(Based on a presentation at a public meeting organised by the All India Catholic Union at Mangalore on 26th November 2016)
(Note: The title is both provocative and pregnant with conflicting and enticing views (of or for) on Religious Freedom in a “Religious Country” like India. What is more it is written by an erudite columnist Chhotebhai, who minces no words and whose articles are educative always – therefore a “must read” for all with an open mind. Most noteworthy is the statement: “In the name of religion we can do what we want, where we want, whenever we want; we can take out processions, block public thoroughfares, play loudspeakers all night – with total disregard for law and order, or the inconvenience caused to others.”
In protest against such a practice at St. Jude’s in Thammanam, this scribe refused long ago to pay a “festival fee” imposed on all parishioners and wrote articles against it. The argument was, it is wrong to try to open the eyes of non-Christians to Faith with eye-popping fire works, their ears with deafening crackers, and obstructing people’s right to use public roads with processions carrying saints who can’t walk. Besides such festivals often end up as smoke and shuddering explosions for God in the heavens and liquor for thirsty faithful on earth. The result was the parish changed the name “festival fee” to “PP maintenance fee.”
Really we have a surfeit of “freedom for religion”, literally an “anarchy”, a “free for all” while the concerned top brass, keep mum or look the other way. This applies explicitly to the hierarchy, in the Catholic Church whose lack of sensitivity is howlingly brought out by the Corpus Christi procession callously conducted and mentioned by the writer. Parishes which indulge in such pass time “rituals” with little substance – conducting festivals and building Rs 50-crore church instead of homes for the poor – must be discouraged.
Important to note in the article are the distinctions the writer makes between “freedom for and of”, between freedom and liberty bordering on appeasement, Indian and French secularism (no religion and religious symbols), Gandhiji’s vision and Nehru’s; what constitution says on religious and secular activity. Christians are wedded to their faith in Jesus and their homeland and so should strive to harmonize the just demands from both which is a tight rope walk. james kottoor,editor).
The topic that I have been asked to speak on is “Freedom of Religion in India – with special reference to the Christian community”. Let me begin with a rather audacious question. Do we have freedom of religion in India, or freedom for religion?
I daresay that we have freedom for religion, and a surfeit of it. In the name of religion we can do what we want, where we want, whenever we want; we can take out processions, block public thoroughfares, play loudspeakers all night – with total disregard for law and order, or the inconvenience caused to others. We also consider our personal laws and customary practices sacrosanct, and cry foul the moment anybody dares question or curtail this “freedom”.
In my hometown, Kanpur, at Moharram, over one lakh young men charge down the streets carrying swords and daggers. They are known as Paikis. The district administration remains on its toes for several days, and cordons off several roads, blocking them with trucks, to prevent the Paikis from going off the pre-determined route. This year this coincided with Dusshera and Durga Puja. It goes to the credit of the district administration and the community leaders that there was no untoward incident. But such occasions are like a tinder box that can conflagrate at the slightest misunderstanding, altercation or rumour mongering.
Earlier Durga Puja was limited to the Bengalis, and Ganesh Chaturthi to the Maharashtrians. But now everybody seems to be “celebrating” everything. Besides the administration, Mother Earth also cries out in anguish. The Muslims bury their huge tazias, and the Hindus immerse their idols in their very own sacred river, the Ganga. Most of these idols are made from the highly toxic plaster-of-paris, using lead and chrome (heavy metal) based colours.
Civil society, and even the courts, remain hapless spectators. Supreme Court (SC) orders are flouted with impunity. The most recent instance was that of the height of matkas for Ganesh Chaturthi, which the SC had restricted to 20 feet. The Shiv Sena and its offshoots cocked a snook at the SC, and pressed on regardless. There are exceptions though, when SC orders have forced temples and dargahs to open their doors to women.
Overall though, we have an overdose of religion, or public profession of the same. Swami Agnivesh had once said that we have too much religion, and too little of spirituality. Jesus himself was averse to excessive external devotions like public prayers, fasting and almsgiving (cf Mat 6:1-18).
Indian secularism means “all” religions, a freedom for religion that often leads to a free for all, or a free fall. It is like a traffic junction without a traffic policeman to control it, resulting in a traffic jam and road rage. Unfortunately, our freedom for religion is directly proportionate to our numerical strength, nuisance value, financial and political muscle.
Since India is a de facto Hindu majority State, there is seldom any restriction on their religious freedom. Though professedly secular, religious symbols and places of worship are endemic to Govt offices, vehicles, events and even police stations; with temples and icons in abundance.
In contrast, French secularism means “no” religion, and no use of religious symbols in Govt establishments etc. The recent controversy about burkini on Riviera beaches caught headlines, but few reported that Catholic nuns in habits were also banned! It is in this context that we must see that the ban on burqas is part of French secularism, a strict enforcement of separation of Church and State, now extended to all religions. Ironically, Catholic convent schools in France have the highest percentage of Muslim girls wearing hijabs. Today France stands isolated as other European/ American countries have accepted multi-culturalism, including turbans and beards in their uniformed forces; though a backlash from right wingers is also becoming evident. Brexit in the UK and Trump in the USA are indicative of this trend.
Freedom is often confused with liberty, and in India the debate often veers around to appeasement of Minorities (read Muslim). So we need to distinguish between them. Freedom is what Mahatma Gandhi and other freedom fighters achieved by gaining Independence from the British. Liberty is what statesmen like Nehru and Ambedkar established through rule of law and building a modern nation State. Licence, like James Bond’s licence to kill; is what Godse did to Gandhi. Appeasement is when the State bends over backwards or through coercion to grant undue favours/ privileges to a particular group, like crores spent on Kumbh Melas or Haj pilgrimages.
What does the Constitution say about religious freedom? The preamble of the Constitution says that India is a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic (42nd Amendment of 1976); to ensure Justice, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (the last three were the battle cry of the French Revolution). As for Fundamental Rights, it says that “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them” (Art 15:1). Further, “Subject to public order, morality and health …..all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion” (Art 25:1). (Art 25:2a). The Catholic Church in particular respects Government’s authority over “secular activity”. In Canon Law this is referred to as “civil effects”, especially in matrimonial laws. It refers to “the competence of the civil authority in respect of the merely civil effects of the marriage” (Can 1059). It forbids “a marriage which cannot be recognised by the civil law or celebrated in accordance with it” (Can 1071:2).
Where do Christians stand vis-à-vis religious freedom? Christians, and more particularly the Catholics, are perhaps the most law abiding as a community, to the point of docility. We get “activated” only when priests and nuns are assaulted/ molested, or when institutions are attacked. But we don’t seem to show the same level of concern when we are not directly affected. Last Sunday there was a horrible train accident near Kanpur, where over 150 people died. I led a team of volunteers to help with blood donation for the accident victims. Since there was to be a Corpus Christi procession that same evening I requested some of our priests to cancel it, as it would be a counter witness. My appeal went unheeded, so we had a Corpus Christi procession with 150 corpses in the vicinity! How then can we expect sensitivity and sympathy from others in our own hour of need? Ironically, former Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, thought fit to cancel his own birthday bash scheduled for two days later, out of respect for the dead. A far better witness than ours. There is a lesson for us in this.
We Christians are usually protective of two of our rights – that of propagation of our faith, and to run our educational institutions. I will limit myself to the former, as there are many better qualified than me to speak on the latter. We often blame the BJP for trying to curtail freedom of religion and ban conversions, through euphemistically called “Freedom of Religion” acts! The first such Act was based on the report of the Niyogi Commission and was enacted by the Congress in Madhya Pradesh in the 1950’s. The Catholic Union of India (now AICU) countered this through its publication “Truth Shall Prevail”. The Arunachal act was the most stringent, and harshly implemented by overzealous officers while the State was still a Union Territory. Subsequently people’s power has reduced that Act to a scrap of paper. The most recent was the one enacted, again by the Congress, in Himanchal Pradesh, before Assembly elections. (It didn’t help them).
Incidentally, till date there has not been a single conviction for “conversions” despite several Acts being in force. When the previous Maharashtra Government (again Congress) planned to enact such legislation I drew the attention of the Chief Minister to this reality. His office duly acknowledged my objection.
However, we should not be complacent, because among the penal provisions are conversion by fraud, inducement and invocation of divine displeasure. Vatican II is totally against forced/ induced conversions. The “Declaration of Religious Freedom” (Dignitatis Humanae) states that “It is one of the tenets of Catholic doctrine that one’s response to God in faith must be free. Therefore no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will” (DH 10). The reference to “divine displeasure” can place us, especially over enthusiastic evangelical preachers, on a weak wicket. If one were to say “You will go to hell if you worship idols”, then that would be against the law. Even an invitation to a healing convention could be interpreted as an act of inducement.
Some Christian preachers believe in “scriptural fundamentalism”, taking the Gospels too literally, without understanding their context. They quote Jesus’ last command to preach and baptise (cf Mat 28:19), forgetting that judgement will be based not on Mat 28, but on Mat 25, on what we have done for the least of the brethren” (cf Mt 25:31-46). Again Vatican II is very clear on who can be saved. The “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church” (Lumen Gentium) which is the foundation of our ecclesiology today states “Those also can attain salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does divine providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace” (LG 16). This means that even professed atheists can be saved, and echoes the mind of Jesus that “he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and wicked alike” (Mat 5:45). Let us then be imbued with the spirit of the Gospels and the teachings of the Church.
Religious freedom in India cannot be cocooned from what is happening across the globe. A dangerous trend of right wing nationalism (garbed in religion) is spreading its tentacles across the globe – from the Middle East, to India, Europe and now the USA. We should not lose our sanity, sense of justice, and concern for the underprivileged. While the entire world has turned anti-migrant (read Muslim), Pope Francis stands out as a man who speaks up for them. The Jesuits in the Middle East have a special ministry for migrants, now entrusted to our very own Rev Cedric Prakash SJ.
The second trend, particularly in India, is to propagate religion in the name of “culture”. The RSS repeats ad nauseam that it is a “cultural organisation”! Attempts to introduce Yoga, Sanskrit, Vedic Maths, rewriting history, etc are all part of this religious thrust garbed in culture. Let us not be fooled. The extreme right is now following the strategy of the Left – use infiltration not confrontation. It is their thin edge of the wedge, or the proverbial camel’s head in the tent! The beef ban and stringent provisions against cow slaughter are another instance of one person’s belief being foisted on another.
Those who have studied the Questionnaire in preparation for the Uniform Civil Code will again find that it is a clever attempt at infiltration, in order to wrest control. I have filed my detailed objections before the Law Commission, and asked the AICU to do the same. However, I don’t find the CBCI or the bishops particularly concerned or agitated. Is this because “personal laws” affect the laity more than them? Marriage, divorce, succession and adoption – these are “lay” issues.
If we constantly look inwards at our own country we could feel despondent. But if we see what is happening in the global context, including in our immediate neighbourhood (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Nepal) then we can safely say that we Christians in India are relatively safe.
There is no doubt that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Hope also springs eternal in the human breast. Yes, there is much that should change in our country, but I would put it differently. I am not a perfect human being, and have many failings and shortcomings. Should my dear wife divorce me because of my failings? Hopefully not! So too, if we are wedded to our country, we cannot leave it to its fate. We need to be involved in civil society, the media, secular and civic organisations that are working for the good of the country. I feel that the goodwill of the vast majority of our countrymen is the biggest safeguard to our religious freedom.
Sure we are serving our country through a myriad educational and health institutions. We should not negate that goodwill through an inordinate desire to “convert” others, or by conducting Corpus Christi processions when there are corpses all over. Let us then enjoy our freedom coupled with liberty, justice equality and fraternity; and not seek licence or appeasement.
The writer is a former National President of the All India Catholic Union.