Beyond All Frenzy, the Pope-Modi Meeting Does Little for BJP and Vatican

A meeting with the Pope is bound to be heavy on symbolism, and much has been made of it.

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Beyond All Frenzy, the Pope-Modi Meeting Does Little for BJP and Vatican

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The two Cardinals in Kerala are jubilant, the remainder of the Catholics underwhelmed, the denominational and independent churches phlegmatic, a section of the Muslims apprehensive, and civil society a little annoyed. The hug that Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi gave Pope Francis in the Vatican this October while inviting the Roman pontiff for a long delayed visit to India has had a complex and layered reception in India. The responses also sharply delineated the fault lines in the Christian community in the country.

It got more than the eyeballs Mr Modi was expecting in the national and international media, his own eyes fixed firmly on wooing the Catholic community in Goa and the more limited population in Manipur ahead of Assembly elections. Mr Modi and BJP strategists have also calculated that this may sharpen the gulf between the Kerala Catholics and the Muslims not just in that state, but elsewhere too, and pre-empt any rapprochement between the two minority communities at the behest of civil society.


A Niagara of Memes

The photographs of the two old men embracing each other also triggered a Niagara of memes on social media, the most colourful of them showing Mr Modi in the colourful vestments of a bishop, complete with a Mitre on his head and a shepherd’s crook in his hand. Looked very realistic, I must say, and would fool many in the Faithful and the Bhaktas back in India.

The civil society’s critical responses are the easiest understood and were anticipated. Most were born of a rather innocent understanding of the position of the Pope in Christianity and in the international domain.

Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan quite correctly asked if the Pope gave an earful to the Indian PM on the custodial death this autumn of octogenarian and ailing Fr Stan Swamy, arrested on fake charges and repeatedly denied bail.

Stan belonged to the Society of Jesus, of which Pope Francis is also a member. The Jesuits had lobbied internationally for the release of Fr Stan.

But the Pope is not just a religious leader as any Shankaracharya is. He is the head of state of the Holy See, a sovereign state situated within the city of Rome, the capital of Italy. His responses, statements and actions are circumscribed by that reality.

He may give religious advice to a fellow Catholic, as he did to US President Joe Biden, telling him to continue to receive the Holy Commission in the face of the anger of American Bishops over Washington’s support to the right of women to seek an abortion.


But Would Real Issues Be Addressed?

He would be unlikely to directly address the issue of Fr Stan or the continuing persecution of pastors and churches in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka despite missives from the Indian clergy and activists. The pope, according to the official media on both sides, spoke on pandemics and climate change.

But a meeting with the Pope is heavy on symbolism too, and much has been made, including by this columnist, of the gift Francis gave Modi – a brass relief casting of a tree to illustrate the verse from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

The prophet, who came a millennia before Christ, spoke of what calamities would befall communities and their coming out of it with God’s blessings. In particular, Chapter 32 verse 15 is seen as an assurance of hope and deliverance from the tragedies of the moment. Read it as you wish – relief from the pandemic, the emergence from devastating climate change, or relief from persecution.

The most ecstatic are the Syro Malabar church, the most dominant group, and the much smaller Syro Malankara. Both have been in the lead, lobbying with the government for six years to invite the pope.

And indeed both have been dialoguing with the BJP to counter what they see as the Marxist government’s softness towards Muslims in the state. Both the Catholics and the Muslims have been jostling for political space in the state. Though the Muslims are a little more than the Christians, there is a fear that they will gather speed in politics, economy and social benefits from the government.


Indian Right Wing's Anti-Christian Rhetoric

Kerala sees very little state or non-state physical persecution of Christians. Most of the persecution takes place in what are called the ‘Hindi states’, or those with sizable populations of tribals and indigenous people. It’s also seen in states such as Karnataka, where the BJP for the last three decades or so has been making a deep thrust to polarise the people and consolidate its position not on the current caste sectors but on a unified Hindu thesis.

The archbishop of Bangalore had recently rebuffed a government survey of Churches, and the archbishop of Bhopal had written to Mr Modi to contain the violence by Sangh activists.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India, Persecution Relief and the United Christian Forum record an average of one anti-Christian act of violence every day, often involving assault, desecration of small churches and threats. Police usually act in consonance with the assailants.

The statements coming out of the RSS headquarters and other groups even while the Prime Minister was in Rome show little evidence of a toning down of the anti-Christian rhetoric. The RSS top brass has again argued strongly against conversions and the Christian empowerment and inroads among Adivasis and Dalits.


Would a Visit Be Enough?

Other Sangh elements have announced they will campaign vigorously to ensure that the Pope does not come to India. In the last Papal visit by John Paul II, the Sangh, through its Vanvasis wing, the VHP, accused the Pope of encouraging conversions and fomenting dissent and divisions in the country.

As for gains for the Modi government, chastised by US Vice-President Kamala Harris and various international and United Nations Human Rights organisations, the Vatican visit offers little balm.

India will find it difficult to explain to the world why the Prime Minister took six years to accept the requests of the Indian Bishops to invite Pope Francis to the country.

And now the focus will be on how soon the visit will materialise, and the itinerary. The Pope has had surgery earlier this year. An India visit is at the best of times a physically testing one. Will the invitation include multiple halts? Will he visit Kerala, where it will matter the most to the local church politically, and perhaps in cleaning up its own act? Will he go to Chennai and Mount St Thomas, where he possibly would have to speak on the issue of Dalit Christians? And Ranchi, where matters of the environment, tribals and Dalits are the automatic focus of prayer and homilies. And of course, if he travels to Kolkata – the final resting place of Mother Saint Teresa – and the Northeast where the church, too, plays an important part.

Above all, the Pontiff will have to assure the Indian Christian community – Oriental Rites, Latin rite and the many denominations and independent churches – that he has their welfare at heart. A short visit to Delhi and Trivandrum will be of very limited impact and relevance.

(John Dayal is a writer and activist. He is a former President of the 102-year-old All India Catholic Union. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Modi   Pope Francis 

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