Hindu extremists suspected in area known for anti-Christian violence.
NEW DELHI, August 3 (Compass Direct News) – The suspicious death of a 39-year-old priest in the southern state of Karnataka has further terrified Christians living in an area known for anti-Christian violence, but police indicate that they doubt it is a homicide.
The body of the parish priest of St. Mary’s Church, the Rev. James Mukalel was found lying near his motorbike on a remote roadside in Belthangady sub-district near Mangalore early last Thursday (July 30). After family members reportedly sought a second autopsy that delayed interment, the priest’s body was buried on Saturday (July 25) with the cause of death still unsolved.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) maintains that Mukalel, from Belthangady’s Syro-Malabar diocese in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district, was killed.
“According to Fr. Joseph Valiaparambil, vicar general and spokesperson of the diocese of Belthangady, the death of the priest appears to be suspicious and unnatural,” officials at CBCI said in a statement, “as his body was found lying on the roadside near the motorbike which he was riding, and there were no clothes on his body.”
Alluding to Hindu nationalist extremists, the CBCI affirmed that “such killers represent no religious community but only a section which promotes the cult of violence, whose inhuman acts only further widen the gap between religious communities, thus aggravating the agony of the even larger human family.”
The Catholic Church demanded that the alleged killers be brought to justice, but police said Mukalel may have died from food poisoning. Superintendent of Police of Dakshina Kannada district Subramayeshwar Rao told Compass that police had only two theories on the cause of death.
“Although I have not seen the autopsy report, I learned from the forensic surgeons that Fr. James Mukalel died of poisoning – most likely naturally because of food poisoning, or he was poisoned.”
There were no external marks of injury or signs of suffocation, Rao added. The diocesan social work director had reportedly said there were signs of suffocation on the body.
Asked why Mukalel’s body was found nearly naked, Rao said only that Mukalel had vomited and passed a stool before his death.
“The body was found without any clothes, with only underwear, which had been pulled down the legs,” Rao said. “I don’t know why some people are thinking like that [that he was killed and for religious reasons].”
The Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians has demanded an inquiry by the federal Central Bureau of Investigation.
Mukalel, from Kannur district in the neighboring state of Kerala, was recently assigned to St. Mary’s Church.
According to the CBCI, Mukalel was killed as he returned to his parish in the Kutrupady area after attending the funeral of a parish priest in the adjacent Charmadi village around 9 p.m. on Wednesday (July 29).
On Friday (July 31) the priest’s body was taken to Government Wenlock Hospital in Mangalore, district headquarters of Dakshina Kannada district, after which the Catholic Church sent the body for last rites to St. Sebastian’s Church in Vellad, in Kerala state’s Kannur district.
A funeral service was held at St. Sebastian’s Church on Saturday (Aug. 1), but the body was not buried. It was instead taken to the Government Medical College at Kozhikode in Kerala for another autopsy because Mukalel’s parents and brother, along with other close relatives, felt it was not a natural death, Indo-Asian News Service reported.
Police official Rao said he had not been apprised of a second autopsy. “I heard about it in the news,” he said. “There is no legal provision for a second autopsy.”
Reports of the two autopsies were awaited at press time. The case, registered as a suspicious unnatural death under Section 174 C of Criminal Procedure Code, will be processed only after autopsy reports are completed.
The minority Muslim and Christian communities have faced numerous attacks in Dakshina Kannada district in general and in Mangalore in particular.
Most recently, The Hindu reported that on the evening of May 16, the day general election results were announced, a group of people celebrating the victory of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Nalin Kumar Kateel from Dakshina Kannada attacked four Muslim families with sticks, soda bottles, cricket bats and cycle chains in the Nettrakere area in the Bantwal area in Mangalore.
In August-September of last year, at least 28 attacks on churches were reported in Dakshina Kannada district, mainly in Mangalore. According to a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), in every case, the attackers were from Hindu nationalist extremist groups like the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagaran Vedike or the Sri Rama Sene.
The attacks were seen as fallout from violence in Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where Maoists on Aug. 23 killed a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or the VHP, whose youth wing is the Bajrang Dal), Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, for which Christians were wrongly blamed.
In Karnataka, Hindu nationalists also based their violence on alleged conversions of Hindus to Christianity and to protest a booklet, which they said was “derogatory” to Hindu gods, published by a Christian group, New Life Fellowship Trust.
Mangalore police were also suspected of having played a role in the attacks.
“What was striking about these attacks, especially in Mangalore, is that the police acted in tandem with the Bajrang Dal,” said the PUCL report, entitled, “From Kandhamal to Karavali: The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar” released in March.
“The pattern we observed was that the Bajrang Dal would attack Christian places and cause injury to persons and damage to property,” according to the report. “Then the police would step in, not to chase and arrest the assailants, but ostensibly to prevent any violent retaliation by the Christians. And in the course of the alleged preventive activity, they would assault the Christians further.”
A report by the National Minorities Commission also said that in the first week of the attacks on churches, police arrested more Christians, 47, than extremists from the Bajrang Dal, 36.
Karnataka is ruled by the BJP, which came to power for the first time in the state in alliance with a regional party, the Janata Dal Secular, in February 2006. In May 2008, it won the state assembly elections and became the one-party ruler of the state.
Report from Compass Direct News
Please note the correction to the above story from Compass Direct News:
In the Aug. 3, “Christians Dispute Police Theory on Priest’s Death in India,” the body of the Rev. James Mukalel was not buried on July 25. The second sentence of the second paragraph should read, “After family members reportedly sought a second autopsy that delayed interment, a funeral was held without burial on Saturday (Aug. 1) with the cause of death still unsolved.” Our apologies for the error.