BJP leadership knows they cannot gain power in the southern state without the support of Christians
Amitbhai Anilchandra "Amit" Shah, president of the ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, arrives in the Indian state of Kerala where he met with bishops. (Photo by IANS)
A meeting between India's pro-Hindu party and the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council has divided opinion within the Christian community.
Amit Shah, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held two meetings on consecutive days with leading figures of the bishops' council, June 2-3.
Several Christian leaders said the meeting clearly demonstrates the BJP's desire to court Christian voters in Kerala in the lead up to the 2019 general election.
Father Sunny Jacob, a Jesuit educationalist based in New Delhi, described the meeting as "a tactical move," to "shake off its label as a sectarian, pro-Hindu party."
"With the BJP clearly working to transform the country into a Hindu nation, the idea of secular politics in India is under threat," he said.
"The agenda of the meeting should have been made clear to the people," he said. "Christians have a right to know why they met and what they discussed."
However, Catholic lay leader A.C. Michael supported the bishops' motives describing the meeting as "the right course of action."
"As I understand it," he said, "Shah requested one-on-one meetings, but the bishops chose to meet him as a community."
Shah met with Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, who is president of the Indian bishops' conference and head of Syro-Malankara Church, together with Archbishop Maria Calist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum (Latin) Archdiocese, June 2.
The following day in Kochi, he met Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry of the Syro-Malabar Church, and bishops representing the Mar Thoma and Orthodox churches.
The Catholic Church in India comprises the Latin rite and two Eastern rites called Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara. The Latin rite follows the Roman liturgy introduced by European missioners in the 15th century, while the two Eastern rites, both based in Kerala, follow Syrian Church traditions and trace their origins to St. Thomas the Apostle.
Father Jimmy Poochakkatt, a spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar Church, said the meeting was an opportunity to raise issues faced by Kerala's citizens with the party that rules the country.
He said that the bishops had pushed important social and economic challenges faced by Christians in Kerala such as the significant price fluctuations in agricultural commodities and its negative effect on millions of farmers.
BJP Minority Morcha state president Jiji Joseph echoed similar comments. Joseph told ucanews.com they were working to foster better understanding between the two groups and dispel "propaganda" myths that they are against minorities.
Kerala is a Hindu-majority state with 55 percent of its 33 million people identifying as Hindu. Christians make up 18 percent of the population and Muslims 28 percent.
Politics in Kerala has been dominated by two coalition fronts since the late 1970s: the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front and the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front. These two coalitions have been alternatively voted into power every five years since 1982. Christians are noted for voting en masse against the communists in successive elections.
Despite its landslide victories in the north, the BJP continues to be largely politically irrelevant in southern Indian. To date, the pro-Hindu party has failed to win even one of the 20 parliamentary seats in Kerala.
During his three-day visit, Shah did not meet with any Muslim leaders, although they are politically powerful in some pockets of the state.
According to media reports, the Hindu nationalist BJP government has strengthened extremist Hindu groups who want to make India a Hindu-nation. The BJP is heavily criticized for violence against Christian and Muslim religious minorities.
Christian leaders have consistently blamed these attacks on religious hard-liners, who are said to have become emboldened since the BJP came to power in 2014 to head the federal government. The BJP also has also faced flak for remaining silent about a spate of mass re-conversions of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.
Statistics from the 2011 census show that India has 1.2 billion people. The percentage of Hindus has slightly dipped from 80.5 percent in 2001 to 79.8 percent 2011. While Christians remained at 2.3 percent during that period, Muslims have increased by just over one percent, to 14.2.
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