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Catholic bishops and the art of equivocation in new India

Civil society, of which the Church is a strong pillar, expects them to show leadership in these troubled times
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) is seen with Christian leaders, including Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai (left) and Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto (right) during a Christmas gathering at his residence in New Delhi on Dec. 25.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) is seen with Christian leaders, including Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai (left) and Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto (right) during a Christmas gathering at his residence in New Delhi on Dec. 25. (Photo: narendramodi.in)

Published: February 09, 2024 04:06 AM GMT
Updated: March 01, 2024 06:33 AM GMT

It has been, arguably, the worst five weeks of a new year that India has seen in the 21st century.

And it is not just the religious minorities, the Muslims, Christians, and now the Sikhs, who have faced the brunt of a majoritarian assault on their rights, their persons, and their institutions, indeed on their identity as citizens of a democratic republic.

At stake has been the country’s constitutionally established federalism, with four of the six chief ministers, who do not owe allegiance to the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, staging public protests in the national capital New Delhi.

Rahul Gandhi of the Congress, possibly the most charismatic of opposition leaders, weaves a long, lonely path through the hinterland, calling upon the people to heed the real and present threat to India.

India is now officially known as Bharat, one of its two names in the statutes. It has a new parliament building and a new system through which it chooses members of such core institutions as the Election Commission of India, the august body that will supervise the general election in the next three months, the biggest legislative exercise the world has ever seen.

The Election Commission can recognize, or de-recognize, political parties, change bureaucracy and police officers, and supervise electoral rolls, which, by default or by accident disenfranchise large numbers of people, often from marginalized communities.

 "The choice of the election commission has been reduced to a farce, if not a fraud"

Modi, as prime minister, chairs the committee which chooses the chief election commissioner and other members of the panel.

Till recently, the chief justice of India, as a member other than the prime minister, the leader of the Opposition, and a cabinet minister, provided neutral oversight over the processes of selecting the most powerful three persons outside the federal and state governments.

The chief justice has now been removed as a member. The decisions will now be made by a majority of the three members of the committee, two of whom are from the ruling party. One is not.

The choice of the election commission has been reduced to a farce, if not a fraud.

The Catholic bishops of the country, met this week in two overlapping general body conclaves in the city of Bangalore, and recorded the tectonic movements in the body politic. But not with the alacrity or the alarm that was to be expected from the erudite and once-vocal collection of prelates.

Mercifully, critics happily noted, that the Feb. 7 concluding statement of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), representing all three Rites of the Indian Church, did not exult in the unbounded praise of the Indian supremo that they had done as guests at his Christmas party in New Delhi, and then in the new Parliament House building early in February.

The smaller Latin group under the rubric of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) did not issue a statement, but many voices of protest were indeed heard.

The “Not in My Name” outcry by Christian laity and civil society had then responded, calling out the religious heads — including Protestant leaderships — for all but betraying the injury and pain of the community, and of the Indian citizens at large.

They had pointed out that the prime minister they were praising in Christmas Goodwill was presiding over an economic crisis in which the sole beneficiaries were crony capitalists, some with controversial business histories. Unemployment had exploded, the farmers and landless labor were not getting the return on their sweat and investments, and states were deprived of their share of resources.

Above all was the ear-splitting silence of Modi on the assault on the Kuki-Zo indigenous hill people of the state of Manipur by politically sponsored civilian militias of the valley of Imphal.

"Attacks and harassment of Christian institutions and personnel in India will not prevent the Church from serving the poor"

This violence continues since it came to public knowledge last May with the gang rape and parading of Kuki women, the burning of over 300 churches, and the fleeing of 70,000 people from their burning homes to the relative safety of Church-run refugee camps in the Churachandpur hills.

Most victims of the violence are Christians. Modi has not told India and the world how he intends to enforce peace and restore a life of grace to the affected people.

The CBCI statement noted the violence, including in Manipur. It said the attacks and harassment of Christian institutions and personnel in India will not prevent the Church from serving the poor and downtrodden.

Not that it would’ve been misunderstood, but it went on to add, as a good measure, that “as loyal citizens of India, we will continue serving our country whatever be the cost, walking in the footsteps of Jesus our Master.” Anything less could have attracted penal provisions of the law.

It remains to be seen how Modi will view the bishops’ call to observe March 22 as a day of prayer and fasting in all dioceses “to seek God’s help to foster India’s democracy and social harmony.”

The day of prayer will fall smack in the middle of the political campaign for the general election which must be completed by mid-May.

Off the record and in many but not all dioceses, the Church leadership has whispered its political support to Modi and his political party in the states, some of which will also elect their legislative assemblies together with sending representatives to the Lok Sabha, the all-powerful lower house of parliament. Each state has many dioceses, barring Goa, Delhi, and Pondicherry.

India has in recent years seen full-blown Islamophobia and the weaponizing of many laws against them and against Christians. The most recent is the law enacted in the Dev Bhoomi, or Holy Land, of Uttarakhand nestled in the Himalayan foothills.

The law, euphemistically called the Uniform Civil Code, all but outlaws the Muslim Personal law under the Shariyat in the guise of banning polygamy and the rights of women. In the process, it seeks to enforce a revised code of inheritance for all communities whose ramifications even for women have not been fully understood. The code has been rejected outright by women's organizations in the state. The Church is silent.

"It is not Catholics or other denominations, religious minorities, and deprived communities that have brought India to this religious polarization"

The CBCI has, though, once again articulated its support for the rights of Dalit Christians. The Kerala High Court this week sacked a Marxist legislator because though officially an atheist from the Dalit community, he had been once baptized and later married in a church ceremony. Under the notorious Article 341 and especially its third section, no citizen can be a Dalit or Scheduled Caste, and a Christian or Muslim at the same time. A Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist can have this dual identity.

The same exercise has now been called by the ruling party against India’s large indigenous community, called tribals in the northeast and Adivasis in the rest of the country. They are the oldest people in India, and have historically had their own codes, and could choose the religion of their liking.

A number of those, approximately 80 million people, became Christians in the last two hundred years. They are now threatened with “delisting,” which will mean they lose their lands, jobs, and scholarships if they are still studying. They will also lose traditional social rights.

The CBCI has “urged the government to desist” from depriving Christian tribal people of their Scheduled Tribe status.

The bishops noted the destruction of homes and churches and harassment of those serving orphanages, hostels, educational and healthcare institutions on “false allegations of conversion.”

For the wounded Meities, the troubled Dalits, the threatened Adivasis, and the itinerant Christian pastors, there were expectations of a stronger solidarity, perhaps even an assurance, if not commitment, that their cause would be fought in the courts, and in parliament, through all peaceful constitutional means.

It is not Catholics or other denominations, religious minorities, and deprived communities that have brought India to this religious polarization.

Civil society — and the Church is a strong pillar of this collective ethos — expects the Catholic Church to show leadership in these troubled times. It expected no equivocation in expressing the people’s opposition to, what it notes as “divisive attitudes, hate speeches and fundamentalist movements” eroding the plurality that characterizes this great land, call it Bharat or call it India.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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What more can we expect from a spineless and dim witted leadership?
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