Indian President Ram Nath Kovind administering the oath of office and secrecy to Alphonse Kannanthanam (right), the first Catholic minister to be inducted in the cabinet of pro-Hindu BJP-led federal government, Sept. 3. (Photo by IANS)
Catholic Alphons Joseph Kannanthanam was inducted as tourism minister in India's current cabinet early September, purportedly becoming the first 'Christian' in the ministerial line-up.
I do welcome Kannanthanam as a minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The former civil servant has been a member of Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2011 and has proven administrative qualities to be a minister. However, he cannot be considered a Christian member in cabinet as Christians would not look up to him as such.
Kannanthanam will have to bury his Catholic convictions to be in line with the Hindutva ideology (that aims to establish Hindu upper caste hegemony in India) and cling to his position without facing a humiliating exit. Besides, he will have to win a parliamentary seat within the next six months.
Christians in India stand to gain nothing from this appointment that the BJP initiated. A section of media termed it as Modi's attempt to "appease" Christian minorities. But I cannot see it as a case of appeasement because the Christian community has not been demanding a representative in cabinet.
In a multi-party democracy like India, it is only natural that parties act to win votes, however far away the polls may be.
Induction of Kannanthanam is just another BJP move ahead of national elections in 2019. It needs votes, not only of majority Hindus, but also of minority Christians.
In the chequered history of Indian democracy in the last 70 years, Christians have never sought their own elected representative in parliament. Majority Hindus in the past, with their sense of justice, considered followers of minority religions to be equal. Legal systems and constitutional guarantees were put in place to ensure that minorities enjoyed the same rights as the majority. There exists no need for a Christian representative in the cabinet to ensure the rights of Christians.
The question being asked today is a different one: will the BJP-led government, and the right-wing Hindu parties that provide it with muscle power, ensure the rights of minorities in the country with the same sense of equality and justice as for the majority community?
Many BJP politicians recognize the need for pluralism in India. But is the "Hindutva ideology" hospitable enough to grant equal status to all religious minorities? Will the push for a Hindu theocratic state end up creating a "Hindu Pakistan in India" as one politician put it? Will it make the religious minorities second-class citizens as in Pakistan?
Such apprehensions arise from a severe sense of insecurity felt by religious minorities across the country.
Just one "Kannanthanam" is not enough to assuage these fears.
The history of BJP's political growth shows how it buys votes of different castes and communities using political machinations and social engineering. It emboldens some political pundits to consider Kannanthanam as bait to get the Christian community in Kerala state, his native place, to join the BJP fold.
That observation is based on a few facts too. Close to 20 percent of Kerala's 33 million people are Christian and their votes are key to wining even one of the 20 parliamentary seats in Kerala because of the peculiar political history of the state.
So far the BJP has not been able win even a single seat in Kerala, where in some constituencies people vote en masse for communists and Muslim candidates, giving no chance of victory for BJP candidates. The only way for the BJP to win a seat is to gain support from the Christian community.
The easiest way to take the Christian community into its confidence is to get elements of the Christian hierarchy to speak favorably about the BJP. In order to secure such endorsements, the party may pressurize leaders using the machinery of government.
For example, employing a threat to freeze international funding has been successfully used in the past to tame certain members of the Christian hierarchy. In the political bargaining, Kannanthanam could be a communication channel between the party higher-ups and the church hierarchy, some of whom might readily walk an extra mile with BJP to protect their institutional interests more than Gospel values.
The Catholic Church in Kerala, and across India, faces difficult times when bold leadership is required to defend her soul and her body against the bulldozing power of the state.
It will test souls against the pressures of worldly power. If painful steps are not taken, the Gospel will exist under the yoke of an overarching Hindutva ideology, which supports Hindu caste cultural hegemony.
The idea of India, as promoted by the founding fathers of the nation, was to strive for an all-inclusive state, promising justice, equality and freedom to all and ending a social pattern based on caste and subjugation of the majority poor. But unfortunately, the Hindutva idea now attempts to de-construct this notion.
It also attempts to make Hinduism a more organized power structure, such as with the Semitic religions, and finally a state religion like medieval Christianity or the Caliphate of Muslims.
Will Catholic Kannanthanam help in the de-construction of the idea of an all-inclusive India? History will be the judge.
Father Paul Thelakat, former spokesperson of Syrian Catholic Church and social observer, is based in Kochi.
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