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Is the Church having second thoughts about India's Modi?

The prime minister and his pro-Hindu BJP may be surprised by the show of spunk by a Latin Catholic archbishop in southern Kerala
Archbishop Thomas J Netto of Thiruvananthapuram speaking to the media in front of the state secretariat on June 20, 2022. The Latin-rite archdiocese had launched a months-long protest against delays in rehabilitating fisher folk due to the construction of the privately-owned Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone at Vizhinjam in southern Kerala.

Archbishop Thomas J Netto of Thiruvananthapuram speaking to the media in front of the state secretariat in Kerala state, southern India, on June 20, 2022. The Latin-rite archdiocese had launched a months-long protest against delays in rehabilitating fisher folk due to the construction of the privately-owned Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone at Vizhinjam. (Photo supplied)

Published: April 29, 2024 04:18 AM GMT
Updated: April 29, 2024 05:04 AM GMT

The Indian church, Catholic or Protestant, does not usually find it easy to discern which way the political wind is blowing. It is even much less adept at sensing the undercurrents.

A “safety first” impulse makes Catholic prelates in Kerala and Mumbai sing high praises of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and get into his good graces. This was seen at its most embarrassing at Modi’s infamous Christmas party in New Delhi last year. It was attended by people ranging from Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai to the wealthiest gold merchants and loan sharks from Kerala.

This they do, it is popularly believed, to save their educational and other institutions from the greed and the wrath of government which sees Christianity as alien, and Christians just a little less vile than Muslims, which the ruling party deems to be vermin, “deemak” or termites as Federal Home Minister Amit Shah described them once.

Occasionally, as in the headquarters of a Kerala-based church, it also keeps India’s terrifyingly powerful financial and criminal investigating agencies away from the abbey door. 

Evangelical groups such as the Believers Eastern Church, created by the US-based Gospel for Asia’s India-born founder K P Yohannan, have gone so far out as to officially extend support to Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

That church faces criminal proceedings in India, while its founder has flouted donation collection regulations in the United States.

Modi is banking on a billionaire and a film actor to squeeze two seats in southern Kerala from under the noses of the Marxists, who currently are in power in the state, and the Congress, which has had a monopoly on Christian votes.

The BJP has never been able to establish a foothold in the state in seventy years. This time, the party is not sparing money or influence.

Therefore, the prime minister and his election think tank were surprised by the show of grit from unforeseen quarters of the church in the state.

The Latin Catholic Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram, Thomas J Neto, refused to meet a special emissary sent by the BJP high command to canvas support with Church leaders in Kerala.

Modi’s billionaire minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar is pitted against Pannyan Raveendran of the Left Democratic Front and Dr. Shashi Tharoor of the Congress. Dr. Tharoor is the sitting MP.

The BJP had sent Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Vinai Kumar Saxena on this “secret mission” to negotiate with church leaders in Kerala, which was itself highly irregular. Saxena holds a constitutional post and is not supposed to dabble in party politics.

Saxena had been handpicked to head the governance structure in the national capital region and has often been in conflict with the elected Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi (Common People’s) Party. Kejriwal is currently in jail while Modi’s investigation agencies probe his alleged corruption in the state’s liquor sale policy.

The archbishop politely said that meeting BJP leaders would “send a wrong message” to the people when elections were on in the country. It was a rebuff Saxena had not expected. He returned to the national capital with little more than the scalp of the evangelical leadership, which has a minor footprint in the state.

Archbishop Neto, in a pastoral letter on April 2, asked for the people's support for the archdiocese, which he said was in a “serious financial crisis” after Modi’s government “canceled its permit to accept foreign donations.” 

The archbishop does not curry media favor or make grand public gestures. Still, in his own quiet way, he has championed the cause of Dalit Christians, and the boatmen and fishermen who constitute an important component of his diocese.  He has also called out casteism in the church.

His support had been critical for the morale of local people who have been protesting a massive port being contracted by the Adani corporation, owned by India’s second richest man. The protestors said the power would not only ruin their livelihood but also cause untold damage to the sea's biodiversity. The protest was called off in December 2022 after the government promised compensation.

The archdiocese had two permits under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to get foreign funds for its outreach programs. They were revoked in February 2023, with New Delhi citing diocesan involvement in the protest.

In the so far supine ranks of the Christian leadership, Bangalore Archbishop Peter Machado was the solitary leader standing firmly opposed to the xenophobic and majoritarian ideology of the BJP.

Archbishop Neto also joins the ranks of the Catholic Church leaders in the neighboring Tamil Nadu state who have supported two major mass movements in the past.

One was the agitation by the people of Tirunelveli against the Kudankulam nuclear power project. It was proposed in 1979 and opposed by residents and fishing communities concerned about the loss of livelihood due to environmental degradation from radioactive effluents.

The second was the protests against the Vedanta-owned Sterlite plant, which began 22 years ago. The region’s residents said the plant was a health hazard for all living things as it was causing pollution. The plant was shut down in 2018 after police fired upon protestors and killed 13 of them. 

The people were vindicated when, in February 2024, the Supreme Court dismissed Vedanta's plea to reopen the plant, upholding the decisions of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the Madras High Court's 2020 ruling to close the plant due to environmental violations. 

The BJP targets Muslims, feeding on popular fears that the Muslim population will overwhelm the Hindus, India’s majority community at just under 80 percent. Muslims were just over 14 percent in India’s last census in 2011. Both Hindus and Muslims have growth rates higher than other communities in India.

Demographic data do not support the BJP’s political rant. Both religions have shown a reduction in the growth rate with a higher commitment to women's education. This is more apparent among the Muslims.

The party’s gripe against the church is that its outreach and empowerment programs, especially among the poor and marginalized, obstruct major development projects in India's coastline and central India's forested but mineral-rich regions.

*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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2 Comments on this Story
CHHOTEBHAI
Well said John
DR BARBARA THYAB ALI
MP Shashi Tharoor is a Jack in the box: Brought up by British how can one expect him to be loyal to Indians.Money and liquor makes the best saint dance.My trust in the Christian Religious is not even 50% had very bitter experiences with a number of them. se.Barbara Thyab Ali
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