By Zain Awan
The latest pastoral letter of Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão of Goa and Daman is raising many an eyebrow for mentioning that there is a “Danger to our Constitution.” Before we jump the gun and hound the Archbishop in prime time TV debates, let us pause and read the prelate’s words in entirety and not just casually, passing off sub-headers of his note to use them as weapons.
The archbishop writes, “At the time of elections, the candidates confuse the minds of many people by making false promises. And the people, on their part, often sell their precious vote for selfish, petty gain.”
Isn’t this what the leaders and contestants (during the elections) blame each other for- day in and out? Didn’t we see this shadow-boxing ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections? Perhaps, we need to look within, why a similar message from a Catholic, which talks about ‘false promise’, has stirred the hornet’s nest.
Similarly, Archbishop, Anil Couto of Delhi Archdiocese was lynched by media and a section of the political spectrum for his letter to parish priests that urged them to start a year-long prayer campaign to save India from the “turbulent political atmosphere.”
Did we, even for a moment, bother to contextualize his message? How many of those, who drew out their daggers and bayed for the prelate’s blood, knew that his Episcopal Motto for years has been ‘Sariyante Sare Ek Ho Jaan’ or ‘That They May All Be One’? Isn’t that akin to what our Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintains, when he says ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ or ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’?
Critics may argue that the Church or a bishop cannot intervene in politics. Fair enough! But then, when haven’t religious leaders disdained from participating in the political discourse and even contesting and winning elections? Sachidanand Hari Sakshi holds the title of Acharya Mahamandleshwar of Shri Nirmal Panchayati Akhada. And he is the sitting Member of Parliament from Unnao, whom we better known as Sakshi Maharaj.
Didn’t we, in 2015, condone the Acharya-cum-Neta for urging Hindu women to produce at least four children? While we booed the Catholic priest for urging to forsake at least one meal for the Nation, we dug our heads in sand when Sakshi Maharaj called Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Gandhiji, a “patriot and nationalist” in the Parliament.
‘Sadhvi’ Niranjan Jyoti, the Lok Sabha MP, in 2014 exhorted the Delhi voters ahead of assembly polls, “It is you whom must decide whether the government in Delhi will be run by the sons of Rama (raamzaade) or by bastards (haraamzaade)”- a statement she had to apologize for after an uproar from the opposition.
In the late 70s and early 80s, a continuous vociferous voice emerged against then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Shahi Imam of historic Jama Masjid, Syed Abdullah Buqari, openly boasted, “I know how to set Indira Gandhi right.” Buqari transcended his traditional role of Royal, Islamic priest and actively participated in politics- or at least, had a clout.
Earning a meager wage from the Waqf Board, the Imam joined hands with Jayaprakash Narayan and Acharya Kriplani against Indira Gandhi, and gave out calls to vote against the Congress in 1977 parliamentary election.
In 1990 he visited Iran to counter Pakistan’s attempts to rally the Islamic nations on the Kashmir issue, pressured the then prime minister V P Singh to recall Jagmohan as the governor of Jammu and Kashmir and distributed pamphlets during Chhapra by-election in 1990 favoring Janata Dal. The fire-brand cleric had become a self-proclaimed voice of the Muslim voters, with leaders like HKL Bhagat, VP Singh, cutting across party lines, scurrying up to woo the Imam to urge Muslims to vote in their favor.
Buqari died in 2009, his son Ahmed succeeded him. But the political maneuvers from the Jama Masjid continued. In 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, Ahmed urged the people of his community to “please vote for Mulayam Singh and he will protect (your) interests.” In return, his son-in-law, Umar Ali Khan, was made the Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) from Samajwadi Party, though he later resigned following Buqari severing ties with Akhilesh Yadav.
In a nutshell, time and again, over the years, religious leaders have actively been a part of the political discourse in the country. So, why do we now have, albeit a selective, outrage against Archbishop and not Acharya? Why did we hound the bishop for his call for fasting for India, even though he had not named any political party?
Some students at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College noticed the chapel inside the college premises vandalized with “I’m going to hell” written in blank in on the holy cross and the slogan that there should be a temple here inscribed on the chapel door. That was May 4. That didn’t boil our blood. Just four days later, the Delhi’s archbishop called for prayer and we shouted from our roof-tops, ‘how dare you?’
So, is our constitution, as Goa’s archbishop mentioned, really in “danger”? Perhaps, for nation’s sake, it’s a time to reflect.
(Zain Awan is a New Delhi-based journalist.)