Church Joins National Protests Against India’s New Citizenship Law

Critics say the law, which denies the opportunity for citizenship to Muslim refugees, is a threat to India’s secular democracy.

Protesters of the Citizenship Amendment Act include Catholic nuns and Jesuit priests  in Delhi's Shaheen Bagh, where day-and-night protesting has been ongoing since December. The Catholics joined the effort on Jan. 19. Sister Anasthasia Gill is shown speaking.
Protesters of the Citizenship Amendment Act include Catholic nuns and Jesuit priests in Delhi's Shaheen Bagh, where day-and-night protesting has been ongoing since December. The Catholics joined the effort on Jan. 19. Sister Anasthasia Gill is shown speaking. (photo: Provided to the Register from the office of Delhi Minorities Commission member Presentation Sister Anasthasia Gill)

NEW DELHI — The Catholic Church has joined in the widespread civic protests against new legislation that, according to critics, strikes at the root of the harmony and equality of religions that is a hallmark of secular Indian democracy.

Hundreds of parishes in Goa in the west of India, Kerala in the south and Kolkata in the east Jan. 26 joined protesters who have been publicly reciting the Preamble of the Constitution of India, which affirms “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.”

The unprecedented protests began in Indian universities in early December, when India’s BJP government, which is known for pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda, used its numerical strength in the Indian Parliament to enact the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The legislation is widely seen as an assault on the constitutional guarantee against discrimination based on religion, as it singles out Muslim refugees, excluding them from citizenship even if they faced persecution in neighboring Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

“Religion should never be a criterion for citizenship of a country,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), said in a Dec. 28 statement.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church also joined in protesting publicly against the discriminatory legislation.

“The government has to convince the people that it is enforcing secularism and equality before law [to all religions],” said a statement from the worldwide synod of the 64 bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, which is based in the Kerala city of Kochi, during its Jan. 7-15 assembly.

“Attempts to separate refugees of some [Muslim] religious background and to dump them in permanent detention camps should be avoided,” the statement added.


Protesters Punished

As the protests spread across the nation, despite police crackdowns on the protesters in BJP-ruled states, Cardinal Gracias cautioned that the legislation could lead to “a polarization of our peoples along religious lines, which is very harmful for the country.”

In fact, this fear seemed to be confirmed when Dilip Ghosh, the BJP president of West Bengal state in eastern India, boasted that anti-CAA protesters were “shot like dogs" in BJP-ruled states. In fact, BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh has reported most of the two dozen deaths of protesters who have died from gunshot wounds.

Social media are replete with images of  police firing with handguns and setting fire to public buses themselves, in order to blame allegedly “violent” protesters in Delhi, seizing blankets for those protesting in open air overnight in Uttar Pradesh, and ransacking hospital rooms looking for protesters in Mangalore in southern Karnataka state (also ruled by the BJP), where two people have been killed in incidents of police firing.

A month after the CBCI’s categorical denouncement of the legislation, more than 1,600 Catholic parishes within the 12 Latin Rite dioceses in Kerala observed Jan. 26, India’s 71st Republic Day, as Constitution Protection Day.

“After Mass on Jan. 26, the Preamble of the Constitution must be read to the faithful and an Oath to protect the Constitution should be taken,” stated a pastoral letter read out loud in Kerala’s Latin Rite parishes.

“When the constitutionally appointed authorities act against the Constitution, it is the duty of the citizen to say ‘Don’t,’” instructed the pastoral letter.

On Jan. 20, nearly 8,000 Christians, including dozens of Catholic priests and nuns, took part in a march for “unity, amity and communal harmony” in Kolkata to protest alongside other representatives of India’s mosaic of diverse religions.

“Buddhist monks, Hindu monks, Sikh priests and Muslims — all joined us in this protest,” Father Rodney Borneo of the Kolkata Archdiocese told the Register Jan. 21. “It is time for all of us to stand up so that the future generations will be able to enjoy the freedoms we have enjoyed.”


Political Developments

In a major political development, the western state of Maharashtra on Jan. 21 mandated recital of the Preamble in school assemblies starting Jan. 26 as part of its campaign for “sovereignty of constitution and welfare of all.”

Maharashtra, with Mumbai as its capital, is presently ruled by a coalition government led by Shiv Sena, a longtime BJP ally who broke that alliance and joined with the opposition Congress Party and other political partners to form a new government at the end of November.

The ongoing protests also got a big boost when several non-BJP ruled states endorsed the declaration by the Kerala state government, led by communists, that it will not implement the CAA there.

The scope of the protests can be gauged from the fact Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to cancel his visit to inaugurate national games in the BJP-ruled Assam state in the northeast. Assam had been simmering with protests for months since the state’s National Register of Citizens was published at the end of August, declaring more than 1.9 million of its 33 million people as non-citizens.

“Despite all the protests, the BJP government seems to be adamant on its Hindu fascist agenda,” Catholic activist John Dayal told the Register from New Delhi Jan. 20. “That is explicit in the brazen way they are trying to chuck out anything that [represents] Christianity or Islam,” added Dayal.

For example, the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the widespread international coverage of them, he said, has not deterred India’s ruling Hindu nationalists from dropping the popular Christian hymn Abide With Me from the list of music for this year’s “Beating the Retreat” ceremony that brings the Republic Day ceremonies to a close Jan. 29.

Media reports noted that Indian military bands have been regularly playing the popular Christian hymn, which is said to have been a favorite of the father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi, since 1950.

“First, they polarized the police; and, now, even defense forces are also being made to toe their orders. This is sad for the nation,” Dayal said.

And even as Christians continue to be prominent in the ongoing anti-CCA protests in the southern city of Bangalore, the ruling BJP government there halted work on the construction of a 30-meter-high Christ statue, the second tallest in the world, by the Archdiocese of Bangalore. 

The government order followed an ultimatum by local Hindu nationalist activist groups, which have challenged the archdiocese’s ownership of a 10-acre plot on the Kapalabetta hilltop in Ramanagara district, 25 miles from Bangalore, where work started on the statue last month.

“We want the government to come out with its report on the land ownership and the statue,” an official of the archdiocese told the Register. “Then we will respond.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.