Interview: Fr Stanley Kozhichira

‘We must respect diversity’

Print edition :
Interview with Father Stanley Kozhichira.

Father Stanley Kozhichira.

A letter from Anil Couto, Archbishop of the Delhi Diocese, asking the faithful to pray for the community and the nation for the next one year has generated more than a passing storm in political circles, rankling quite a few within the fold of Hindutva. Many have construed it as an attack on the Narendra Modi government. The Archbishop in his letter, addressed to all parish priests of the national capital, draws attention to the “turbulent political atmosphere” in the country and calls upon the people to pray every week to save not just the community but the secular ethos of the nation and its Constitution.

“We are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation. It is our hallowed practice to pray for our country and its political leaders all the time, but all the more so when we approach the general elections. As we look forward towards 2019 when we will have a new government, let us begin a prayer campaign for our country from May 13,” reads the pastoral letter.

Further, it says: “May the ethos of true democracy envelop our elections with dignity and the flames of honest patriotism enkindle our political leaders. This is our cry, Heavenly Father, in these troubled times as we see the clouds eclipsing the light of truth, justice, and freedom.” It adds: “Let the poor of our country be provided with the means of livelihood. Let the tribals, Dalits and marginalised be brought into the mainstream of nation-building. Protect our legislature as a place of discerning minds; raise our judiciary as the hallmark of integrity, prudence, and justice. Keep our print, visual and social media as the channels of truth for edifying discourse. Protect our institutions from the infiltrations of the evil forces.” The letter does not mention any political party or leader. There is no nudge either in favour of or away from any political dispensation.

In his letter, the Archbishop asked believers to observe a day of fast every Friday by forgoing at least one meal and offering penance. However, his gentle direction towards a prayer campaign took an unexpected turn. Among the first to react was Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who was quoted by news agencies as saying: “I have not seen the letter, but I want to say India is one of those countries where minorities are safe and no one is allowed to discriminate on the basis of caste and religion.” His colleague, Giriraj Singh, never one to shy away from controversy, weighed in, saying: “Every action has a reaction. I won’t take a step that disrupts communal harmony. But if the 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.” Meanwhile, K.J. Alphons, Minister for Tourism and the only Christian in the Modi government, called the Archbishop “an isolated voice” and shot off a piece of advice: “Godmen should stay away from politics.” Even as the Archbishop refrained from reacting to political insinuations, Father Stanley Kozhichira cleared the air around the letter. Fr. Stanley, who is president, Signis India, Indian chapter of the Catholic Communication Association of the World, took a few questions from Frontline, arguing that the Archbishop had done his duty by pointing to the challenges ahead. Excerpts:

The Archbishop has talked in terms of a volatile political environment. Has he done justice to his role as an Indian and as a leader of Christians?

He has definitely done the right thing as an Indian and as a head of the Church. What people are talking of as a political letter is actually a pastoral letter. As the Archbishop, he has a moral responsibility to guide people. This letter is a request for prayer. As a pastoral leader of the people, he is supposed to guide his people to pray for each situation, including the upcoming general elections. He has talked of a turbulent situation without naming any one individual or party.

The question that has arisen is, should a spiritual leader issue such a guideline? Does it not amount to religious interference in politics?

It has nothing to do with elections or politics. If one reads the letter carefully, one will find that he is not telling people to vote for this particular party or not vote for that party. He is not taking away people’s freedom to vote. Their free will and franchise has not been questioned. They have only been asked to pray. There is even a choice whether to pray or not. The Church respects personal freedom the most. The Church understands that it is [the] people’s right [whether] to follow or not. It is not the definite, compulsory preaching that a Catholic is bound by.

What percentage of people is likely to follow this advice or be influenced at the time of making a choice in elections?

We are only about 85,000 people in Delhi. We have three Catholic dioceses. We do not form a sizeable electorate. We cannot make an electoral statement with such numbers. The letter appeals to only 85,000 of us. But it is not a definite, or compulsory, preaching like Lenten or Good Friday. It is only a guidance for this specific situation. What’s the harm in asking people to pray? Why make such a big deal?

The issue that the Archbishop has raised concerns all Indians across caste or religion. Could the wording have been different?

Seeing the number of instances of violence that are affecting minorities across the country, his advice is timely and specific in its own way. There have been cases of lynchings, people being killed at home, or communities being asked to leave their villages.

But in most cases, the targets are Muslims.

That is true. But then there are past incidents of Kandhamal and Dangs, not to forget the Delhi church-burning incident, and another two churches being stoned. If you see, it is not a specific [sic] that only Christians are being attacked. Other communities too are under attack, but we cannot ignore the fact that we have had problems of Christian pastors and the community being attacked in Agra and Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh, too, there have been incidents. All these incidents have taken place [at a time] when the minorities enjoy the freedom to practise and propagate their religion under Article 24 of the Constitution. Despite this freedom given by the Constitution, we have had these atrocities. Now imagine if tomorrow we have a fundamentalist group who want people to be homogeneous, follow one religion, one language, eat and dress the same way. God forbid, if there is a constitutional amendment, what will be the fate of somebody who is not from the majority community? That is the fear.

But is a constitutional amendment possible today?

Not today, but definitely in 2019. They are close to a majority in the Rajya Sabha but not there yet. For a constitutional amendment, they need a majority in the Rajya Sabha, which they can have in a couple of years. They need to win only 2019 elections to the Lok Sabha. We need to have a definite plan for that.

Father [Couto] talked of it generally on the current situation across the country. He was not highlighting one particular case. His words are backed by facts. If you see the Parliament records for 2017, there have been 822 instances of violence against the minorities and 11 deaths in one year. These are big numbers if you see them as a crime against the minorities. Most of the victims may be Muslims, but Christians are not far behind.

Yes, there have been reports of Christians being asked to move out of certain villages in Uttar Pradesh. Will the Church react?

The Church is above that. The Church has been at the forefront of providing aid at the time of need irrespective of religion. We have never made a plan to help Christians alone. We take it as part of God’s plan to help the poor, whatever their religion.

What is the way out for an Indian today, looking forward to 2019?

Personally, I think the beauty of India is what former President Pranab Mukherjee said in Nagpur when he talked of vividhta mein ekta, Bharat ki visheshta, India’s heterogeneous nature, its diversity, the unique identity we have. We underline that kind of nationalism, the kind every Indian can be part of. However, the kind of nationalism being pushed forward these days cannot work. We must respect diversity.

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