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Open Letter To Andhra CM

Open Letter To Andhra CM

Dear Shri Jagan Mohan Reddy,

First of all, let me congratulate you for your stunning victory in the May elections. I can imagine how difficult it was for you to overcome the pro-Narendra Modi wave and come to power. Your sustained campaign since your father died in a helicopter crash certainly paid political dividends.

I also know how much you had to suffer at the hands of the Chandrababu Naidu government. You even had to go to jail but you never forsook your fight for what you deemed was right. Generally speaking, people appreciate fighters who do not give up easily. They saw in you a dependable leader who could be trusted with the state administration.

I am tempted to write this letter because some of your recent actions have been quite unbecoming of a responsible Chief Minister. Let me come to the crux of the matter. Your government has decided to give Rs 5,000 per month to pastors for which the government machinery has been put into action to identify the potential beneficiaries.

I have read your government’s clarification that it was a promise you made in your election manifesto. If that is the case, it was a wrong promise that you made. You have also mentioned that the government has been paying some such remuneration to Hindu priests which was increased by 20 per cent. If that indeed is the case, let me mention that two wrongs do not make one right.

Christianity in India is as old as the religion itself. Though the British ruled the country for about 200 years, it did not get any official patronage. In fact, the East India Company did not want any Christian missionaries to come to India. When William Carey and his family arrived in Calcutta in early 19th century, they were not even allowed to set their foot on the Indian soil.

The family was forced to leave for Serampore which was under Dutch control. True, the British built some magnificent churches like the Church of Redemption, near Rashtrapati Bhavan, for their own worship. When they left India in 1947, those churches came under the cantonment boards, as in Delhi and Ambala, and the Church of North India and the Church of South India.

The growth of Pentecostal churches is a new phenomenon. I knew a Pastor from Pathanamthitta in Kerala. He had an elephantine memory. He knew the whole Bible by heart. He was a gifted orator too. Like Carey I mentioned earlier, he was also good at learning languages. Telugu was one language he mastered. Though I do not remember his name, I am sure, you would be able to recall him.

He had such a large following in the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh that when the Telugu Desam had a Speaker in the Lok Sabha, the pastor’s son was made a member of the National Minorities Commission. However, he squandered away the goodwill by getting involved in petty rackets like receiving money for trying to get a Keralite released from a jail in the UAE.

The point I wanted to make is that the church does not need any official patronage. The Sangh Parivar has always been spreading the falsehood that the church has been growing because of influx of foreign money. In other words, they see every neo-convert as a recipient of foreign money.

Once, I went to some villages in Uttarakhand where a pastor was accused of proselytising people. I tried to find out the truth. I also met an RSS worker who said that all those who got converted had suddenly become rich. As a journalist, I wanted to find out the truth.

I met the priest concerned. He lived in the same village. His living standards were modest. He had a two-wheeler to travel and he depended entirely on the support the faithful gave him. Far from receiving foreign money, the local Christians were themselves supporting the pastor to lead a simple life. They gave their tithe to the pastor. How did this explain the sudden wealth of the new converts?

Again, it was very simple. Consumption of liquor is very high in Uttarakhand. Once a person becomes a Christian, he is under tremendous pressure to give up drinking. If a person earns Rs 100 a day and he spends Rs 50 on liquor, his income doubles when he stops drinking. Drinking also causes bad health. Once he gives up drinking, he comes home early, spends quality time with his wife and children.

He uses the money which he spent earlier on liquor to buy better food and clothes for the family. He also sends his children to school. Within a short time they all look prosperous. The jealous neighbours think that they get money from the pastor and that is how they lead a better life. The fact is that they support the pastor, not the other way round.

This is how pastors live in the country. Last year, I attended the Sunday service at a Pentecostal Church in the US. There were a few Indian pastors who were on a visit to the US and attending the service. After the service, they were given two to five minutes to introduce themselves.

I heard them soliciting financial support for construction of a parsonage or a church or a small school as the case may be. It was up to the parishioners to give them support. They would be happy if they are able to raise a thousand dollars. 

Churches of Indians in the US, Europe and the Gulf are fed up of what they call money-seekers from India. Yet, many of them do what they consider as their brotherly duty.

For every charlatan among the pastors who uses public money to lead a posh life or create material assets, there are hundreds who lead a simple life and find happiness in attending to the spiritual needs of their people. They have chosen a vocation, not a career. 

It is not the government’s job to pay them an allowance of Rs 5000. It is the responsibility of the church and its members to support them.

If, as you say, Hindu priests are getting such an allowance from the government, that too is wrong. If the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Board or the Kerala Devaswam Board pays a pension to its retired priests, it cannot be questioned because it is their responsibility to do so. 

For instance, retired priests in the Church to which I belong get a pension of Rs 7,000 per month from the church. They are also entitled to some medical benefits. Please note that the money does not come from government coffers. 

In the case of Islam, it is one religion which does not have the concept of priesthood. Anyone who is senior and knows how to lead in prayer can do so. 

Leading the congregation in prayer does not make him a priest. Having said this, I must also tell you that there are some usurpers as priests in Islam like the ones who control the Jama Masjid in Delhi. Worse, the post is occupied under hereditary principles!

Of course, in states like Kerala, the poor are entitled to old-age pension. If Hindu, Christian and Islamic priests fall under this category, the government can give them a monthly pension but it should also not be denied to an indigent fish worker or car mechanic who has become old and has no income of his own.

Of course, you need not be bothered about the BJP’s criticism because they are past masters in exploiting religion for political purposes. Early this week, Modi was shown fondling a cow and feeding it bananas. Why did he not fondle a buffalo which gives more milk? In fact, more buffalo milk is produced in the country than cow milk. Alas, the buffalo has been reduced to be the official vehicle of Yama, the God of death! However, in many a case, death is a great deliverer!

You have created another controversy with regard to extending  government support for pilgrimages. Many BJP governments have been extending such support. To put it in perspective, there is no compulsion for a Christian to go on pilgrimage. It is not religiously necessary for a Christian to visit Holy Land.

Of course, those who can afford to visit the place would find the trip quite enjoyable. Three years ago, I visited Assisi in Italy where St. Francis of Assisi was born. It was a thrilling experience for me. So was my visit to the Vatican. Why should a state government subsidise such a trip? 

In the case of Islam, every Muslim is enjoined upon to do the Haj at least once in his lifetime. Again, those who cannot afford to go on such a pilgrimage are exempted from the duty. 

In the eyes of God, a poor Muslim who could not go to Mecca because he was poor was no less great than a rich Muslim who went on Haj several times.

The government’s duty is confined to developing such areas to make travel to such places easier. For instance, if you travel anywhere in Kerala, you will find road signs showing the direction to Sabarimala which attracts millions of pilgrims from all over India. The Central government makes arrangements for pilgrims to visit Mount Kailash which is situated in China. 

Some states even provide financial assistance to the Kailash visitors. All this is against the principles of secularism which enjoins upon the governments not to promote any particular religion but allow every faithful to practice his or her faith.

For a political leader who wants to redeem his promises to the electorate, it is better to steer clear of controversies, especially religious. In a secular country, everyone should have the ability to win elections and come to power unlike in a theocratic nation like Pakistan where posts like those of President are reserved for Muslims.

There are politicians in power in India who would like to make India a carbon copy of Pakistan. You should not play into their hands by such thoughtless actions which they will manipulate to portray you as anti-Hindu. As a citizen, I would prefer to have a competent leader to rule the country. His religion is of little consideration if he is able and can adhere to the secular principles while taking his decisions.

For Muslims of India, Nehru, VP Singh, Mulayam Singh and Lalu Yadav were more acceptable leaders than Owaisi. Scheduled Castes in Kerala found a better minister to handle the portfolio of Scheduled Caste welfare in K Karunakaran who was an upper caste. That is precisely why many Christians consider C Achutha Menon a greater and better CM than Oommen Chandy, who is a Christian.

No politician should think that he is in power for ever. Chandrababu Naidu thought otherwise. I do not have to tell you with what result. He spent thousands of crores of rupees on developing Amaravati as the new Capital of the state. You believe that there was corruption in the awarding of contracts. In that case, you should find ways to punish the guilty.

Abandoning the project is tantamount to wasting so much of money already spent on it. I remember when NT Rama Rao was Chief Minister, he got one of the gates of the state secretariat changed in conformity with Vaastu Shastra. It is a different matter that he did not live long afterwards.

There is a Malayalam saying “Eliye pedichu illam chudaruthu” (don’t put the house to the torch to kill the rats). Andhra needs a state Capital after Hyderabad has gone to Telangana. It is best to go ahead with the Amaravati project for the simple reason that considerable money has already been spent on it. If, suppose, you choose another place as the Capital and starts construction, you are giving legitimacy to the next government to change the decision.

Government money is money generated by taxing the common man. It should not be squandered. It has to be used with utmost care. Please ensure that not a single paise is wasted. You have to prove that you are prudent and vendetta is not your creed. In short, you can make or mar yourself as a chief minister. The choice is yours.

Yours etc

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 16th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 38)