For some time now, a group known as the Catholic-Christian Secular Forum (CSF) has, ironically enough, been a matter of concern for some Indian Catholics who see themselves as secular. The reasons for this concern are numerous and this column does not intend to discuss the problems that the CSF poses; there will be plenty of time for that, especially since the CSF does not look like it is going away. While flagging the CSF as a concern for Indian Catholics committed to crafting a secular society in the face of rising religious extremism in the country, this column will only highlight that one of the central problems with the CSF lies in the manner in which it seeks to build up the idea of the Church in India being a persecuted church.
There can be no doubt that like the Muslim communities in India, Christians too are being persecuted by segments of both State and society. However, while this may be a problem, it is not the full picture, and we need to bear this fact in mind, as we combat, and combat stiffly, this persecution. The problem with the CSF lies in the fact that, just like segments of Muslims and Hindus in the country, they seek to create a minority complex among Christians in India. Nothing can be more detrimental to the creation of a secular spirit than the creation of a minority complex, since this complex engenders a siege mentality within the group. Once cultivated sufficiently, we are unable to see social relations except in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Every action is read as being an action of ‘them’ against ‘us’. Most importantly, the creation of this siege mentality ensures that internal questions of democratic reform are suffocated to allow the dominant forces within these groups to run the show without brooking any argument.
To this extent then, Fr. Thomas Sequeira, who recently stepped down as the deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) had it right when he is reported to have said that Christians in India should not entertain a minority complex. Unfortunately however, after this sage bit of advice his argument seems to have capsized into the sea of majoritarianism that constitutes the dominant political thought in our country today. Fr. Sequeira went on to suggest that while the Christians should not entertain a minority complex, but they should nevertheless “consider their minority status as an invitation to join the majority community for the nation building.”
Let us exclude for the moment the fact that the word ‘nation’ has a specific history and meaning, and assume that what Fr. Sequeira did in fact mean, was ‘country-building’. Indeed, in other parts of the interview Fr. Sequeira uses the word country, in the same context as he earlier used ‘nation’. Even if we exclude this possibility, we are still left with the problematic equation that Fr. Sequeira has drawn up, one in which the relationship is between one minority, the Christians, and one majority, the Hindus. Erased completely from this equation are the other groups outside of Hinduism, such as the heterogeneous Muslim communities, as well as the minorities within Hinduism.
This formulation of the equation unfortunately, may not be the result of a minor error. On the contrary it is reflective of a larger position within the tendency of the leadership of the Catholic Church in India to see itself. It sees itself as largely in conversation with the Hindu majority, the Muslim (and other) groups either falling as a second-rate priority or none at all. We need merely look at the manner in which Fr. Sequeira reportedly illustrated the argument he was making. He suggested that his native state of Goa was a good example to show how people in villages, and especially in the panchayats, think beyond religious consideration to work together for the common good, resolving issues of electricity, water and urbanization. Given the manner in which in a number of cases Muslim communities in Goa have been targeted by panchayats, it is difficult to believe that Fr. Sequeira was thinking of the happy interaction between all kinds of Goans, and not just Catholics and Hindus in happy dialogue.
An interaction with those Catholic religious engaged in dialogue with Muslim communities in India, will reveal the kind of frustration that they experience as a result of a failure to find any support from their religious communities. As it turns out, a good number of Catholics (religious and lay alike) do in fact see the Muslims as a part of the problem, rather than as victims of a complex problem. Allow me to suggest that the reasons they may see the Muslims as the problem, is not only because of the upper-caste positions that the hierarchy and lay-leaders of the Church often adopt, if not actually being drawn from these caste locations, but also as a result of the uncritical adoption of Indian nationalist rhetoric.
One such possible example can be gleaned from the article reporting Fr. Sequeira’s observations. The article reported that Fr. Sequeira suggested that Christians have to work to remove the perception among certain sections of Indians that the Church indulges in conversion works. His suggestion was that what the Church was in fact engaged in was an attempt “to strengthen our country.” Fr. Sequeira is not wrong in making this suggestion. Owing to developments in missiology since the early twentieth century, there has been a genuine attempt by the Catholic Church to engage not merely in conversion, but in standing witness to Christ by ameliorating the condition of those in need of aid. Thus in the words of Pierre Charles S.J., one of the foundational missiologists of our time “you may entertain the secret hope that your educational effort may produce religious results, but you should not make that hope the primary motive of your enterprise...” To do so, Fr. Charles suggested, would leave the missionary in a morally rather unpleasant position.
This could be what Fr. Sequeira was referring to when he refers to the work of the Church in India as developmental, and not as conversion work. However, at the end of the day, we must recognize that the Church is founded on carrying the faith to others and thus welcomes (after due diligence and examination) persons into its flock. Thus while the church may be engaged in strengthening the country, its premise must continue to be hoping for gains to its cult. To skirt around this issue is to agree to the Indian nationalist position, built on Hindu minoritarianism, that conversions are unacceptable, as they pose a threat to nationalism and the majoritarian idea of the Indian community imagined as ideally Hindu.
Fr. Sequeira however emphasized that “[R]ecent cases of Christian persecutions have not discouraged the Church to carry on with its work among the poor and the deprived” suggesting therefore, that the Church embraces persecution, rather than shies from it. If such be the case then, it would behove the CSF and other Christian groups to understand that the persecution that various minority groups in India are witness to is not reason to retreat into minoritarianism, but on the contrary a reason to expand into the realms of the secular, contesting the right of a majority to dictate terms in a democracy.
(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 20 June 2012)