Tuesday, December 14, 2021

PM Modi meets Francis: On the possibilities for Catholic politics in India

Prime Minister Modi’s recent meeting with Pope Francis in Rome, prior to the former’s participation at the G-20 meet in the same city, generated huge amount of concern both prior to and after the meeting.

Initially there were suggestions that the Pope not meet with the Prime Minister because to do so would legitimize a regime that has put the persecution of minoritized groups in India into overdrive; that too immediately prior to critical elections in the states of Manipur and Goa in 2022, as well as in other locations with dominant Christian groups like Kerala. This was exactly what seemed to happen after the meeting. With photographs depicting apparent cordiality between the two splashed across the Indian media, and the invitation extended to Francis to visit India, it seemed as if Modi had triumphed, while the concerns of the minoritized lay in the dust.

Contemplating this episode a while longer, however, we realise that in meeting with Modi, the Pope was possibly offering Catholics in India an opportunity to show Christian witness, and a way to craft a new front for Christian politics in an increasingly troubled country.

To appreciate this possibility, we need to first take a hard look at the state of Catholic politics in India. Writing in 2012, the social scientist Aparna Sundar suggested that various factors lead the Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu “to articulate a secular, even radical politics as its primary mode of religious engagement.”

Making a similar argument in The Print, Jaithirth Rao darkly suggested that Catholic politics in India ought to restrict itself to “old-fashioned parish work”. 

Indeed, one could suggest that Catholic politics in India broadly inhabits two locations in the political spectrum: either it limits itself to “old-fashioned parish work” that seems disinterested in larger questions of justice, or engages in secular, even radical politics, as its primary mode of religious engagement.

Both approaches fail to consider the transcendental dimensions that must inform Catholic politics, which indeed are the crucial contributions that Catholics can make to India at this present moment. 

We need to go back in time to three incidents to appreciate my argument for privileging the transcendental in our political engagement. The first incident is a letter written by Thomas Macwan, the Archbishop of Gandhinagar, in November 2017; the second, a letter by Anil Couto, the Archbishop of Delhi, in May 2018; and the third, a letter by Filipe Neri Ferrão, the Archbishop of Goa and Daman and Patriarch of the East, in June of the same year. All the prelates urged Catholics to pray that the elections – the elections to the State Assembly of Gujarat in 2017, and the elections to Parliament in 2019 respectively – result in the selection of persons true to the values of the Constitution and the dignity of the human person.

A furore was raised in all three cases, largely by supporters of the BJP, based on the assumption that the prelates were instigating a political action against the BJP. In doing so, they made a fundamental error in appreciating the nature of Christian prayer. 

Directed by no less than Christ himself, the Christian does not, indeed cannot, pray against persons, even if they may be enemies. The Christian is obliged to pray for persons. To quote from the Gospel of Mathew when Christ preached the beatitudes, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” for, he reasoned “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” What no one seems to have told the BJP at the time, was that Christian prayer was most certainly not directed against them, rather if the BJP was in fact guilty of acting against the values of the Constitution and the dignity of persons, then the prayers were probably for their benefit.

This insight into Christian prayer would have determined how Pope Francis responded to Modi’s desire to meet knowing full well the possibility that the request was born of cynical intentions. Carrying over prayerful love into action would first require showing courtesy; for did not Christ promise “knock and the door will be opened to you”? Indeed, a perusal of the Gospels demonstrates that Christ was attentive to courtesy – considerate to the cries of those who called out to him, and even chastising those who sought to shoo away those who, like the repentant woman who anointed him with nard, sought to do him honour. 

And it is not just Christ who stressed courtesy. The Bible is peppered with instances of courtesy as a mark of Grace. Courtesy, as a gospel and biblical value, urged, therefore, that the Pope meet with Modi, even though he was not obliged to. Such courtesies are, as per protocol, extended to Heads of State, which Modi is not. The meeting was, in fact, a break with protocol. But if a break with protocol can open the door to a personal conversion, this protocol is worth breaking.

But practicing Christianity is not simply about being courteous. It is also about being honest to the truth, even if it requires plain speaking. Christian love is not so much an emotion, as it is a process. In December 2015, Pope Francis inaugurated the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy; and significantly, one of the spiritual acts of mercy is correcting the sinner. Receiving someone with courtesy does not mean simply papering over the problems with them. On the contrary, especially if our action is directed towards our brothers’ personal conversion, it obliges us to demonstrate how they have violated the higher laws of God. 

One hoped, therefore, that Francis would have seized this opportunity to communicate to Modi his concern over the fact that the Government led by the latter has failed to secure the bodily integrity of the various minoritized groups in India; to also communicate the anxieties of multiple religious orders and congregations whose representatives are often denied visas to enter the country, especially if these orders and congregations are seen as too critical of the State; the concern over how the rights of Overseas Citizens of India are being constrained by requiring that they do not engage in any missionary work;  and over how conversion to Christianity, especially by those marginalised by state and society, is being effectively criminalised in India. The impending survey of churches and conversions in Karnataka would have been another crucial issue to address; and the construction of detention camps in India; finally, how callously the late Fr. Stan Swamy, the Pope’s Jesuit confrere, was treated by the judicial system.

However, these issues do not seem to have emerged during the audience granted to Modi. Perhaps it was too much to expect otherwise, especially since such meetings are formal and bound by protocol. However, refusing Modi the dignity of an audience, on the basis that such conversation would be impossible, would not only extinguish the possibility of such a conversation on another occasion, but would be tantamount to not showing the love that Christ demands of us even in the face of those who wish to destroy our physical presence. 

 In acting with the law of Christ, Pope Francis could offer a useful measure for the politics of Christians in India: pray for those who persecute you, love those who hate you, refuse to dismiss them as incorrigible enemies, but create the situations so that we can fearlessly correct them in charity, as indeed has been attempted, as we have seen, by Catholic prelates in India.

Indeed, the meeting has already borne fruit in terms of allowing Indian citizens the space for prophetic witness. Various commentators have been quick to point out that the Papal gift to Modi, perhaps not coincidentally, referenced Isaiah 32:15: “The wilderness will become a fruitful field.” This chapter speaks of just governance, and the eventual triumph of the truth over the villainies of tyrants; many saw this reference as a reproach from the pontiff to the politician. Indeed, there are portions of Isaiah 32 that echo the exultations of the Magnificat, not dissimilar to the words of the Urdu poet Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhenge” which, it can safely be said, is a sub-continental hymn protesting iniquity, quoted in recent times by those protesting the actions of the incumbent government. 

Other commentators on social media were quick to contrast the egalitarian hug between the Pope and Prime Minister, and images of the latter’s interactions with Brahmanical pontiffs, like the Shankaracharyas, in India, marked by servile body language, and an inability to touch, leave alone hug, indicating that this hug alone referenced the affirmation of the dignity of every human person which is the undeniable patrimony of the Abrahamic religions to the subcontinent. While the BJP may cynically try to use the papal hug to woo Christian voters, these images are not univocal, but on the contrary testify to the real victory that has been accomplished, and which is the daily Christian contribution to India.

All of this suggests to us that we can, and must, shift our understanding of the ‘political’. The cynicism of contemporary politics has ensured that we harshly condemn those who have made mistakes, or even committed crimes. An obsession with optics has demeaned politics to petty games of tit-for-tat. In the clamour for vengeance, and the ardour of self-righteousness, there seems little space to extend common and basic courtesies, or indeed a desire for fraternal correction. 

Christian teaching is based, however, on the idea that vengeance is the Lord’s, not ours, and that violence to our physical bodies is not as harmful as is the violence to our souls. What Christian teaching brings to politics, therefore, is the suggestion that there is something more important than immediate payback, since everyone will be judged fairly at the end of times, and what we ought to focus on is the love of our neighbour, and a concern for their eternal soul, even if the neighbour proves oneself an enemy. To the politics of cynicism, we bring the politics of hope, which rests on the Christ’s promise of life eternal.

The tendency of Catholics in India to articulate a secular, even radical, politics as its primary mode of religious engagement, needs to be recognised as a problem, because it often, if subconsciously, denies the fundamentals of the Catholic creed. 

We need to return to understanding Catholic politics as one that works between the realms of the natural and the supernatural. Only with a firm belief in the supernatural, and the promises of Christ, would we be able to articulate genuinely Catholic politics in India. And this is precisely what, at this troubled moment, India needs.

(A version of this text was first published in Jivan Magazine issue Dec 2021- Jan 2022)

No comments: