Church and Politics should not mix in India

Church and politics may be too rich a mix

JOHN DAYAL

It was expected, but many have been taken by surprise at the flurry proxy conversations between the Church in India and political leaders and parties currently in the midst of the nation’s most bitterly fought parliamentary elections. Questions have arisen if the Church has gone beyond its duty as a watchdog of ethics, morals and values in society, and its concern for the poor, and is trying to do micromanagement of issues and intervening all too much in political processes.

On the heels of the Pastoral letter of the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India exhorting the people to come out and vote and chose parties and candidates committed to India’s religious and plural diversity, Individual Bishops, the ecumenical Council of Andhra Pradesh heads of churches and various protestant groups have come out with similar statements. Many diocesan Bishops in several parts of the country organised prayers and fasting to ensure a healthy and beneficial election.

The Andhra Pradesh Bishops’ group has perhaps gone a step further and presented a charter of demands to the political parties and candidates in the election fray. These demands included setting up of a Christian finance and development corporation, perhaps the only one of its kind, removal of the ban on propagation and practice of Faiths in certain areas,  and Christian representation on various government organisations. They were perhaps shooting for the moon when they also demanded an Assembly seat in each district and two Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, seats in the State for the community, apart from land for building churches. The Christian community is quite large in Andhra, but note large enough. Andhra and Tamilnadu also have Christian Political parties, which, however, do not have much popular following and never win.

In Kerala, the Catholic Bishops had early in the election campaign made clear their unhappiness at a controversial environment zoning report in  the State’s highlands region that would have severely impacted a large number of farmers, most of whom were Christians.

The political parties have apparently been quick to respond to ensure that the Christian vote does not desert them, whether or not it is significant or is large enough to impact the results in several constituencies.

The Kerala chief minister lost little time in trying to tone down the proposed environment regulations, and his emissaries have been meeting Bishops to allay their fears that the state administration was acting against then interests of the Christian community. Parties in Andhra and Telengana, recently divided and now fighting separate political battles, are hoping that the large number of Christian Dalits in the State will vote for them. In Goa, the chief minister went to the Election committee to ensure that there was no polling in the state on Maundy Thursday, as announced in the original schedule.

But other than Kerala and three states of the North East – Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland which have a Christian majority – Christian and specially Catholic representation in the elections remains abysmal.  The State’s apathy and the disinterest of political parties is monumental. Most parties have failed to nominate Christians, and in many northern and western states, there is not even a single Christian candidate. This is perhaps the real index of how little Christians matter in the political discourse in the country. The Muslims representation in the elections also falls very short of their numbers in the nation’s population. But their issues remain very much in the manifestos and promises of every single political party, even the Bharatiya Janata party that is backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which remains exceedingly hostile to the Muslims.

The recent visibility of Bishops in the election environment has, however, generated considerable controversy. At one level are questions if Bishops who speak only for their own denominations and Rites, actually do represent the community as a whole. More serious are questions as to why Bishops are leaving their pulpits to intervene or interfere so directly in the political process. The most telling question is on the utter absence of the Laity in the interaction between church leadership and the political hierarchy.

The larger question is how religious minorities, particularly those as small as the Christian community which is a puny 2.3 per cent if the population, can safeguard their interests in a first-past-the-post election where vote banks and brute majorities dictate the outcome. And with it is tied up the equally important question of how this minor group can intervene effectively in decision-making and governance, irrespective of the results of the elections.

The Indian election laws bar the intrusion of religion in politics, specially in elections. This does not always work, though candidates have in the past lost their seats for using appeals to religion in their election campaigns. In actual practice, political parties chose their candidates on the basis of their faith, or their caste. Hindu religious Gurus and Muslim Mullahs also intervene often, and quite directly. Many campaign for their favourite candidates, and even for their parties. The Yoga guru and indigenous pharmacy tycoon Ramdev is a case in point to Mr. Narendra Modi, the prime-ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

But members of the Christian hierarchies, specially that of the Catholic Church, are not expected to be so visible in the political process. This diffuses the fine line separating relgion and politics, and can be counter-productive in the long run. It also runs counter to the understanding that while the clergy can and should monitor and comment on issues of morality and values, matters such as abortion and stem cell research, corruption and the questions of poverty and development, they should keep their distance from active politics, and specially electoral politics. The church has failed in this. And the leadership, naive in the intricacies of real-politics, has often compromised its integrity.

The Church leadership, Catholic and protestant, would have served its purpose better, and served the community in real terms, if it had spent time, energy and money empowering and educating the laity in public affairs and democratic procedures. The community needs to participate in all areas of politics life, ranging from civil society to local governments and popular movements. The community remains invisible. For a Church as old as the Indian one, it is tragic that its only visibility is in the schools and a few hospitals it runs in various towns and cities.

It is not too late. The on-going elections offer a challenge to the community. It should, and can, gear up to play a fulsome role in the political life of the country, beginning at the bottom, in the villages and small towns, and when there are no elections in sight. It must make common cause with the aspirations and problems of the people. And he Hierarchy can help empower them in this. There is no other way.

 

Gang rape of Catholic nun in Orissa, India — partial justice angers activists

Orissa Kandhamal Nun gang rape: partial, delayed justice

JOHN DAYAL

Those following the gang rape of a Catholic Nun, Sr. M [the Supreme Court of India bars the naming of victims of gender violence] in Kandhamal, Orissa, on 25th August 2008 would have received the conviction of just one of her ten tormentors in the crime, with a sense of sadness for justice partially done and inordinately delayed. In the process, the traumatised religious sister has suffered embarrassment and humiliation in public, and has had to challenge malfeasance the state police and even by a judicial officer.

The Nun had to seek an intervention by the Supreme Court after failed attempts in the high court to ensure that the trial was conducted in a just and transparent manner.

A court in Cuttack on 14th March 2014 finally convicted the main accused – Mitua alias Santosh Patnaik – of the rape of the Nun, while finding two others – Gajendra Digal and Saroj Bahdei – guilty of the lesser crime of “outraging her modesty.” Six persons were acquitted due to lack of evidence. One person is still evading arrest, five and a half years after the crime was committed during the genocidal anti-Christian violence in the Kandhamal district in 2008 following the assassination of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [World Hindu Council] vice president Laksmananada Saraswati by a Maoist terror squad.

That there has been a conviction at all speaks of the bravery and tenacity of the Nun, and of a small band of supporters who have carried on an unceasing campaign for justice. The state itself from the beginning had seemed totally disinterested in pursing the rapists and brining them to justice.

Two months after the crime, the victim came before the international media in New Delhi to narrate her pain at the police inaction. She spoke of how she was gang raped in the office of a not for profit social organization she worked for in Kandhamal. In fact, a group of rioting men who had caught her, wanted to burn her alive. Then, one by one, they raped her. Not satisfied with that, the group paraded her naked, together with a Priest who had also been captured by them. The police, when they reached her, were of no help. Twice, they allowed other groups of marauders to re-capture her. Later they advised her not to press charges, saying there could be “consequences” for her. They ordered her to not write her travail in detail in her official complaint. Eventually, instead of escorting her to a safe haven, they left her to take a public bus to the state capital where finally she found refuge in her religious community.

It was after outraged Christian activists made a noise in the national capital, New Delhi, that arrests were made. That six persons have been acquitted for want of evidence itself speaks of the shoddy investigations that were carried out. Much later, when finally she was asked to confront and identify the accused persons, the magistrate on duty sought to falsify her statement that she had identified the men. She moved the high court in Cuttack, which did not accept her plea. The Nun then came to the Supreme Court, which was aghast at the treatment meted to her by the subordinate judiciary.

The Supreme Court judges set a deadline for the case to be tried by the Orissa court and judgement given. This was not the only case of rape in the Kandhamal violence. Two other cases have been reported. There were many other cases of gender violence that never came to trial because the police was bent on minimizing the extent of violence against women, as indeed they had failed to register many other cases of arson, and some of murder. What has been particularly galling has been the failure of civil society in Orissa to stand by the Nun. In fact, both government officials and local citizen and political groups first sought to deny there had been a gang rape at all.

The Nun was then subjected to a vilification campaign in which the local media joined in, rather enthusiastically, with a slew of insinuations. State and national women’s commissions, meant to safeguard the interest of the common people and charged with overseeing that justice was done in cases of gender violence, kept almost entirely silent. So did the National Human Rights Commission and the government bodies who otherwise are known to speak out when other such crimes are committed. The investigations and trial have taken more than five years, and one person is still to be traced and arrested.

It is inexplicable that this lackadaisical process has taken place when there is a national mood of zero tolerance of rape and gender crimes following the gang rape and murder of a premedical student in New Delhi in December 2012. That horrendous crime led to the setting up of a commission headed by the retired Chief Justice of India, Mr. J S Verma, whose momentous report has set the norms and guidelines to curb violence against women.

In fact, the government accepted the report immediately and soon legislated a harsher law against rape, mandating the death penalty for those found guilty. Several persons have been given capital punishment since 2012. One would have wished the norms stipulated by Justice Verma for investigations and trial had been followed in the case of Sr. M. But traumatised though she may have been by her experience in Kandhamal and then in the court rooms, Sr. M. has not accepted defeat. She has refused to be broken, and is understood to be pursuing higher studies and hopes to be come a lawyer one day. I know Sr. M personally, and am moved beyond words by her courage and the strength of her spirit, and of her faith. [UCAN]

Going beyond the Narendra Modi hype

Going beyond India’s pre-election Modi hype

Controversial candidate’s path to power is not guaranteed

  • John Dayal,
  • February 28, 2014

On the eve of India’s general election 10 years ago psephologists and pollsters predicted another term in office for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), then led by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) popular leader and then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

But when the results came, Vajpayee and his NDA failed to get a majority.

Now, television news channels are once again carpet-bombing the political landscape with surveys that predict doom for the incumbent Congress Party and its alliance. If TV channels are to be believed, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, has all but won the upcoming election.

It’s not difficult to see why Modi is so popular among a certain segment of the population.  Many in India say he, as chief minister of Gujarat, presided over the massacre of Muslims in 2002, an act which has seen him being denied a visa to travel to the United States.

At one time, he faced arrest in the UK, as there were two British nationals among the thousands killed in the state. But the very issue that got him US sanctions, and the abhorrence of not just Indian Muslims but national civil society, also made him the “hridaya samrat”, or the King of the Hearts, of majoritarian hyper-nationalist segments of Hindu society, which sees religious minorities as second-class citizens, if not outright anti-nationals.

The Modi rhetoric against Pakistan and his claim of a “development agenda” projected him as a “strong and modern leader.’  Large-scale tax concessions made him the darling of the corporate and industrial sectors. Taken together, here was a man of the moment who in one stroke would lift India out of its economic crisis with his prosperity gospel, and would “teach a lesson” to India’s internal and external enemies, among them militant Muslims and neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh.

For those unfamiliar with sub-continental politics, Pakistan is understood to be fueling Islamic militancy and terrorism in India, while Bangladesh, not a military superpower, is presumed guilty of pushing millions of illegal migrants into India.

Pitted against Modi is the scion of the Gandhi family, 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the British-educated development economist pitchforked into leadership as vice-president of the Congress Party. He is, by default, its prime ministerial candidate. The candidature is only presumed, because the party says prime ministers are chosen by elected members of parliament and not by parties or the press.

Gandhi brings a certain freshness and innocence to Indian politics. But his is not the persona that will launch a thousand warships, or threaten India’s militants and Pakistan’s irregular armed militias that routinely penetrate the Kashmir valley.

He is seen as a soft person, almost a namby-pamby. His speeches are full not of aggression and rhetoric, but of plaintive cries for reform. He promises a brave new world in which the poor and the women will be empowered, and where there will be transparency in governance. He may well appeal to the youth, but his political charm remains untested.

This is an unequal media battle. Modi is easily the more media savvy person.  He has excellent professional help in his public relations, with major international image management groups involved in fine-tuning the nitty gritty of a strategy that can sell a prime ministerial candidate to the public with the same finesse that it sells breakfast cereal and skin whitening cream to the upwardly mobile 400 million of India’s 1.2 billion population.

And therein lies the problem for India’s indigenous election forecast companies and American institutions such as the Pew Foundation that said in a recent poll that Modi is more than three times as popular as Gandhi, and the BJP is close to assuming power.

Most predictions are based on surveys of a population sample that considers urban and rural divides, the youth factor, even education and income. They also consider whether the contest is a direct one, or has three or four major contending parties, which can muddy the waters.

Some surveys take an overview of the caste factor, which plays a critical role in electoral preferences and voter loyalty in almost every state of the country.

The Pew survey seemingly shows no allowance for caste, which adds to the skewed nature of its very small research sample. The predictions are based on a miniscule 2,464 prospective voters. Pew says the sample was weighed to reflect the urban-rural divide, but it must have been a huge challenge considering that there are over 788 million voters for the 523 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs.

A person surveyed for his views is meant to represent more than 300,000 voters. This means in a constituency with an average of two million votes, only five people were asked their preferences. The margin of error stated by Pew is in excess of 3.8 percent. In “first past the post” elections where margins of victories are often just a few thousand votes, and sometimes a few hundred, it is a moot question if 63 percent “popularity” for the main leader can mean an equally facile victory for his party’s local candidate.

India does not follow the US presidential election system, a direct contest between candidates. India’s parliamentary election system calls for political parties to win a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, by themselves or in coalition with other parties.

It remains to be seen how many coalition partners the BJP can gather into its National Democratic Alliance. The surveys that project Modi as the most popular leader also go on to show that the NDA will still remain short of a majority.

A poor showing by the Congress, predicted by even the man on the street, would therefore not by itself help Modi become prime minister. To do that, he would not only have to win for his party, but also show an inclusiveness that would encourage other political parties to join him. And inclusiveness is not yet part of Modi’s persona.

Taking a call on General elections

JOHN DAYAL

Three national General elections ago, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India issued a sterling quasi political manifesto and a 19-point set of instructions and guidelines calling upon the community, and the people at large to rebuild a new India free of want, fear and exploitation. In words prophetic in the current context of divisive politics, the Bishops said, “Commitment to truth and justice, tempered by tolerance acceptance and the spirit of reconciliation can help release all the needed energy and commitment for continuing the national reconstruction to which we re-commit ourselves.”

The electoral guidelines told voters how to choose the candidates and parties who would be good for India if they came to power. The CBCI put its faith in those who promised to uphold the rule of law, in pluralism in all matters, linguistic, ethnic and religious. People were to shun those who did not believe in secularism, communal harmony and respect of all religions, those who did not believe in the right to life “from womb” onwards, and those who were corrupt or had a criminal record. They also sought a rejection of those who trampled on human rights and civil liberties, gender justice, child rights or believed in caste. And they demanded from political parties and candidates in the general election a promise and commitment to work for a slate that included justice for all, the eradication of poverty, devolution of power to the grassroots, and the basic rights of food, shelter, health, clothing and education. In remarkably advanced thinking for the times, they called for the right to recall candidates who won, and then failed the test of people’s expectations on the fulfillment of the promises.

Almost twenty years on, not much has changed on the ground. India still rates among the lowest of the low internationally in rankings on the amelioration of poverty, child health, basic education and other human parameters. The gap between the rich and the poor grows even though the country now boast a 200 million strong middle class now seeking to impose its self-serving politics on the entire nation. Violence against women is rampant, and corruption rules. Violence against Muslims an Christians remains a black mark on the nation. Multinational and local industrial giants are leveling sacred hills and denuding pristine forests, and polluting both the air and the water with effluents.

Press reports had suggested that the Catholic Bishops would make an in-depth statement on the general elections due in April or May this year. There were high expectations therefore that the week-long 31st Plenary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India in Palai, Kerala, from 5 to 12 February, that the prelates would go beyond the old statement. It was expected that they would be specific to help the people cope with the more complex politics of 2014. This year the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Mr. Narendra Modi and the Aam Admi Party’s Mr. Arvind Kejriwal have added strident voices to the cacophony of the slogans of the regional parties, of which there are a handful, and of course, the Indian National Congress which rules currently as the United Progressive Alliance.

A day before he demitted office as CBCI president, Mumbai’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias issued a pastoral letter paraphrasing the much older document.  He listed a five-point list of desirable attributes in those contesting elections. The points included secularism and the care of religious minorities, the rights of the tribals over their habitat, a pro-poor economy, and security security for women and children, and full rights to Dalit Christians. The last, a new point, is of some importance in the backdrop of the rally by the people at parliament house on 11 December 2013, which was sought to be dispersed by the police in a baton charge and the use of a water cannon.

The general statement on behalf of the 187 member-bishops of the CBCI issued a day later, added the cause of farmers and plantation owners of the forested uplands of Kerala, the Western Ghats, which would be threatened if government were to implement the recommendations of a high powered scientific committee which called for an end to human depredations of the environment in such tracts. Many of the people to be impacted were Catholics and the Bishops have been campaigning for them for sometime now. The Bishops of course took care to reassure the government they were fully in support of the environment too.

Almost as if to address the general disappointment over the timid political statement, the new president of the CBCI, Cardinal Moran Mar Baselios Cleemis, highlighted the one significant programme for the future — sensitising and training the laity, specially the youth, to equip them to participate in the political process. “Though the Church doesn’t have any intention of political gain it would be a dereliction of our duties if we don’t train the youth, the values and principles,” he said. It will be left to the dioceses and regions to set up the training centres that would be needed.

This is not going to be an easy task, and anyway, it is much too late to have any impact on the elections this time around. It may well take at least another five years, if not longer, to have a critical mass of young people trained in ideology, values and strategy, to make their presence felt in the many states of the country. Barring the AICUF, which really exists in just a few states, specially in South India, the efforts of the church to train young men and women have not been successful in a big way. They may have added to the numbers of loyal, and pious, laity but they have not made a difference in enhancing the Christian presence in politics, or the incorporation of its values in the political system.

The existing models of political participation of the community may not fit the bill for a country as large as India. In the Christian majority states of Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland in the northeast, there is a natural Christian presence in the State assemblies and other structures. But even there, the vote goes by tribes and religious denominations. Kerala too is not the best model. With almost a quarter of the population professing the Christian faith, but divided sharply on denominational and ritual lines, there is sizable presence of Christians in the State assembly and local self-government.  But the binary politics of Kerala, between the two fronts led by the Marists and the Congress party, and the aggressive antipathy of the Church towards the Marxist alliance, leaves no space to explore the full potential of training in ideologies, political economy and statecraft. This is evident in the fact that the Congress, which has the support of the church, and the Marxists, come into power every alternate general election. It is also evident in the fact that various Church leaders do not look at the larger picture or even the national veal. Little wonder that a pretty large number of church leaders in Kerala have met and praised Mr. Narendra Modi, the man who presided over the mass murder of Muslims in 2002 but is riding high on what is called a development agenda which largely translates into a promise of economic and industrial growth. Mercifully, none of these pro-Modi leaders were Catholics.

The CBCI document offers very little hope that the Laity will be really empowered. Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council and the hope it offered to the ordinary people, or the promise that Pope Francis has held forth to non-clerical men and women in the world, the Indian Laity, specially the Latin group, remain unheard in the forums that matter. Till there is a new deal for the laity in the church in the country, training a few in the hope they will make a difference in Indian politics may remain a dream.

 

Tackling racism in India

Racist violence and the silence of the National Integration Council

John Dayal

Many years ago some of us founded the North East Centre and Helpline as we thought we should do something to challenge the ingrained racism in many areas of the national capital, and rampant racist violence against young men and women who attended the universities and educational institutions and lived in shared accommodation particularly in houses in the many urban villages of Delhi.

In quick time, our colleagues researched and documented the extent of the violence, and presented the findings to the national media and the authorities, including the police. The Delhi government and the central authorities were not too keen to listen to us, but the police commissioner of that time, after one horrendous violent incident, agreed to create a single window system so that victims did not have to run around to get their complaints registered.

The Centre and Helpline had, after initial hesitation, the enthusiastic support of the many community unions and organisations that exist. Every tribe, state and religious group has its own union or association, and there is a very strong community feeling among the people living in an almost hostile environment so far from home.  Volunteers manned our phones on an around-the-clock basis, offering counseling and advice. Our teams responded to distress calls from victims of violence, rushing to the scenes of the crime and then to the police station to get cases registered under law. It was in such exercises that we discovered cases of rape not only in Delhi but also in neighbouring towns of the national capital region, including Gurgaon.

The recent cases of violence against young people from Arunachal and other states comes as no surprise. But the death of the young student from Arunachal Pradesh, is a particularly horrendous incident, and casts aspersions not just on the professional efficacy of Delhi police, but also on its character as there are indications of corruption and partisanship. In fact, the police also emerge as racist. The Delhi High Court has chastised the Delhi police for the shoddiness of its investigations and the forensic probe.  Parliament has condemned the violence, and no less that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party, has expressed her solidarity with the victims.

Elsewhere, there have been incidents or racist violence or behaviour against people of African descent, many of whom are students in various colleges of Delhi and some are expatriate workers. Africans had even forty years ago invited the curiosity and then ridicule in North India, which has a fascination for people of European origin with their light complexion. But with the opening of the national economy, the number of persons coming from the African continent has increased, and with it have increased social tensions, which sometimes burst out into open violence. The most macabre was the molestation of two women by a mob in the presence of a minister of the Delhi government who thought the two were drug peddlers or sex workers, as if this allowed physical action against them.

The government swings into emergency action every time such an incident generates a public outcry, or is taken up in a major way by an otherwise somnambulant media. The single window police procedure seems to have been given a go by [it also existed for domestic and other violence against women] and jurisdictional haggling and often sheer corruption ensure that the police do not act as they should.

The Union and the state governments do not monitor racist and targetted violence and therefore are ail prepared to formulate any policies or practices to curb it. While there is lip service to secularism, and to gender justice, there is absolutely not a single thing in our school curricula or in the advertisements released on television, radio and newspapers by the Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity of the government against racism and racist violence.

The Prevention of Communal and Targetted Violence Bill, which was brutally murdered in the Rajya Sabha this week – it was withdrawn under right wing pressure – had some measures against such violence.  The Bill invited the wrath of the Sangh Parivar and its front, the Bharatiya Janata party, who felt its focus on preventing violence against Muslims in some way injured the interests of the majority community. If the Bill had become law, racist crimes would certainly have come under its ambit and it could have possibly worked as a deterrent.

The National Integration  Council – of which this writer is a member – has failed signally in its charter envisaged by its founder, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It meets every alternate year – instead of the six monthly meetings that members stressed were needed. In its last meeting held in the wake if the barbarous violence against Muslims in Muzaffarnagar, the NIC did not refer to the Communal and Targetted Violence prevention Bill at all. In its meeting two years earlier, Home Minister Chidambaram maintained silence as BJP chief ministers butchered the draft bill. The government did not defend it at all, although the National Advisory council drafted it with government concurrence.

The silence of the NIC in the recent cases of racist violence is deafening. Not that it has a system in place to react to such indents.

And with national polity in a flux, there is little hope that the future will unfold some deterrent laws against such violence.

The Republic of India at 64

The Republic at 64  – between bigotry, corruption and chaos

JOHN DAYAL

A no holds barred campaign for the General Elections expected in April or May this year forms the backdrop for the celebrations of the 65th Republic Day of India on 26th January, marking the day when the new Constitution was promulgated, marking the final break of the country from the colonial era.

The otherwise joyous occasion, a public holiday marked by grand parades in State capitals and the national capital New Delhi, where India displays its military might in a public showcasing of ballistic missiles and marching columns, is this year being held in a noxious cloud of electoral invective, posturing and  theatrical street confrontations that would be farcical if they did not have seeds of a potential constitutional crisis.

The week leading up to the big day saw three seminal events involving the three major political entities seen as the main contenders for power in future The discourse so far has not involved regional parties governing the large states of Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Orissa who, actually, will be the king makers as members of future coalitions, but that is another story.

The first major event was a meeting of the Congress party’s top national leadership where its vice president Mr. Rahul Gandhi was chosen the leader of the election campaign, but was not named the candidate for the post of prime minister if the party were to win.  He spoke of programmes for the poor, the religious minorities and women and youth, but could not spell out a strategy that would help the party come out of the charges of widespread corruption in its ten year rule, and involving its top ministers and political leaders.  His mother, Congress president Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, had the final say in not naming Rahul as the Congress Prime Minister in waiting. She vetoed a cacophony of sycophantic voices that clamored for Mr. Rahul Gandhi to  be appointed the party’s candidate for the top post in government if the party’s United Progressive Alliance won a majority in the polls. Mrs. Gandhi, with her impeccable political instincts, guessed correctly that Rahul would an easy target, if not exactly a sitting duck, if the campaign became a confrontation between him and Mr. Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s  anointed candidate to head the next government. She did not want the focus to be on personalities, a sort of a political duel between her son and his arch rival Mr. Modi.

The second event was the BJP’s own National Conclave and then its core group meeting of its Council where expectedly its disappointment it being denied an easy target in Rahul Gandhi overwhelmed whatever policies it wanted to announce to woo the voters. Mr. Narendra Modi has, since his being named the party’s election leader, been hankering for a direct fight between him and Mr. Gandhi on  the pattern of the American presidential campaigns where Republican and Democrat nominees slug it out across the nation. Much of the time of the meetings was spent in the top leadership slamming Mr. Gandhi for chickening out of mortal combat.  It was left to Mr. Modi to articulate, in the time left, his vision for India and the party’s policies for the future.  He disappointed on both counts, pandering to industry and commerce in his focus on good governance and prosperity. His vision for a united India, which covered the party’s core support base, left out religious minorities, the Dalits, the Tribals and people on the margin.

The third event was bizarre, a confrontation between the Aam Admi party leadership and government, which is on control of the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, and the Union Government ruled by the Congress.  The irony that the AAP rules with the “outside “ support of the Congress was not lost on anyone. AAP founder and Delhi’s chief minister Mr. Arvind Kejriwal led a sit-in near the Home Ministry after Delhi police, governed by the Union government, stopped his march to the offices of the Union Home Minister, Mr. Shinde.  Mr. Kejriwal said he wanted to protest against the highhandedness of the Police which had refused to carry out oral orders by his ministers – one calling for the arrest of some African women suspected to be involved in human trafficking, and the relatives of the husband of a women who was allegedly been set aflame by them. Mr. Kejriwal accused of Mr. Shinde of being top man in a corruption chain that began with police constables and involved senior officers including the Delhi Police commissioner. Mr. Kejriwal’s sit-in, close to where the Republic Day parade will be held, has divided the people of Delhi, his supporters applauding his challenge to the Congress government; his opponents saying the pre-election posturing exposed the man’s lust for power. Lost in the fracas was the promise of a decisive struggle against corruption which had first caught the imagination of the people and catapulted Mr. Kejriwal from street agitations to the chair of chief minster.

The strength of the Indian republic has been its commitment to pluralism and equity, in polity as much as in its social discourse. This has held the nation together despite widening gulfs between the rich and the poor, and contrasts between the emerging metropolises and IT hubs and the rural areas and small towns still mired in gross underdevelopment, many of them without piped water, or even electricity through the hours of the night.  Hope had always been held out to the poor that they were the ultimate beneficiaries of all development policies even if it was not apparent at first sight.  The movement against corruption, led first by Mr. Anna Hazare and then by Mr. Kejriwal was built on the argument that this promise was not being fulfilled because middle men, ministers and politicians were siphoning off the funds.

Unless things change radically in the next three months, the likely scenario will not see focus on the poor man, or those who seek security from targetted violence.  With the AAP seeking a national vote without yet articulating a national policy, and the Congress hobbled by charges of corruption, the spotlight remains on the Bharatiya Janata party. Unfortunately, the party has signaled in its recent movements that its focus will be on the 200 million strong middle class with a political prosperity gospel and the Hindu majority in its accusation that the Congress has been pandering only to the Muslims.

And that is not good news for the nation that is the largest democracy in the world as it celebrates Republic day.

 

 

 

 

 

Flirting with the Truth

Flirting with the truth on 1984, 2002

John Dayal

Mr. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president, was spot on when in his interview with Times Now TV channel in January 2014 said Mr. Narendra Modi was complicit in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 in his watch as Chief Minister.  But Mr. Gandhi was surely flirting with the truth when he said the government of his father, the late Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and, by association, the Congress party, was innocent in the 1984 killing of over 3,500 Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 in the wake of the assassination of the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

It is a matter for record, of course, that many persons have been prosecuted, and senior Congress leaders such as then Members of Parliament Mr. Jagdish Tytler, Mr. Sajjan Kumar and former Union Minister Mr. H.K.L. Bhagat were indicted, and the two are still under the shadow of being arraigned in a court of law for those crimes. It is also well known that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, after first making his infamous statement “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes” also announced on Doordarshan that “This madness must end” as the killings raged over three days. Many top officials, including the Lt Governor and the police commissioner, were sacked. Later, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister, Mr. Man Mohan Singh formally expressed regrets and apologized to the nation and the Sikh community for one of the darkest chapters in the history of India.

In contrast, the Bharatiya Janata party and its prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Narendra Modi have expressed no contrition for the Gujarat killings. Callously, the BJP all but justified the massacre as inevitable after the burning alive of Ram Janmabhoomi pilgrims in a train at Godhra. Mr. Modi said on record he was about as sorry as anyone would be if a car ran over a puppy dog. At least one minister of Mr. Modi’s council of ministers is serving a life term after his government refused to appeal to higher courts to enhance the sentence to capital punishment. Most have escaped punishment.

Mr. Gandhi was little more than a child in 1984 and would have been still traumatised by the death of his much loved grandmother to be aware of what was happening in the city, but in the years since then, he would surely have familiarized himself with reality. But those of us who, as journalists or activists not just saw but described in our newspapers and magazines the macabre sights of hundreds of Sikh men and boys being torched alive on the main roads of Delhi, and chased in Gurudwaras in north and west Delhi, have to just close our eyes for the scenes to come back in painful total recall.

We saw local Congressmen, and workers of some non-Congress right wing fundamentalist groups, who have escaped scrutiny because the focus has remained on the Congress these 30 years, joining and often leading the killer mobs. We recognised local party leaders, including those we had often seen hanging around the Congress office, or in the halls of the Municipal Corporation. It is easy to tell a Sikh on the street, but local leaders guided mobs to the houses where Sikhs lived. At some places, there was but one Sikh family in the area. Mercifully, Hindu neighbours,  who braved the goons baying for blood , saved many such families.

The District officers, the Central Government and the Police, from the Commissioner down to the beat constable, watched, and watched for a full three days. I, with a few other reporters, saw how guilty the police were in Trilokpuri in East Delhi where hundreds of Sikhs, most of the Mazhabis and artisans, were burnt in their small houses in the resettlement colony set up during the Emergency. Later, I was attending a Press conference by the new Lt. Governor in the press room at Shashtri Bhawan in the heart of New Delhi when we saw from the windows mobs chase a Sikh youth and kill him near the bungalows of Members of Parliament. We saw the chase. We learnt of the man’s murder the next day. The police and officials did not act.

No minister or politician, other than perhaps in distant villages, actually kills with his or her own hands. Some encourage and exhort. Some others lead the killer mobs. But mostly they just watch and do nothing.  Governments are complicit by their inaction. Three days is a long time for the Union Government of a land to control arson and murder in a capital city.  This is as true as Mr. Modi’s culpability in Gujarat. There is no escaping truth.

 

Man Mohan Singh leaves behind a legacy of disappointments

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Man Mohan Singh’s statement at his New Year press conference ruling himself out from a third term, if the United Progressive Alliance were to win the April-May 2014 General Elections, surprised no one, least of all those in his Congress party clamouring that he leave now and make way for party vice president Rahul Gandhi. Though unlikely, this could yet happen if Congress president Mrs. Sonia Gandhi thinks her son and the party will be better off if he is not just the prime ministerial candidate, but the prime minister as he leads the party in what is expected to be the most vicious and polarising election battle in recent history.

The Indian electorate, more than half of it rural, has a nasty habit of surprising everyone and thwarting ambitious leaders. It wiped out Indira Gandhi’s Congress in 1977, and yet re-elected her in 1980. It confined the Bharatiya Janata Party to a mere two seats in a 542 seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, brought it to power for six years, and then defeated it decisively in 2004 when it was supposedly at the peak of its popularity. The Congress won an entirely unexpected victory, and ruled the country for two terms as a minority government with its cantankerous partners in the United Progressive Alliance.=

In his press conference, Dr. Singh sheepishly said history would be more kind to him that the media or his political opponents. It is a moot question which aspects of his 10-year rule as Prime minister, and his five-year stint earlier as the Finance Minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao in the 1990s, does Dr. Singh bank upon for his place in history. The Oxford-trained economist, who has worked for the United Nations, and back home was economic advisor to the government and Governor of the Reserve Bank, will be best remembered for dismantling the economic apparatus of government controls on industry and finance created by Mr. Jawahar Lal Nehru and Mrs. Indira Gandhi, which is euphemistically called the “Licence Raj’.

The liberalisation and opening of the Indian economy to western and Japanese capital, held by some to be dictated by the International Monetary Fund, helped create India’s Information Technology and Telecommunication sectors, but did not create a safety net for the poor and the marginalised. After initial growth rates of over 8 per cent, Dr. Singh had the mortification of seeing growth plummet to below 5 % in the last two years, as the economy, no longer insulated from the turmoil of Wall Street, withered in the Western meltdown. In one fells swoop, Dr. Singh who was once the darling of Indian industry and Financial giants, became a Pariah, his regime and his party suffering in consequence. The corruption in his government came centre stage.

The poor once constituted the main vote of the Congress party, which has had to wage an internal struggle with the government, so to say, to force a few schemes to offer some relief to the poor. The Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Scheme, which gives a 100 days paid work to landless unemployed rural poor, and the Right to Food, even the Right to Information Act must be credited to Congress president Sonia Gandhi who astutely created a semi-official National Advisory Council to formulate these landmark legislations in the face of stiff opposition from sections of the government and economy. The laws against corruption were enacted under pressure in of a urban middle class mass movement and popular outrage.

The Man Mohan Singh regime failed to assuage the hurt of the minorities, religious groups such as Muslims and Christians, the Tribals, and the Dalits. He admitted as much in his parting statement. Many of their issues perhaps were in the domain of the governments of the states who deal with law and order, but he showed no leadership in encouraging the states to act. There has been no abating in the violence against Muslims and Christians in several regions, but the government failed to enact the Prevention of Communal and Targetted Violence Bill, which was also formulated by the National Advisory Council. The Bill was expected to be opposed by the Bharatiya Janata party, an adjunct of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh whose stock in trade is fomenting hate against Muslims and Christians, but Dr. Singh’s cabinet showed a shameful lack of courage in getting this very important law passed in Parliament with his other allies. Dr. Singh did lead a minority government dependent on the support of a range of allies with contradictory interests. But when it suited him, he did manage, for instance, to get Parliament to clear a deal with the United States of the civil of nuclear technology in the teeth of opposition from major parties and peoples groups.

The ten years of government have also not seen any lessening of the tension in Indian Kashmir where people have been in confrontation with state and Union governments almost on a continuous basis. Little progress has been on political solutions to heal deep wounds and emotional cleavages, other than an empty rhetoric that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

The government has also failed miserably all these ten years in foreign relations and internal security. Its current diplomatic crisis with the US on the issue of an underpaid maid and her women diplomat employer who was arrested in New York, shows the ham-handedness in which issues have been handled. Dialogue has been given a go-by. Relations with Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been at the lowest in several years. The security apparatus has been buttressed with new rockets and missiles, aircraft carriers and warplanes, but on the ground, incursions and intrusions by Pakistan on the western borders and China along the northern lines of control have exposed chinks in the Indian armour.

Dr. Singh will, finally, have to answer to the charge that it was under his watch, that religious fundamentalism consolidated further and grew, creating the ground in which Mr. Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, could emerge as the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, now posing the strongest threat yet to the Congress party in the general elections later this year. And the Congress can no longer be sure it retains the trust of the poor, the Dalits, the Tribals and the Minorities which and voted for it all these year. That is bad news not just for the Congress, but to Indian secularism which remains the sole guarantee of the safety and security of the religious minorities, among others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bishops, Nuns and others face police water cannons, baton charges and arrest

Lathi-Charged, Water Cannoned, arrested – Dalit Christians still look to the future with hope

 

John Dayal

 

The Indian government is reported to be considering what reply it should give to the Supreme Court of India on a nine year old writ filed by Dalit Christians, and Dalit Muslims, seeking the same legal and political rights that are given to Dalits professing Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. But there is little hope, despite water-cannon attack and lathi charge upon, and arrest of, 3,000 Dalit Christians and Muslims agitating at Parliament street on 11 December 2013, that government will introduce any new legislation in Parliament anytime soon to meet the aspirations of tens of millions of marginalised people. Some say 60 per cent of all Indian Christians are of Dalit origin, concentrated largely in Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala and Punjab, ands scattered in other states..

 

These rights include not just reservations in academic institutions and government jobs, but include the right to seek election from “reserved seats”,  all the way from Panchayati Raj institutions and State Legislative Assemblies to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.   Dalit Christians and Muslims also do not have the protection of the Untouchability Act, which protected Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits if they are persecuted in their villages or workplace, or are harassed by the police and senior civil servants.

 

This terrible situation, criticised by the United Nations as much by Roman Pontiffs, is a result of the amendment the then nascent Indian government made to Article 341 in 1950. This law recognizes that Dalits have suffered in India for 3,000 years, and they continue to be persecuted in society to this day.  The arch Hindus in the new Parliament feared this would lead to mass conversions to Christianity. The President of India was made to sign an Order introducing a section (iii) in Article 341 limiting the “scheduled caste” rights to Hindus. Government later extended these right to other “indict” religions such as Sikhism and Buddhism, leaving out the “Semitic” or “foreign-born religions” Christianity and Islam.

 

This law also resulted in the denial of the right to freedom of faith to Hindu Dalits. Religion, and change of religion, is a right otherwise guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Now Dalit Hindus cannot covert to any relgion other than Buddhism and Sikhism. Millions of them are converting to Buddhism because then they do not lose their jobs or scholarships that would happen if they chose Islam or Christianity.

 

The agitation of Dalit Christians for the restoration of their rights is very old. It started in 1950 soon after the Presidential order was promulgated. Its early leaders included office bearers of the All India Catholic Union and Catholic clergy. Since then agitations have been held. The Supreme Court was also moved, but it ruled against the Dalit Christians in affect telling them they needed to adduce some more evidence. Early this century, the Dalit Christians went back to the Supreme court, armed not just with voluminous data, mostly from south India, and expert studies, but also the reports of the Justice Mishra Commission which said Dalit Christians and Muslims suffered from the same infirmities as did their Hindu brethren and were therefore entitled to the same benefits. Many state governments, including Tamil Nadu and Bihar and leaders and political heads including Mayawati and J Jayalalitha also extended vocal and written support. The parties that did not support were the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata party and its close allies such as the Shiv Sena.

 

Five years ago, the Supreme Court asked the Union government to file an affidavit stating its response to the Dalit writ petition – did it agree or did it not want to give such rights to the people. For five years, the ruling Congress party and thru government have refused to file such an affidavit.  Catholic Cardinals have met Congress president Sonia Gandhi and prime minister Man Mohan Singh dozens of times in the last ten years, but in vain.

 

Major agitations have been launched. In 1991, more than 100,000 Dalit Chrisians protested at India Gage in New Delhi. All major political leaders addressed them. On 27 November 1997, Archbishop Alan De Lastic of Delhi and 500 bishops, clergy, nuns and lay leaders courted arrest on Parliament Street, making headlines across the world. The Dalits themselves have been holding smaller rallies in Delhi during every session of Parliament.

 

This time, they decided to make an impact. Over 3,000 of them gathered at the famous Jantar Mantar protest area, and then decided to march to Parliament. Among the leaders were the Archbishops of Delhi and many Catholic and protestant bishops and nuns from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

 

The police lost their head. Perhaps they thought Dalit Christians would not defy the policemen armed with guns and stout sticks, shields and helmets. There were water cannons on duty, the water-spouts aimed at the demonstration. This is routine for other demonstrations but are not used on peaceful persons. The Christians were entirely peaceful, brandishing nothing more than placards and small wooded crosses. Many of them were in their cassocks, the nuns in their habits.

 

Within moments they launched a water cannon charge, followed instantly with lathi wielding policemen wading into the rally, beating up people mercilessly. A dozen or so nuns were injured, some of them very badly. Many priests had blows to their heads and faces. Some protestant clergy had their legs all but smashed.

 

The leaders of the agitation tried to reason with the police, without result.

 

Finally, Archbishop Anil Couto courted arrest with about 350 men and women. They were taken to the Police station and detailed till late evening. Communist party Member of Parliament D Raja and union minister of State J D Seelam sought to fix an appointment with the Prime Minister, which came the next day, followed by a meeting with Law Minister Kapil Sibal. But apart from making polite noises and apologizing for the violence on the Christians, they offered no real hope of an early solution, or meeting the demands of the community.

 

It remains to be seen if the government will give its response to the Supreme court when the case comes up once again in the New year.

 

[The writer was among those who faced the water cannon, was lathi-charged, detained, and then discharged that fateful day.]

 

An Indian Christmas Story

An Indian Christmas story

JOHN DAYAL
Baby Jesus and his mother are, of course, at the centre of the Christians story of the World’s redemption. But to me , it is the Shepherds of Bethlehem who are major characters of the celestial drama. After Mary, they are the ones to see heavenly Hosts, angels if you wish, come to them bathed in heavenly light. Thirty two or so years later, Jesus would say “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven’. You cannot get poorer than a shepherd. And you cannot live s life harder than the life of the man who guards sheep and goats. Specially in the olden days in what are now Israel and Palestine. Most shepherds down really own the sheep they guard. A group of shepherds may be watching over the animals, which are actually owned by many much better off people of the village or the town. It is their job to tend to the animals till their wool ahs been shorn by the owners, or they are sold off. And they guard them with their life, even when the temperatures dip to near freezing point, and the cold winds pierce through their coarse woolen cloaks.

 

People in the tribals areas and in India’s  6 lakh villages would easily identify with these Shepherds of the Bible.  They too have nothing really to call their own, apart from the clothes on their back. Many still have no roof over their heads, and do not know where the next meal is coming from. In his time when leaders make promises, which they do not intend to keep, and some they cannot fulfill even if they tried, there is still no one to listen to the cries of the Dalits, the tribals, the fishermen and the landless peasants who are forced to work as cheap labour, working at back-breaking jobs for a pittance.

 

India’s development story has left these people far behind. Across the country, in every state, the people on the margins face a life that is far from the rosy picture that television and newspapers paint and which governments, legislators and the rich and middle class people of big cities like to believe so their conscience is not burdened.

 

It may have sent a satellite to the planet Mars and it may dream to put a person on the moon in the future, but India ranks India ranks among the last in international lists of human happiness, dignity and health. The country is almost near the bottom in infant mortality, in the death of young mothers, in malnourishment of both children and adults. A state such as Gujarat, which claims huge strides in development and industrial growth, has a terrible record in these human indices.

 

The Dalits and Tribals have seen their land, their forest and their water stolen by the government to enrich big industry and businessmen. Their holy hills have been leveled to the ground in search of minerals and fuel. Rivers have eben dammed, leaving upstream areas flooded or covered with water. The villagers never get to use the electricity generated in such hydroelectric projects. There are few jobs, and all too many people are either underemployed or working as bonded labour. Their women are sexually exploited; their children go without education.

 

And yet these people dream. They dream of a life without poverty and sickness, where there is ample food and water for all, and where everyone can sleep under a roof. Above all, they dream of human dignity, and happiness.

 

Governments cannot fulfill these dreams and hopes.

 

It is in this environment of hopelessness and defeat that the people on the margins look for hope in Jesus Christ, and his promise of salvation.

 

The Christmas vision and promise to the shepherds so long ago is also a promise to them, and to us.

 

Wishing you all joy and happiness, and  Merry Christmas. And a blessed New Year.