The BJP enjoyed a spectacular maiden victory in Assam in April 2016 Assembly elections. The Saffron party and its allies, the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) and Boro Peoples’ Front (BPF) won 86 out of 126 seats dethroning the 15 year old regime of the Congress. The Amit Shah led national party alone won 60 seats. Buoyed by the stunning results in the gateway to the rest of the North East, talks of polls and its outcome (in BJP’s favour) started in earnest in poll bound Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura after the Assam adventure.
Among other reasons, political observers say the BJP exploited the illegal immigrants and porous border Issues. In its vision document 2016-2025 that was released a month before the polls, the party promised to ‘deal sternly’ with foreign nationals and to fence off the 4,000km long border with Bangladesh within the time frame. It was made to appear the minority is a threat to the very existence of the state that was home to the 13th to 19th century Ahom Kingdom. This made the majority to vote o verwhelmingly for the perceived communal party.
The BJP’s determination to capture power in Meghalaya was and is apparent. It’s objective is to add to its tally of 29 states under its rule and to fulfill its malicious dream of ‘Congress mukt’. However, in the ‘Abode of Clouds’ the situation is entirely different. The hill state is 83 per cent Christians. The BJP made attempts to forge a pre-poll alliance with the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Nationalist People’s Party (NPP). Fearing repercussions for aligning with ‘an anti-Christian’ party the regional parties refused any declared partnership with the NDA’s leaders. The BJP has to go it alone and has to get the favour of the predominant Christian population for any hope of ruling the state.
On 7th January, Union Tourism Minister KJ Alphons announced a ₹70 crore financial package to 37 churches and 11 other religious sites including temples, a mosque, a Gurudwara and sacred indigenous places in Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills. The minister claimed the fund is to develop religious establishments in the state under the Swadesh Darshan Scheme to promote ‘spiritual tourism’. The package would include illumination, landscaping and construction of parking lots and toilets and other facilities in church and religious campuses.
The move was widely seen as a direct link to the State Legislative Assembly election. It was to woo the 2.5 million Christians of the state towards the BJP. Christians are a majority in all the 11 districts of the state. The ruling party at the centre thought the electorate would be enticed by the substantial buck and would help it make history by voting it to power for the first time in the Christian dominated state. Citizens of the state had viewed with concern the insecurity of Christians in many parts of the country, the growing intolerance of fringed elements, lynching over beef, the arrest of priests and seminarians for singing Christmas carols in MP, the declaration of Good Government Day on Christmas day and Digital Day on Good Friday, the rise of Hindutva agenda and Hindu nationalism, the beef ban, etc. Therefore, the right wing party attempted to appease Christians through the tourism package.
The offer of the centre has backfired though. Two influential churches in Shillong have rejected the grant. The Mawkhar Presbyterian church first made it clear that it is not a party to the package. Then the leaders of the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians clarified that expenses for the works of the on-going face-lift of the Cathedral come from generous contributions of the faithful and not from any government source.
It is surprising that stance of the church came only in late January. One would have expected the leaders of these churches and others to categorically reject the offer immediately after it was announced. Even ordinary citizens could clearly read the motives behind the grant for a ‘noble’ cause.
If not for votes, especially from the Christian community, why did the central tourism ministry choose to allot fund for religious sites? Why not for neutral tourist destinations? The roads to different tourist destinations in the state like the highest rainfall holder, Sohra (Cherapunjee), the unique and the picturesque Mawthadraishan Peak, the National Park of Balpakram and Mawsynram that competes with Sohra for highest rainfall, are all in bad shape. So why politicize places of worship by the ₹70 crore package?
KJ Alphons’ appointment as central minister can be also seen as an attempt by the BJP government not to be seen as an anti-minority party. The former IAS officer of the 1979 batch, was sworn in as Union Minster of State for Electronics and information Technology, Culture and Tourism in September 2017 by the Modi government though he was not an MP, ignoring other more prominent BJP members from Kerala, thus angering them. In view of the 2018 Meghalaya election, the Shillong graduate and ex-seminarian was appointed BJP in-charge of election in the Christian majority State, just four days into his chair. The pro-Hindu party probably wanted to repair the damage caused by the beef ban that rocked the country and particularly the state that takes pride in setting beef as its menu. The party had to publicly declare that beef consumption is allowed in the state. But who are they to permit a food that has been consumed in this part of the country from time immemorial?
The minister who pioneered literacy movements and made Kottayam the first 100% literate town of India in 1989 that earned him a cover story in the Time Magazine’s 100 Young Global Leaders in 1994 wasted no time in impressing the central leadership by visiting the poll bound state immediately after being tasked with the additional responsibility of overseeing the February 27 election. He met many willing church leaders in Shillong and Tura, many of whom are his old pals. The rapport with them would create a positive impact among their faithful, it was imagined. The nick-name Demolition Man while Commissioner of the Delhi Development Authority, for demolishing illegal buildings, was commissioned to erase the well-grounded tag of the BJP as a communal party.
Ignoring anti-minorities activities and insane utterance by elements connected with and in the current regime, the BJP’s poster boy, several times, allayed apprehensions of insecurity of Christians under Narendra Modi as he claimed that no church was burned and Christians beaten to death since 2014. The goodness of the BJP government is, therefore, a package under the camouflage of tourism to artfully back up the “development” mantra of the central government. Thankfully the hidden design is belatedly seen by two religious institutions. It is hoped the other recipients will follow suit before the poll day.
Meghalaya is not for saffronization. Hindutva is not meant for Meghalaya. Meghalaya cannot accept policies of right-wing nationalists who seek to glorify only ancient Hindu culture and history. It is quite certain the Meghalaya electorate will keep saffronization, Hindutva, the RSS and communal forces at bay. It is imperative the churches are not painted saffron.
(The writer works at the Don Bosco Higher Secondary School, Tura, in West Garo Hills, Meghalaya.)(Published on 26th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 09)