The recent church controversy recalled Henry II’s exasperated outburst against his archbishop of Canterbury’s political machinations:”Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The gentle archbishop of Delhi has recently been in the eye of a storm provoked by his letter to all parish priests in the Capital exhorting them to start a prayer campaign for the country and political leaders ahead of the 2019 elections. The prayer pleads for “all castes and creeds, all denominations and persuasions to live in harmony and peace far away from hatred and violence”. This is an unexceptionable invocation that the country would hope is answered.
What has raised hackles is his allusion to “the turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation”. Union Minister Giriraj Singh, the poster boy of militant Hindutva, accused the archbishop of nothing short of sedition for “trying to create a situation of civil war in the country” and for attempting “to break the country into pieces.” The only reasoned response was expectedly that of our home minister who stated that “India is a country where there is no discrimination against anyone based on caste, sect or religion. Such a thing cannot be allowed.”
How do we negotiate the boundaries between religion and the state? What are the restrictions on religious leaders expounding on affairs of the state? These are some of the issues that the letter has thrown up.
KJ Alphons, the Christian minister in the Union Cabinet, raised the age-old debate about the role of religious leaders and religion in politics when he stated that “‘godmen’ should stay away from politics”. Considering that in the last two months politicians of all hues have been genuflecting before religious leaders seeking their support, the minister’s squeamishness smacks of hypocrisy. May I remind him that Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees every citizen, including “godmen”, freedom of speech and expression. This freedom is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interests of “public order, decency or morality or in relation to… defamation or incitement to violence”.
The archbishop’s appeal did not infringe any of the restrictions mentioned in Article 19. Further, he was addressing the Catholics in his diocese, exercising a fundamental right that cannot be denied to him. Contrast the archbishop’s benign statement and our over-the-top reaction with what Pope Francis told the the US Congress in 2015: “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict pain and untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer is simply for money, money drenched in blood… ” Here was the ultimate “godman” launching a scathing assault on the US. However, no American questioned this foreign cleric’s right to do so.
It is jejune to believe that religious leaders should not weigh in on political matters, especially when people have more faith in them than in politicians. Gandhiji believed that religion was a personal concern and “the state has nothing to do with it”. But at the same time, the values of his religion inspired his life and his politics.
In distancing himself from the letter of the archbishop of Delhi, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference and head of Catholics in India, has jumped into the fray only to prevaricate like a politician. He has obfuscated the truth of minority angst by drawing a dubious distinction between fear and anxiety, hesitantly talked of polarisation and announced that only what he approves of should be said. Clearly, religious denominations are much more authoritarian than their secular brethren. The reality is that the right-wing bully boys have created a toxic environment of fear and violence that is deeply troubling the Muslims and Christians. Rather than cavil at the impertinence of a cleric raising the concerns of minorities, we should address this grievous faultline in our society that threatens us all.