Political Opportunism and the Indian Church

Easter Sunday greetings with head bowed in prayer by the pro-active Prime Minister of India does not answer concerns and questions about repeated physical attacks and vilifications of India’s minorities, including Christians

Modi in ChurchImage courtesy: ANI

Opportunism’ is normally defined as “the practice of using situations unfairly to get an advantage for yourself without thinking about the consequences, of how your actions will affect other people”. At a different and far serious level is ‘political opportunism’ which is based on the political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli, as described in The Prince and which is often regarded as a classic manual of opportunist scheming; a Machiavellian is nowadays ‘a cunning, immoral, and opportunist person’; today, several of our politicians very easily fit the bill. Political opportunism therefore refers ‘to the attempt to maintain political support, or to increase political influence, possibly in a way which disregards relevant ethical or political principles. At the top, are those who have mastered the art of political chicanery- and we all know who!! 

So, when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a visit to the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi on April 9, 2023, Easter Sunday, it definitely raised several eyebrows and more! Not that it was unique in any way. Prime Ministers and Presidents of India have visited Churches and participated in Christian religious events before; besides, it is within their legitimate right to visit and even pray not only in a Church, but also in a Mosque, in a Gurudwara or in a Fire-temple! We have that classic image of Pope Francis praying in the Blue Dome Mosque in Istanbul. There is the fact that once the Prime Minister expresses his desire to visit a Church, the Church authorities would certainly do everything within their means, with all ceremony and protocol, to accord a welcome befitting of the office of the Prime Minister. 

The reality in India however, is different today. Given the constant attacks on the miniscule Christian population today, no one is willing to accept (with the exception of the gullible, the naive and the ‘bhakts ‘) that the visit of the Prime to the Cathedral was but one of sheer ‘political opportunism’. The attacks on Christians in India today (and also on other minorities, particularly the Muslims) take place with frightening regularity. These are not aberrations or isolated instances, as even some of the Christian prelates have the spinelessness to make them out to be. Christians in several BJP – ruled states are hounded and harassed; prayer services are disrupted; places of prayer and worship are demolished; false cases are foisted on pastors and Christian worshippers. The votaries of the Sangh Parivar spew hate and instigate violence on the Christians. Then we have the draconian and unconstitutional anti -conversion laws that have been promulgated in several states that denies one the Fundamental right to legitimately preach, practise and propagate one’s religion. The Constitutional provisions of rights to minorities are downscaled and are even being scrapped altogether. There is substantial documentation as evidence of all of this. 

It is important to note that those who indulge in the attacks against Christians, do so, because they know that nothing will happen to them! They have all the protection and immunity they need from their political bosses. They attack with impunity because they know they have the immunity! FIRs are not registered against these goons as we saw in the blatant intimidation of a couple of Catholic schools in Gujarat a few weeks ago. Many Christians are certainly not ready to accept second – class citizenship in a country which belongs to them and are fighting for their Constitutional rights. There was a massive protest in Delhi against the persecution of Christians in mid- February and one in Bombay as recently as 12 April! 

The Prime Minister is surely in the know of all this! If he has any genuine concern for the Christian citizens of the country he should first openly and directly stop his regimes and ilk for all the irreparable harm that is being done not only to the Christians, but to the Constitution of the country, and particularly to its pluralistic fabric. He should be publicly stating, over and over again, that no one would be spared punishment for the crimes of demonizing, denigrating, discriminating against the minorities particularly the Christians and Muslims; and ensure appropriate action on them! 

Visiting a Church, lighting a candle before the statue of the Risen Lord, listening to an English hymn are all good, if done in the right spirit and attitude. Otherwise, they are mere ‘theatrics and this Prime Minister, the world knows, is high on drama. What did he say when he visited the Cathedral? Did he assure the bishops and the others present, that he would abide by the Constitution and would protect their Constitutional rights and freedoms at whatever the cost? There is absolutely no record in the print or electronic media of what the Prime Minister said – just visuals: photo- ops for all! The fact is that the elections in Karnataka and Kerala are due shortly and that General elections will take place in 2024 – is not lost on concerned citizens of the country and particularly on discerning political analysts. 

It is also interesting to see what the Bishops who welcomed the Prime Minister had to say to him? Were there only pleasantries and small talk (and some ‘prayers’) exchanged? Could not the Bishops have made it an occasion to highlight and in writing, the abysmal depths the country has fallen to in every sphere – and particularly the lot of the poor and the marginalised, the small farmers and the migrant workers, the excluded and the exploited? Should they have not made a strong statement on the plight of the Christians (and the Muslims) in India? Here was certainly a golden opportunity which was badly missed; a real opportunity which cannot be compared with the political opportunism of the Prime Minister! 

Interestingly it is good to be reminded that Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi who was the main prelate to welcome the Prime Minister to the Cathedral, wrote a letter to his diocese on May 8, 2018. At that time the country was burning with several issues as it is today. The Modi-fied media instead of taking on the Government on its lack of governance took on the Archbishop and made his innocuous letter prime time news. In his letter. Archbishop Couto requested special prayers until the General Elections of 2019. The letter was a call for prayer beginning on “May 13, 2018 which marks the Anniversary of the Apparition of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, consecrating ourselves and our nation to the Immaculate Heart”. At that time most thinking citizens had the following conclusions to make:

–         As an Indian citizen, the Archbishop has every right to voice his opinions/views

–         As the Archbishop of Delhi, it is his duty to be a Pastor and instruct the Catholics under his care both on spiritual and temporal matters

–         It is an age-old practice for Bishops all over the world to send out Circular or Pastoral Letters before any major event (including elections) which could affect their people in any way!

–         The letter clearly does NOT take sides; does not name any political party; does not tell people whom to vote for

–         The letter is addressed to a particular group of people (that is the Catholics of Delhi) it is directional in nature; a request and certainly not mandatory

–         The letter is a call to prayer! (anything wrong with that?)

Archbishop Anil begins his letter with the words “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.” There could not be perhaps a better opening statement, so down-to-earth, so contextual- which sets the tone of why one needs to pray and fast. Can one deny the fact that what we witness in India is not ‘a turbulent political atmosphere’? When a ‘few’ decide what one should eat and wear; see and write; or whom to worship; when the very core of the country’s secular and pluralistic fabric stands to be destroyed; when all that is sacred in the Constitution is being eroded – how can one ever abstain from making such a statement? It is a sin not to do so. 

It would be appropriate at this juncture that Archbishop Anil and in fact all the Bishops of India should write another relevant pastoral letter (in the lines of Pope Francis) and in the context of the realities which today have gripped the nation. Can the Church take a visible and vocal stand on the brutal murder of Atique Ahmed and several others in encounters by the State of Uttar Pradesh?  Should we not speak out about the thousands of Christian and Muslim names missing from the Electoral rolls in Karnataka? What is the stand of the Church on corruption – and on the manner in which the likes of Adani have looted the nation? Can we dare accompany the likes of Bilkis Bano in her relentless struggle for justice? Many issues and many more unanswered questions! 

Mohan Bhagwat, the Supremo of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is very clear of his agenda: to make of India a state based on the ‘Hindutva’ ideology. He has been using every possible occasion to lambast Christianity, missionaries and foreigners. On April 17, addressing a gathering in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh he slammed the missionaries saying that the missionaries took advantage of the situations wherein people feel the society is not with them, in an apparent reference to ‘religious conversions. On Ambedkar Jayanti (April 14) addressing a gathering of RSS workers in Ahmedabad, without decrying the caste system he said, “we were once united, but we created divisions in the form of castes which were later widened by foreigners. For the progress of our country, we must strive to become one again.” On Good Friday (7 April) at a three-day Rashtriya Sewa Sangam of the RSS in Jaipur, once again took on the Christians, saying that, “when we talk of services, common people mention the names of missionaries who run schools and many organizations across the world. However, the service rendered by Hindu saints are no less. It came to my notice that the services of the saints who are engaged in spiritual works in four states of south India are many times more than the service of the missionaries put together.” 

St Oscar Romero was a bishop of and for his suffering people. He was brutally gunned down by the brutal regime of his country El Salvador on March 24, 1980. The day before he was killed in his Sunday homily, he called out to his government saying, “In the name of God, and in the name of his suffering people; those who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven with greater intensity each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression immediately! “The Christian hierarchy and clerics have much to learn from Romero; in India today, we desperately need to emulate his prophetic courage based on the person and message of Jesus. 

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in his poem ‘Pity the Nation’ puts it incisively 

Pity the nation whose people are sheep

And whose shepherds mislead them

Pity the nation whose leaders are liars

Whose sages are silenced

And whose bigots haunt the airwaves

Pity the nation that raises not its voice

Except to praise conquerors

And acclaim the bully as hero

And aims to rule the world

By force and by torture

Pity the nation that knows

No other language but its own

And no other culture but its own

Pity the nation whose breath is money

And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed

Pity the nation oh pity the people

who allow their rights to erode

and their freedoms to be washed away

My country, tears of theeSweet land of liberty!” 

His poem is truly worth reflecting upon given the reality we are gripped with today as a nation Succumbing to sheer political opportunism will be the death knell of our nation. We need to awake now- before it’s too late! 

(The author is a Human Rights, Reconciliation and Peace activist/ writer)


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