Church role in Kudankulam protests merits wider probe

The crackdown on four non-governmental organisations on the charge that they diverted foreign funds intended for social development activities to the anti-nuclear protests in Kudankulam has focussed the spotlight on the activities of church-based NGOs in southern Tamil Nadu.

On Tuesday, the Union Home Secretary announced that the bank accounts of four NGOs had been frozen after it was found that they had been diverting funds received from overseas donors to the anti-nuclear protests. Two of the cases have been registered by the CBI, and the two others by the Crime Branch of the Tamil Nadu police.

The crackdown comes barely days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went public with the charge that US non-governmental organisations were behind the agitation, which has stalled work on the nuclear plant in power-starved Tamil Nadu.

The 'hand of God' is intervening in the Kudankulam project. IBN-Live screengrab

Although Singh did not mention the faith-based affiliation of these NGOs, it is an open secret that church groups based in the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu, which receive crores of rupees in donations from overseas, have been active in backing the anti-nuclear protest.

The NGOs that are at the centre of the latest action haven’t been named, but they are believed to be those associated with Bishop Yvon Ambroise, the Tuticorin church leader, who has been active in mobilising popular support for the protests at Kudankulam.

Two of the NGOs associated with Ambroise - the Tuticorin Diocese Association (TDA) and the Tuticorin Multipurpose Social Service Society (TMSSS) – have been working in the area of fishermen’s livelihood, and their support for the anti-nuclear agitation draws on the fears to the fisherfolks’ livelihood from the nuclear power plant.

The church-based NGOs along the southern coast of Tamil Nadu have done exemplary work to restore the livelihood of fishermen in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami, which devastated large areas of South East Asia and southern India.

But even there, their attempts to “harvest souls” and proselytise aid beneficiaries at a time of supreme grief came in for criticism.

And although similar attempts at proselytisation of tsunami victims in Indonesia drew protests from the government there, the church groups received no such pushback from Indian authorities.

In fact, even in Kudankulam, although the protest against the nuclear project began as a secular movement intended to raise awareness about the hazards of nuclear plants, the agitation has in recent months been appropriated by the church.

The role of the church in the Dravidian politics of southern India has been clinically analysed by Rajiv Malhotra and Aravida Neelakandan in their book Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines.

Malhotra, an IT entrepreneur and founder of the Infitinity Foundation, and Neelakandan, a social science researcher who has worked with an NGO in Tamil Nadu, argue that US and European churches, in particular, are working actively to foster separatist tendencies among the Dravidian and Dalit communities on the basis of identity.

The authors trace the money trail from Western churches and their affiliates – which are on the surface well-intended, being offered for “education” and “empowerment” and “leadership training”. But they effectively go to fund programmes that are intended to instigate a sense of anomie that persuades the youth, in particular, to renounce their Indian identity.

The Dravidian-Christian project, the authors argue, is founded on the misappropriation and misrepresentation of Tamil culture and literature in order to create an ‘identity vacuum’ that can then be filled by the Christian missionary agenda.One part of that agenda is to implicate India in human rights abuses and to line it up in front of international forums as an offender.

The Dravidian identity, writes Malhotra, is now being increasingly Christianised. "A new religion called 'Dravidian Christianity' has been invented through a sudden upsurge of writings designed to 'discover' the existence of quasi-Christianity in Tamil history prior to the coming of the 'Aryan' Brahmins. The project is to co-opt Tamil culture, language and literature and systematically cleanse them of Hinduism. Christian interpretations and substitutes are being injected into the most cherished symbols, artifacts and literary works of Tamil Hindu culture."

The notion of 'Dravidian Christianity', Malhotra points out, has penetrated high places. For instance, Marvin Olasky, an adviser to President George W. Bush, declared that "the two major denominations of Hinduism -- Vishnu-followers and Shiva-followers -- arose not from early Hinduism but from early Christian churches probably planted by the apostle Thomas in India from AD 52 to 68." Olasky goes on to explain to his American readers how Christianity brought many key notions into Hinduism.

For far too long, politicians in Tamil Nadu have been wary of speaking out against the activities of church groups in the State for fear of losing out on a well-entrenched voter base. To the extent that the church’s encroachment in the arena of the politics of nuclear energy has compelled even Manmohan Singh to speak out, it opens up the space for a broader investigation of the church’s activities in southern Tamil Nadu (and indeed elsewhere in India).

Independence Day