Letter bombs on Secularism: Archbishops’ pleas expose right-wing hypocrisy

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]irst things first. Concerns on assaults on our Constitution are no one’s private property, and can be expressed by any well-meaning citizen of India. That said, when those holding positions within the religious clergy start appealing to people’s sentiments, we stare at a definite problem.

First it was Archbishop Anil TT Couto of Delhi, who in his letter dated May 8, 2018 to all the churches in India, pointed out the “turbulent atmosphere” in our country which is a threat to the “secular fabric of our nation”. The letter also called upon the faithful to pray and fast every Friday as “we look forward towards 2019 when we will have a new government”. Next, it was the turn of the Archbishop of Goa and Daman, Felipe Neri Ferraro, who in his 10-page annual pastoral letter to the priests, elaborated how the “Constitution is in danger”.

While Archbishop Ferraro called upon the people to better know the Constitution, and urged everyone to safeguard values like secularism, freedom of speech, and freedom to practise one’s religion, he echoed what Archbishop Couto had said about a fortnight before him. “In recent times, we see a new trend emerging in our country, a kind of mono-culturalism, which demands uniformity in what and how one eats, dresses, lives and even worships; all this puts human rights at risk. Human rights are under attack and democracy appears to be in peril. Minorities fear for their safety as respect for law is on decline,” Ferraro said, carrying forward Couto’s concerns.

As someone who has religiously (pun intended!) advocated strict separation of religion and religious clergy from politics and state, the letters from Archbishops Couto (who is the top priest of the Roman Catholic Church in Delhi) and Ferraro are loaded with political innuendo. They are also patently ill-advised and unacceptable. Since Archbishop Couto’s letter carries his official designation as the head clergy of the Catholic Church in Delhi, and addresses all the parish priests and religious institutions in the Archdiocese of Delhi, mentions the 2019 general elections — it can be safely inferred that he wasn’t speaking as a private citizen of India, but in his official capacity as a top clergyman of a minority religious community, or the Roman Catholics in Delhi. Similarly, Archbishop Ferraro used the occasion of sending out the annual pastoral letter to express his grievances.

Both the letters have raised the hackles of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and understandably so. Their trenchant criticism hasn’t stopped at Archbishops Couto and Ferraro, but has dragged the Vatican into this brouhaha, alleging that this letter sare a part of a “Vatican Conspiracy” to influence voters against the BJP in the next Lok Sabha elections, due in May 2019. They have claimed (with a straight face) that it is unacceptable to mix religion in politics and that as the head of the Catholic Church in Delhi, Archbishop Couto ought not to have ventured to author his letter. Ditto for Ferraro.

Right-wing’s double standards

Nothing wrong in this criticism, except that it reeks of brazen hypocrisy and double standards. For example, both the Archbishops aren’t occupying the chief ministerial chair of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. They are not the ones to wear two contrarian hats – those of the chief minister and the head priest of one of Uttar Pradesh’s most prominent Hindu temples (the Gorakhnath Temple in Gorakhpur –as the redoubtable Yogi Adityanath does). The Archbishops aren’t in the Central Government Council of Ministers, wearing saffron robes (a la Uma Bharti et al) and sitting on ministerial chairs. The Archbishops aren’t Members of Parliament despite being a “sanyasi”, like the numerous “sadhvis” (Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti), and “sadhus” (Sakshi Maharaj) — who are sitting Lok Sabha MPs from the BJP. The Archbishops don’t run a “cultural organisation” whose avowed objectives haven’t always been in consonance with India’s constitutional values. They don’t run a church re-construction campaign. They don’t run a mob show in the garb of revanchist, irredentist reclamation of ancient religious pride.

So, all those who have been quicker off the blocks — than even Usain Bolt was in his prime — to criticise the Archbishops, must introspect and look hard within themselves. At no point of time since India’s independence, have we faced with such proliferation of religious heads from the majority community into the political sphere. They are making a seamless transition from their spiritual seat to the temporal throne. The root cause for this “career advancement” or “lateral shift” is the muscular majoritarianism politics practised by the BJP. Therefore, you have to take BJP’s objections to Archbishop Couto’s letter (and also, expectedly, Ferraro’s) with a fistful, and not merely a pinch, of salt. They are guilty of far greater transgressions that what Archbishops Couto and Ferraro might have done via their letters of deep anxiety.

Should religious clergy contest elections?

An unfortunate aspect of the Indian state and its secularism has been its inability to achieve strict separation between religion and politics. This malady manifests itself more strongly today than ever before.

Which brings us to the primordial question — why is it so easy for religious clergy in India to enter politics, contest elections and perform temporal constitutional functions as ministers, without eyebrows being raised? Our laws — the Constitution of India 1950, the Representation of People’s Act 1950 and 1951 and all other legislation pertaining to elections, do not bar a member of the clergy — a sadhu, sadhvi, padre, mullah, maulana, monk – from contesting electoral office and holding constitutional posts like Chief Minister and even the Prime Minister of the country. But did our Constitutional fathers and mothers envisage such a scenario — that too 70 years after the establishment of the modern Indian Republic?

Critics argue that Indian secularism is different from Continental or European definition of secularism. In India, to be secular does not mean strict separation of religion from State affairs as followed in Continental Europe, but equal treatment of all religions by the State. These are mere pedantic arguments. No matter what “school of secularism” one may practice, at the end of the day, it cannot be argued that the presence of the clergy in political matters is going to advance the cause of secularism in any manner whatsoever.

Innate secularism of Indian Constitution

No doubt the original Constitution, as adopted by the Constituent Assembly on January 26 1950 did not contain the word “secular” in its Preamble — it was a latter-day addition by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1976. However, little changes by this initial omission. Even in the absence of explicit mention of the word “secular” in the Preamble circa 1947, Indian Constitution was uniquely and innately secular since its very inception.

Infact, the Constitution of India is a document unparalleled in modern constitutional history, for its inclusiveness and secularism – a veritable 20thcentury Magna Carta. At a time when India was torn asunder by the heart-rending violence of Partition in 1947, India could have so easily adopted a reactionary route and declared itself as a “Hindu” nation in response to a “Muslim” Pakistan. Something similar was being played out on the western edge of our Asian continent — where the Jewish State of Israel came into existence in 1948. That India chose to shun theocracy and adopt constitutional secularism as the core foundational principle of its modern state, is credited not only to our founding fathers but also to the majority community of this country i.e. Hindus.

The Hindus of India aren’t egregiously secular because they have been taught so by the Constitution of 1950 but the truth is other way around. India is secular because an overwhelming number of Hindus are secular. But this secular fabric of the nation comes under severe duress when we have religious clergy — irrespective of faith — entering the political arena taking advantage of the loopholes in our legal ecosystem and polluting the nation’s polity by their partisan toxicity.

Indian mythology is replete with inspiring tales of exemplary saffron attired men. The “Brahma-Rishis” were renowned for their erudition, knowledge and mystical powers. Lord Rama and Lord Krishna received tutelage in statecraft and warcraft from renowned sages like Vasistha and Sandipani. Guru Parshuram’s Ashram was famous for churning out great warriors and kings. The ones who were attired in saffron were exceptionally gifted men, but they consciously, scrupulously and strictly kept themselves away from the seats of power. We have the example of a Kshatriya King —Viswamitra— leaving his throne and becoming an ascetic, a sage with divine powers but never vice versa. We do not have examples of the sadhus and the saints supplanting rulers and sitting on their thrones. Therein lies a message to the Yogi Adityanaths of the country and more importantly — to those who vote for him — people like you and me.