With his remarks that India is “witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere” and the community should begin a “prayer campaign” ahead of the 2019 general elections triggering a controversy, Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto said on Tuesday that his comments were not aimed at the BJP-led government.
Criticising Couto, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said there was “no discrimination against anyone”, while BJP president Amit Shah said “polarising people in the name of religion” was “not appropriate”. Meanwhile, opposition leaders like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury supported Couto.
In a letter dated May 8, titled ‘prayer for our nation’, which was sent to parish churches, Couto 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. It is our hallowed practice to pray for our country and its political leaders all the time, but all the more when we approach the general elections.”
He wrote that as the country “looks forward towards 2019 when we will have a new government”, the community should begin a prayer campaign from May 13. He urged the community “to observe a day of fast every Friday of the week by forgoing at least one meal and offering our penance and all our sacrifices for our spiritual renewal and that of our nation.”
“Let the people of all castes and creeds, all denominations and persuasions live in harmony and peace, steering far away from hatred and violence. Protect our legislators as a place of discerning minds. Keep our print, visual and social media as the channels of truth for edifying discourses. Protect our institutions from the infiltration of the evil forces,” said the text of a prayer sent with the letter.
“May the ethos of true democracy envelop our elections with dignity and the flames of honest patriotism enkindle our political leaders,” it said, as it prayed for the poor, marginalised, Dalits and tribals. “What I said is spend time once a week for our nation, and especially because elections are coming and the government concerns all of us. So it is not in any way pertaining to the government of Narendra Modi,” Couto said on Tuesday.
“I have not seen the statement (of the Archbishop) verbatim but all I can say is that India is a country where there is no discrimination against anyone on the basis of caste, sect or religion. Such a thing cannot be allowed,” said Home Minister Rajnath Singh. “It’s not appropriate if anyone is talking about polarising people in the name of religion,” said BJP chief Amit Shah. On opposition leaders supporting Couto, he said, “It is very obvious that our rivals will support such a statement. If somebody speaks about defeating us, it is natural that they will support him.”
Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said Couto’s statement reflected a “prejudiced mind”, while his colleague K J Alphons said “godmen”should refrain from making political comments. “The prime minister’s commitment to development without discrimination should be seen. As long as you have a prejudiced mind, you cannot look at this progress,” said Naqvi.
Meanwhile, TMC leader and West Bengal CM Minister Banerjee agreed with Couto. “I think whatever he has said was correct. It is a fact,” she said. “We have great regard and respect for all communities, caste and creed. We respect all archbishops in the country,” she added.
Pointing out that Couto was calling people for prayer, Yechury said: “His spokesperson has also said that the call for this annual prayer has always been given. For the minorities in India, the only guarantee they have is the Constitution that promises them equality.” Father Robinson, secretary to Couto, said the letter was sent on May 8 and had already been read out at all the parishes. “This is a two-week old letter. It invited people to pray for the elections, country and all the political leaders. There is nothing wrong in it,” he said.