This refers to the editorial, ‘Reading the letter’ (IE, May 25). It describes “the agitation in certain quarters of the government at the Centre and among BJP leaders over a letter by Delhi’s Archbishop Anil Couto” as “a case of overreaction”. But the letter, which suggests that the Catholic Church hold a year-long prayer campaign to save India from the “turbulent political atmosphere,” threatening the “democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution”, has meaning beyond its immediate context. It would be wrong to consider it an innocent spiritual act to strengthen India’s secular democracy. The letter is an institutional appeal by one of the most organised religious organisations in the world. The tragedy of pseudo-secular discourse in India is its conscious failure to distinguish between the Christian masses and organised missions.
The agenda of the missionaries was expressed in the 1901 Bengal Census report: “The great centre of Roman Catholic Missionary Enterprise in this province is the district of Ranchi where its converts exceed 54,000 or about three-fifths of the total number of the province.” In 1911, E A Gait, India’s Census Commissioner, reported the countrywide success of missionaries: “The steady drain from the Hinduism is causing demographic erosion of the Hindus.”
The objective of missionaries remained unchanged after Independence. During the Constituent Assembly debates, H C Mukherjee, the assembly’s vice chairman, a practising Christian, considered the concepts of majority and minority inimical to democracy and secularism. This shows the gap between the missionaries and Christian masses. The pseudo-secular forces assume both to be the same. This was evident in their endorsement of the Archbishop’s letter.
The obsession with anti-RSSism has meant that no attention has been given to the most pertinent point: Does the Archbishop have legitimate reasons to meddle with India’s domestic politics? He is directly appointed by the Pope, the head of the sovereign state of Vatican, and can be removed by no one other than the pontiff. The Archbishop is expected to push the Vatican’s agenda. His letter is a smear campaign against Hindutva in general and the Narendra Modi government in particular. It would be naïve to say that he has the constitutional right to express his feelings.
His office influences the opinion of people all over the world. In 2015, incidents of alleged attacks on churches — later proved to be unmotivated, silly incidents — got space in the international media including The New York Times and The Guardian. The Archbishop’s recent letter is the resurrection of an unfinished campaign to make Europe believe that the Modi regime is responsible for the erosion of secularism and democracy.
But this has not happened for the first time. On at least three occasions in independent India, the Catholic mission exerted psychological pressure on the political system by using its international links. In the 1950s, the Madhya Pradesh government initiated a campaign to spread education in tribal areas under the Backward Area Welfare Scheme The missionaries interpreted this as an attack on minority rights. They were perturbed to find their monopoly on education in tribal areas being challenged. One Catholic priest wrote to the international community: “We need help very much, as we are so deep in debt and have to face worse times with a new government (the Congress government) so much against the Christians… They are starting 40 new schools for the backward Adivasis in a village where we possess a school since 1930… But we are ready for them. Today, my men are gone there to attend a big panchayat to draw up a protest and get all the pagans to refuse withdrawing their children from us.”
The Congress government constituted the Niyogi Commission to probe the matter. Its report, submitted in 1956, revealed that the objective of missionaries was conversion by manipulating young minds. “Roman Catholics support the Congress government because they are anti-communist. There seems to be an unholy alliance between Roman Catholics and American money to save India from communism”, the report stated.
The second occasion was the church’s confrontation with Kerala’s first communist government, led by E M S Namboodiripad in 1958. The state’s education policy was derided as an attack on minority rights. An aggressive protest was launched, and its echo heard in Europe and the US. The current generation of communists forgets how its predecessors described the Catholic mission then. Their senior ideologue, B T Ranadive, described the Catholics as “the agency of world reaction”. The third confrontation occurred in 1978 when the Janata Party held office at the Centre. The introduction of the anti-conversion law in the Lok Sabha led to protests. On all three occasions, the governments in office succumbed to international pressure built up by the Christians.
The Jawaharlal Nehru government dumped the Niyogi Commisison report. The Catholic church has used India’s fractured domestic politics to strengthen its voice. In Kerala, the Congress was its ally against the communist government. In 1978, forces that wanted to weaken the Janata government supported the Catholic demands.
There has never been an honest effort to understand minority rights and their implications on India’s tradition of secularism. The narrative of victimhood has been invoked to quell a genuine debate on secularism. One has to ponder whether Jews or Parsis have ever felt threatened in a Hindu majority country. The archbishop’s letter is an opportunity to re-examine the various positions on secularism.