Indian Church Unfazed by Government Harassment for Anti-Nuclear Protests

Federal agencies free Church bank account used for foreign donations. The Church continues to stand for local fishermen in area where power plant is nearing completion.

The Koodankulam nuclear power plant, under construction.
The Koodankulam nuclear power plant, under construction. (photo: Petr Pavlicek/International Atomic Energy Agency)

BANGALORE, India — A dispute over a nuclear power plant nearing completion in a southern India fishing area has put the Catholic Church in the spotlight.

The federal government, alleging that the Church was diverting foreign funds to support agitation against the power plant, has frozen a bank account the Church uses to receive foreign donations.

But the Church, which has rejected those allegations, is not backing down.

“This is not a political protest. We are standing with the poor people fighting for their rights,” Bishop Yvon Ambrose of Tuticorin said March 8 after a news conference in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state. “No pressure tactics can stop us from taking side with the affected people. We cannot disown our people.”

The government also froze bank accounts of three other action groups who have been protesting the plant, which is in Koodankulam, part of the diocese’s territory.

At the news conference, led by Archbishop A.M. Chinnappa of Madras-Mylapore, president of the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC), the Church reiterated its unequivocal support of the protests.

“It is an open secret that the [federal] government is taking these actions against the Diocese of Tuticorin and other Christian NGOs, in the wake of the debate and dispute on the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant,” the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council pointed out. “The people are agitating not because they are Christians, but because this plant is situated in their village. The Hindus and Muslims who live in that village also are agitating.”

The statement further noted that more than 200 Hindu women recently marched to the local Hindu temple carrying pots of milk in a local tradition “to seek divine intervention to stop the project.”

“They are not in any way connected with the Church. It is false to say that Christians alone are objecting to this project and they are against public interest and national development,” the bishops’ conference said.

Our Lady of Lourdes Church at Idinthakarai, five kilometers from the nuclear power plant, has been the nerve center of the protests since August.

The protest drew national headlines in September when as many as 127 people — 15 Hindus and 112 Christians, including four Catholic priests and three religious sisters — went on a hunger strike, demanding that the $3-billion nuclear plant be scrapped. 

The protesters point out that construction of the plant has not followed safety norms and would harm people living and fishing in nearby villages. The majority of the more than 45,000 fishermen residing within three miles of the plant are Christians.

The hunger strike ended after 11 days, when two dozen strikers were hospitalized and after the government invited the protesters for dialogue on Sept. 21. The fasting protesters were given lime juice by Church leaders, led by Bishop Ambrose, who had met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalita, along with local Protestant leaders and secular activists spearheading the agitation.

The path for this dialogue was paved by the reconciliatory statement of V. Narayanasamy, federal deputy minister in the Indian prime minister’s office. Narayanasamy visited the venue of the fast at the Church compound and declared that the federal government was “ready to reconsider the [nuclear power] project.”

“People’s safety comes first. Power comes later,” declared the federal minister. However, the government soon changed its stance and said the nuclear power plant cannot be dropped after reaching completion.

The sudden change in the government’s stand evoked more protests with simultaneous sits-in and rallies in several areas — even in far-off places. Realizing the active involvement of the churches in the anti-nuclear protests, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), to help stall the protests.

Following its failure to dissuade the churches from supporting the people’s protest, the government filed 76 criminal cases to break the protracted protest by mid-November.

“Only if I am guilty, I need to be afraid,” said Bishop Ambrose, when he was asked for his reaction to police filing cases against him and diocesan priests for supporting the protest and letting a “religious place” be used for anti-government demonstrations.

“The question is why India should commission a new nuclear plant in a thickly populated area when the developed nations are dismantling their nuclear structures,” said Bishop Ambrose, who was director of Caritas Asia for seven years.

“The people have been against this project right from the beginning, in 1990s. But the government just ignored the protests and went ahead with it, as it was remote fisher people’s area,” said S.P. Udayakumar, a Hindu and the coordinator of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE).

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan following the March 11, 2011, tsunami, Udayakumar pointed out, “the protests gathered momentum.”

While the people’s protests continued unabated, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a sensational allegation in February in an interview with the American journal Science,  expressing suspicion that NGOs in the United States were behind the massive protests.

Following this allegation, various agencies of the federal government launched simultaneous investigations against NGOs supporting the campaign and froze the foreign-donation accounts of four NGOs, including the social-service wing of the Tuticorin Diocese.

“An all-out campaign is on now to discredit the anti-nuclear protests led by the fisher people’s community,” pointed out Redemptorist Father Thomas Kochery, one of the advocates of the people’s protest against the nuclear plant.

“By targeting the Church, the government is communalizing the people’s struggle as Christian conspiracy,” pointed out Father Kochery, one of the founders of the World Forum of Traditional Fisher People.

His fear came true, with Hindu groups and their sympathetic media outlets dubbing the Koodankulam protests as Christian propaganda.

Quoting government sources, Organizer, an English publication of Hindu nationalists, claimed that more than 75% of NGOs that received foreign funds in India are Christian groups.

“There is a vilification [process] by some forces to project the Christian community as if it is anti-national, working against public interest. This process has not only tarnished the image of the Christians, but has greatly pained the Christian community,” said Archbishop Chinnappa, head of the Church in Tamil Nadu, in a press statement.

“Since the nuclear project has made the people insecure with regard to their life and livelihood, the Church is only extending its solidarity to them in their hour of anxiety,” reiterated the Tamil Nadu Church in its statement. “This is our only moral involvement with the people. If the government is able to convince them and allay their fears, the Church in no way will stand against any decision.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.