In his Diocese, or ecclesiastical jurisdiction, a Catholic Bishop is also known as the Ordinary, and his communications to his clergy and followers seldom get known outside that limited circle. For the most, they are call for prayers on special occasions, and sometimes a general announcement of a celebration, anniversary or on the mundane secular and temporal administrative routines necessary in any institutionalised religion. They are pinned to bulletin boards in churches and convents, gather dust, and in due course, are trashed as any other waste.
Delhi’s respected and much-loved Archbishop, the mild-looking Anil Joseph Couto, a professor of theology in his alter ego, and his congregation were therefore caught by surprise when a letter he wrote on 8 May suddenly became Breaking News on India’s major Hindi and English language Television news channels, with reporters hovering around the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in New Delhi, and News Anchors screaming that the Church was issuing “Fatwas” at the behest of Rome and the Vatican, the two interchangeably used when they were not using Italy. Italy is the second favourite country cited after Pakistan in any Indian TV news debate, forming almost a mnemonic connect with Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the former president of the Indian National Congress, who was born there, and her New Delhi born son Rahul Gandhi, the current party president.
The Fatwas referred to past statements made by the Shahi Imam of the Delhi Jama Masjid before local or general elections pledging his political troth to one party or the other. No Muslim follows his edict, but it does create a passing frisson in the media.
There was no such directive in Bishop Anil’s letter to his diocese, which as it is has shrunk drastically after the Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara Catholics left to join their own independent or sui juris Oriental Catholic churches created by the Pope in recent years. The Archbishop’s Latin-rite Delhi diocese now consists largely of migrant populations from Central India, the north east, South India and other parts of the country, numbering persons not more than 150,000 faithful.
All that Bishop Anil had asked his clergy was for prayers for the country “witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation.” He called for “a Day of fast every Friday forgoing at least one meal and offering our penance and all our sacrifices for our spiritual renewal and that of our nation”. But as the newshounds said, the sting was in the line “As we look forward towards 2019 when we will have a new government, let us begin a Prayer campaign for our country from 13 May” the anniversary of the Apparition of Our Lady of Fatima.
“Turbulent time”, “a new government” and “fast and prayers” was an explosive combination in the eyes of the TV Anchors, and of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party whose senior spokespersons saying this was proof of a Papal “regime change” conspiracy to eject Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi. No amount of explanations that every election produces a new government, sometimes headed by the old leader, convinced the party loyalists and the media. Neither did the fact that such prayer letters and even press statements are issued by many Bishops before local or general elections calling on people to fulfil their duty as citizen by coming out to vote, and to vote for good and honest people.
In the past, the Goa bishop’s appeal to elect honest people in fact produced a BJP government as local Catholics rejected Congressmen who were seen as corrupt. The victory of AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi too had been triggered by the Church’s stress on integrity and honesty. In many places in the 2014 general elections, Catholic Bishops, clergy and congregations had resonated with Mr Modi’s stirring call of good governance and the sorely needed promise of jobs. Unemployment and under employment is a major issue in the Christian community.
In the short run, the TV storm kept the focus away from Tuticorin where the local people, many of them Catholics, have been protesting the expansion of the Sterlite plant owned by the UK-based corporate giant Vedanta. Many of the dead in police firing, in fact, are Catholic young men.
But mostly, it gave an opportunity to the BJP, and its mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, to mount a 48-hour campaign Mrs Sonia Gandhi. The Bishop’s Letter was just the ammunition. The church got pilloried in collateral damage, held guilty of getting Roman funds for a conversion grand plan, subversion in the politically sensitive North East, and working as the foot soldiers of Congress. BJP senior spokesman Dr. Sambit Patra and RSS spokesman Rakesh Sinha said the church was angry because the Modi government had stopped foreign funding by tightening the Foreign Contribution Regulation.
The FCRA issue has indeed hurt the church, but it has hit other human rights and development NGOs more, especially those working with children and marginalised groups. The United Nations special rapporteurs on human rights and on religious freedom have spotlighted this as a major violation of international norms.
The tragic consequence of the controversy is that it has exposed fissures and weaknesses in the tiny Indian church which is politically not savvy and indeed is aloof from civil society and other religions other than in highly choreographed dialogues. Almost no diocesan Bishop has political advisors or consultors, and just a handful have media persons, mostly priests, helping draft press statements on Christmas or some functions. But Bishops traditionally maintain cordial relations with all political leaders and senior civil and police officials. This is understandable for a community which numbers a mere 2.3 per cent and has no resources of any kind, including political, to shelter it from the wrath of hostile administrations and politicians.
Many senior Christians and civil society leaders have been deeply saddened by what they see as senior Church leaders distancing themselves from Archbishop Anil. TV managed to find an Orthodox Bishop whose church is embroiled in a long litigation with a splinter group, and is seeking government help, to speak against Bishop Anil. Some Christian members of the BJP, including junior central minister K J Alphons, once backed by the Congress when he was a government official, and then by the Marxists, joined the attack on Bishop Anil.
The Bishop showed his mettle, even when he was all but disowned by some of his colleagues, one indeed showering praises on Mr Modi. Bishop Anil Couto has earned great respect which goes much beyond his own diocese and its faithful, and envelopes human rights groups and leaders of several other religious groups. No citizen can ignore what is happening, the lynchings, the violence on Dalits, the suicides of farmers, he told TV crews who chased him to Patna where he had gone for church meetings.
For the record, the government has admitted in Parliament 11 persons were killed in 822 incidents of religiously targeted violence just in 2017, the year that also saw the birth of the lynchings of Muslim and Dalit young men by self-styled gangs of cow protectors.
Bishop Anil did not say that Christians could not feel safe if Muslims and Dalits were not safe.
But many of us do say so.
(This write up has been earlier published on an international radio / tv website)(Published on 04th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 22)