Sattankulam (Tamil Nadu), Feb. 22: When the bishops spoke, Jayalalithaa listened.
The chief minister had to, because the stakes are high. With four days left for the February 26 byelection from this constituency, which has 30 per cent Christian voters, the ADMK chief is getting grim reminders of the fallout of her regime’s recent law banning forcible conversions.
Virtually, the entire state Opposition is fighting the ADMK. Moreover, the law has touched a raw nerve among minorities, as the bishops told her at the meeting yesterday at the DCW Guest House, where she has been staying for the poll campaign.
“This is the land where dedicated missionary-scholars like G.U. Pope and Caldwell diffused the lamp of knowledge through several educational institutions,” said Rev. Jaipaul David, the bishop of the over 200-year-old Tirunelveli Diocese, in his petition urging Jayalalithaa to revoke the anti-conversion law.
The chief minister, whose meeting with the bishops was a sudden development, was told how the law was against the “basic religious ethos” and why it should be withdrawn in people’s interests.
Jayalalithaa has been harping during her campaign that the “law” was only to check forcible conversions through “inducements and fraud”, that people were free to convert voluntarily and that, so far, not a single person has been prosecuted since the Act came into force. She had even assured the bishops yesterday that the law “will not be misused”. But the minorities are far from convinced.
“People still doubt the intentions of the anti-conversion law,” says Rev. James, pastor of the St Stephen’s Church, which dates back to 1836. “If you sing (in praise of the Lord) alongside a street, nobody used to bother; but now people owing allegiance to some fundamentalist groups come and say stop,” he told The Telegraph.
According to the pastor, it was customary to give gifts like saris and dhotis to the poor, including non-Christians, on Christmas eve every year. “(But) This year, our church committee says ‘let us stop it’.”
“We don’t know the new law’s implications yet,” he explained. Moreover, he added, the procedure of informing every new conversion to the district magistrate was cumbersome and has created a “feeling of insecurity”.
While the Congress expects a major chunk of the minority vote because of its opposition to the law, the hopes of the Sangh parivar that the issue would polarise voters on religious lines have been belied.
“Caste” is a greater binding factor here, said senior Congress functionary S. Azhagiri. The Nadars — who form the dominant community in Sattankulam, which has a preponderance of “Christian Nadars” over “Hindu Nadars” — freely inter-marry within their caste. For them, familial ties are more basic than either religious or political identity. So, “polarisation on religious lines among the Christian and Hindu Nadars has not taken place here,” he said, a fact confirmed by the representatives of the Nadar communities also.
Keeping this in mind, state Congress leaders, including chief S. Balakrishnan and working president E.V.K.S. Elangovan, are criticising the anti-conversion law as part of the overall attack on the ADMK government’s anti-people policies. They have not made the law their basic poll plank.