Kerala against land mafia: 100-ft iron cross halts eviction drive in Munnar even as Christians reject its holiness

The removal of a 100-ft iron cross has halted the eviction drive in Kerala's Munnar even as illegal encroachment continues to put its unique biodiversity at risk

TK Devasia April 24, 2017 18:37:08 IST
Kerala against land mafia: 100-ft iron cross halts eviction drive in Munnar even as Christians reject its holiness

A cross seems to have come on the way of saving a hill town in Kerala, called a "heaven on the earth", from an ecological disaster.

A drive by the state Revenue Department to liberate the ecologically fragile Munnar in Idukki district from real estate mafia has been stopped by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan after Revenue department officials pulled down a 200-iron foot cross erected atop a hill allegedly encroached by a Christian evangelical group based at Thrissur.

Kerala against land mafia 100ft iron cross halts eviction drive in Munnar even as Christians reject its holiness

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has called off the eviction drive in Munnar. PTI

Though the Church did not object to the removal of the cross from the encroached land, Vijayan termed demolition of the 200-foot iron cross erected atop a hill at Pappathichola in Chinnakkanal village as a sacrilegious act and ordered the Revenue Department to hold the drive till an all-party meeting discussed the matter.

Bishops and Church leaders belonging to various denominations maintained that the cross erected on the encroached land had no sanctity. Many of them considered it as a misuse of the cross, which is revered by Christians as symbol of salvation, for material gains.

Media persons at Munnar say that the actual intention of the evangelical group, known as "Spirit in Jesus", in establishing the prayer group in the tourism hotspot was not spiritual upliftment but spiritual tourism. PB Jaishankar, a former journalist in Idukki, told Firstpost that the group head Tom Zachariah and his family members had grabbed hundreds of acres of land in various parts of the larger Munnar region and built resorts.

It has been trying to attract spiritual tourists from across the world saying Pappathichola was a holy site where God showers miracles. The group has been circulating a video showing a rainbow around the sun over the hills saying it was a celestial sign of God approving Zachariah and his ministry.

However, the mainstream Church in the state does not subscribe to the group’s claims and teachings. Thrissur Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazhath said that the teachings and ways of worship of the group, Spirit in Jesus, did not match with those of the Church. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), an apex body of bishops of all the three Catholic rites in the state, had in 2001 even banned the group from conducting retreats or other programmes in Catholic parishes, he said.

The non-Catholic churches in the state also do not approve of the Spirit in Jesus. Kerala Council of Churches president Gevarghese Mar Coorilos, Metropolitan of the Niranam Diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Church, termed the erection of the cross at Pappathichola as a clear case of misuse of the cross.

“Jesus Christ must have been the happiest one to see the removal of the cross from the encroached land,” the Metropolitan said in his Facebook post.

However, the chief minister has stuck to his stand even after the Church disowned the prayer group. He summoned the Idukki district collector, Munnar sub-collector and other senior district officials to Thiruvananthapuram and censored them. He also directed them not to use earthmovers in demolishing illegally constructed structures and consult Power Minister MM Mani, who belongs to Munnar, when eviction resumes in future.

Environmentalists view this as a strong signal to end the eviction drive. They say no eviction anywhere in Idukki will be possible with the consultation of Mani since he has been opposing it from the very beginning. He had even threatened to chop off the legs of those entering Munnar with the intention of evicting encroachers when former chief minister VS Achuthanandan launched an eviction drive in 2007.

After the chief minister’s direction, Mani made his stand clear by saying that Munnar sub-collector Sreeram Venkataraman, who heads the eviction drive, should be sent to Oolampara, a famous mental hospital at Thiruvananthapuram. He accused the young IAS officer of implementing the RSS ideology.

Other senior leaders of his party in Idukki are also against eviction. The district unit of the party had come out openly against the current eviction by launching an agitation and blocking officials from evicting the encroachers. Party veteran Achuthanandan called Devikulam MLA S Rajendran, who led the agitation, as a "man of land" mafia.

Interestingly, Rajendran tried to shield the Spirit in Jesus saying there was ambiguity on the status of the land where they erected the cross. Rajendran, who himself has built a house on the alleged encroached land at Munnar, has been maintaining that the Revenue Department’s reports about encroachments were exaggerated.

There have been numerous reports regarding encroachments in Munnar. But the reports submitted by Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) Rajan Madhekar in 2004 and Revenue Principal Secretary Nivedita P Haran in 2007 have revealed not only large-scale encroachment of revenue and forest lands in Munnar but also illegal construction and mining activities by the real estate mafia in connivance with politicians and revenue officials.

An Assembly committee that looked into the matter endorsed all the major findings of the two committees and recommended a temporary ban on all non-domestic construction activities in Munnar in its report tabled in the House in March this year. It also sought establishment of a Munnar Environmental Protection and Development Authority within six months to regulate the activities in future.

All the three reports have warned of the unhindered activities of the land mafia in Munnar that attracts tourists from all over the world because of its unique geographical position and rich biodiversity. The reports say that the hill station situated at about 5,200 feet above the mean sea level will disappear from the tourism map if the illegal activities are allowed to continue unhindered.

Environmentalists said the eviction drives in Munnar were fizzling out because of opposition from political parties. Noted environmentalist and state convenor of Aam Aadmi Party CR Neelakandan says that local leaders of the parties have been resisting eviction either because they themselves were in possession of encroached land or are hand-in-glove with the land mafia.

The much trumpeted eviction drive of the Achuthanandan government in 2007 failed after it targeted the local office of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a prominent constituent of the Left Democratic Front (LDF). Though the CPI is fully backing the current drive led by minister E Chandrashekharan, the CPM that heads the LDF is playing the villain.

Neelakandan believes that the chief minister and his party raised the issue of cross to bring an end to the current eviction drive. He termed the chief minister’s defence of the cross as an insult to the people of Kerala.

“Vijayan is bearing the cross that the faithful do not want. If Pope Francis knew that the cross was erected on an encroached land in an ecologically fragile region, I am sure he himself would have removed it. It’s unfortunate that the chief minister is defending the cross even after Christians share the Pope’s concern on environment,” the statement said.

IAS officer Suresh Kumar, who was handpicked by Achuthanandan to head a task force to evict the encroachers from Munnar in 2007, said the chief minister’s action had given respectability to the encroacher, who used the religious symbol to encroach land.

“The encroacher should not be seen as part of a religious group. They are one of the many criminal gangs trying to grab land in Munnar. They would use cross and other religious symbols to justify their action,” he added.

Kumar, who was shunted out from the task following CPM intervention, does not believe that the eviction drive in Munnar will succeed without breaking the thriving alliance among real estate businessmen, land dealers, corrupt government officials and politicians. He considers it as an impossible task.

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