Facing widespread criticism and backlash, Saji Cheriyan, the Minister for Culture and Film in Kerala, has finally backtracked on his controversial anti-clergy statement made in the aftermath of the Bishops’ meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Cheriyan had alleged, on December 31, that the Bishops who met the PM on Christmas day displayed special excitement after consuming grape spirit and cake served by the BJP, causing them to overlook incidents in Manipur.
Cheriyan’s statement drew sharp criticism from the Christian community and clergy, with Fr. Jacob Palackappalli, secretary of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC), condemning the Minister’s use of disrespectful language. Fr. Palackappalli questioned whether Bishops could be influenced by wine and cake.
Emphasising the need for more decorous language, Fr. Palackappalli clarified that the Christmas program organised by the Prime Minister aimed to discuss the services Christians provided in the country. He strongly criticised Cheriyan for taking a negative stance on the matter, pointing out that the participation of priests and Bishops in the Prime Minister’s program was a testament to their commitment to the nation.
Fr. Palackappalli highlighted that during the program, Prime Minister Modi praised the Christians’ role in the country’s freedom movement, as well as their contributions to healthcare and education. The PM acknowledged the compassion and justice promoted by Jesus Christ, describing them as guiding principles for his government’s development policies. The Minister’s retraction comes in the face of growing discontent within the Christian community and the broader public.
As criticism mounted against Kerala’s Culture & Film Minister Saji Cheriyan for his controversial comments, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joined the chorus of disapproval, denouncing his remarks. Simultaneously, the BJP initiated a state-wide program called Sneha Yatra (Journey of Love), reaching out to Christian homes to engage with the community.
In the initial 48 hours following Cheriyan’s remarks, no partners from the Left Democratic Front (LDF) coalition voiced any protest. Kerala Congress (Mani), a party with significant Christian support, remained silent. Eventually, the party’s minister, Roshi Augustine, offered a diplomatic response, stating that Cheriyan’s comments represented his personal opinion.
Saji Cheriyan is no stranger to controversy, having faced litigation last year for alleged derogatory comments about the country’s Constitution, leading to his resignation from the Cabinet. However, he later secured relief from the court and returned to the government in January.
Cheriyan’s history includes another controversial comment on Kerala’s agriculture, where he suggested the state did not need agriculture due to the agricultural activities in neighboring states. His statements, often lacking logic, have led many in Kerala to question his suitability as the Culture Minister.
Recognising the growing anti-CPM sentiments within the Christian community, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, an LDF partner, responded to the situation. State Secretary M.V. Govindan stated on January 2, 2024, that Cheriyan’s comments did not represent the party’s opinion. He clarified that the Party General Secretary would address national issues, while the state secretary would address state-specific matters. Govindan assured that the party would examine if the minister’s words had hurt the Church and would take appropriate actions. The move suggests a strategic response from the CPM to address the brewing discontent within the Christian community.
Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Bava, the first Cardinal of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the president of Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC), has declared that the Church will not engage with the government until Culture Minister Saji Cheriyan retracts his statement.
Union Minister V. Muraleedharan criticised Cheriyan, labeling him a “cultureless Culture Minister.”
Numerous Christians have voiced their protests against Saji Cheriyan. In response, Cheriyan announced on January 2, 2024, that he is withdrawing his comments concerning wine and cake. However, he remains steadfast in his remarks about ‘Manipur,’ asserting that time will vindicate the accuracy of his statements.
The President of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), K. Surendran, has demanded an explanation from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan regarding the controversial stance taken by Saji Cheriyan. Surendran highlighted that while Cheriyan withdrew only a portion of his statement, he remained steadfast in his position during media interactions. Surendran expressed concern over the minister’s apparent contempt and aversion towards the Church.
Surendran criticised Cheriyan, asserting that he is not the authority to dictate what the Church should convey to the Prime Minister. He further accused the Chief Minister of protecting Cheriyan, who had previously insulted the country’s Constitution and had to resign from the Cabinet. Despite this history, Cheriyan continues his divisive rhetoric, according to Surendran.
The BJP president called on CM Vijayan to educate Cheriyan if he is unaware of the political dynamics. He reminded that Cheriyan had resigned earlier for insulting the Constitution, emphasising the continued venomous propaganda.
Surendran alleged that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, and Chief Minister Vijayan, expect the Christian Church to align with their interests before engaging with the Prime Minister. He criticised the CPM’s dissatisfaction with the Church’s positions on Love Jihad and Land Jihad. The BJP president condemned the apparent hatred towards the Church exhibited by the CPM, particularly in response to its participation in the Prime Minister’s reception.
Surprisingly, Surendran expressed astonishment at the Congress’s silence, the principal opposition in the state, despite the insult to the Church. He accused the Congress of prioritising the interests of Islamic fundamentalists. The BJP president highlighted the party’s stance on correcting the 80:20 ratio of minority benefits, urging the implementation of deserving benefits based on population, a position opposed by both the CPM and Congress.