Church Cautious as India Heads for National Elections

In a pre-election pastoral letter, the Indian bishops refrained from direct criticism of the nation’s ruling Hindu nationalist government.

Following a series of attacks in 2015 on Church-affiliated sites, India's bishops, who attended a national assembly in Bangalore, led by Oswald Gracias (middle), marched in protest.
Following a series of attacks in 2015 on Church-affiliated sites, India's bishops, who attended a national assembly in Bangalore, led by Oswald Gracias (middle), marched in protest. (photo: Anto Akkara)

NEW DELHI — Amid pollsters forecasting an edge for the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to retain power in India’s forthcoming 17th national election, the Church is treading a cautious approach.

The pastoral letter that Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the president of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), issued in mid-March for the election contains no mention of the widespread criticism of actions and rhetoric undertaken against religious minorities during the five-year tenure of the BJP regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While calling for electing leaders who “listen to the people, understand their anxieties, their needs and aspirations," the pastoral letter stresses the duty of voters to exercise their franchise in the April 11-May 19 polling, which takes place in seven phases.

Despite the overriding caution in his pastoral letter, Cardinal Gracias is “hopeful” that voters will express their concerns through the protracted polls — the result of which will be announced with the counting scheduled for May 23.

“We do have many concerns, but we have to be very cautious in the delicate political situation,” Cardinal Gracias, one of the members of Pope Francis’ “council of cardinals,” told the Register March 25 in a telephone interview from the U.S., where he was attending meetings. “Any critical statement could be used to polarize the [Hindu] voters.”

In fact, the pastoral letter, with its stand on the election, in which more than 900 million people are eligible to vote, provides little opportunity for the vociferous Hindu nationalist media to demonize the Christian community. The letter will be translated into more than a dozen languages and read in churches across the country in coming weeks.

It makes no mention of how the BJP regime has attracted criticism for ignoring regular assaults on minorities and on critics of its policies, which has generating unprecedented intolerance and insecurity over the last five years, according to observers.

Besides physical and verbal assaults, the Christian community was aggrieved over several policy steps that reinforced the government’s pro-Hindu agenda, including blatant bids to turn Christmas and Good Friday (public holidays) into “working days.”

The pastoral letter remains extremely cautious about such matters, citing “several areas of concerns,” including social and economic issues, and lamenting that “God is being slowly pushed to the periphery,” but without mentioning directly how religious minorities are being marginalized.


Recent Examples

Last year, the Hindu nationalist dominated-media reacted with hostility after Archbishop Anil Coutto of Delhi issued a “prayer for the nation.” Prominent news channels known for promoting the Hindu nationalist agenda subsequently branded the Church as “unpatriotic” and “anti-national” in unbalanced prime-time debates.

And in an earlier incident, Prime Minister Modi had castigated Archbishop Thomas Macwan of Gandhi Nagar, the capital of the state of Gujarat, after he issued a “prayer” ahead of the December 2017 election in Modi’s home state where the BJP has been in power for nearly two decades.

Despite his caution about speaking out directly regarding such attacks on the Church, Cardinal Gracias minced no words in characterizing the Modi regime as “pro-business and anti-poor.”

“We need leaders in India who … work for an economy that seeks specially to help the poor and underprivileged, protecting their dignity,” Cardinal Gracias stated in the pastoral letter.

This concern about the tilt of the Modi government’s economic policies was buttressed five days after the pastoral letter’s release, when the United Nations published its annual “Happiness Index” March 20. Maintaining a downward trend, India slipped to the 140th position, seven spots down from last year, in this year’s ranking of 156 countries, according to the index.

A month earlier, the Modi government — which swept into office on the campaign slogan achhe din aane waale hain (“good days are coming”) and its promise of creating 20 million additional jobs each year — was embarrassed when the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) reported the unemployment rate stood at a 45-year-high of 6.1% in 2017-18. The unemployment rate was higher in urban areas, at 7.8%, compared to 5.3% in rural areas of the country.


‘Growing Polarization’

The All India Catholic Union, a national lay forum approved by the CBCI, has been more vocal than the CBCI’s pastoral letter in decrying the Hindu nationalist regime’s religious biases.

The AICU convention, held March 24 at Varanasi in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, deplored the “growing polarization” there ahead of the election against Christians and Muslim minorities in the state, which is India’s most populous with more than 240 million residents.

“Uttar Pradesh had, in the brief period between September and December 2018, seen as many as 109 cases of violence against Christian pastors, small house churches, and women and men faithful at worship in small towns and villages,” the AICU said in a statement. Further, the statement noted, “This was the highest in the country. More than 40 cases had taken place in Jaunpur [district] alone. In the first months of 2019, the region recorded 15 more cases.”

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in the southern state of Kerala — India’s most significant Christian region — released a statement March 26 urging voters to cast their franchise to uphold “secularism” — an indirect criticism of the Hindu nationalism espoused by the BJP.

While reiterating that the local Church “wishes to make it clear that they will not support any political front or political party or any candidate,” Archbishop Soosa Pakiam, president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), stated that “the KCBC will be with those who protect democracy and secularism and who will work for the uplift of the country."


Maundy Thursday Voting

Additionally, the Church has objected to the timing of the election April 18, Maundy Thursday, in several states. The CBCI wrote to the Election Commission of India over the clashing of Holy Thursday with the April 18 election date in the states of Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

While Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, who heads the Catholic Church in the southern state of Karnataka, was the first one to raise the protest, Archbishop Antony Pappusamy, who heads the Tami Nadu Catholic Bishops Council, petitioned his state’s High Court to order the rescheduling of the polls slated for Maundy Thursday.

However, the Church protest has had little impact, with the Election Commission refusing to alter the dates as requested.

Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.