India's Elections Give New Hope To Christians

NEW DELHI, India — In a desperate bid to woo back alienated religious minorities to its fold, the government of the Tamil Nadu state in southern India declared May 18 that it will scrap the controversial anti-conversion law that had been enacted two years ago despite strong protests led by the Church.

This change of heart by the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam Party follows the drubbing the party — an ally of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that governed India until its defeat in the national election — received in the elections.

The two parties' alliance lost all of the state's 39 seats in the national Parliament, with the Christians and other minorities who comprise more than 10% of the state population rallying behind the opposition alliance led by the Congress Party.

“The government has learned a lesson,” Auxiliary Bishop Lawrence Pius Dorairaj of Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, told the Register. “This is a victory for us and others who had been continuously protesting this in various ways.”

In fact, there is widespread joy and relief across India among Christians regarding the dramatic downfall of the coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won only 187 seats in the election to choose India's 14th national Parliament, compared with the 302 seats it held in the 545-member Indian Parliament after the 1999 election.

The opposition Congress Party, along with its allies in smaller parties, won 219 seats and the communists, with 63 seats, extended their support for the Congress Party by giving it a mandate to head the next government.

Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, was sworn in May 22 as India's first non-Hindu prime minister after Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born Catholic, decided not to seek the office.

Welcoming “the verdict given by the people of India,” the Indian bishops' conference expressed hope that the outcome “will herald a new era of social harmony, peace and economic justice.”

Indeed, the Catholic Church in India, along with other Christians and the larger, 130-million-strong Muslim minority, have much to rejoice over in the downfall of the National Democratic Alliance government.

During the last five years, the minuscule Christian community, which accounts for only 2.3% of India's 1 billion people, has been at the receiving end of hundreds of orchestrated attacks by Hindus while the ruling alliance often turned a blind eye to the attacks.

In the run-up to the election, India's bishops and other Christian groups had issued “voter guidelines” asking the Christian electorate to vote for secular political parties committed to communal harmony. Catholic groups such as diocesan councils contacted voters throughout parishes, stressing the critical importance of voting.

The election results demonstrated such efforts had paid dividends, especially in Christian pockets such as Jharkhand. There, the Bharatiya Janata Party won only a single parliamentary seat, compared with 11 seats in the last Parliament.

“This is a massive defeat for the fascist and Hindu fundamentalist forces,” said Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, spokesman for the United Christian Forum of troubled Gujarat state. In the state, which has been a flashpoint for violence against minorities, the Bharatiya Janata Party lost substantial ground to the Congress Party, which won 12 of 26 parliamentary seats, compared with only four in the 1999 elections.

The people of Gujarat, Father Prakash said, are “getting disen-chanted with the Hindu fundamentalists” who have carried out a violent campaign against the state's minorities under Bharatiya Janata Party rule.

In the neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, which had elections for the state legislature at the same time as the federal parliamentary elections, the ruling Telugu Desam Party, a crucial ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, also got a drubbing. The Congress Party and its allies swept 36 of the 42 parliamentary seats, and it also won 226 of the 294 seats to the state legislature.

The 3.5 million Christians in the state, which has a population of 80 million, were even more ecstatic when a Protestant, Yeduguri Samuel Rajasekhara Reddy, was chosen unanimously by the victorious Congress Party to head the new state government.

Archbishop Marampudi Joji of Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, hailed the outcome. The archbishop said many Catholics have booked thanksgiving Masses following the elevation of Reddy, who he said has “excellent rapport with the Church” and has even donated a university college owned by his family to the Jesuits.

“Our joy,” Archbishop Joji said, “is overwhelming.”

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.