Early last month, an influential head priest of a Swaminarayan temple, in the presence of Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, appealed to the devotees to support the BJP in the Assembly elections. Here is a case of a religious leader unequivocally pleading to a community to vote for the saffron party. It did not raise hackles of any political party; it did not create ripples in the media; no authority issued any notice to the head priest. Going back to 2014, Jama Masjid’s Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari had announced his support for the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha elections. D uring the last Assembly elections in U.P., the Shahi Imam changed his stance and urged the Muslims to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party. There are several other instances too when sants and swamis have sought votes for a particular party. It led to no hysteria and hyperbole in the media; there were no frenzied reactions from political parties and Sangh Parivar offshoots.
However, a pastoral letter of Gandhinagar Archbishop Thomas Macwan, in the background of the coming elections in the State, has led to acrimonious debates. The irony is that the Archbishop has not asked Christians to vote for any particular party or candidate. He has merely called for prayers to “save our country from nationalist forces” and for the victory of humane leaders “faithful to the Indian Constitution”. At a time when Hindutva forces have unleashed unrestrained attacks on minorities and Dalits, the Archbishop has only exercised his right to explain the need for electing caring and compassionate leaders who will uphold the constitutional rights of citizens.
At another level, he has articulated a general feeling and apprehension that majoritarianism is being touted as nationalism. When nationalism is being redefined by individuals and groups who claim to be the sole custodians of patriotism and patriotic symbols, the Archbishop’s letter is nothing but a well-intentioned wake-up call. For a party and its affiliates which are struggling to douse the anger of various sections of society in Gujarat, the letter came as a weapon to divert public attention. All hell broke loose because the issue became handy for a party on the poll arena with its back to the wall. Christians constitute a miniscule 0.5 per cent of Gujarat voters and they are not in a position to decide the victory or defeat of any party or its candidate in any constituency. Here comes the relevance of the Archbishop’s plea to his community to conduct prayers so that people who will remain faithful to the Constitution and respect every human being without discrimination get elected.
It is a case of some parties and media making a mountain out of a molehill. But it is equally an alarm bell for the church to be vigilant. It has to be prepared with data and details to substantiate any claim it makes, specially at a time when it is under round-the-clock scrutiny. When Christians and their institutions are under attack, there are saffron leaders within the community who claim that everything is hunky-dory. The church should be ready to reel out data to counter those untruths.(Published on 04th December 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 49)