Tuesday 21 May 2024

Tea party tremors -- A story not over?

Christians have been feeling the pressure for some time now, thanks to open biases, majoritarian politics and unprecedented violence in Manipur

Fredrick Noronha | JANUARY 30, 2024, 12:20 AM IST

The other day, an invite popped into my inbox.  It was a forward of a forward, so one was not really sure whom it was meant for. It read: “Greetings from Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace. We are inviting you for an online dialogue on ‘The Prime Minister’s Christmas Party’.”

It was already way past starting time for the event, and in such events, one never knows what one has missed. Anyway, after making one’s way there via cyberspace, it turned out to be a discussion about the event where top Church leaders had been invited by the Prime Minister, no less, for a Christmas party.

To our mind, which has grown up in mostly pluralistic, secular times, it has always seemed odd when religion and politics somehow mix. This seems true even when religious leaders attend political swearings-in. However, in an election year when psyche and counter-psyche matter more than anything else, the Prime Minister had called top leaders of Christian groups, and business houses too, to an event with him.

It didn’t stop there. A carefully curated video showing prominent Christian (including Catholic) leaders praising the Prime Minister was soon doing the rounds. Considering from where this came from, it was not hard to say that quarters close to the BJP were circulating this. Obviously, seeing it as convenient propaganda material.

In the video (another copy of which reached me just yesterday through my own school alumni network), there are choir-singers including some from the North East (via Fr Agnel’s School).  Modi’s saffron is seen in close quarters to the red of the Church hierarchy.

Prominent Church leaders have extremely good things to say about Modi in the edited video of selective quotes. Oswald Cardinal Gracias believes that the Prime Minister’s doings could make a “big difference to our country” and make it maybe the leading country in the world.  In his speech, Gracias thanked Modi for all he was doing “for the country, for the community and all over the world”. Archbishop Anil Couto, also of Goan (Aldona) origin, is all praise for Modi’s “wonderful vision” and “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (with everyone, for everyone’s progress). The PM is acknowledged for the recognition he is getting from “leaders of the world”.

“The benchmark is constantly being pegged higher,” says John Verghese, Principal of the prestigious St Stephen’s College in Delhi. “That is amazing...for all of India. If India wins, the world wins.”

“I’ve seen he (PM Modi) play a very, very pivotal role,” says George M George, the Deputy MD of the Muthoot group, India’s largest gold loan NBFC (non-banking financial company). “All communities are happy to see (the changes that have happened).”

Lot of other praises came like heavy rainfall -- for Modi’s simplicity, hard work, friendly nature, being “not a normal person”, building a very very very good image of India all over the world, and so on.  His magnanimous leadership too.

Not to be outdone, even the Second Secretary of the Embassy of The Holy See Vatican Kevin J Kimtis joins in singing praise for the “man dedicated to Indians, that makes all Indians feel they are Indians, and all feel they are being served by the government.” Other religious leaders noted that this was the first time a Prime Minister had “called” the Christian community on this festival occasion.

All this would have been fine. Except that few in India are used to (i) politicians going out of their way, so openly, to get the approval of religious leaders, (ii) religious leaders fawning over politicians so unanimously (or at least the video being circulated makes it seem that way) and (iii) the context of religious infighting and conflict seen within the country in recent times has touched an all time high, and everyone present at the tea party acted as if they had not noticed anything.

For his part, Modi was seen tapping to the tune of some of the carols. News reports said he went on to “lauding their [the christian community’s] contribution to the freedom movement and continuing efforts in providing social service, education and health.” (Economic Times, Dec 25)

Of course, this is not news. But the timing is.

With elections around the corner, who would not like to garner a few more votes? Christians have been feeling the pressure for some time now, thanks to majoritarian politics, more open biases, and also unprecedented violence in places like Manipur.

As expected not everyone took kindly to this development.

Some genuinely believe that the Church and State should stay away from each other, at arm’s length. Others suggest that while communities can lobby for their own rights, they should not be falling over the politicians in power and pretend as if they are the best rulers ever -- despite all the problems that are all so visible and palpable. Yet others might genuinely have grown up as supporters of another political party (such as the Big Tent, accept-all Congress; or even the AAP, etc) and feel that the Church leadership giving a go-ahead green signal message to Modi is not quite the right thing.

As could be expected, the developments were not taken too kindly by the flock. Christians, especially Catholics, are known to generally follow their religious leadership. Often unquestioningly.

But, there is a dilemma here.

The community is also educated enough and articulate enough to think for itself. While the overall promotion of religiosity in politics is helping a few leaders get a unchallenged sway over wider communities, this arrangement is likely to break down sooner or later.

In the Christian case, it seems to have come sooner.

A set of outspoken and articulate priests and nuns challenged their leadership, and the stand the latter had taken vis a vis the ruling party.  How we interpret this, depends on our own politics and understanding of the issue.

But it is important to have alternate voices challenging the dominant narratives that come up from the religious hierarchies. After all, this is about politics (which affects everyone) and not religion. The ‘Not in My Name’ campaign which surfaced online was also another challenge to the Church hierarchy and the stand it was taking.

With amazing clarity, the priests and nuns disagreeing with the hierarchy laid out reasons on why issues facing both Christians and the country as a whole cannot be swept under the carpet.

The Christian community has enough articulate and thoughtful leaders to take a rational stance over their own long-term interest. Not just as a community, but as a small but vital part of the most populous country nationwide.

The jury is still out on which view or perspective pushes through. It is still not clear whether the Hierarchy’s “velvet glove” approach could get in better, and long-lasting results, as compared to the “iron fist” from the less dominant religious leaders who are pointing out to very real concerns.  Whatever the end results, there can be no one perspective on such critical issues.  Ultimate, as we like to believe, we hope it turns to satyameva jayate (truth alone triumphs).

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