By Masihuzzama Ansari
NEW DELHI – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new-found bonhomie with Christians in an interaction with some members of the community at his official residence in New Delhi recently has drawn flak from the activists, civil society groups, intellectuals and community leaders who have expressed outrage over Modi’s attempt to influence Christians in the face of the ruling BJP’s continuing violence and persecution directed against the minority communities.
Modi had invited the members of Christian community to his residence – 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi – on December 25 to celebrate Christmas at a first such event during his tenure. Modi affirmed on the occasion that he had old, intimate and warm relations with Christians and pointed out that they had always been at the forefront in serving the poor and deprived. “When I was Chief Minister of Gujarat, my constituency of Maninagar had a sizeable Christian community and we often interacted in constructive ways,” he said.
Modi also laid emphasis on shared values of the Bible, the message of Jesus Christ’s life and texts like the Upanishads, in taking the country forward in the spirit of cooperation, while forgetting the divisive and violent agenda being executed by his own party across the country. He said Jesus Christ’s life and message was centred on compassion and service and he worked for an inclusive society where justice was for all.
Those present in the meeting included Bishop Paul Swaroop, Bishop Thomas Mar Antonios, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop Anil Couto, John Verghese, Principal of St. Stephen’s College, Alexander George, Managing Director of the Muthoot group, Alukkas Joy Verghese who is chairperson of the Joyalukkas group, athlete Anju Bobby George, actor Dino Morea, Kevin J. Kimtis, Second Secretary at Embassy of The Holy See Vatican, and Bishop Simon John.
Modi recalled that he had met Pope Francis in the past and pointed out that it was a moment which left a lasting impression on him. He said the spirit of service and pursuit of the truth as enshrined in the Bible echoed the Upanishads and the people could focus on their shared values and heritage to move forward. He also spoke highly of the contribution of Christians in the fields of education and health care, saying the nation proudly acknowledges their sense of service.
Christian leaders and activists have now questioned Modi’s outreach agenda and pointed out the irony of the year 2023, when summer began with the burning of churches and the killing of Christians in the valley of Imphal in Manipur and ended with Modi being felicitated by the community members at his official residence at the event which could at best be described as a public relations exercise of the Prime Minister aimed at impressing the small community.
At a press conference organised in Press Club of India here on December 28, the activists asked why Modi was not willing to remember “old relations” with Christians during the attacks on the community. The press conference, addressed by Apoorvanand, John Dayal, Mary Scaria, A.C. Michael, Minakshi Singh and Shabnam Hashmi, was held as a form of protest against Christians being targeted during the BJP regime.
During the year 2023, the Christian community, including its bishops and clergy, had been pleading with the Prime Minister to visit Manipur, which has emerged as the site of the greatest communal crimes and human tragedy since Gujarat 2002 and Kandhamal (Odisha) 2008. Perhaps Modi could not find the time, leaving to his Home Minister and the state’s Chief Minister, who the people allege has been casual in tackling the genocide, if not complicit in it by patronising the criminal private militias.
Significantly, despite the intervention of the Supreme court and the Chief Justice of India, the only thing that has happened is the cremation and burial of the bodies of the Kuki-Zo did which had been rotting in various Imphal hospitals. As many as 50,000 Kuki-Zo-Hmar people continue to live in harsh conditions in refugee camps run by various church groups.
The activists quoted prominent human rights activist Harsh Mander, who has noted in his letter to Members of Parliament this month after yet another visit to the state that the human disaster continues to loom large over especially women and children. Unemployment and malnourishment stalk the hills, and private armies rule the highways. There is no administration in the hills, according to the observers and analysts in Manipur.
Beyond Manipur, the persecution of the Christian community is rampant all over the country and the hatred towards it from the highest quarters of nationalist religious leadership is as deep as it can be. The government seems keen to starve it out of existence by withdrawing the FCRAs of a vast number of churches and its NGOs, and using the investigating agencies against cardinals and bishops, pastors and lay people.
In Uttar Pradesh for instance, nearly 100 pastors and even ordinary men and women are in jail under charges of illegal conversions when all they were doing was celebrating birthdays or conducting Sunday prayers. Every international and national human rights body has indicted India for its treatment of religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christian. The Indian groups include Wada Na Todo Abhiyan, well respected coalition that audits the government’s performance vis-a-vis its promises.
The United Christian Forum has in its annual report said that there are two incidents of persecution of Christians every day in the country. Apart from prosecution, arrests, the crisis of schools and other institutions, the massive social issue of the Dalit Christians continues to afflict the country. Activists pointed out that the Prime Minister was duty-bound to embrace the nation’s religious minorities.
“We remember when Christmas carols were a part of the Rashtrapati Bhawan calendar. Similarly, as citizens, bishops and cardinals and others too are duty bound to felicitate their political leaders and rulers,” the activists who addressed the press conference said. The condition and tribulations of Christians, who suffer because of the government’s impunity and the brazen political elements who have no respect for the Constitution, should not be forgotten.
Different organisations of Christians have raised the question why the Prime Minister’s love for the community is not expressed when it is attacked across the country. Catholic Federation of Delhi President AC Michael, said the community expected from Modi that apart from the speech, he should take meaningful steps to provide security.
Lawyer Mary Scaria said the Christians were being harassed in the country on issues like food and drinking. “We are being pressurised about what to wear, what to eat, what to say and no one is going to say anything,” she said, while citing a 2023 incident of anti-Christian violence. A tribal Christian family was celebrating their daughter’s promotion at night, which is the tribal culture. The RSS, BJP and Bajrang Dal leaders arrived there and vandalised the programme by accusing the organisers of carrying out religious conversion.
Christian religious leaders said the persecution of the community was occurring on a large scale, and hatred towards it runs deep among the nationalist religious leadership. “The government seems to be keen to wipe it out of existence by withdrawing the FCRA from a large number of churches and NGOs and using investigating agencies against cardinals and bishops, clergy and laity,” they said.
In Uttar Pradesh, about 100 pastors and even laymen and women are in jail on charges of illegal conversion. Every international and national human rights organisation has blamed India for its treatment of religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians. Catholic Federation of Delhi President A.C. Michael said when the administration looks for the attackers, the details of the incidents are promptly given, but hardly any action is taken against the culprits.
Addressing the press conference, prominent human rights activist John Dayal said that even when the evidence of attack on Christians was given to the administration, the authorities remained silent. Delhi University’s Professor Apoorvanand said the Bajrang Dal, in support of which Modi had raised slogans in the Karnataka elections, had been found involved in most of the attacks on Christians. It was a clear deception when the same person meets the Christian community members and makes tall claims, he said.
Apoorvanand said the Prime Minister talks about going back 400 years and taking revenge from Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb but does not utter a word on the anti-minority incident taking place in the country just four days ago. He said the BJP wanted to give a message not only in the country but also abroad that the Indian government would protect Hindus alone and would be oblivious to the plight of minority communities.