|M.P. Jesuraj (left) on the campaign trail.|
Life as a parish priest has never been the same for M.P. Jesuraj since his parishioners decided to protest aggressively against a Russian-sponsored nuclear power project in their village of Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, in 2010.
He converted his parish home at Our Lady of Lourdes Church into a campaign center for their efforts.
Along with other campaigners and thousands of fishermen, he staged a series of non-violent protests over three years. During the course of it, a total of more than 300 criminal cases were registered against him alone.
“We fought against all odds and police brutality,” he says. “The government ignored our pleas and we were on hunger strike for more than 70 days over 10 occasions. Five people sacrificed their lives in the struggle.”
Ultimately their struggle proved unsuccessful, as the government commissioned the nuclear plant last October.
Now Jesuraj is fighting for election as a candidate with the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Tirunelveli constituency, where the poll is scheduled for Thursday.
“My people decided that I should contest the election and the AAP was the only political party which supports our stand against nuclear power projects. So I filed my nomination and started my campaign,” he says.
Local Church officials told Jesuraj, who is affectionately nicknamed Mai Pa in his parish, to withdraw from the contest as his candidature was against Canon Law. He decided to go ahead anyway, and hopes that Church leaders will be sympathetic towards him.
“In this situation, we need political power to meet our ends,” he says.
In this constituency of around 1.2 million voters, Jesuraj is pitched in a five-way contest with all the major political parties fielding candidates.
Over the last 22 days, his campaign trail has taken him to every corner of the constituency and he has hopes of securing 250,000 votes.
“As the parties are divided, I have a fair chance of winning,” he says. “My bet is on the coastal villages and my parishioners.”
If he wins, he would be the second Catholic priest to win election to the Indian parliament’s Lok Sabha, or Lower House. Father Anthony Murmu, a Jesuit, took the Rajmahal constituency in Bihar, eastern India, in 1980. But pressure from Church authorities forced him to resign.
Yet Jesuraj insists: “If I win, I will not opt for resignation. I have to keep my promises to the people. When people suffer injustice, I have to shoulder them.”
Jesuraj, who has been a priest for the last 14 years, believes that preaching alone does not make a good priest. He believes that priests and nuns should show commitment to society by entering politics and fighting against corrupt practices. “We should lead our people and share their crosses,” he says.
“I never introduce myself as a priest,” he adds. “I always tell them that I am their servant. I get a warm reception everywhere. People treat me as one among themselves.”
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