Deepak Sinha

While fringe elements make provocative remarks on religion, responsible and eminent citizens of the country have been doing no better in imagining conspiracies and slamming the Modi Government for its supposed inaction

Now that ample time has passed and the dust has settled on the controversial issue of treatment of the Christian community by the state, and its impact on the secular fabric of the country following retired Indian police officer Julio Francis Ribeiro’s anguished article in the media, it’s time to look at this important issue dispassionately and squarely.

One of our leading dailies published an Op-ed piece, a few months ago, on the treatment of the Christian community headlined “As a Christian, suddenly I am a stranger in my own country”, Mr Riberio wrote. As usual, the headline was just another act of mindless sensationalism that our media seems unable to avoid, since nowhere in that article has Mr. Riberio written those specific words. He has certainly implied, in no uncertain terms, that the Modi Government in a rather devious manner has “delivered a well- directed body blow” against the Christian community and reduced “them to being treated as non-Indians”.

No right-thinking citizen would disagree with his criticism of either the vandal attacks against the churches or some of the statements made by the more hardcore Hindutva fundamentalists. However condemnable these actions and statements, there is, unfortunately, little evidence for Mr Riberio to have jumped to the conclusions he has, more so, being a seasoned police officer that he used to be, unless of course, his remark was a deliberate attempt to tarnish the Modi Government.

One cannot help but point to the tragic case of the molestation of a nun in West Bengal. Opposition leaders, Modi-baiters, the West Bengal Government, mediapersons and church representatives had little hesitation in vociferously condemning the Hindutva lobby for that dastardly act. However, now that the alleged assailants have been arrested and have turned out to be illegal Bangladeshi migrants, not a word of apology has been extended by any of the detractors. Is this typical Indian behaviour or a deliberate conspiracy of silence? Add to this, the statements of some of the more privileged and eminent members of the community that needlessly fuelled this unseemly controversy.

The former Naval chief, Admiral Sushil Kumar, must have been fully aware of the resilience and experience of the Armed Forces in dealing with communal conflagrations of a far serious nature. And yet he chose to state that the military may be adversely impacted. Similarly, Justice Kurian Joseph is fortunate that he has the choice of attending the function he chooses to, unlike our servicemen along the border, of all faiths, who uncomplainingly go about their duty, regardless of circumstances. Sadly, by their actions and words, these eminent gentlemen have not done their community any favour and have only given a licence to fringe elements that make their livelihood from such controversies, to hit back with more of their venom.

The gentlemen have, however, raised a fundamental question regarding secularism, or the lack of it, which we need to squarely face. Our concept of secularism differs greatly from the manner in which it was originally interpreted by the Greek and the Roman philosophers and subsequent free-thinkers, who saw it as the principle of the separation of state and religion, in which the state was completely neutral on matters of belief or from the imposition by the Government of religion or religious practices upon its people. In our context, we officially adopted the 42nd Amendment to the Preamble to the Constitution only in 1976 and declared India a secular nation.

For example, in 1951, Parliament passed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act, which gave  State Governments the power to appoint managers to the boards of temples, in the name of more effective administration. In this manner, not only have  Governments and politicians usurped tens of thousands of acres of temple land but have also ensured that the donations by devotees are used not just for Hindu pilgrims or the upkeep of temples but for other purposes as well.

A prime example of this is the Tirumala Tirupati  Devasthanams Trust, from which reportedly more than 80 per cent of the collections go into the State’s coffers.The obvious questions it then raises is not only as to why does the functioning of minority religious establishments remain completely autonomous, but also why do their collections get treated differently? How can the church, for example, have a larger budget than our defence forces and yet not be accountable to our Government but to the Vatican?

Finally, the fundamental question we should be asking ourselves is: How fair is it to the majority religious community of  this country that the minority religious authorities occupy prime properties throughout the country just because the past invaders and colonisers forcibly seized them to establish their own religious institutions to proselytise and convert the ‘heathen’? We cannot run away from these issues.



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