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India relieved as Karnataka state boots out BJP

But with only one Christian legislator in the newly elected assembly, the community has little to cheer about
Congress supporters celebrate the party's victory in the state legislative assembly election in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, in Bengaluru on May 13

Congress supporters celebrate the party's victory in the state legislative assembly election in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, in Bengaluru on May 13. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 15, 2023 11:57 AM GMT
Updated: May 15, 2023 12:26 PM GMT

As a relatively young political reporter in 1977, this writer covered the general election called by then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, to signal the end of the state of emergency she declared in June 1975, suspending the constitution and unleashing an 18-month reign of terror.

The Congress government imposed censorship on the media, and tens of thousands of political leaders, activists, students, intellectuals, and journalists were jailed without trial, lest they trigger a rebellion against Gandhi.

She reigned, but much of the power was with her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, who was not an elected party official or government functionary. For the rest, it was the local police and the Congress thugs who were the law in the village, the town, and the city.

Incidentally, this was when the government brought in the notorious law called the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) that required any organization receiving foreign aid at any time to have a government permit.

More than four decades, and many governments later, the FCRA is still used to twist the arms of the Christian churches and non-governmental organizations, civil society groups, and even universities who may lose the license for something as simple as inviting a popular foreign social scientist to deliver a lecture the government may not like.

Even the name of the illustrious St. Teresa of Calcutta could not save her Missionaries of Charity Sisters from being harassed a year ago, until the highest in the world intervened and got their license restored.

"The anti-conversion law against Christians was sharpened and tweaked to bring Muslims within its grasp"

But this is not about the emergency; it is about the election. The day the elections were called, the steel cage was opened, and fear disappeared. On Election Day, people did not even bother to go behind the curtains to mark their ballot paper. Out in the open, waving the paper so everyone could see, they voted against Gandhi’s party.

She was swept out of power and eventually was served an arrest warrant. That she was back in power after two years is another story that has to do with the failure of parties and leaders to sink their egos for a larger cause.

This happens when threat and fear are no longer in power.

The southern state of Karnataka was not under a state of emergency. Just the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under two successive chief ministers who vied with each other in pursuit of making India a Hindu regime as fast as possible.

Cow slaughter was banned. The anti-conversion law against Christians was sharpened and tweaked to bring Muslims within its grasp. Muslim girl students were told they could not attend school and college if they wore the hijab head covering.

Everyone went to court; and lost.

And then something changed. One girl stood her ground as she was chased by a gang of Hindutva goons chivvying her for wearing a hijab in the street.

Bangalore Catholic Archbishop Peter Machado, now a public hero across the country, also stood his ground and called out the government on its rampant and continuing persecution of Christians using legislation, police and other agencies. The state’s Backward Classes and Minorities Welfare Department had issued an order to conduct a survey of both official and non-official Christian missionaries.

A flock of perhaps sixty civil society organizations gathered around the small-statured and smiling cleric. Within days, mailed letters saw people signing them in their tens of thousands.

"Political parties still saw the community as all but irrelevant in the political process"

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, a 4,000 kilometer-long march on foot across India, which spent some days in Karnataka, conclusively punctured the terrible fear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah unleashed using instruments of state to harass and arrest just about anyone they wished to target. Rahul Gandhi taunted Modi and reduced Shah to a petty courtier.

Modi read the signs. He and Shah made several very extensive sorties in the state with grand road shows and vicious speeches. They were campaigning in Karnataka on May 3 when ethnic and religious violence targeting Christians brought distant Manipur in northeastern India to the brink of genocide.

Civil society was galvanized. They played a key role in the ouster of the BJP. Many groups stood out, among them the ‘Eddelu (wakeup) Karnataka’ and the ‘Bahutva (pluralistic) Karnataka’ which made voters aware of the BJP government’s failures. Others fanned out to help voters whose names had been deliberately deleted from certain voting lists.

Church groups, though not many, spread Archbishop Machado’s message across the state. The bishop had cited Articles 25 and 26 on freedom of faith. And yet, the Christian community was targeted and marked for this arbitrary, fallacious, and illogical move. It was good that several Christian groups became active. But the political parties still saw the community as all but irrelevant in the political process.

The BJP, expectedly, did not give tickets to Muslims and Christians. In an assembly of 224 seats, the Congress party gave tickets to only three Christian candidates. One seat was in Bangalore town, the other two in distant Mangalore, which had been the scene of violence that flowed out of the 2008 anti-Christian pogrom in Kandhamal, Orissa.

Alas, there will be only one Christian in the new Karnataka assembly. He is M J George, the Congress candidate for Bangalore city. N Alva, a son of former federal minister and Governor Margret Alva, lost. His political lineage extended to the freedom struggle where his grandparents Violet and Joachim Alva were among the most prominent Christian faces.

By any argument, this is a matter of great shame. Several Dalit Christians who had worked hard at the grassroots had been hopeful of getting a Congress ticket, as also rich Mangaloreans and Malayalees.

Mangalore, which, along with Kerala was once a part of the British-era Madras Presidency — before the post-Independence reorganization of states on linguistic lines — still has a strong Kerala church influence, especially the Syro Malabar Rite and other Orthodox groups.

The community in Belthangady diocese shows an open saffron influence. Irrespective of what happened in the 2008 violence or the new anti-conversion laws and police action, large numbers of these groups in Karnataka have expressed their loyalty and support to Modi. 

Perhaps Modi’s rout, or at least his party’s defeat, in the state election may change their perception in time for the 2024 Indian general election. But the year 2024 remains far in the future. At least as far as the Indian Church is concerned.

*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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1 Comments on this Story
BASIL ANTONY
Syro malabar bishops are hypocrites. They are making ties with BJP and want to sell catholic votes in Kerala to produce more MPs for BJP in the forthcoming Parliament election. They should be dethroned from the present posts, especially Major Arch Bishop George Alancherry, Andrews thazhath and Joseph pamplani. They are all against the Catholics and want to safeguard their position in view of their corruption charges. We will not back these anti Christians any more. Vatican is not aware of their crimes or unable to punish these criminals. The important worship center of zero malabar basilica of Ernakulam- Angamaly arch diocese is forcefully closed for the past 6 months. No action is so far taken for the reopening of the basilica. Shameful act of the bishops of the synod of syro malabar church.
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