~By Inderjit Badhwar
“Lord, God of Abraham, God of the Prophets, God of Love, you created us and you call us to live as brothers and sisters…Keep alive within us the flame of hope, so that with patience and perseverance we may opt for dialogue and reconciliation. In this way may peace triumph at last, and may the words ‘division’, ‘hatred’ and ‘war’ be banished from the heart of every man and woman. Lord, defuse the violence of our tongues and our hands. Renew our hearts and minds, so that the word which always brings us together will be ‘brother’, and our way of life will always be that of: Shalom, Peace, Salaam!”
This is part of Pope Francis’ invocation for peace. He chanted this recently for Syria and Iraq, for Israel and Palestine, for the impoverished Central African Republic. In his traditional Sunday blessing, he has asked for an end to “vendettas”.
In strife-torn Kashmir last month, hundreds of Hindu priests and devotees prayed for peace and harmony in the state to honour the great Adi Shankaracharya on his jayanti. Many of them had come from Kanchipuram. As one worshipper put it: “Our Guru (Acharya Sri Jayendra Saraswathi) is for the whole world and he taught us to pray for peace, harmony and brotherhood, especially for Kashmir.”
On the holy occasion of Ramadan, world leaders including Justin Trudeau and Benjamin Netanyahu reached out to their Muslim “brothers and sisters” and repeated the blessings of the Prophet. Nobody accused them of “Muslim appeasement” for political gain, or the Vatican’s interference in the internal politics of other nations through Christian doctrines.
In contrast, India showed its worst communal face. In a rare gesture, worthy of applause by all who revere the Indian Constitution and its commitment to religious freedom, tolerance and liberty, Prime Minister Narendra Modi first tweeted his Ramadan greetings in Urdu and in English. He also posted a sound clip of his last “Mann ki Baat” programme in which he had extended his greetings in advance, exhorting one and all to follow the wisdom of the Prophet. Saying that the holy month stood for the virtues of harmony, kindness and charity, he said: “I convey my greetings and pray that the Holy Month brings peace and happiness in everyone’s life.”
Modi, for the first time in his life perhaps, experienced what it is like to be at the receiving end of bigotry and venom. Hindutva trolls and venomous bhakts showed their fangs on Twitter. Here’s a taste of the mindless hatred:
“Forget getting Muslim votes, even Hindu voters will desert you.” “O secular modiji thoda control karo. Nota bhi hara sakta ai apko. muslimm vote dega nahi, hindu se milegi nahi.” “Why Modi doesn’t tweet in Sanskrit, Why Muslims don’t say ‘Jai Shri Ram’?” “Have you ever wished Hindus in Sanskrit on Ram Navami?”
Similarly, a wave of bigoted condemnation by right-wing brigades has crashed on Archbishop Anil Joseph Couto of Delhi who more or less repeated the sentiments of the Pope, the Shankaracharya and the Ramadan wishes of world leaders. In a May 8 letter to local churches, he wrote: “We are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution and the secular fabric of our nation… This is our cry, Heavenly Father, in these troubled times as we see the clouds eclipsing the light of truth, justice and freedom… As we look forward towards 2019 when we will have a new government, let us begin a prayer campaign for our country… which marks the Anniversary of the Apparition of the Blessed Mother at Fatima consecrating ourselves and our nation to the Immaculate Heart… It is our hallowed practice to pray for our country and its political leaders all the time but the more so when we approach the general election.”
Howls of protest from the BJP and its president, Amit Shah, followed. They saw this as an anti-BJP harangue, as religious interference in politics, as a foreign (the Vatican’s) attempt to influence the upcoming elections, so much so that Subramanian Swamy even recommended cutting ties with the Vatican.
Forget, for the moment, the delicious irony here. An avowedly Hindu-oriented party determined to create a millennial Hindu Rashtra through politico-religious polarisation, expressing righteous indignation over a religious minority (Christians are about three percent of India’s population) attempting to split the country along religious lines because of a letter from an archbishop!
Couto was at pains to explain that he was not indirectly referring to any particular party but rather offering the hope of prayer to spread balm over what has been a surcharged atmosphere of intolerance and bigotry in which Christians have certainly been among the victims of paranoid hyper-nationalism. Couto had said nothing new. The same trepidation (unaccompanied by prayer, though) has been repeated by eminent personalities like former BJP Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and Admiral Ram Das and anti-terrorist hero and former police chief Julio Ribeiro in blunt language.
Had the archbishop chosen to speak more directly about the threats to the Christian minority—and he has a right to speak for his community should he so desire—facts would have supported him. In its 2018 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom said religious freedom was continuing on a “downward trend” in India.
Stories in Indian and international newspapers are increasingly highlighting this problem: “Christian pastors were set upon by a gang wielding knives and metal rods, leaving one so badly injured he suffered brain damage.” (Rebecca Flood in the London Express, August 2017.) “Christians In India Continue To Live In Fear, Despite Modi’s Promises Of Equality.” (Arielle Dreher, Religion News Service.) “Compared to 2016, attacks against Christians in India by extremists more than doubled in 2017 amid efforts to label the religious minority a danger to the state. The persecution ranges from threats and physical violence to destruction of church property, but false allegations against Christians have also increased.” (Catholic News Agency.)
In strife-torn Kashmir last month, hundreds of Hindu priests and devotees prayed for peace and harmony in the state to honour the great Adi Shankaracharya on his jayanti.
Reuters recently reported that the sensational vandalism at Delhi’s famous Mt Carmel School “rippled through other Christian schools. The attack was the sixth this year in an ongoing series targeting Christian communities and schools across India”.
It was also the turning point for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the growing safety concerns of India’s minority Christian community. Modi immediately asked the Delhi police commissioner to investigate the attacks, and he addressed the Christian community, saying: “The government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions.” But even after Modi’s address, the attacks continued. In March, an elderly nun was raped in Kolkata, and a Christian school in West Bengal received anonymous threats, according to a Times Of India report. In April, St Mary’s Church in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, was vandalised, setting off a wave of protests.
Actually, latent prejudice against Christians, fanned by Hindutva ideologues, is not new. It surfaced prominently during the debates in the Constituent Assembly. The burning issue was whether freedom of religion should include the right to convert and propagate.
“All this talk,” said one writer at the time, “about mass conversions being achieved by improper means is absolute balderdash… For several centuries Hindus have kept the so-called untouchables from their temples and still do so in most places. It is a curious mentality that excludes a homeless man from one’s own house and will not allow him to enter someone else’s… Man has certain inalienable rights which not even a majority vote can take away. One of these rights is that he is free to choose his religion or society, without his motive being impugned by government, whether fascist, communist or democratic.”
The famous British Methodist missionary, Rev. Stanley Jones noted that there was widespread fear among Christians that in independent India, they would be persecuted, eliminated, or forced to return to the castes from which they had been converted.
He provides this fascinating account of his own subsequent meeting with senior Congressmen even as the Constituent Assembly debate raged:
“So I went to Sardar Patel, the strongman of the Congress, and asked him what part the missionaries can play, if any, in this new India… He very thoughtfully replied, ‘Let them go on as they have been going on—let them serve the suffering with their hospitals and dispensaries, educate the poor and give selfless service to the people. They can even carry on their propaganda in a peaceful manner. But let them not use mass conversions for political ends.’ ‘If they do this then there is a place for them in the new India?’ I asked. ‘Certainly,’ he replied, ‘we want them to throw themselves in with India, identify themselves with the people and make India their home.’ This was quite clear and straightforward and from the man who has to do with the question of who shall or shall not come into India, for he is the Home Member.
Sangh Parivar activists saw this as an anti-BJP harangue, as religious interference in politics, as a foreign (the Vatican’s) attempt to influence the upcoming elections
“I then saw C Rajagopalachari and asked him the same question. His reply was that ‘while I agree that you have the right of conversion, I would suggest that in this crisis when religion is dividing us it would be a better part of your strategy to dim conversions and serve the people in various ways until the situation returns to a more normal state. If you are not willing to do that then I would suggest that instead of ‘profess, practise and propagate’ as suggested in the Committee, it should be ‘believe, worship and preach’. Then I further asked, ‘Will the missionaries be tolerated or welcomed as partners in this new India?’ His reply was: ‘If they take some of the attitudes I suggest, then they will not only be welcomed, they will be welcomed with gratitude, for what they have done and will do.’
“The fourth man to whom I went was the man whom Gandhiji calls ‘the uncrowned king of India’, Jawaharlal Nehru, and when I asked him whether missionaries will be tolerated or welcomed as partners in the making of the new India his reply was: ‘I am not sure as to what is involved in being looked on as partners. But we will welcome anyone who throws himself into India and makes India his home.’
“The fact of the matter is that the greatest hour of Christian opportunity has come in India. I have never had such a hearing in forty years as I have had in these last six months in India. The tensions have been let down. The combativeness against the Christian faith has been eased into an attitude of wistful yearning…
“The Christian Church must now search its own heart and set its own house in order. It must cease from little irrelevancies and give itself to big things. The big thing in India is to present Christ in such a way as to become inescapable in the India to be. And the Church itself must be the message—it must show itself the embodiment of the new order.”
Debate and discussion led ultimately to the Constituent Assembly adopting Article 19 with two minor amendments accepted by BR Ambedkar. The right of Christians to propagate religion and to convert included minor children. Article 19 later became Article 25 of the Constitution.
On August 15, 1948, a year after India became independent, the new nation established diplomatic relations with the Vatican. I do not believe that Archbishop Couto of Delhi departed from the tone or vision of the founding fathers.