Catholic bishops mourn death of India’s former prime minister

The nation will remember Vajpayee as a leader who yearned for a country where everyone lived in peace and harmony

By Matters India Reporter

New Delhi: Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a titan in Indian politics, was on August 18 given the highest national send-off.

Politicians across the spectrum and foreign dignitaries attended his funeral held with state honours on the banks of the river Yamuna in Delhi.

Vajpayee died on August 16 after a long illness. He was 93.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) expressed its deep sadness over the death of Vajpayee.

The bishops paid rich tributes to Vajpayee, who was admired by friends and rivals alike for his rich oratory, his poetic jibes and his statesmanship.

“In his death, India has lost one of its tallest leaders and the world bids goodbye to one of its greatest Statesmen. The Christian Community has lost a friend who was attentive to its needs and gave a patient hearing to its concerns,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias, CBCI president, said in a press release.

Vajpayee with Mother Teresa
“We will remember him as a great orator who charmed the Indian public for decades with a wonderful mixture of poetry and prose, of quotes and shayris, delivered with humour, wit and a well-modulated voice. What marked him out were his graceful dealings with all. He will be remembered as a person who cultivated warm human relationships cutting across religious, political or regional divides,” said Gracias, who is also the archbishop of Bombay.

“The nation will remember him as a leader who yearned for a country where everyone lived in peace and harmony. I recall the words he spoke in his last Independence Day Speech as Prime minister, “India is a multi-religious nation. It is against both its nature and culture to practice discrimination or to do injustice to anybody on the grounds of faith. We should always care for the minorities and be attentive towards their welfare,’” the CBCI president said.

He recalled meeting the late prime minister on several occasions. Every meeting was a delight because of the warmth of his person, his sharp intellect and his passion for the country. He wanted an India where no was one was excluded, no one suffered want, and everyone enjoyed the benefits of progress, Cardinal Gracias said.

“In my various meetings with the great man, I always had the feeling of being in the presence of a gracious gentleman full of warmth, most reasonable in our discussions, and always eager to find a way forward. I remember with joy and nostalgia the meeting between Vajpayjee and Pope St. John Paul II during the Holy Father’s visit to India in 1999. He thanked the Pope for being in India on the happy occasion of Deepavali, the festival of lights which signifies the victory of good over evil. He observed that perhaps the papal visit added more light to the festival,” the CBCI President said.

The Catholic Church also remembers with affection the very special admiration Vajpayee had for St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Vajpayee said about the Saintly mother: “At a time when humankind is being increasingly driven by selfish motives, she gave selflessly to those whom society has forsaken and forgotten. In the age of cynicism, she was a symbol of understanding faith.”

“We mourn the demise of a leader who could dream for India with these words: “I have a vision of India: an India free of hunger and fear, an India free of illiteracy and want. I dream of an India that is prosperous, strong and caring. An India, that regains a place of honour in the comity of great nations,” We thank God for sending among us such a great soul, a gentleman to the core, a kind-hearted person in word and action, one who had friends and admirers across the political and ideological spectrum. May God grant him Eternal Rest,” Cardinal said.

At the funeral, Vajpayee’s foster daughter Namita Bhattacharya lit the funeral pyre as a 21-gun salute went off at the Smriti Sthal.

A sea of people had followed Vajpayee’s funeral procession from the headquarters of the ruling BJP, the party he helped form in 1980. Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked the entire four km stretch behind the flower-decked gun carriage, along with other top BJP leaders and ministers.

A massive crowd chanted “long live Atal-ji” and showered rose petals on the glass casket carrying the three-time prime minister, who died yesterday.

“I am speechless, numb,” PM Modi had said, expressing his grief. “It’s like losing a father.”

He surprised many on Friday by joining the procession from the BJP office to the Smriti Sthal, which is located close to the memorials of former Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s last journey: Many roads are blocked in the capital and traffic restrictions have been announced.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and politicians from various parties attended the funeral. Foreign dignitaries like the King of Bhutan and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai were also present.

Vajpayee’s body was kept overnight at his bungalow on Krishna Menon road, where he had spent the last few years away from public life. From there, it was taken with military honors to the BJP office. The BJP patriarch could never visit the new, sprawling headquarters symbolic of the rise of the party he nurtured for decades.

Vajpayee, who ruled the country thrice in the 1990s, had retreated from politics over the last few years because of his health.

It was widely reported that the former prime minister had a stroke in 2009 that severely affected his ability to speak and confined him to his home.

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