PATNA, India — Christians have joined the broad spectrum of secular opposition groups in hailing the electoral drubbing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the key Bihar state in eastern India.
“This victory is for the development and secularism of the country,” Archbishop William D’Souza of Patna, capital of Bihar state, told the Register Nov. 17, reacting to the reverse suffered by the BJP, who control India’s federal government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The BJP won only 53 of 243 seats in Bihar’s legislature when the votes of staggered polls were counted on Nov. 8. Contrary to many exit polls that predicted a BJP victory, the state’s secular ruling coalition of Janata Dal United (United People’s Party) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (National People’s Party) romped home winning 178 seats.
The rout of the BJP occurred despite Prime Minister Modi personally addressing 30 rallies in the election campaign.
National and international newspapers both featured editorials interpreting the defeat of the BJP in the Bihar elections as a rejection of the growing intolerance under the BJP’s rule and of the bid by Hindu nationalists to polarize the nation along religious lines.
The Hindu, one of India’s major national English daily newspapers, in its Nov. 9 editorial, described the BJP’s defeat in Bihar as “a vote against all forms of divisive politics of communal hate and religious intolerance.”
The New York Times was similarly critical. “A Rebuke to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” read the title of the Times’ editorial on the stunning Bihar results.
“The result from Bihar is utter rejection of the intolerant politics of the BJP,” said John Dayal, an outspoken Catholic activist and former president of the All India Catholic Union, in hailing the verdict.
The Bihar result, Dayal said, is “a lesson to Prime Minister Modi to contain the Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] outfits that are breading intolerance” with their Hindu nationalism and their attacks on those who oppose the government’s questionable policies.
“It is a victory for secularism against growing intolerance,” Jesuit Father Prakash Luis, a priest from Bihar, told the Register Nov. 17.
Father Luis, former director of the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, cited several reasons for the BJP defeat.
“Rejection of traditional principles and practices of democracy, secularism and social values; the attempt to tinker with the secular constitution of India and to divide the citizens of this country on religious backgrounds for electoral politics; the fear created in the minds of religious, linguistic, regional minorities; growing denial and silence of those in power; taking the voters for a ride — all these led to disenchantment with the political party which rode to power with a thumping majority a year ago,” Father Luis commented.
Prior to the result, Father Luis, along with other prominent Christian leaders, had circulated a statement — endorsed by more than 300 Christian leaders, ranging from Catholic bishops to retired police officials — expressing concern over growing “intolerance” by Hindu nationalists that has occurred since the BJP government led by Modi took power.
“We stand in solidarity with all those from various walks of life, faiths, traditions, backgrounds, cultures, communities, professions and orientations who have raised voice against the growing intolerance,” the appeal stated.
The unprecedented Christian appeal came in the wake of other expressions of nationwide opposition. Dozens of eminent authors, artists, historians and scientists had returned their national awards to the government in recent weeks to protest the intolerance and government silence on it.
The climate of intolerance, including attacks on critics of the BJP and Hindu nationalists, continued with the killing of M.M. Kalburgi, a rationalist Hindu scholar, at the end of August. That was followed in September by the lynching of a Muslim on rumors that his family ate beef, after an announcement was made from the local Hindu temple.
Manohar Lal Khattar, BJP chief minister of Haryana state, which borders Delhi, stunned the nation by asking beef eaters to go to predominantly Muslim Pakistan, while the BJP even took out advertisements in Bihar newspapers to support cow veneration, demonizing beef eaters in the process. Cows are regarded as sacred animals by the Hindu religion.
Sartaj Akhlaq, the eldest son of Mohammad Akhlaq, who was lynched by the Hindu mob in September at Dadri, near New Delhi, after the rumor of beef-eating, praised the Bihar election outcome as “a tribute to my father.”
The latest important figure to denounce the growing religious intolerance was the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
“A majority of Hindus believe in religious harmony,” said the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist who advocates harmony among all religions, commenting Nov. 14 on the Bihar election results during a convocation of university students in northern Punjab state.
Asserting that India’s social fabric was “unique,” Dalai Lama said that India is a “truly secular country” where all religions are respected. However, he added that “a few mischievous elements” try to create problems.
New Charge Against the Catholic Church
Meanwhile, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-National Volunteer Corps), the Hindu nationalist movement that has the BJP as its political wing, leveled a new charge against the Catholic Church, in a report leaked by The Hindu on Nov. 14.
The strong reaction of the Church to attacks on half a dozen churches in Delhi beginning in December 2014 — which Catholics and other Christian groups asserted were conducted by Hindu nationalists — was “motivated” by the impending elections in Delhi in February 2015, the RSS has alleged. The BJP was routed in those state elections in Delhi, winning just three of the 70 seats to the Delhi assembly, despite sweeping all seven parliamentary seats in the national capital nine months earlier.
The RSS’ think tank, the India Policy Foundation (IPF), accused the Catholic Church of a “premeditated reaction” to the attacks “as a chain of events close to Delhi Assembly polls.”
Catholic activist Dayal counters that the Delhi police, who are under the control of the federal BJP government, have been trying inaccurately to represent the attacks on Delhi churches as the work of “petty criminals.”
“We reject this police theory that’s patently at the behest of the BJP and Sangh Parivar [Hindu fundamentalists] to deflect attention from the role any of these organizations may have played,” said Dayal. “This violence is the physical manifestation of a deep and large-scale campaign of hate and malice against the Muslim and Christian communities.”
Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.