Former Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy (left) attends a public rally in Kochi on March 29 ahead of the Kerala state legislative assembly elections next month. (Photo: AFP)
Catholic bishops in India’s Tamil Nadu state have urged people to vote for secularism and against divisive forces in state polls on April 6.
The bishops’ call came close on the heels of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) releasing its manifesto promising to enact a law in the state to ban religious conversion and cow slaughter.
The BJP manifesto released on March 22 also proposed to set up shelters for stray cows in temples and other places, provide financial assistance to fisher people and Hindu priests, and create five million jobs.
The proposed anti-conversion law, ironically named the Freedom of Religion Act, will criminalize religious conversion by force or allurement, the manifesto said.
It also proposed to implement a law against cow slaughter “in accordance with the Indian constitution and enforce it strictly in the state.”
The pro-Hindu party also proposed providing a minimum income of 5,000 rupees (US$69) per month for all village temple priests and scholarships for the families of village temple priests.
The manifesto also pledges other welfare schemes.
The southern state is not a stronghold of the BJP. The real fight is between two fronts led by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The BJP is part of the AIADMK, the ruling alliance in the state.
“We surely want our people to exercise their right to franchise without fail,” said Bishop Stephan Antony Pillai of Tuticorin in the coastal area of Tamil Nadu.
He said the bishops have not “asked the people to choose a particular party but we want them to vote against divisive and disruptive forces.”
Without naming the BJP, the bishop told UCA News on March 26 that “the intention and agenda of the divisive forces are clear.”
The BJP is accused of dividing the nation along the lines of religion and pushing to make India a Hindu-only nation. Christian and Muslim leaders accuse the BJP of supporting violence against religious minorities.
“They are sowing the seeds of division, dislike and hatred,” the bishop said.
Other church leaders, who did not want to be named, told UCA News that the promise to enact an anti-conversion law, ban cow slaughter and support Hindu priests is an attempt to win Hindu majority support.
Hindus make up 87 percent of 72 million people in Tamil Nadu, while Christians make up 6 percent and Muslims 5 percent.
The BJP has won elections in northern states such as Madhya Pradesh after raking up emotional issues such as a ban on religious conversion and cow slaughter.
The cow is a revered animal among orthodox Hindus in northern India but not in the majority Hindu community in southern states like election-bound Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south.
Bishop Pillai said the divisive agenda of the BJP will not be accepted by the people of Tamil Nadu as they understand the danger of dividing the people along religious lines.
West Bengal, Assam and Puducherry, a federal government territory, are also going to the polls in April. Results will be announced on May 2.