How a letter by a Catholic archbishop incensed India's BJP

Archbishop Couto's letter should be seen in the context of growing anti-minority sentiment in India.

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    After calling parish priests to pray to save India from the "turbulent political atmosphere", the Archbishop of Delhi, Anil Couto, has been accused of intervening in politics [AP]
    After calling parish priests to pray to save India from the "turbulent political atmosphere", the Archbishop of Delhi, Anil Couto, has been accused of intervening in politics [AP]

    A letter the Catholic Archbishop of Delhi sent to all parish priests working in India's capital city has created a furore in the country's already charged political scene.

    In the letter dated May 8, Archbishop Anil Couto requested parish priests to start a year-long prayer campaign to save India from the "turbulent political atmosphere", which "poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution and the secular fabric of our nation".

    The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) immediately jumped to criticise the letter, calling it a "divisive move" and saying it was akin to calling people to vote along communal lines. BJP President Amit Shah also condemned the letter and warned people not to mobilise masses on the basis of religion. Giriraj Singh, a senior minister of the BJP government who is known for his controversial statements about India's minority communities, responded to the letter by saying "every action has a reaction". If the archbishop asked his people to pray, people from other religions would also start praying in their own way, he said.

    The only Christian minister in the central cabinet, K J Alphons, said the archbishop was not the entire church and was an "isolated voice" in the community. Calling the letter "unfair to the government", he advised the bishop that "Godmen should stay away from politics".

    Home Minister Rajnath Singh also felt compelled to respond to the letter, and claimed that India is a country where "there was no discrimination on the basis of religion". Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the BJP, also criticised the archbishop's call to prayer. Prominent RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha called the letter "a direct interference of the Vatican in the affairs of India" and said that it was an affront to the secular character of India.

    It was interesting to see the BJP and the RSS treat the letter as an attack on the government. The letter does not mention the BJP nor does it mention the current government. The only thing the letter does talk about is the "turbulent political atmosphere" in the country.

    'Inciting religious hatred'

    The archbishop's letter was not the only statement that has been issued by concerned Indian Christians in the past month. Barely a week after Archbishop Couto's letter became public, the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC)  put out a statement condemning the appointment of a known RSS man - Kummanam Rajasekharan - as a governor of Mizoram, which is a Christian-dominated state.

    "Christians in Mizoram in particular, and those of the country in general, feel disturbed and very much let down after the appointment of a hardcore Hindutva fundamentalist as the new Governor of Mizoram where 87 percent of people are Christians," the Council said. The organisation also alleged that Rajasekharan's appointment was "a deliberate move" to create disharmony in a state "that has won awards in the last few years for being the most peaceful state in the country".

    There are now fears that both the archbishop's letter and the GCIC's statement could be used by the BJP to further polarise Hindus in forthcoming elections in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In the past, BJP officials presented such letters and statements as evidence of an international conspiracy against a party that defends Hindu interests.

    Last November, prior to the Gujarat state assembly elections, Archbishop Thomas Macwan of the Archdiocese of Gandhinagar issued a letter calling parish priests to organise prayer sessions to help people "who would remain faithful to the Indian constitution" get elected. BJP treated the letter as a call to vote against it, and a BJP leader even called for the archbishop's arrest for "inciting religious hatred".

    In India, participation in politics of Hindu godmen and women is seen as normal, but when Muslim or Christian religious personalities speak on politics, they are accused of dividing people. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh is the head of an old and very powerful Gorakhnath Math (temple) in Gorakhpur. There are ministers and members of parliament who themselves claim to be godmen and women and yet are seen as fit for office within the secular polity of India.

    Increasing discrimination against minorities 

    The letter of Archbishop Cauto needs to be seen in the context of the growing anxiety and unrest religious minority communities of India have been feeling.

    In a column for the Times of India, Julio Ribeiro, a retired police commissioner and well-respected Christian public figure, voiced the concerns of many when he wrote: "I should be prepared for second class citizenship that denies top jobs like that of a judge in the Supreme Court, a governor of a state, the chief of defence staff or the intelligence bureau. What I will not accept is being accused falsely of being anti-national and pilloried on that count."

    In this year's Open Door World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which Christians face the worst persecution for practising their faith, India came 11th. The country was ranked 31st in the same list only five years ago. According to the United Christian Forum (UCF), more than 700 cases of attacks on Christians across India were reported to their toll-free helpline number between 2014 and 2017.

    The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian NGO, publishes a periodical report on the cases of discrimination or attacks against Christians in India. In its 2017 report, the organisation said: "According to a statement made by the Government in the Indian Parliament on the 7th of Feb. 2017 over the last three years, over 278 persons have been killed, and over 6,500 people were injured due to communal violence in over 2000 incidents". 

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    According to the ADF, discriminatory incidents and hate crimes experienced by Christians in India include cases of Ghar Wapsi (religious conversion activities), refusal to grant permission to establish and run places of worship, false accusations of forceful and fraudulent religious conversions, physical and verbal assaults on church pastors and members, false and divisive propaganda, damage, desecration and arson of places of worship, disruption of prayer services and restrictions on religious gatherings.

    Moreover, BJP leaders and ministers regularly invoke anti-Muslim and anti-Christian symbolism to garner Hindu support. Representatives of the ruling party repeatedly talk about Muslims outnumbering Hindus in India or Christian missionaries luring poor people to their fold through their educational institutions. After creating sufficient fear within Hindu communities, they suggest that they can be the voice and protector of Hindus in India.

    In his public addresses, Prime Minister Narendra Modi very cleverly uses a language that derides and mocks minorities and presents the Congress and other political parties in India as anti-Hindu forces. In the recently concluded and much discussed parliamentary by-election at Kairana, Uttar Pradesh, BJP representatives used a similar "us vs them" discourse, pitting Hindus against Muslims to garner votes.

    Many members of minority communities in India, as well as many secular Indians, believe that if the BJP wins next year's general election, the subversion of the institutionally secular character of India would be complete.

    This is why opposition parties are keeping their ideological differences aside and trying to forge a grand alliance. The letter of the archbishop needs to be read and judged in this context.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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