By P Chidambaram
Archbishop Couto and Mr Julio Ribeiro IPS (Retd) took different paths in their lives. One embraced priesthood, the other became a policeman. Archbishop Couto holds an important office in the Catholic diocese of Delhi. Mr Ribeiro has long since retired but is a hero in Mumbai and among police officers.
What brought the two into focus at the same time was the letter written by the Archbishop to the parish priests on May 8, 2018, and the essay written by Mr Ribeiro in a major newspaper on May 28, 2018.
Prayer, Not Insurrection
The Archbishop’s letter was apolitical and an appeal for prayer for the country that was “witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation”. He said “…let us begin a Prayer Campaign for our country from May 13, 2018…” He asked the priests to observe a day of fast every Friday and offer penance. It was in the best Christian tradition.
It was a call to prayer, but some wise men and women took it as a call to insurrection. Ms Shaina NC, spokesperson of the BJP, said, “Wrong to try and instigate castes/communities. You can tell them to vote for the right candidate/party but to suggest to vote for one party and not another and term yourself as secular vs pseudo-secular is unfortunate.”
Minister Giriraj Singh weighed in with his deep knowledge of physics and said, “Every action has a reaction. I won’t take a step that disrupts communal harmony. But if Church asks people to pray so that the Modi government isn’t formed, the country will have to think that people from other religions will do kirtan pooja.” Archbishop Couto had said nothing of the kind attributed to him, yet the BJP’s trolls launched a vitriolic attack through the social media.
The unwarranted attack on the Archbishop moved Mr Ribeiro to write an essay for a newspaper. He did not mince his words, he has never done. He called out the mischief makers, recalled their past utterances and actions, and said what many would like to say: “The BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as distinct from the previous BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, doubts and questions the patriotism of the minorities! This is totally unacceptable.”
He recalled that his ancestors were Hindus who were converted 400 years ago, he acknowledged that this was a majority Hindu country, he revealed that his circle of friends and colleagues were predominantly Hindu and added, proudly, “But I rather like the religion I was born into. It has taught me the values of truth and justice and it taught me the concept of service.” A Hindu or a Muslim could proudly say the same thing about his/her religion.
Shame on Us
Mr Ribeiro’s conclusion should make us hang our heads in shame. He wrote: “I should be prepared for second-class citizenship ….. What I will not accept is being accused falsely of being anti-national and pilloried on that account.”
What have we done to this country and to ourselves that more and more people — Muslims, Christians, Dalits, tribals — are beginning to think that they have become second-class citizens?
I recall my school and college days when no one noticed or cared if your desk mate or your class leader was a Muslim or a Christian. The Madras Christian College High School was established by Scottish missionaries. The legendary Kuruvilla Jacob was headmaster for 25 years. The students were predominantly Hindu, with a significant number of Christians and a sprinkling of Muslims. My class pupil leader, in all the six years, was a Muslim.
I recall these facts today — we did not notice them in those days — with a sense of disbelief! Most students chose Bible classes over Moral Science classes, but there was not a single case of conversion. In college, we had foreign (mainly Irish) and Indian Jesuits as teachers. I observed and learnt from Fr Coyle how to write and speak English correctly. No one attempted to convert me or anyone else.
This country owes a lot to its Muslim, Christian, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh and Parsi citizens who have contributed greatly in many fields — industry, literature, art, music, sports, politics etc. Close your eyes and recall the names; you will be surprised by the number and the diversity.
If the religious minorities feel deep down in their hearts that their place is that of ‘second-class citizens’, we are not worthy of being described as a democracy, much less a republic. Mr Ribeiro’s anguished cry that “If that happens this land of mine will be nothing less than a saffron Pakistan”, is absolutely true.
Under the government of Mr Narendra Modi and his cohorts in the states, unlike the government of Mr Vajpayee, intolerance is the new normal. Abuse is the new vocabulary. Hate is the new weapon. Instilling fear is the new strategy. Polarization is the new electoral tactic.
Yet there is hope when Ms Tabassum Hasan, a Muslim, can win a by-election to the Lok Sabha from a constituency in Uttar Pradesh. As long as Archbishop Couto and Mr Julio Ribeiro can speak and write, and Ms Tabassum Hasan can get elected, democracy will be safe in India.
(P Chidambaram is the former Finance Minister of India. This article appeared in The Indian Express newspaper on June 3, 2018)