Fr Thomas Kocherry

Fr Thomas Kocherry

Thiruvananthapuram: Father Thomas Kocherry, an activist priest who helped unite traditional fishermen globally, died of cardiac arrest on Saturday. He was 74. He had survived four heart attacks in the past.

The death occurred at the Redemptorist House in Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala state in southern India.

The funeral is scheduled for Monday at the Holy Cross Church, Muttada, a suburb of Thiruvananthapuram.

The tall, stocky, bald and clean-shaven priest helped found the Kerala Swatantra Matsyathozhilali (independent fish workers) Federation. He was a bitter critic of globalization in India. In 1999, he received the Sophie Prize, a Norwegian award for environment and development.

A year earlier, the United Nations presented him the “Earth Trustee” Award for establishing the World Forum of Fishermen.

Fr Kocherry had made a mark as a union leader, anti-nuclear activist and people’s movement educator and became a “legend of social movement politics in India,” says Richard Swift of the New Internationalist Magazine who closely followed the priest’s activities spanning over four decades.

Swift recalled that the priest remained an “inveterate optimist” despite getting scores of scars from many battles. He recalled Fr Kocherry’s slogan, “Every fight, every movement, every reform is an optimism.”

After four heart attacks, innumerable fasts and 16 stints in jail, Fr Kocherry had shown no sign of slowing down. His last battle was against the controversial Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu. He supported the decision of two Catholic priests involved in the anti-nuclear movement, to fight the general election.
“You cannot talk about social justice without talking about the environment,” Swift quoted Fr Kocherry as saying. “There can be no shortcuts, no depleting of natural capital. When not campaigning, the priest traveled through southern India conducting seminars for young activists.

The fifth of eleven children, Kocherry grew up in the Backwaters region of Kerala, where poor fisher folk used small boats to eke a living from the fresh waters that parallel the Indian Ocean. The two influences on his early adult life were the Church and the radical Left movement.

He studied bachelor’s degree at St Berchmans College Changanacherry and obtained law degree from the Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. He was ordained a priest in 1971. He began his priestly life in northern Indian states.

He and three other Redemptorist priests made their living as part of the Shore Seine fishery, and helped organize health clinics and nurseries among the poor fishers systematically exploited by a series of wholesalers and merchants.

He was the first to oppose the use of mechanized boats in fishing in India.

In the late 1970s, Kerala fishers started to organize and assert their rights on a whole range of issues. They set up an organization called the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation. In 1981 Kocherry and fellow leader Joyachan Antony went on an 11-day fast in favor of a Monsoon Trawl Ban (the breeding season for many varieties of fish) in Kerala. Kocherry was arrested on trumped-up charges.

By 1982 the fish workers’ struggle had gone national, with Kocherry elected president of the National Fishworkers Forum. In the mid-1990s he led a nationwide campaign to stop the Indian government from opening up the country’s fishing industry to large foreign trawlers. With 10 million Indians dependent on a sustainable fishery for their survival, the stakes were high. A militant campaign included marches, fasts and blocking of major fish ports around the country.

The Indian government was forced to withdraw the legislation – one of the first and most significant victories against corporate globalization. Fr Kocherry, who went on to help form the World Forum of Fisher People, understands the tensions of fighting for the rights of the fishing community in an era of declining global fish stocks.

Although influenced by liberation theology and Marist ideology, Fr Kocherry toward the end became very critical both of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the established Christian church. “They become institutionalized, create dogmas and rituals and statues of their gods, they become power mongering or give in to the power of money,” he explained.

For Fr Kocherry, the strength of a people’s movement lies elsewhere. ‘It must be from the bottom up. The challenge is to create an evolving revolutionary structure that never becomes institutionalized or ossified by power,” he used to assert.

Friends used to joke that a megaphone was stuck in Fr Kocherry’s throat for his voice rose out like rolling thunder. If he was loud, he was fast. He had no concept of full stops or punctuations, his words rushed forth resembling some never ending waterfall of sentences. He was heard on Sundays, cassock clad, when he stood bowed in front of his congregation and God.

On other days he was a savior in another form, wearing a khadi dhoti and standing tall in front of politicians, police, unions, shipping companies or anyone who dared bother his beloved fisherfolk and ruined the oceans. Kocherry is by vocation a priest but his Bible and cassock were about where his similarity with most other priests ended, says M.G. Radhakrishnan in India Today.

He was president of the National Fishworkers Forum for eight years since 1982. Once, he travelled 3,000 km in two weeks to drum up support against a proposed Aqua Authority Bill that gave sanction to hundreds of aqua farms involved in industrial prawn culture.

In 1997, he became the first Indian to be awarded the US$150,000 Pew Fellowship in Conservation and the Environment for his contribution for protecting marine life.

If the 1980s go down as a crucial period in the history of the fishworkers movement, then Fr Kocherry is a symbol of that battle, Radhakrishn says. A man who understood that in all the talk of ecological disasters on land, the coastal belt – where both human and marine life were dying – had been ignored.

In 1981, when he was assigned to Delhi and violent clashes erupted between two fishing villages of Anchuthengu, only he could boldly walk into the war zone and restore peace: his word was final for both groups. The police was not impressed.

When Kocherry protested their brutal methods to control the warring fishermen, he was arrested and charged with attempting to murder a police official. The priest fasted. And the fishermen of Anchuthengu waited. “Days and nights in front of the police station for his release,” recollects Mascerene, a local fisherman.

Not all agitations went smoothly. In 1989, the NFF’s long march from Delhi to Kanyakumari protesting against coastal pollution, assaults on the marine environment and the proposed atomic plant at Koodamkulam ended violently on the beaches of Kanniyakumari where eight fishworkers were killed in police firing.

Kocherry fought on. When he couldn’t argue in the courts, he used the old Indian weapon – the fast. In 1995, his fast led to the inclusion of fishworkers in the Murari Committee which was formed to review the 1991 policy on joint venture fishing; in 1996, when the government again ignored a parliamentary committee’s recommendation on cancellation of all licenses to foreign trawlers, he fasted until the United Front rescinded it. He, says Harekrishna Debnath, now NFF head, “personified the struggle of Indian fishworkers”.

Not everyone is as complimentary. By attempting to organize an unorganized sector, Fr Kocherry has enraged not just corporate marine exporters but the trade unions. CITU Secretary M.K. Panthe blasted the NFF as an organization thriving on foreign money.

INTUC’s Kerala boss V.P. Marakkar echoed that, saying: “The American fellowship is proof of NFF’s foreign links.” Fr Kocherry was unperturbed.