What's brewing in Kanyakumari: Evangelist officer, communal flashpoint

  • Viju Cherian, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 02, 2015 20:29 IST

A 1990 batch IAS officer, C Umashankar, caught the media's attention overnight. The Tamil Nadu government stopped the IAS officer from taking part in prayer meetings scheduled to be held in Kanyakumari between January 24 and 26. A government letter warned him against "preaching and propagating" a religion and that he would face "appropriate action" if he went ahead.

Has Umashankar used his office to propagate the faith he believes in? No says the officer. In an interview to this writer the civil servant said that he has not used his office to further his religion: "I have used my time and my vehicle".

So why has the state government sent him a letter? Is he being targeted, as he claims? Is he the victim or is there truth in the allegations against him?

Controversial speeches

If one were to examine the speeches Umashankar has made, his extreme views and its propagation is evident. In a Youtube video of a May 2012 convention in Paramakudi, Tamil Nadu, Umashankar says that 'Satan is taking to hell all those who watch men and women dance on television'. Elsewhere, his photo has appeared on banners advertising conventions meant to 'heal' homosexuality. Media reports state that the 'IAS Evangelist' to have said that the September 11 Twin Tower attacks in New York and the 2013 Uttrakhand floods were a result of the people not listening to the word of god.

On the face of it such claims should not come as a surprise. All major religions emphasise that that religious faith is the only way to god or happiness or salvation. The extremists following Islam, the fundamentalists following Hinduism or the Pentecostal/born again orthodox followers of Christ, are ready examples. Given this, Umashankar is just one of the many preachers who look down on other faiths to stress on his faith.

READ: Tamil Nadu asks IAS officer to stop preaching

For many people the problem arises when that preacher is a government servant holding an important office. As author and socialite Rahul Easwar said: "The objection to Umashankar is that he is going against the spirit of the Constitution. He is directly insulting and insinuating that other religions are not good. He is using his IAS position to further a communal agenda."

To contextualise this controversy it is important to understand the history of religious tension in south Tamil Nadu, especially in Kanyakumari, its political undertones and the track record of Umashankar the civil servant.

History of communal tension

Religious tension--especially between the Hindus and Christians--in Kanyakumari dates back to even before the East India Company. In the first half the 16th century Saint Francis Xavier is said to have converted about 20,000 fishermen in the Kanyakumari area. The Portuguese rulers were instrumental in converting many, especially from the fishermen community, to Christianity. It was with the rise of Protestant Christianity, with the work of evangelical groups like the London Missionary Society, that Hindu-Christian tension began to rise. South Travancore, especially Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli, saw many people from the Nadar community becoming Christians. This tension has been brewing for decades with all sides (including the Muslims) blaming the government of being partisan.

In the early 1980s, the southern districts in Tamil Nadu were once again was in the news after two incidents took place. First, was the February 1981 conversion of about 180 Dalits households to Islam, in Meenakshipuram. Anthropologist MA Kalam, who has extensively studied the Meenakshipuram conversion, is of the view that: "The conversions brought to light the fact that the people who were downtrodden, the Dalits, or as BR Ambedkar called them the "broken people", were never given any space in Hinduism….The conversions, to an extent, did also deteriorate Hindu-Muslim relations because, the RSS, in the form of the Hindu Munnani, started getting strengthened and flexing its muscles." Second, the Mandaikadu communal riots in March 1982 between Hindus and Christians, over religious conversions by Christians.

Another reason that makes Kanyakumari an ideal communal flashpoint is the percentage of minorities in the district. According to the statistical data provided on the district website, Hindus comprise 51.3% of the district while Christians come a close second at 44.5%. This near divide appears to be an anomaly when one considers the state percentage: Hindus form about 88% while Christians only 6%. It should also be factored that the RSS has a telling presence in the district, along with equally vocal Christian groups.

Political undertones

The political undertones are also important. Tamil Nadu for decades has had Dravidian parties in government. While the Dravidian movement was founded on the objective of giving self-respect and equal rights to castes discriminated by religions, the Dravidian parties have taken sides with religious groups to strengthen their voter bases. While the AIADMK has tried to secure the Hindu vote, the DMK is open with its minority appeasement ways. In 1997, the DMK government under M Karunanidhi released Al Ummah founder Syed Ahmad Basha and 15 others - who were arrested for the 1993 bomb blast in the RSS office in Chennai that killed 11 people - because, it didn't not want to 'hurt the sentiments' of the Muslims. (In 2007, Basha was acquitted by the court but 11 people were punished).

'Honest officer'

Umashankar's work as an IAS officer speaks for itself: He has been instrumental in introducing open source software in government offices and in exposing scams during the AIADMK and the DMK regimes. And yet, he says, he has been given a raw deal by successive governments. So is there credence to his claim that he is being victimised by the government?

It is in this context that the allegations against Umashankar need to be seen. Umashankar's case is a symptom of the increasing religious intolerance seen in many parts of the country, especially Kanyakumari. His case gains importance because of the office he holds.

(The views expressed are personal. You can tweet to the author at @vijucherian.)

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