ISSN 2330-717X

India: The Vulnerability Of Catholic Leaders – OpEd

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By John Dayal

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(UCA News) — The dear Catholic bishop of Pune could not have chosen a worse moment to seek a dialogue with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu umbrella group working to make India a nation of Hindu hegemony.

The political and social climate in the country is still roiling in the bloody aftermath of a television debate in which a senior woman spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the RSS, made disparaging remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.

She was suspended and her male colleague sacked by the party to prevent a threatened economic boycott of India by Islamic nations.

The protests in India were vigorous. Police shot at protesters in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state. Among the two Muslim youths who were killed was a student awaiting the results of his secondary school examinations.

In neighboring Uttar Pradesh, ruled by Hindu monk Ajay Bisht, or Yogi Adityanath, who continues to head his sect, police arrested 109 Muslim protesters. The chief minister is now notorious as “Bulldozer Baba” due to his highly publicized policy of bulldozing houses of political and social activists who defy the regime along with the occasional criminal suspect.

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This time the Uttar Pradesh government bulldozed the home of activist Afreen Fatima, who had led a protest against the blasphemy. The house was owned by her mother, who is not politically active. Afreen called it an “act of vendetta” and an attempt “to crush criticism of the government.”

Reporters recording the two-hour demolition said the belongings of the family were dumped in a nearby open space. Among the household goods and books was a poster reading “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

In this fraught situation developing over a week, Catholic and Protestant leaders in India have remained utterly silent. Missing this time was the empathy and solidarity seen in Karnataka during the protests against the new anti-conversion law and the ban on the hijab worn by Muslim students in school and college.

This silence was broken by Bishop Thomas Dabre of Pune, who has been on the Pontifical Council for Dialogue and is known to meet heads of other religions.

He surprised even his admirers — of which this columnist is one — when he was reported as saying: “The Christian community accepts RSS ideology and principles. We need to establish communication and coordination between Christians and the [Rashtriya Swayamsewak] Sangh.”

The post went viral in Christian circles in minutes, and within the hour it was popping up in angry memes on Facebook and Twitter. Many of us thought the bishop had been misquoted.

A senior Catholic editor, himself a religious, contacted the bishop to clarify what had he said or intended to say in his statement. “I am not an RSS spokesperson or its defender. In truth, I have demanded a dialogue between the church and the RSS which Indian bishops had proposed,” Bishop Dabre said.

Local Marathi language newspapers carried more elaborate reports. The bishop was reported as saying: “The Sangh believes in nationalism, the church also believes in nationalism.”

The RSS is neither a religious body nor a political party. It is a multi-headed and aggressive organization whose political face has been ruling India since 2014 with Narendra Modi as prime minister.

And although Modi intends to lead the party in the general election of 2024 for a third term, the much younger Bisht is seen as his most probable successor at some stage. 

Whether this succession happens depends on the RSS, which has over the decades controlled the fortunes of the BJP and its leaders.

Pune, where the bishop’s diocese is based, is notorious for religious fundamentalists and for sentiments against religious minorities and Dalits. 

Bishop Dabre has known this for all the years after he was transferred from Vasai near Mumbai in 2009. “Only dialogue will stop the violence and lies of religious fanaticism,” he has maintained.

Long years ago, as the prelate of Vasai, Bishop Dabre had said “this was the message also of Mother Teresa.”

The nun, now a saint, indeed spoke with everyone, dictators and billionaires included. But there is no record of her holding an organized dialogue with the RSS, which was never strong anyway in the Calcutta of her times.

The RSS, which has persistently opposed all papal visits to India, angrily attacked her in the 1990s when she supported the cause of Dalits in general, and Dalit Christians in particular, accusing her of masterminding conversions in India.

The Catholic Church surely knows that the one thing the founding fathers of the RSS held even more vehemently than their supremacist Hindutva was their visceral hatred for followers of Christianity and Islam.

RSS documents are clear that these two peoples have no place in Bharat that is India. They would have to accept second-class status if they want to live in this Bharat.

This is a sort of combination of apartheid and racism — a marriage of the worst of the history of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, colonial Britain and South Africa.

Mercifully, Mahatma Gandhi, the legendary Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru during the freedom struggle ensured this would never happen. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wove these aspirations into a strong religious freedom and equality statement in the Indian constitution.

The Indian media, now entirely in the lap of the BJP-RSS, played it up, especially in the Marathi-language press. They understand that later explanations will not make a dent in the first impact they make — gladdening the majoritarian heart and further confusing the Christian community.

As a diocesan head, Bishop Dabre essentially speaks as an individual, or at best for his clergy and laity. He does not represent the entire Christian community with more than 100 or more different denominations. The Catholic Church itself is rich with three liturgical divisions.

But the damage has been done. Civil society is incensed. The Muslim community, which understands that the church in Kerala is not in love with it, is also taken aback. It was expecting a different, warmer response from the church outside Kerala where its common faithful are as much victims of the Sangh’s terror in rural and tribal India.

It is not just that the Christian community in India, including Catholics, lacks timing. We are, of course, always days and weeks too late. Data and analysis do not exist even of our own persecution by individuals and the state.

And most, including individual bishops and people such as I, do not have credibility in the community to be empowered to speak for it. The media may or may not know, but the government, which is in constant touch with vulnerable bishops and ambitious individuals, knows the fault lines and the vulnerabilities.

Above all, sadly, we lack empathy.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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