N P Chekkutty
The Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful and influential Christian group in Kerala, is facing an acute embarrassment over the loss of control of its prestigious property, the Deepika newspaper, the first Malayalam newspaper, to an NRI businessman with dubious records.
The 120-year-old Deepika, which was launched in 1887 from Kottayam by venerated Christian evangelists like Nidheerikkal Mani Kathanar and Chavara Kuriakose Elias, who has been elevated to the position of ?The Blessed? by the Vatican recently, was officially taken over by a new board of directors, led by M A Pharis alias Pharis Aboobacker, chairman, and Renji Panikkar, a Malayalam film-maker, as vice chairman. Fr.Mathew Arakkal, an important church functionary, who was chairman of the company during past few years, handed over charge to the new team last week. It is for the first time that the Deepika has a non-Christian as its board chairman and members of the Christian laity, who had invested huge amounts of money in the company, are now making a last-ditch bid to recapture control. But it is unlikely that the annual general meeting of the company, scheduled for August 20, will be able to revoke the decision of the board handing over charge to the new team.
What disturbs the church dignitaries and the laymen is the fact that Deepika has been a newspaper which served the community for over a century and its readership is still drawn mainly from the powerful Catholic laity. As the paper had been known as the voice of the Catholic Church, the church leadership is finding it difficult to explain why and how the control had been lost to a corporate raider. The church lost control of the paper despite the best efforts made by a committee led by senior church leaders like Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, major archbishop of the Seiro Malabar Church, and Dr Joseph Powathil, archbishop of Changanassery archdiocese.
The embarrassment becomes more acute as media reports have described the new chairman of the Deepika Company, M A Pharis, as a dubious person with a history of financial misdeeds. He suddenly came into the picture in 2004 with a donation of Rs. 2 crore to the financially ailing Deepika Company, officially known as Rashtra Deepika Private Limited (RDL) following its decision to sell shares through private placement. The loan was welcomed as a relief to the company which was going through a resource crunch. The Deepika chairman, Mathew Arakkal, himself a bishop in the church, had sent out a note to the share-holders dated July 20,2006 in which he made the following statement: ?I made sincere attempts to mobilize funds from within the community, but the responses were very disappointing. In these circumstances, I contacted Mr. M A Pharis, a Muslim NRI entrepreneur of considerable resources. He agreed to advance a small interest free loan of Rs. 2 crore to RDL for two years. He said if we were unable to repay the loan, it would be considered as zakkath.?(zakkath is a donation for charitable purposes under the Muslim tradition.)
Pharis neither demanded the money back nor has the company made any attempt to pay him back. Instead he was allowed a seat on the board of directors and later was made a vice chairman of the company. In stages, he had advanced around Rs. 10 crore to the company and was practically calling the shots in its editorial policy. It was then the Church leadership came to its senses and found that their traditional newspaper was now taking up a totally different role and was acting more like the voice of a group in the CPM. In the group war in Kerala CPM between senior leaders Pinarayi Vijayan and VS Achuthanandan, Deepika was acting as the unofficial mouthpiece for Pinarayi. It was a curious scene of the newspaper which led the Liberation Struggle in 1958 against the Communists taking up the cudgels for a politburo member of the party against another.
More than this political line, the Church was concerned about the track record of Pharis who had emerged as the real power centre within the paper. He came to public view only a few years ago through news reports in the Straights Times and other papers in Singapore, in connection with the Singapore Kidney Foundation scandal. The Singapore police were investigating a case of swindling in the Government supported Foundation to the tune of millions of dollars and T T Durai, its chairman, and some others were accused in the case. M A Pharis, who was a business associate of Durai, was one of the persons accused in the case, still pending there, and the Singapore courts had issued him a summons.
Worried, the Church decided to raise Rs.10 crore to repay Pharis but he refused to accept the money. At one point there was an agreement between the Church and Pharis that the Church would retain its properties at the headquarters at Kottayam while all other offices and other properties of Deepika elsewhere would go to Pharis as part of the settlement. According to conservative estimates, the assets the Church was willing to part with including a multi-storey building in prime land in Kochi, were worth more than Rs.20 crore, that is more than double his actual investment. It showed how desperate the Church was to salvage its public image. But the agreement could not be implemented as a court ordered a stay on it following a number of suits filed by some shareholders challenging the terms of the agreement.
With the court staying the agreement of a division of the properties in March 2007, there has been a stalemate with the Church keeping out of the paper and Pharis running the show. Satyadeepam, the official weekly publication of the Seiro Malabar Church, recently wrote a strong article condemning the affairs at Deepika and its loss to the Church because of mismanagement. In view of the sharp criticism within the rank, the Church leadership had decided to make known the fact that Deepika was no longer a Christian paper, through a declaration in the various dioceses. The formal exchange of reins at the paper has been done and now it is only a matter of record for the Church to declare that its century-old property is no longer in the service of the Church and its laity.