By: John Dayal
70 years as a church in Independent India, and a decade after the worst violence wrecked on the community in 300 years in the district of Kandhamal in the state of Orissa, the Christian community and its ecclesiastical leadership find themselves singularly ill-equipped to deal with the multiple crisis they faith.
The Christian community in the subcontinent reflects the broader denominational divides of the western world, Catholic, protestant including the evangelical and Pentecost groups, and adds to them a few Oriental rites, commonly called Syrian or Thomas Christians. These themselves fall in two Catholic and several non-Catholic churches, with the Mar Thoma adding to the variety by also being in communion with the two Unions of Churches of North and South India.
What could in other circumstances be a source of strength by allowing manoeuvrability in the complex social and political, the multitude of autonomous church groups has led to deep fracture lines that has made united action difficult, if not impossible, in securing justice in courts and parliament, and in political reach. Inevitably, it has also made it difficult for the Christian community to be a part of civil society with the large Muslim minority in fighting for group rights.
The community is shell shocked that when perhaps it could have made an effort for a quantum progress in a reassertion of its rights, a rash of scandals of moral turpitude have forced the Catholic and non-Catholic leaderships on the back foot, making some of them crawl into any available social crevice to tide it over.
Unlike the crises in Europe, Australia and the American continent, the sexual scandal is not so much the hierarchy’s silence or active connivance in hiding child abuse, but the coercive or consensual exploitation of women by various ranks of the clergy. The Catholic church has been plagued by incidents of priests either being found married or in illicit relationship, and some charged with rape. A Bishop, born in the Oriental Rite but incardinated in the Latin, in a northern diocese faces a rape allegation made the worse in that it is by a woman religious and spans a period of many years. In a southern state, another Bishop has to face the ignominy of certifying that he is indeed celibate. Sexual crimes in seminaries are frequent, and hushed up. Women religious have found the hierarchy singularly unresponsive whenever they have mustered the courage to complain and protest. Mostly, they have not gone to the police.
The situation in the non-Catholic churches is no better. Bishops have been sacked after they were filmed in flagrant delicto, and some have bought the silence of their victims. In the Orthodox Church, which has a close affinity with the Syro Malankara Catholic church, half a dozen priests are in prison facing trial for the serial blackmail rape of a women they had trapped after she confessed in church to an illicit relationship.
Financial corruption pales into insignificance, though in churches that spring from those established during the British Raj, quite a sizable segment of land, properties and structures have been alienated by cabals of clergy and influential laity.
The denominational disunity and the preoccupation with saving one’s own skin makes united action all but impossible. This is best seen in the continuing and almost fruitless search for justice in Kandhamal. It is also apparent in the political and legal struggle for the rights of the Christian converts from Dalit, or Scheduled caste groups which were the lowest and even untouchable segments of Indian society. Also weakened is vigil to protect freedom of faith guaranteed by the Constitution of independent India [the Constitution was promulgated on 26 January 1950, almost two and a half years after Independence on 15 August 1947].
The failure of a united Christian action to challenge government, an the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-inspired decisions impacting the cattle trade, the issue of beef and the consequent epidemic of lunching of Muslim and Dalit youth have all but isolated it in civil society. This makes it more vulnerable in the onslaught on freedoms of expression, faith and the nurturing of culture through educational and other institutions, all guaranteed in the Constitution.
Kandhamal is the most poignant. This month marks the onslaught by Hindutva gangs on more than 400 villages in Kandhamal and neighbouring districts in which more than 6,000 houses, close to 400 churches and institutions were destroyed, 60,000 people rendered forced into refugee camps or shelter in the forests, and over 120 butchered in the most horrific manner. Barring the early moves in the Supreme court initiated by the late Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, the survivors have essentially been left to their own devices. In fact, they have also had to suffer at the hands of corrupt churchmen.
Seven Christians are in jail convicted of the murder of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Lakshmananda Saraswati which triggered the pogrom. An absence of a witness protection programme, the lack of a united effort at defence and the reluctance to mount a comprehensive legal strategy for the various categories of victims makes Kandhamal stand out among incidents of targeted communal violence in which Sikhs and Muslims have been the victims.
The fragmented church, tortured by its own devils, also cannot be expected to have a comprehensive policy and strategy to deal with the subversion of the Constitution as seen in the denial of rights to Christians converted from the once untouchable castes. The matter has been in the supreme court for a decade and a half, and there seems no early date when it will come up before a constitutional bench of the Supreme court. The ruling BJP is categorical that it will oppose Dalit Christians getting the reservations given to Hindu Dalits, and the Opposition groups seem at best lukewarm. Three generations of Dalit Christians have gone without scholarships and seeking jobs reserved for their castes in government offices and institutions, and in the legislative bodies.
It is the political disempowerment that hurts them most.