In a pastoral letter released June 3, Archbishop Filipe Neri of Goa and Daman said “a kind of monoculturalism” had gripped India, and the “Constitution is in danger”. Earlier, in a letter written to heads of local churches on May 8, Archbishop of Delhi Anil Couto had referred to a “turbulent political atmosphere” that threatened democracy and secularism, and called for a “prayer campaign” ahead of the 2019 elections.
BJP president Amit Shah criticised Couto’s letter, saying “polarising people in the name of religion” was “not appropriate”. On June 5, BJP national general secretary Bhupender Yadav decried on Twitter the “political appeal by a religious head which marks a new dangerous trend”.
Church and politics
Contrary to Yadav’s tweet, a “political appeal” by a Christian bishop is not new. Catholic bishops have from time to time issued guidance and advice that seemingly crossed the church-state line. Officially, the Church, according to a pastoral letter written by Matthew Kavukattu, Bishop of Changanacherry (Syro-Malabar) diocese in Kerala in November 1951, stands for “eternal and spiritual concern”, but “she neither can nor does ignore temporal matters, because the world in which we live is the only path leading us to our eternal home”.
* Father George Manimala of the Shrine of Our Lady of Health, Masihgarh, Okhla, Delhi, told The Indian Express that back in 1977, a petition had been filed challenging the election of veteran leader K M Mani to the Kerala Assembly on the ground that “the bishop’s directives (in Pala, Kottayam) had influenced the voting of the faithful”.
* More recently, in December 2015, Archbishop of the Faridabad-Delhi Syro-Malabar Church Kuriakose Bharanikulangara said in a pastoral letter that the victory of the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar was a verdict against “sectarian politics” and a “declaration by Indian conscience that it will not support… religious intolerance and sectarian mindset as campaign tools”.
* In December 2016, as Goa prepared for Assembly elections, Archbishop Neri said the Church would guide the faithful on voting, prompting the Shiv Sena to file a complaint of “interference” with the Election Commission.
* On November 21 last year, ahead of the Gujarat Assembly elections, a pastoral letter by Archbishop Thomas Macwan of Gandhinagar spoke of the “growing sense of insecurity among the religious minorities, OBCs, BCs, poor etc”, and asked the faithful to save the country from “nationalist forces” by electing those who were “faithful to our Constitution”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “shocked to see a religious person issuing a fatwa asking for nationalist forces to be uprooted”, and the Election Commission asked the Archbishop “the intention behind issuing a letter to the community”. OPINION | Mis-reading archbishop’s letter
In Kerala, where Christians have a strong influence on society, politics and economy, the Catholic Church has always played a political role. It joined the 1958-59 Vimochana Samaram (“liberation struggle”) spearheaded by the Congress, Nair Service Society and the Muslim League to overthrow the world’s first democratically elected communist government of EMS Namboodiripad, and it has been accused of using CIA funds to fight communism — allegations that it has never been able to convincingly rebut. Ahead of the first general election in 1951-52, Bishop Kavukattu of Changanacherry asked the faithful not to elect candidates who “adhere to the ideology of atheistic communism”.
In 1957, before the second general election, the standing committee of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), the apex body of the Catholic Church in India, issued a statement, to be read out at Sunday mass in churches across the country, on the “growing religious intolerance in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Madhyabharat”. It was the “responsibility of each Catholic to… not vote for any party or individual contesting against God and universal Church”, the statement said.
A fragmented Church
It is important to note that the Catholic Church is a highly organised, hierarchical body with clear jurisdictions — so the calls of, say, Archbishop Couto or Archbishop Neri are addressed only to their committed community, and are not the official position of the Church as a whole. A political call by an imam or a Hindu saint is not bound by jurisdiction in the same way, and hence has wider reach.
Also, the Church in India is not a monolith; Christians are divided into many denominations and traditions. Within the Catholic Church, the Latin Catholics are the most numerous, but the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church is the most influential. The RSS backs the Mar Thoma Syrian Church headquartered in Thiruvalla in Pathanamthitta district as an “Indian Church”.
However, while there is no one ‘Christian’ voice in Kerala (or India), Catholics in the state, given their opposition to the Left, have long been identified with the Congress.
Some see the Archbishops’ outbursts as a reflection of divisions in the leadership of the Church. The head of the CBCI, Archbishop of Bombay Oswald Gracias, told The Indian Express that the timing of Archbishop Couto’s letter was “bad”, and that he had advised other bishops to refrain from issuing statements with political connotations.
Both Archbishops Neri and Couto are Goans, and sources within the Church leadership said the “Goan lobby” is unhappy about Oswald beating Neri to the top job at CBCI. Cardinal Oswald has been maintaining cordial relations with the BJP.
A section in the Church leadership feels Neri and Couto have given ammunition to elements in the far right to try to consolidate Hindu votes in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where Sangh Parivar outfits have been jousting with Christians over conversion in tribal areas.
Church’s soft power
While Christians are only 2.3% of India’s population as per the 2011 Census, the Church owns or controls some 20,000 educational institutions — second only to the central government — thousands of vocational training centres, and around 5,000 healthcare centres. Alumni of church institutions are in several leadership positions in politics, the bureacuracy and in key government and non-government bodies, and wield unique influencing and lobbying power. Through several landmark cases, the Church and Church-run institutions have played pivotal roles in establishing minority rights in education.
The Church’s role in the social sector has been deeply contentious. The RSS sees conversions by Christian missionaries as a cultural war on Hinduism, and both the Sangh and the Left are critical of the role of the “foreign hand” and “foreign money” in India. Suspicions are fuelled by the seemingly undue interest taken by predominantly Christian western countries in the central government’s assertion of control over the flow of funds to Church-linked NGOs.