14 February 2024, The Tablet

Indian bishops defend ‘socialist, secular’ democracy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been in government since 2014, will run for a third term in this year’s elections.

Indian bishops defend ‘socialist, secular’ democracy

Indian bishops at the close of their meeting in Bangaluru on 7 February.
Anto Akkara / CNA

India’s bishops warned that “hate speech and fundamentalist movements are undermining the pluralistic and secular ethics that has always characterised our country and its constitution”, in a statement following their general assembly.

The 170 bishops of the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites met in the southern city of Bangaluru from 31 January to 7 February, addressing economic inequality and “religious polarisation” ahead of national elections later this year.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who has been in government since 2014, will run for a third term this year.

The bishops urged “all citizens to enrol as voters and exercise their sacred duty to vote wisely” for leaders “committed to constitutional values and to uplift the poor”.

The bishops’ statement called for national unity to counteract threats “affecting the much-loved social harmony in our country and endangering democracy itself”, and asked dioceses to observes a day of prayer and fasting “for peace and harmony” on 22 March. 

The statement defended India’s character as “a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic” as defined in the preamble to the constitution.

It said harassment of Christians was evidence of a wider threat to the foundation of Indian society, warning that “the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and the rights of minorities must never be weakened”. About 2.3 per cent of the Indian population are Christians, with Catholics making up a third of their numbers – over 20 million.

Christians serving Church institutions face “false accusations of conversion”, the bishops said.

The statement came two days after the arrest of Fr Dominic Pinto, a priest in the Diocese of Lucknow, along with five Protestant clergy and a layman, by police in the state of Uttar Pradesh on charges that they sought to convert Hindus to Christianity. Local churches firmly denied the accusation.

In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Church leaders have complained about a police questionnaire seeking details of Christian missionaries working in the state, the institutions they run and their funding sources.

“Why single out Christians and collect such details?” asked the Emeritus Bishop of Jabalpur Gerald Almeida last week. “I see some ulterior motives behind it.”

The questionnaire also sought to know whether Christians undertake religious conversion activities, which are banned. “We will seek legal opinion before sharing any information as police are trying to gather the information unofficially,” Bishop Almeida said.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP were returned to power with a huge mandate in elections last December.

Church-run schools have been told to remove Christian symbols in the north-eastern state of Assam, where Hindu hardliners also want priests and religious to stop wearing cassocks and habits, saying this is necessary to stop Christian missionaries using schools for conversion. Archbishop John Moolachira of Guwahati said the allegations “are baseless”.

The bishops’ statement also deplored ethnic and religious tensions in the north-eastern state of Manipur. Since May 2023, violence between the predominantly Hindu Meitei people and the largely Christian Kuki people has killed at least 175 people and injured 1,118 others, and arsonists have targeted 386 religious sites. 

The bishops called on the government to “desist from any attempt to deprive Christian tribals of their Scheduled Tribe status” – one of the central disputes in Manipur – and called for Scheduled Caste status for “Dalit Christians and other discriminated minorities”.

In Kerala, a Carmelite nun has been arrested on charges of abetting the suicide of a 16-year-old girl.  Sr Mercy teaches at Carmel School, a co-educational establishment with more than 8,000 students.

After the girl’s body was found on 5 February, a crowd of Hindu nationalists reportedly assembled in front of the building to demand the arrest of Sr Mercy and the school’s principal, also a Carmelite nun.

Police sources claimed the girl had left a note in which she complained of being “tortured” by the nun. Fr Lucian Kujur of the Diocese of Ambikapur said: “It is not yet clear whether the suicide note is original. But the allegations against the nun are false.”

He added that Sister Mercy had only met the girl once when she was found loitering in a school bathroom with three other students. The nun collected their identity cards, instructing them to attend a meeting with the headmistress the following day.

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