All hell broke loose in the rightwing twitterverse on Tuesday, May 22, after a letter written by Archbishop of Delhi Anil Couto began circulating on social media.
What did Archbishop Couto say in the letter? On May 8, he wrote to all his parish priests and religious institutions in the Archdiocese of Delhi to pray for our nation. He said, “We are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation. It is our hallowed practice to pray for our country and its political leaders all the time but all the more so when we approach the General Elections. As we look forward towards 2019 when we will have new Government, let us begin a Prayer Campaign for our country from May 13, 2018.”
Was Archbhishop Anil Couto speaking in a vacuum? Are his concerns unfounded? A look at very recent history suggests otherwise. Just five days before the Archbishop wrote his letter, the door of St Stephens’ College chapel in Delhi University was found defaced with the slogan “Mandir Yahin Banega”. A cross placed before the graveyard attached to the chapel was written over with the words "I am going to hell".
Around the last Christmas in December 2017, members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were alleged to have barged into a Christmas function in Rajasthan and disrupted it, amid allegations of forced conversions. In Satna, Madhya Pradesh, a Hindutva group attacked carol singers and burned the priest’s car. Carol singers in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh were detained on charges of forced conversions. These are just a few examples from the list of attacks on Christmas celebrations all over the country. In all these attacks, the offenders are related to groups which are Hindutva right-wing in nature. These groups did not even spare the wife of Maharashtra’s BJP CM, who, like Archbishop Couto today, was mercilessly trolled for promoting an event themed around Christmas.
Indeed the year 2017 marked a new low for anti-Christian violence in India. People in the tribal areas, falling mainly in the states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, MP and Gujarat, have borne the brunt of this anti-Christian violence.
Archbishop Couto’s concerns are not only well founded, his letter is also no isolated instance of fears being uttered about this country “witnessing a threat to" the "secular fabric of our nation.” Hundreds of Opposition politicians, commentators, civil rights activists and common citizens say this every day. Two political parties just came together in Karnataka, whose chief minister-designate said his party “was celebrating the formation of a secular government, rather than a communal one, which rules the nation by dividing the people on the basis of caste and religion".
All these people are exercising their right to freedom of expression, which includes political expression, as is the Archbishop. The only ones objecting to the Archbishop’s words, are those who believe India is not equal for all, who believe that a mahant can become chief minister and sadhus can be appointed status equivalent to Minister of State, but a Christian Archbishop may not exercise his fundamental right to free speech on political concerns. They have been directing hatred and vitriol towards the Archbishop ever since the letter emerged.
The Archbishop on his part refused to be intimidated and stood by his words, as ANI reported earlier on May 22. The news agency quoted Archbishop Couto as saying, “In all churches and institutions we pray and fast. We pray for our own renewal and that of country. Keeping in mind all that's happening in our country, we said that we look forward to next election and next govt. Every govt should protect people and Constitution. What else will I talk? Elections and govt concerns us. We've to have such govt that cares for freedom of people, rights and welfare of Christian community. I'm not meddling in partisan politics. We're just praying that nation should walk in right direction.”
Archbishop Couto also received support from several quarters, including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who said “We respect all communities, castes and Archbishops across the country, including that of Kolkata. I think whatever they said, they correctly said. It's a fact.”
Earlier on May 22, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said “I have not seen the letter, but I want to say India is one of those countries where minorities are safe and no one is allowed to discriminate on the basis of caste and religion.” Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said Prime Minister Narendra Modi is working towards the inclusive growth of the country, irrespective of any religion and caste.”