Friday, June 13, 2008

Those who frighten and those who get frightened

When the Communist Party of India first came to power through the ballot box, I was working in Chennai. The people of Tamil Nadu viewed the election results with surprise. There, too, the Congress party’s influence was on the wane. But the Tamil people did not have the courage to remove it and put another party on power. They did not hide their admiration for the Malayali who hard the courage to do it. “He is a real guy,” they said. They used that paternalist phrase only to denote courage.

Today the Malayali is a coward. The way we join hartals, whoever calls them, proves this. People get frightened when there are people who frighten. Fear of power, which flows through the barrel of a gun, is universal. In Kerala, there are others, too, who can frighten. Hartals succeed because people fear the muscle power of the political parties. These days the big parties rarely send their cadres to the battlefront. Usually they deploy members of affiliated organizations.

The first Communist government commanded a majority of only two votes in the State Assembly. If the Opposition could win over one member, the majority will be wiped out. If it could win over two members, it will have two more members than the ruling party. Placing their faith in this arithmetic, some persons were moving around with sacks to capture legislators. At that time, addressing a public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, party leader M. N. Govindan Nair said, “Whatever happens, we will maintain the two-vote majority.” He did not say we will take two legs or two lives. But those who listened to him came with the impression that even that might be done. Today leaders hold out dire threats publicly. Did not one leader say the other day that if anyone tried to demolish the party’s building his legs would be chopped off? How can one not be frightened?

Even before political parties took birth, religious establishments had the capacity to frighten people. Later caste organizations also acquired that capacity. In Kerala, some other organizations like those of traders and businessmen also possess that capacity, though not in the same measure. Film industry organizations are now trying to develop that capacity.

Sometimes there are needless attempts to fright people. The declaration of war made by Church leaders in the wake of the State Women’s Commission’s recommendation to enact legislation to prevent young girls from becoming nuns is an example. Chairperson Justice D. Sreeedevi has said the Commission also proposes to recommend that parents who force daughters to enter the nunnery must be prosecuted, the property rights of nuns must be protected and those leaving the convent must be rehabilitated.

Spokesmen of several Churches have claimed they are already following most of the regulations the Commission wants to enforce. The head of the Syro Malankara Church said in a press release that it did not allow one who has not completed 18 years to become a priest or nun. Kerala Regional Latin Catholic Council Secretary Fr. Stephen G. Kulakkayathil clarified that girls entered the convent after completing school education and no one became a nun before 18. Catholic Bishops Council of India spokesman Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph said no one became a nun before the age of 20, Orthodox Bishop Paulose Mar Milithios Bava said his Church too did not ordain nuns before the age of 18.

All Churches maintain that the girl and her parents have to give full consent before training as nun can start, that there is no compulsion to bequeath her share of the family property to the convent, that a nun can leave the order at any time and that they help in the rehabilitation of those who leave the nunnery. In other words, the Women’s Commission’s recommendations are in accord with the rules that the Churches follow or are bound to follow. What was then the need to declare war on the Commission?

There is no need to disbelieve what the spokesmen of the Churches say about the procedures they follow. At the same time we cannot forget that rules might be broken in the Churches, as elsewhere. Indeed, persons like Joseph Pulikunnel, who have been campaigning against undesirable practices in the Churches, have pointed to breach of the rules. The Women’s Commission’s mandate is to protect the rights pf women. It drew up its recommendations in the light of a study conducted after receiving a complaint.

The charge that the Commission’s recommendations constitute interference in religious affairs is absurd. As the Women’s Summit at Beijing declared, women’s rights are human rights. The Churches cannot claim the right to flout human rights in the name of religious freedom. The real issue involved in the controversy is who must have the right to frighten the people. If a law is enacted, that will become the last word. So long as it is not there, the Church has the last word. The people need fear it alone.

The way Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President Ramesh Chennithala, who is capable of understanding all this, has jumped into the fray to make political capital is highly deplorable. The dealings the political parties have made with religious and caste organizations at the national and regional levels for temporary gains have already caused immense damage. Chennithala may make a ruckus and Pinarayi Vijayan may turn his face away, but the constitutional machinery cannot ignore human rights violations.

One criticism levelled by those who have come forward to oppose the Women’s Commission’s recommendations is that there is no Christian representative on it. This is not sufficient reason to reject the Commission’s recommendations. However, it needs to be acknowledged that lack of representation for a significant section of the population on such bodies exposes a grave weakness in the political arena.
Based on 'Nerkkazhcha' column appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated June 13, 2008

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