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Indian Christians struggle for legitimacy

Church must fight for its piece of post-election pie

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • June 19, 2014
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The Christian community, barring pockets of influence in Kerala and the northeastern states, has never been seen as relevant to Indian political discourse. Official census statistics put Christian numbers at 2.3 percent of the population. It was always a small number, far behind Muslims whose population is variously estimated from 13 to 15 percent of India's 1.2 billion people. 

It is not just the minuscule numbers that impact on the social, economic and political fortunes of the Christian community. Their dispersal across India is very skewed, with the small northeastern states of Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya having a Christian majority, and the tribal areas of central India between at 2 to 4 percent. Goa at 27 percent and Kerala with 19 percent are the other major concentrations. The southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra also have sizeable populations, especially among Dalit Christians.

But the population in the rest of the country would be invisible if not for the spires and crosses of the various churches that dot the skylines.

This geographic demography has major political implications for the community, which reflects in their abysmal strength in parliament and state legislatures. In fact, in most north Indian state legislatures, there are no Christians at all. In the national Lok Sabha, or Lower House of parliament, the number of Christians has been steadily declining. There were said to be less than 10 Christian members in the Lower House after the last general election.

Contrast this with the other small minority, the Sikhs, who represent about 2 percent of the population. The Sikhs are concentrated largely in the Punjab, where they constitute the dominant social and economic groups, and all but monopolize political power. Because of Punjab's proximity to Delhi, they also wield tremendous clout with the national government.

Muslims have traditionally been politically important, although economically they are among the most backward in the country. Though their numbers too have declined in parliament, their concentrations in a large number of parliamentary constituencies have made political parties woo them assiduously. The right wing Hindu nationalist groups, particularly the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, calls this "vote bank politics" presuming Muslims to be some sort of a pocket borough for the Congress Party and such socialist groups as the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal.

Bharatiya Janata leaders have  consistently accused Congress of pandering to Muslims, describing it as "minority appeasement". In political battles, the party and its associated cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh have used this argument to polarize the people and consolidate a collective Hindu response, alienating Muslims in the recent electoral campaign. The Hindu consolidation was a major factor in the rout of Congress, despite the populist policies and development programs during its 10-year rule.

The new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in a way tried to wave an olive branch, if only to soothe fears among religious minorities from emboldened Hindu fundamentalist groups, who have already started shouting for an extremely nationalistic agenda that includes dismantling personal laws of Muslims, and the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site of the Babri mosque in the holy city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

Modi has tried to reach out to Muslims without alienating his core group of supporters. In his inaugural speech in the Lok Sabha, Modi said, "If one organ of the body remains weak, the body cannot be termed as healthy. We are committed to this. We don't see it as appeasement. We have to do focused activity to change lives of Muslims; they cannot be left behind in development."

Modi did not mention the Christian community in his long speech. He has not appointed a Christian minister to his cabinet. His party has not indicated that it even knows about the needs of the community, whose tribal, Dalit and rural poor are among the most deprived segments in Indian society.

An utter lack of unity among the Christian community and Church leadership is a major reason that the community has not been able to assert its rights within the government. The Congress regime was also guilty of ignoring Christians. Barring a few cronies among the Congress leadership, the community found little representation in government or the development discourse. The Congress turned its face from the long standing demand of Dalit Christians to constitutional rights given to those professing other faiths. Congress governments passed several anti-conversion laws in the states. And although the perpetrators were members of the notorious Sangh Parivar groups, Congress governments did little to check the persecution of Christians and violence against churches and pastors in many parts of the country.

The Christian leadership is yet to fully understand the long term implications of the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power. There is little discussion or reflection on the political changes the country has seen. It will have to hone its tools of advocacy to make some space for itself in the national development discourse. Above all, it would perhaps have to participate more fully in grassroots political processes, training its youth in civil rights, and aligning itself with civil society. There is little it can do by itself.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government's National Integration Council.

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