India’s Christian leaders aren’t quite unanimous, yet, on the meaning of the May election landslide that swept Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party into control of the world’s largest democracy.
On the one hand:
“Your ascension as Prime Minister of this great country and the overwhelming mandate…under your dynamic leadership are heavenly indications that many problems facing the country…would be addressed firmly and for the common good,” Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, former president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, wrote to Modi.
On the other:
“We beg to differ from official church leaders on Narendra Modi,” said a statement issued June 13 by a group led by John Dayal, secretary general of All India Christian Council, a Christian advocacy group. It was written in response to national church bodies and leaders rushing to congratulate Modi.
The sceptics have reasons to be wary. Only hours after the new government was sworn in May 26, key ministers were declaring opposition to longstanding minority demands to strengthen anti-discrimination laws.
India ranks among the 50 countries where life as a Christian is most difficult, according to Open Doors International, a global ministry that serves Christians who are pressured because of their faith. The country is No. 28 on Open Doors’ 2014 World Watch List, largely because of a streak of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, that envisions India as a purely Hindu state.
The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is the ruling party in three of the six Indian states with laws that forbid forced religious conversions – laws that are used frequently to shut down churches or intimidate Christians who speak about their faith. Even before its election mandate, the party had proposed stiffer penalties in one of those states, Madhya Pradesh, India’s second-largest.
With Modi galvanizing the BJP ticket, running largely on a platform of economic revival and government reform, the party won 282 seats in the 543-member Indian Parliament. The National Democratic Alliance, a coalition encompassing the BJP, captured 336 seats. Support for the more secular Congress Party, which had ruled India for decade, eroded severely, dropping from 206 seats in 2009, to 44.
The congratulatory message from Cardinal Toppo, head of the Catholic church in the tribal heartland of Jharkhand where BJP virtually swept the polls, followed Modi’s ascension to office, witnessed by the heads of South Asian nations attending the swearing in ceremony.
Archbishop Baselios mar Cleemis, head of the Catholic Church in India, was cautiously optimistic that the new government will “continue to uphold…secularism and principles of democracy to lead the Nation on the path of development.”
The National Council of Churches in India, however, announced its intention to remain a cautious watchdog.
Quoting the Gospel of Luke, the council issued a statement that “we are reminded of the Nazareth Manifesto of Jesus ‘to bring good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour.'”
“We are to stand for just-peace, and should support all policies, endeavours and projects of the government within this ‘just-peace’ framework,” the council statement said. “The 2014 Elections constitute the?kairos?(the critical decisive time) for the Church in India to be bearers of the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ gospel in the country.”
A group of Christian social activists, theologians and church lay leaders issued their own statement, which claimed they have “no problems with the Official Church Leaders in congratulating Modi on becoming the Prime Minister of India.” However, “we have serious reservations and objections on their assessment…and their expectations from Modi to build a just India and a secular India.”
“The church leaders should not rush to be admirers of the government. The hierarchy should watch the ground situation and remain alert to the real concerns of the people,” said John Dayal, who issued the joint statement on behalf of the Christian activists and others, to World Watch Monitor.
Historically, Dayal pointed out, the BJP has demonstrated it is “out to pursue and realize the vision of a?Hindu nation.”
Kumar Swamy, national co-ordinator of the All Indian Christian Council, a Christian advocacy group, was even more blunt:
“I’m sure there will be increased sporadic, localised attacks (on) the Christian community,” Swamy was quoted June 2 by Christian Today. “Maybe not initially, because the BJP wants to keep its image secular and democratic, and show they care about the minority groups, so there may not be immediate major attacks taking place.”
Joseph Dias, founder of the outspoken Catholic Secular Forum of Mumbai, claimed “the fringe groups are already on the loose.”
Police already have arrested 20 members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, or Hindu National Army, after Mohasin Shaikh, a Muslim computer engineer, was clubbed to death June 2 with hockey sticks in Pune, near Mumbai.
Police in western Maharashtra state claim that the attack in Pune by the Hindu outfit was a response to a posting on Facebook that denigrated Hindu political leaders.
Federal President Pranab Mukherji, in his address to the new Parliament on June 9, assured that religious minorities will be “partners in India’s development” and in the new government’s broad agenda.
Yet by that date, Dias said, “Some of the statements from the ministers show the same (Hindu nationalist) mind-set and agenda.” Within 24 hours of Modi’s swearing-in on May 26, a couple of key ministers had made comments that reiterate BJP’s antipathy to the decades-old Christian demand for end to discrimination against Christian Dalits.
Dalit, a word meaning “trampled upon,” refers to the “untoucahables” of the lowest castes in Indian society. Often, Dalits eke out a living by carrying out menial jobs like scavenging while living segregated from upper castes in rural areas.
Since 1950 the federal government has set aside free education, government jobs and legislative seats for Hindu Dalits. None are provided to Christian and Muslim Dalits. Two-thirds of India’s 28 million Christians are Dalits.
Thavarchand Gehlot, the social justice minister, told the media that the new government opposes a 4.5 percent job quota for minorities, a target proposed by the previous government. Reservation based on religion, he said, is “unconstitutional.”
Minority affairs minister Najma Heptullah, the lone Muslim among the 46-member Modi cabinet, said quotas for minorities kill the “spirit of competition.”
“We are not surprised by these comments. But we cannot keep quiet on a genuine cause because the BJP is in power,” said Samuel Jayakumar, secretary of the National Council of Churches Commission on Policy, Governance and Public Witness.
Jayakumar took part in a strategy meeting of more than 40 Dalit Christian activists and church officials in New Delhi in May, which issued a frank statement prospects for minorities under the BJP government are “not very encouraging.”
“Our hope is in the judiciary,” Jayakumar said, in reference a 2004 petition for equal rights pending before the Indian apex court. “Once the government makes its stand clear on the issues in the Supreme Court, the judiciary can give its verdict.”
Hope of a Christian being included in the Modi cabinet has come to naught. Christian circles were abuzz that P.A. Sangma, a prominent Catholic and BJP associate since he broke from the Congress party in 1998, would make it into the Modi cabinet, as he was elected to the Parliament for the 10th time, from the tiny Christian majority state of Meghalaya in the north-east.