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India's Christians lose faith in ruling party

Disillusionment has Christians looking elsewhere

India's Christians lose faith in ruling party
John Dayal, New Delhi

July 25, 2013

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Congress Party leaders ought to be worried about the increasing disillusionment the country's 26 million Christians feel towards a party that has ruled India for much of the 67 years since independence.

If there were any other national party which could assure security and development for Christians, more than 60 percent of which belong to marginalized tribal and Dalit communities, it could walk away with their vote.

In the absence of such a political force, the Christian community could well consider the plethora of regional ethnic or linguistic centered parties as plausible alternatives to support.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its extremely divisive communal Hindutva agenda, its blatant Islamaphobia and aggressive stance against freedom of faith and the rights of Dalits, is not an option, except perhaps for a microscopic section of the wealthy along India’s west coast.  

Its accommodation of several Catholics in its successful campaign for the Goa legislature still remains a one-off event.

Elsewhere, a few bishops and the heads of a few other groups are hobnobbing with, or are being vigorously wooed by the BJP, but they are a numerically insignificant group.

Congress should red-flag two recent events, prominent in a chain of other incidents from the Punjab and the states of South India. 

The first was an ultimatum to the Congress government in New Delhi by the National Council of Dalit Christians which, in effect, said “no vote if there is no acceptance” of the rights of converts from India’s former untouchable castes.

The second was another public demonstration by Latin Rite Catholics, an economically weak Christian group, against the Congress government in Kerala, accusing it of pandering to the rich.

Dalit Christians exist in considerable numbers in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and possibly to a lesser degree in Karnataka and Kerala where they form a substantial portion of the fisher folk, boatmen, toddy tappers [people who tap sap from trees to make alcohol] and similar groups.

In Andhra, there is an additional group, said to be very large, who maintain a low profile for various reasons in the Hindu fold, but are in solidarity with Dalit Christians.

In Punjab, there are perhaps as many as 400,000 of them concentrated in Gurdaspur and Amritsar districts. They can make or break political fortunes.

But it is not just all about Dalit Christians. Other segments of the Christian community feel the Congress Party has taken them for granted, treating them as a captive vote all these years without in any way making an effort to redress their grievances.

They feel only an elite group has prospered in the years since independence.

The Christian community had a close relationship with the Congress through the freedom struggle, enthusiastically supporting Mahatma Gandhi, particularly in the southern states.

It then backed Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi who they saw as prime ministers with vision, and inclusive policies for religious minorities.

Congress under Rajiv Gandhi also benefited from this loyalty. And so has Sonia Gandhi. But patience is now wearing thin.

Violence against Christians, and other forms of persecution, is becoming an everyday affair, and the ruling party is not helping them enough.

While Christians hold little expectations from states ruled by the BJP such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, they were hoping for a better deal elsewhere in the country.

As a general election approaches – they are due by the summer of 2014 – Christians are assessing regional parties, waiting and watching to see how Congress responds.

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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