Death of atheist Indian politician saddens church people
Five-time Tamil Nadu chief minister was a champion of religious minorities and oppressed groups.
Supporters of former Tamil Nadu chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi react to news of his death outside a hospital
in state capital Chennai on Aug. 7. (Photo by IANS).
Church leaders in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu have expressed condolences at the death of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a five-time state chief minister who supported freedom of religion despite being an atheist.
Karunanidhi died on Aug. 7 of an age-related illness in a hospital in state capital Chennai. He was 94.
The self-proclaimed atheist politician "always had a soft corner for religious minorities and especially for Christians whether in power or not," said Father Vincent Chinnadurai, former chairman of the state's Minorities Commission.
The church in Tamil Nadu has lost a friend and a well-wisher, the priest said about the leader of the powerful Dravidian political movement in the state over six decades.
During his last term as chief minister from 2006-11, Karunanidhi gave special reservations for low-caste Christians in education institutions and government jobs, Father Chinnadurai said.
Even though he was an atheist, he always supported the right of every citizen including Christians to propagate their faith. He was a strong opponent of the anti-conversion law enacted by the state government in 2002, the priest noted.
Karunanidhi's rival and then chief minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa repealed the law two years later fearing electoral implications following widespread protests from religious minorities including Christians.
Jesuit Father Joe Anthony, former editor of Catholic fortnightly newspaper The New Leader, said the state's bishops always felt free to approach him whenever his party was in power and he always welcomed them and listened to them.
Bishop Ezra Sargunam of the Evangelical Church of India told ucanews.com that Karunanidhi's death is a big loss to religious minorities and other oppressed groups like Dalits.
"He really cared for the poor and came up with various schemes for helping poor and minority groups. He was a real champion of social justice," the prelate added.
He always protected religious minorities from hard-line Hindu groups, Bishop Sargunam said.
Karunanidhi was a close follower of Thanthai Periyar, who started a rationalist movement in the 1930s that called for the abolition of castes, inequality and other superstitious practices.
"He was the chief architect of the rationalist Self-Respect Movement in the state that emboldened socially poor people to assert their human rights beyond the consideration of caste and religion," Bishop Sargunam said.
He later joined political party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Front) in 1947. He never lost an election in his 60-year career, triumphing a record 13 times at the polls.
Fondly called Kalaignar (the artist), Karunanidhi spoke mellifluous Tamil and was known for his powerful oratorical skills.
He was also a prolific author and wrote numerous plays and screenplays for Tamil movies, using the mass medium to influence the movie-loving Tamil population to follow his Dravidian ideology.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India in a press statement said the politician was "a towering Dravidian icon" who with his great intellectual prowess and pragmatism shaped the political narrative in Tamil Nadu and worked hard to uplift the common man
The church "will remember with affection this tall personality," it said, adding that the bishops expressed their gratitude for all the support and encouragement he gave the Christian community and its activities.
Karunanidhi's last rites are expected to be held on Aug. 9 in Chennai.