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Papal Visit

Papal Visit

The Secretary-General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, has been quoted by the media has having expressed sadness that Pope Francis had to restrict his recent South Asia visit from November 27 to December 2 to Myanmar and Bangladesh and could not visit India because the Narendra Modi Government was not forthcoming about facilitating such a visit.

According to The Indian Express, after the Vatican announced the tentative South Asia schedule in August, representatives of the Catholic Church were in touch with the Union Government to arrange a papal visit to India.

“It was with a heavy heart, we received the news that the Holy See cannot visit India. A Holy Visit would have been a prestige for the whole country in the eyes of the world. It is indeed embarrassing that the Pope is coming to the neighbourhood, and visiting two smaller countries and not India. As an Indian, it hurts that the Pope will not be coming here. I hope it hurts all Indians, too,” Bishop Mascarenhas has been quoted as saying.

My advice to the Bishop is not to feel sad or hurt but feel relieved and happy. I am not hurt or feeling inferior. Nor do I think that India’s prestige has gone down because the Pope’s visit did not take place. It is not that the Pope ignored India. If the current administration overlooked the request for inviting the Pope and hosting him as the head of state, it must have its own compulsions. At the time of the Gujarat elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not want to be seen spending time with the head of the Catholic Church which his Sangh Parivar colleagues vilify time and again. Christians have no reason to feel bad over such a political decision.

I am actually relieved that the Pope has not visited India. As an Indian and a Catholic, I do not see any prestige being bestowed on India by a papal visit. Prestige is something that the material world should be concerned about, in any case. I am relieved that every Christian in India has been spared harassment from Hindutva forces that would have used the papal visit to unleash malicious propaganda against a largely peaceful community.

During the last papal visit to India in 1999, RSS affiliates indulged in a shrill campaign against the Pope and Christians, with a BJP-led Government in power at the Centre. This visit took place months after Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were roasted alive. Yet, the refrain of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other ‘fringe’ outfits was ‘the Pope must apologise for the Portuguese conquest of Goa and for all conversions to Christianity’. “Conversion is a crime” read a banner put up in New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave where the Pope stayed.

This was when Vajpayee, someone considered tolerant, was at the helm of Government in New Delhi and NDTV was the most popular and influential news channel. Eighteen years since the last papal visit, the political atmosphere in several parts of India is restive. Muslim students or farmers are killed in trains or trucks just on suspicion that they ate beef or were transporting cows for slaughter. Christians are being targeted too for ‘forcible conversions’ but given their limited presence, many incidents go unreported. The state machinery is working overtime to single out Christian NGOs and church-run outfits and scrutinising their accounts. TV news channels are using every silly provocation to paint religious minorities as anti-nationals.

In such a scenario, political awareness is something that can act as a useful guide for minority community members. Political awareness includes avoiding baits by the media or saying anything that can be sufficiently stretched or twisted to create a controversy by the vulture media.

Of course, there can be no doubt that many among the estimated 2 crore Catholics in India would love an opportunity to see the Pope up close and spend a few minutes with him. But has that ever happened, or would that ever happen? There were two public papal visits to India, both by John Paul II, in 1986 and in 1999. Both were during my adulthood and I clearly remember that both visits were used by the Catholic clergy and those in positions of power to make sure only they and people with influence would meet the Pope. Except for a few people with special needs or destitute whose meetings were arranged, the vast majority of the Catholics were left jostling for a glance at the Pope who remained a speck in the horizon. With better television coverage in 1999, most felt wiser to watch him on TV.

I am relieved that attempts of the archbishops and cardinals to get the Prime Minister’s Office to clear dates of Pope Francis’ visit did not fructify. What is the point in having the Pope in India when those affiliated to the party in power at the Centre would use the opportunity to speak ill of the Pope and Christians?

In the internet age, when one can read English translations of L'Osservatore Romano, follow the Pope on twitter and read about his sermons on several Catholic websites, someone like me feel Pope Francis conveying his message directly to me, even without a papal visit to my country.

Overlooking Protocol

The daughter of the President of the United States was in India for a short visit, heading a business delegation to Hyderabad for a Global Entrepreneurship Summit. How ethical is it for Ivanka Trump to head the American delegation when her father is the President? But I guess that is for Americans to debate. They have by now have been deluged by much more unethical practices by the President that this may have become the new normal.

But one wonders if it was okay for the Prime Minister of India to treat Ivanka Trump almost like a head of government. It is natural for a prominent person or delegation to be granted audience with the top leadership of each country during a visit. However, Narendra Modi went down to Hyderabad to greet and meet Ms Trump and treat her like some head of state or government on an official visit to India.

Protocol demands that the PM be the sole chief guest of a function when other dignitaries are below his rank. That didn’t look during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. The Ministry of External Affairs has done a good job even during Modi’s stint as PM but it looks like Ivanka Trump’s was handled by the Prime Minister’s Office. Given Donald Trump’s unorthodox ways, Modi’s gesture may help.

(abey.kay@gmail.com)

(Published on 04th December 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 49)