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Ribeiro Is right. BJP Poses An Existential Threat To India.

The letter of the Archbishop needs to be seen in the context of the growing anxiety and frustration in the religious minority communities of India.

Julio Ribeiro, a retired police commissioner and well-respected Christian public figure, voiced the concerns of many when he wrote: “I should be prepared for second-class citizenship that denies top jobs like that of a judge in the Supreme Court, a governor of a State, the chief of defence staff or the intelligence bureau. What I will not accept is being accused falsely of being anti-national and pilloried on that count.”

It is not difficult to be moved by the agony of Ribeiro. After all, he was one of those who did not hesitate to put their lives at risk while fighting violence. Infuriated by the serial attacks on the Archbishop of Delhi by the leading figures of the government and the ruling dispensation, for his letter to all parish priests in the Capital, Ribeiro poured his heart before the nation. In a letter addressed to all parish priests in the capital, Archbishop of Delhi Anil Couto had requested them to start a year-long prayer campaign to save India from the “turbulent political atmosphere”, which has threatened the democratic principles of the Constitution and secular fabric.

Political implications of the letter were clear. The Bhartiya Janata Party which leads the central government immediately lost no time and jumped to criticise the letter by the Bishop calling it a divisive move. The president of the Party Mr Amit Shah had the temerity to condemn it and warned people not to mobilise masses on the basis of religion. Another senior minister of the central government, Giriraj Singh, known for his blatant anti-minority statements, said that this letter was bound to create reactions. If the bishop asked his people to pray, people from other religions would also start praying in their own way, he said.

The only Christian Minister in the central cabinet, Mr K. J. Alphons said that the Archbishop was not the entire church and was an “isolated voice” in the community. Calling this letter unfair to the government, he advised the bishop that Godmen should stay away from politics.

Mr Rajnath Singh felt compelled to respond to the letter. He took a high ground by claiming that India is a country where there was no discrimination on the basis of religion. The Archbishop was attacked by the leading electronic channels by terming his letter as an attempt to vitiate the social atmosphere of India.

The RSS called it a direct interference of the Vatican in the affairs of India. Its leading “thinker” Rakesh Sinha said that it was an affront to the secular character of India.

It was interesting that the ruling BJP and its parent body the RSS chose to treat the letter as an attack on the government. The letter does not mention the Party nor does it mention the present government. But it does talk about the turbulent situation of the country. Defending his letter, the Archbishop said, “Elections and government concern us. We’ve to have such government that cares for the freedom of people, rights and welfare of Christian community. I’m not meddling in partisan politics. We’re just praying that the nation should walk in the right direction.”

He clarified, “In all churches and institutions we pray and fast. We pray for our own renewal and that of the country. Keeping in mind all that’s happening in our country we said that we look forward to next election and next government. Every government should protect the people and the Constitution.”

Two respected voices from the Christian community defended the Archbishops. Mr Maxwell Pereira, former Jt. Commissioner of Delhi expressed shock that there was such a hue and cry over a letter. He asked if the critics of the Archbishop mean that the Christians cannot even ask to pray in their churches. The letter only asks for the right kind of people to be elected. Why is the present government feeling threatened? 

Mr Julio Ribeiro, another prominent Christian name and respected for his career in the Indian police put the letter in its context. He said that the letter was a fallout of the growing doubt of the Christian community about its future in a Hindu Rashtra.

Mr Ribeiro is known for not mincing his words. Barely a week after the letter from the Delhi Archbishop, one more letter has been written, in a stronger and more direct language. This is a statement by the Global Council for Indian Christians and the People’s Representation for the identity and status for Mizoram condemning the appointment of a known RSS man as a governor of Mizoram, which is a Christian dominated state. The central government has recently appointed Mr Kummanam Rajasekharan as the governor of Mizoram where Christians form 97%of the population. It clearly alleges that this move is aimed at creating unrest in a poll-bound state which has been the most peaceful state in the Northeastern region of India.

Is the apprehension of the council unfounded? Is not the governor of a neighbouring State Tripura spreading hate and venom brazenly?  

There is a fear that the letter would be used by the BJP in the forthcoming elections in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh to polarise Hindus by claiming that there is an international conspiracy against the present government which defends Hindu interests. It has done so before. A letter by the church in Kerala in the state assembly elections asking people to vote for secular parties was treated by the BJP as a call to vote against it. Similarly last November, prior to the Gujarat state assembly elections, Archbishop Thomas Macwan of the Archdiocese of Gandhinagar issued a letter calling parish priests to organise prayer sessions to help people “who would remain faithful to the Indian constitution” get elected. BJP treated the letter as a call to vote against it and a BJP leader even called for the archbishop’s arrest for “inciting religious hatred”.

In India, the participation of Hindu godmen and women in politics is seen as normal but Muslim or Christian religious personalities are seen as dividing people when they speak on politics. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh is the head of an old and very powerful Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur. There are ministers and members of parliament who themselves claim to be godmen and women and yet are accepted as fit for the secular polity of India. They openly speak against Muslims and Christians and secular people and are yet seen as a normal politician.

The letter of the Archbishop needs to be seen in the context of the growing anxiety and frustration in the religious minority communities of India. Only two days back a young Muslim man was saved from the Hindu mob by a young Sikh Police Officer in the state of Uttarakhand which wanted to lynch him for being in the vicinity of a temple in the company of a Hindu woman. The very fact that this act was seen and hailed as extraordinary shows that normally even the police do not function in a nonpartisan manner.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian NGO, publishes a periodical report on the cases of discrimination or attacks against Christians in India. In its report for 2017, it says, “According to a statement made by the Government in the Indian Parliament on the 7th of Feb. 2017, 1 over the last three years, over 278 persons have been killed and over 6500 people were injured due to communal violence in over 2000 incidents.

According to the World Watch List 2017, India is now ranked 15th in the list of countries where the practice of the faith is a high-risk activity. India was ranked 31 only four years ago.

More than 700 cases of attacks on Christians were reported on the United Christian Forum (UCF) toll-free helpline number 1800-208-4545 since 2014. Last year, 216 incidents were recorded and this year 216 incidents have already been reported as on date.

Out of 29 states in India, at least 19 regularly witness attacks on Christians. Tamil Nadu tops the list with 41 incidents as on November 30th followed by Chhattisgarh (39) Uttar Pradesh (27), Madhya Pradesh (22), Maharashtra (16). Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttarakhand and West Bengal are the other states.

The states of Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh accounted for over 50% of the incidents recorded. The violence of incidents includes Ghar Wapsi; Refusal to grant permission to establish and run places of worship; False accusation of forceful and fraudulent religious conversions: Physical and verbal assault on Church pastors and members; False and divisive propaganda; Damage and desecration of places of worship and arson; Disruption of prayer services and Restrictions on religious gatherings.”

Apart from the statistical evidence, the leaders of the ruling party at the centre and its ministers feel free to invoke anti-Muslim and anti-Christian symbolism to forge a political Hindu consciousness. Fear of Muslims outnumbering Hindus or missionaries luring poor people to their fold through their educational institutions or hospitals is constantly invoked to frighten Hindus and then offer them a platform which would be their voice or would defend them.

It was only last month that Gurgaon, situated in the National Captial Region and seen as a city of the future of India witnessed disruption of the customary Friday prayer congregations by the loony groups enjoying the patronage of the ruling dispensation of the state of Haryana. The Chief Minister of Haryana, instead of ordering action against the criminals suggested that Muslims should confine their prayers to Mosques. Another Minister claimed that prayers in open spaces were part of a conspiracy of land jihad by Muslims.

The Prime Minister very cleverly invokes a language to deride and mock minorities and present the Congress and other parties as anti-Hindu. In the recently concluded and much discussed parliamentary by-election at Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh talked in a language of us and them, us being the Hindus and them the Muslims.

There is an apprehension widespread in the minority communities and also the secular people that if the BJP return to power at the centre, the subversion of the institutionally secular character of India would be complete. It is not for nothing that the opposition parties are trying to forge a grand alliance keeping their ideological differences aside to fight this menace. The letter of the Archbishop asks for a spiritual renewal of India. He is doing what truly religious personalities need to do. Hindu sadhus and sadhvis should follow him if they are still there.  

Apoorvanand is a professor at the Hindi Department of University of Delhi.

An expanded version of this article was first published on Al Jazeera.