This was not a Christian pilgrimage. Seven Vidya Jyoti Jesuits and Indian Missionary Society scholastics and I, a lay person, were part of a unique mission — a Christian litmus — in the search for evidence of solace, compassion and concern with the victims of some of the worst forms of State and societal terror that the poor have faced since Independence.
We were part of Karwan-e-Mohabbat (the Caravan of Love) conceived and led in the month of September 2017, by former administrator and human rights activist, Harsh Mander. Mander burst on the national scene in 2002 when he quit the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) indicting the then chief minister, Narendra Modi, and his government for their role in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.
In his own words, this was to a journey of atonement, solidarity, healing, conscience and justice with people living with hate violence, “A small but audacious effort to offer a garland of empathy across many parts of our troubled land. A tiny lamp lit in a tempest of hate.”
Karwan-e-Mohabbat began with Ram Puniyani, Mander and me lighting a lamp in Guwahati, Assam on September 4, 2017, and then gently rolling in the bus through Jharkhand and Karnataka, Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
This pilgrimage was also a humble tribute to MK Gandhi’s last and finest months, his stand at Noakhali, in undivided Bengal at the time of Partition, when in the backdrop of the butchery of a million Muslims and Hindus, “He walked bravely alone for love and peace.” Gandhi paid the price for it. He was shot dead some months later, in January 1948.
As I interpreted it several times for people, there was something very cathartic — the lancing of a wound — trying to share and map empathy. Did the killers, their relatives, their community feel guilt? Did they even feel they had committed a crime in shooting innocent people they did not even know, just to satisfy some blood lust to echo the slogans by nationalist politicians on the TV screen? Were they contrite? Did they seek forgiveness, from anyone, from their gods or from their parents and perhaps, from the survivors, and the orphans or bereaved parents of the men they had murdered in the frenzy of the cow protection campaign that is sweeping two-thirds of India?
After visiting more than 50 families in these states, widows and parents of young men cut down in their prime, their throats slit, or battered to death in the mob violence (lynching) or with a police bullet in the back, for carrying cattle in their vehicles (presumably for slaughter) most of them Muslim and some Dalits, Harsh Mander admitted, bowing his head, that he had not found any remorse in the majority upper caste Hindu community. Some time ago, the law icon, Fali Nariman, whose son is now a judge of the Supreme Court, had told the country’s ruling elite, “Hinduism has changed”.
The eight Catholics in the Karwan-e-Mohabbat were neither Muslims nor Hindus, and if some were Dalits, I do not know, for I did not ask. But we were not neutral. It was impossible not to identify ourselves with the victims. This was not because, occasionally we could see the shadow of Kandhamal or the pain of Graham Stuart Staines, or of Father Bernard Digal reflected in the eyes of the survivors.
The Christian persecution is rampant, its pain severe and far reaching. The regime’s impunity, the ruling group’s intent to contain and pack the Church into a tame, pet goldfish in a bowl, to show India’s secular and tolerant state to the world, is self-evident.
But it is nothing compared to the brutal containment of the Muslim community. A journey through the heart of India proves beyond doubt that the dice is loaded against the Muslims, and that the common India does not care, or perhaps agrees that the global winds of Islamophobia provide the right ambient to correct the Islamic invasion of India twelve centuries ago.
There is need for international scrutiny of the situation, which currently goes under the radar, as the world watches the terror of the Islamic State, Daesh against Christians, Shias and others, and the tyranny of the (Buddhist) Myanmar army against the Rohingya Muslims, strangers in their own homeland. The Supreme Court can also take suo moto notice of it.
But is about the Church that I wanted to write. We were eight in the Karwan-e Mohabbat. The Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India had issued strong and very well articulated statement against communalism. Some Bishops too. But at the grassroots, there was little evidence we could see of the Church standing in solidarity with the victims.
Was it because of a callous unconcern, or could it be traced to some shared Islamophobia in the Indian Christian community? Or fear of losing that precious FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) licence and the red-brick educational institutions, which too are under threat? The Church’s few human rights groups are being dispersed. Several important offices have been closed. Church and lay activists, rare as they were, are being dispersed.
This is the time for a soul search.