It's not the time for spats between India’s rulers and prelates

The Christian community needs a broad spectrum of political support and cannot afford to make new enemies

Jun 10, 2024

India’s newly sworn-in Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) gestures to the gathering during the oath-taking ceremony at the presidential palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi on June 9. (Photo: AFP)

By John Dayal
Narendra Modi took the oath of office as prime minister of India for the third consecutive time at Rashtrapati Bhawan, home to its president, on a warm Sunday night, an unusual time for such magnificent functions of state.

Squirming under the cloudless night, lit not by the moon and the stars but by gigantic floodlights, were heads of government of neighboring South Asian countries barring Pakistan, India’s trillionaires, and political stars across party lines.

Only some in the several thousand invited gathering would have noticed that among those sworn in were two junior ministers from the tiny state of Kerala in the extreme south of the country.
One was a Christian who had not contested any seat in the elections but was a staunch loyalist of the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kurien George, a former vice chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, and a senior state leader of the party, was sworn in as a minister of state. He is expected to be made a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, from one of the states where the BJP has significant strength in the legislative assembly.

The other new minister is also a strong BJP loyalist. Film actor Suresh Gopi created political history by winning for his party its maiden parliamentary seat in Kerala. The BJP had worked for it, conspired for it, and prayed for it, for all of half a century, without success. It had, though, come tantalizing close once when the then railway minister O Rajagopalan gave Congress star debater Shashi Tharoor a scare. Rajagopalan lost by a thin margin.

Gopi won rather handsomely from Trissur, beating seasoned professional politicians of both the Congress and Communist Party Marxist. In many ways, he did it without the help of Modi’s very noisy wooing of the Christian religious leadership in the state, and in New Delhi.

Observers attribute Gopi’s victory to not just his celebrity status as a popular film actor, but to his close connect with the people, particularly Christians who form a sizable chunk of the electorate in the Trissur constituency.

Gopi is chummy with bishops, is generous to local churches, and helps those in need. The bishops did not have to issue any calls from the pulpit to endear the people to this good Samaritan despite the baggage of his party’s image as a persecutor of Christians in north and northeast India.

Gopi by all accounts has also had more than a helpful nudge from the state’s Marxist Chief Minister Piniyari Vijayan, whose several visits to Trissur in the elections invited comment.

These developments are no less than a volcanic eruption and have sent strong shock waves through the state’s political structures.

For the Church, it is a time for introspection. The Catholic Church’s playing footsie with Modi and his party in Kerala, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and some other regions, has not gone down well with the community which bears the brunt of the violence wreaked by the BJP’s militant associates in the militant Sangh Parivar or Hindu nationalists’ outfits affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother organization of the BJP, and alma mater of Modi. 

Christians have traditionally been seen as supporters of the centrist Congress party which nationally is locked in a deathly tussle with the BJP-RSS.

For Vijayan, this is a fraught time. He too is a third-time elected head of government — of a state, though. Under his watch, his party has fared terribly, winning just one seat in the recent general election to parliament, with the remainder going to the Congress, an enemy in politics of the state, but a coalition partner in the rest of the country.

Vijayan faces criticism from his party as much for his personal style and family baggage, as for his poor stewardship, in managing the general election.

The spat this week between the chief minister and a local bishop has taken both Christians and Communists by surprise, though perhaps Modi, Gopi and George must have been greatly amused.

Mercifully for the Catholic Church — which is yet to get out of its own serious internal binds — no bishop of any of its three rites are involved.

The man in the spotlight is Dr. Geevarghese Mar Coorilose, the former Metropolitan of the Jacobite Syrian Church's Niranam Diocese.

Mar Coorilose is a very popular and pleasant prelate known in the state as much for his simplicity and humor as for his commitment to the poor. This has earned him the sobriquet of being a leftist in the Church. He told people not to use the feudal “Thirumeni” in addressing him. He also resigned as bishop to spend his time in meditation and service.

It was possibly in that frame of mind that he took the chief minister to task for inviting an electoral defeat by his acts of commission and omission. In a Facebook post, Mar Coorilose said the huge defeat that the Marxists had to face in the general election was due to the erosion in people's faith, and the poor performance of the second Pinarayi government, compared to the first one.

His advice was that the biggest political movement in Kerala, the Communist Party of India-Marxist, should not lose its relevance. And should be open to criticism. For good measure, the prelate seemingly mocked the relief packages the government had given to people impacted by the devastating floods in the state in 2018.

"Arrogance and opulence, if continued, would spell doom for the leftist government. Floods and epidemics will not come to your rescue every time, and the people will not fall for the 'kit politics' time and again, especially in Kerala," Mar Coorilose posted on Facebook.

He cautioned that unless remedial steps were taken, the Marxists faced the sort of political wipeout they had faced in Bengal and Tripura, once their strongholds.

That touched the chief minister to the quick. He retorted with an epithet; language used more by young children in street fights than by a chief minister of a state.

"There has been no change in the behavior of this person, who once called a priest a wretch, and today he calls another priest 'empty-headed'. It can be understood that the nature of the caller has not changed," said the Kerala Council of Churches (KCC), a joint confederation of Christian organizations, which came to the rescue of one of its own.

The last has not been heard of this exchange of words between the Church and the politician.

But beyond the bombast and brimstone, serious questions are being asked about relations between Church and State, and in particular, between the hierarchy and political parties and their leaders.

At 2.3 percent of India’s more than 1.4 billion people, the Christian community has no real say in the political processes, other than in Kerala, Goa, and the small states of the northeast such as Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Manipur. In the eastern states, the community has done well for itself in the general election this time. But in some states in North India, it is less than a tenth of a percent, and yet suffers in great measure with its nuns and pastors attacked, house churches outlawed, and schools and colleges vilified.

Also, though religious freedom is a constitutional right, the community still needs the goodwill of all political players in the land for its economic development and growth. The community needs a broad spectrum of political support and cannot afford to make new enemies.

This demands that its political, social and religious leaders work with all political parties in each one of the 30 states, big and small, to carefully impact policy-making and devolve resources from the state and federal exchequers to help the Dalits, tribal peoples and youth of the community.

The BJP, which is making friendly sounds in Kerala is hostile to the Christian community across the country. It has been vigorously curtailing Church activities through anti-conversion laws, curbs on foreign funding, and administrative pressure on its educational, medical institutions and

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