Memorial.*

This article has originally been produced in Social Action, Vol. 33, Oct-Dec 1983, reproduced in this book with the permission of the Editor.




Taken from Praxis Nos. 3-4, 1983.