Theology of Demagoguery: Why Tamil Pastor George Ponnaiah’s Hate Speech Should Frighten Us All

Theology of Demagoguery: Why Tamil Pastor George Ponnaiah’s Hate Speech Should Frighten Us All

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Friday, July 23, 2021 12:29 PM IST
Theology of Demagoguery: Why Tamil Pastor George Ponnaiah’s Hate Speech Should Frighten Us AllReverend George Ponnaiah
  • A popular Catholic priest in the Kanyakumari district warns Hindus that they would be reduced to a miniscule minority and wishes both the Prime Minister and Home Minister a horrible end.

    He is no lunatic fringe. He is the mainstream in the Kanyakumari district.

A video of a Christian Reverend has gone viral on Tamil social media. The video features Rev. George Ponnaiah, who belongs to the Catholic Diocese of the southern district. He was talking at a place called Arumanai – a village in the western Kanyakumari district on 18 July 2021.

In the speech, he is heard saying that the network of Catholic priests was tapped by him and his associates—by which he could mean the Catholic Church—to canvas votes in favour of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the recently concluded Tamil Nadu legislative assembly elections.

Addressing the Tamil Nadu government's Minister for Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HRCE), the Reverend is heard saying the following.

"It does not matter how many temples you renovate and consecrate. No Hindu, no devotee of Mandaikattu Amman is going to vote for you. If you won, then it is the alms we Christians and Muslims have thrown to you. You won not because of your talents."

Speaking of the Church's role in the elections, the Reverend said that the 'Bishops just signalled with their eyes and our workers including the Pentecostal movement workers went and canvassed for you (DMK and Congress)'.

Naming another candidate for being slightly reluctant to openly associate with the Church led mobilisation, the Reverend points out how the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate won instead.

"...he was afraid that he might lose Hindu votes. So who won there? Who was this M R Gandhi? He went to Christian Nadars and gave Rs 2,000 and cried that he was a Nadar and that he wanted to die as an MLA."

If open communalisation of vote canvassing and being boastful about that wasn't enough, the clergyman then goes on to further insult a local community (Nadars) that is known to have sympathies for the BJP.

Asking if the Nadars "have any brains", the Reverend asks rhetorically if the BJP candidate M R Gandhi was even a Nadar for the Christian Nadars to have voted for him.

The speech does not end here.

The Reverend then goes on to point out that the BJP candidate was not in the habit of wearing footwear out of respect for the earth - mother earth - Bhumadevi or Bharata Mata.

"But", the Reverend continued, "...we wear shoes. Why? Because the impurities of Bharat Mata should not contaminate us. The Tamil Nadu government has given us free footwear. This bhumadevi is dangerous, you could catch scabies from it".

After a few more sentences of unprintable vulgarity and base communal rhetoric, the Reverend attacks Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

"The last days of Modi are going to be pathetic. I give it in writing. If the God we worship is a true living God the history should see Modi and Amit Shah being eaten by dogs and worms."

A warning to fellow Hindus in the region was reserved for the last with due references to the declining demographic strength of Hindus and increasing numbers of Christians and Muslims.

"We are now majority (in the district) from 42 per cent we have crossed 62 per cent. Soon we would be 70 per cent. You cannot stop us. I am saying this as a warning to my Hindu brothers."

It should be emphasised that this is not a fringe lunatic giving a speech. Rev. George Ponnaiah is one of the charismatic priests of the Catholic diocese in the Kanyakumari district with a devoted following.

With speeches like this, it seems that the Catholic Church's carefully choreographed suave, gentle behaviour and their flowery talk about respect for all religions are all a mere façade.

But is there more context to this speech?

Yes! To get the context, it is important to understand the dynamics here in the southernmost part of India. Here, given the rampant conversions and a favourable political climate, hatred for Hindus can sometimes be quite real.

According to the last census, Hindus constitute less than 50% of the population in the Kanyakumari district, with Christians coming in at 47% and Muslims at 4%.

Given the lopsided demographics against Hindus, there have been attacks on temples and such. The 1980s saw riots when Christian sections objected to festive activities at the Mandaikadu Bhagavathy Amman temple. (Rev George Ponnaiah makes a reference to this deity, saying her devotees did not vote for the DMK).

In this district, Church-based vote mobilisation is quite common in every election, and support is largely conditional on some sort of quid pro quo involving support for the Church in the political sphere. It is for this reason that the Indian National Congress has a strong presence here, unlike anywhere else in Tamil Nadu.

In these regions, institutional and evangelical Christianity, cutting across denominations, also joins hands with Islamist fundamentalist forces like the Popular Front of India (PFI).

At the risk of repeating - this is no fringe politics. This is the mainstream political narrative here in the southernmost district of India. Every election sees Church backed vote mobilisation and anti-Hindu rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the Church isn't likely to do anything against Rev George Ponnaiah. It is worth remembering that this very Church made a Saint out of Cyril for the cruel murder of Hypatia, the philosopher mathematician. It even made a Saint out of Xavier for the inquisition that saw the torture and death of thousands of Hindus and Jews in Goa. What will it do against a simple George Ponnaiah?

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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