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The vulnerability of Catholic leaders in India

Bishop Thomas Dabre, who has sought talks with Hindu nationalist RSS, does not represent the entire Christian community

Muslim activists take part in a unity rally to promote communal harmony in Kolkata on June 14 following nationwide protests that erupted after remarks about the Prophet Muhammad by a BJP spokesperson

Muslim activists take part in a unity rally to promote communal harmony in Kolkata on June 14 following nationwide protests that erupted after remarks about the Prophet Muhammad by a BJP spokesperson. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 16, 2022 03:55 AM GMT

Updated: June 16, 2022 05:37 AM GMT

The dear Catholic bishop of Pune could not have chosen a worse moment to seek a dialogue with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu umbrella group working to make India a nation of Hindu hegemony.

The political and social climate in the country is still roiling in the bloody aftermath of a television debate in which a senior woman spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the RSS, made disparaging remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.

She was suspended and her male colleague sacked by the party to prevent a threatened economic boycott of India by Islamic nations.

The protests in India were vigorous. Police shot at protesters in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state. Among the two Muslim youths who were killed was a student awaiting the results of his secondary school examinations.

In neighboring Uttar Pradesh, ruled by Hindu monk Ajay Bisht, or Yogi Adityanath, who continues to head his sect, police arrested 109 Muslim protesters. The chief minister is now notorious as "Bulldozer Baba" due to his highly publicized policy of bulldozing houses of political and social activists who defy the regime along with the occasional criminal suspect.

This time the Uttar Pradesh government bulldozed the home of activist Afreen Fatima, who had led a protest against the blasphemy. The house was owned by her mother, who is not politically active. Afreen called it an “act of vendetta” and an attempt “to crush criticism of the government.”

In this fraught situation developing over a week, Catholic and Protestant leaders in India have remained utterly silent

Reporters recording the two-hour demolition said the belongings of the family were dumped in a nearby open space. Among the household goods and books was a poster reading “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

In this fraught situation developing over a week, Catholic and Protestant leaders in India have remained utterly silent. Missing this time was the empathy and solidarity seen in Karnataka during the protests against the new anti-conversion law and the ban on the hijab worn by Muslim students in school and college.

This silence was broken by Bishop Thomas Dabre of Pune, who has been on the Pontifical Council for Dialogue and is known to meet heads of other religions.

He surprised even his admirers — of which this columnist is one — when he was reported as saying: “The Christian community accepts RSS ideology and principles. We need to establish communication and coordination between Christians and the [Rashtriya Swayamsewak] Sangh.”

The post went viral in Christian circles in minutes, and within the hour it was popping up in angry memes on Facebook and Twitter. Many of us thought the bishop had been misquoted.

A senior Catholic editor, himself a religious, contacted the bishop to clarify what had he said or intended to say in his statement. “I am not an RSS spokesperson or its defender. In truth, I have demanded a dialogue between the church and the RSS which Indian bishops had proposed,” Bishop Dabre said.

Local Marathi language newspapers carried more elaborate reports. The bishop was reported as saying: “The Sangh believes in nationalism, the church also believes in nationalism.”

The RSS is neither a religious body nor a political party. It is a multi-headed and aggressive organization whose political face has been ruling India since 2014 with Narendra Modi as prime minister.

Pune, where the bishop’s diocese is based, is notorious for religious fundamentalists and for sentiments against religious minorities and Dalits

And although Modi intends to lead the party in the general election of 2024 for a third term, the much younger Bisht is seen as his most probable successor at some stage. 

Whether this succession happens depends on the RSS, which has over the decades controlled the fortunes of the BJP and its leaders.

Pune, where the bishop’s diocese is based, is notorious for religious fundamentalists and for sentiments against religious minorities and Dalits. 

Bishop Dabre has known this for all the years after he was transferred from Vasai near Mumbai in 2009. “Only dialogue will stop the violence and lies of religious fanaticism,” he has maintained.

Long years ago, as the prelate of Vasai, Bishop Dabre had said “this was the message also of Mother Teresa.”

The nun, now a saint, indeed spoke with everyone, dictators and billionaires included. But there is no record of her holding an organized dialogue with the RSS, which was never strong anyway in the Calcutta of her times.

The RSS, which has persistently opposed all papal visits to India, angrily attacked her in the 1990s when she supported the cause of Dalits in general, and Dalit Christians in particular, accusing her of masterminding conversions in India.

The Catholic Church surely knows that the one thing the founding fathers of the RSS held even more vehemently than their supremacist Hindutva was their visceral hatred for followers of Christianity and Islam.

As a diocesan head, Bishop Dabre essentially speaks as an individual, or at best for his clergy and laity. He does not represent the entire Christian community with more than 100 or more different denominations

RSS documents are clear that these two peoples have no place in Bharat that is India. They would have to accept second-class status if they want to live in this Bharat.

This is a sort of combination of apartheid and racism — a marriage of the worst of the history of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, colonial Britain and South Africa.

Mercifully, Mahatma Gandhi, the legendary Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru during the freedom struggle ensured this would never happen. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wove these aspirations into a strong religious freedom and equality statement in the Indian constitution.

The Indian media, now entirely in the lap of the BJP-RSS, played it up, especially in the Marathi-language press. They understand that later explanations will not make a dent in the first impact they make — gladdening the majoritarian heart and further confusing the Christian community.

As a diocesan head, Bishop Dabre essentially speaks as an individual, or at best for his clergy and laity. He does not represent the entire Christian community with more than 100 or more different denominations. The Catholic Church itself is rich with three liturgical divisions.

But the damage has been done. Civil society is incensed. The Muslim community, which understands that the church in Kerala is not in love with it, is also taken aback. It was expecting a different, warmer response from the church outside Kerala where its common faithful are as much victims of the Sangh’s terror in rural and tribal India.

It is not just that the Christian community in India, including Catholics, lacks timing. We are, of course, always days and weeks too late. Data and analysis do not exist even of our own persecution by individuals and the state.

And most, including individual bishops and people such as I, do not have credibility in the community to be empowered to speak for it. The media may or may not know, but the government, which is in constant touch with vulnerable bishops and ambitious individuals, knows the fault lines and the vulnerabilities.

Above all, sadly, we lack empathy.

* 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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6 Comments on this Story
LADISLAUS LOUIS D'SOUZA
Could it be that the goodly bishop had a senior moment that had him make such an insane statement?
CHHOTEBHAI
Dialogue, per se, is part of the Catholic Church's praxis. We cannot pre-judge it, though the timing may be wrong. Even the President of Ukraine has repeatedly said that he wishes to talk with Putin.
DESMOND COUTINHO
Dialogue although purportedly a tool of the Catholic Church is intrinsically impossible for the Catholic Church. A prerequisited for dialogue is that both sides must be prepared to change their position. What you mean is talks or talks about talks. No one objects to that. But as long as the Catholic Church claims to be contiguous with the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to which Truth was given then dialogue is impossible. Is Praxis still a popular term. Perhaps if you defined it you might realise that you just meant tool. The Bishop was trying to secure his position in the likelihood that the RSS now have real power and are here to stay. The President of Ukraine has repeatedly stated that he will not give up one inch of Ukrainian soil. He is not interested in dialogue. The bishop wants to have power and has sold his soul to the world the flesh and the devil. Dress the quisling's actions up in whatever terms you like. Is he really a Xtian or Xtianity in india become so corrupt it can no longer said to exist here at all.
R
We all know what happened to Caesar, when he became too ambitious. He was killed by Brutus...his friend. In trying to gain brownie points and been seen in the press,media, etc Bishop Dabre should realise God is above politics.He should concentrate on leading his flock to Heaven rather than dancing with the Devil. Merit and capability decide promotion, NOT affinity to the political powers and their warped ideology. By all means acceptance as fraternity, is ok, but not the ideology which is in stark contrast to teachings of Christianity. In summary, as PM Modi and his band of followers ALWAYS advocate democracy in this country, so then let the Constitution prevail over BJP/RSS and Hindutva. Let the PM prove to world leaders that democracy and NOT ideology prevail in India. ????
ISAAC GOMES
It is very true that both CBCI and CCBI lack credible data, even on the Christian population. How can Christian population continue to be 2.3% over several censuses? Does any diocese (out of the 174+) even have the basic family database? I really doubt. This is the reason CBCI, CCBI and other church leaders are silent over census reports on the Christian population in India. Also it is right that according to the current constitutional and Supreme Court of India stipulations, it will be impossible for the RSS and BJP combine to declare India a Hindu state in spite of pursuing Hindu Majoritarianism. Secularism is one of the Basic Tenets which cannot be tinkered with or diluted as per Supreme Court of India judgement, until and unless the its judges are en masse indoctrinated in RSS/BJP ideology. What we Christians need is a concerted study of the Constitution in all Dioceses, under experts. CBCI has proclaimed this need occasionally but only by fits and starts.
RITA S AGGARWAL
We need to pray for Christian leaders that the Holy Spirit may guide them. What a lot of confusion exists already. Only Lord Jesus can set things right. Let's depend in God and let His will prevail. Jesus have mercy.

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