Indian Christians Are Anxious. Will St Thomas Stir the Nation's Conscience?
Observation of Indian Christian Day is an effort by churches to find a footing in the communally polarised India.
Why is the Feast of St Thomas, which falls on 3 July, significant to Indian Christians this year? The day, which commemorates the ‘martyrdom’ of a disciple of Jesus Christ, Apostle Thomas, will this year be celebrated as Yeshu Bhakti Divas or Indian Christian Day.
He is believed to have travelled to India in 52 AD.
The day is to be observed by churches of all Christian denominations including the Protestants and the Catholics.
Explaining the objectives of Indian Christian Day (ICD), Fr Cedric Prakash, a Gujarat based priest and social activist, writes in a letter addressed to all churches in the country, 'it is a grassroots initiative, it is non-political and seeks no political patronage'.
Indian Christian Day, he writes, is an effort to 'bring together Christians from various churches in India to love, to serve and to celebrate'.
The concept and vision meeting of ICD, which was held on 22 May, had the presence of several prominent members of the Christian churches in India, including Archbishop of Delhi, Anil Couta.
Indian Christian Anxiety
While the newly assigned prominence to St Thomas day could be considered another facet of the Indian Christian faith but, under the surface of this assertion, exists a palpable anxiety which is political in nature.
Fr Prakash further writes, “What is also a painful fact is that in recent years, there has been increased misinformation about the historicity of the message of Jesus in India; besides from certain quarters there are efforts to discredit the Christians with falsehoods and half-truths.” The letter goes on to assert that Christian faith in India is a not a by-product of colonisation.
“What is wrongly promoted is the narrative that Christ was introduced to India by European colonialists and to conclude that Christ is against the Indian cultural ethos and people.”Fr Cedric Prakash
In essence, Indian Christian Day, is an effort to drive home the message to right-wing trolls and their 'rice-bag Christian' catcalls (a derogatory term used to imply that Christians were converted to Christianity because they were offered material benefits, including bags of rice).
In a way, ICD is a response to 2015 attacks on Christian churches in Delhi and even Baba Ramdev’s tirade against Indian Medical Association President Dr JA Jayalal.
While there were five attacks on Churches in Delhi in 2015, attacks on pastors and prayer meetings were reported in Uttar Pradesh in 2021. Jayalal, a Christian by faith, was asked by one of Ramdev's aides whether he was a 'doctor or a pastor'. He was accused of attempting to convert medical students and doctors to Christianity.
“Indian Christian Day also aims at celebrating the coming of the message of Jesus Christ with Apostle Thomas’ arrival in India and to counteract attempts of promoting revisionist history with solidarity and hope."Indian Christian Day Letter to Churches
Why is St Thomas ICD’s Face?
The Indian Christian Day in doctrine is believed to follow the message of Vatican’s 2020 document, ‘The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum’. The core of the Vademecum’s (treatise) message is unity in prayer among Christians of different denominations.
Christians can come together and pray for the troubles their specific communities face, the treatise says. “Global realities such as warfare, poverty, the plight of migrants, injustice, and persecution of Christians and other religious groups also demand the attention of Christians,” the vademecum dated 4 December 2020, notes.
While prayer is the core concept of the ICD, it also aims an invocation of history. The ICD document claims that it was St Thomas’ arrival in India which paved the way for Christianity’s reach in the country.
Apostle Thomas, was the first to doubt the Biblical news of resurrection of Christ. According to the scripture, he is believed to have asked for proof of Christ’s resurrection – hence the name 'doubting Thomas'. He later is believed to have accepted the Gospel and have travelled to different parts of the world including India, to preach the message of Christ. St Thomas is believed to have died near Chennai in 72 AD.
As colonisation of India was an after-effect of European imperialism which spread far and wide in late 16th Century, the ICD attempts to say that Indian Christians are indigenous people who were more influenced by Christ than the colonial masters.
In Kerala, there is a sect of Christians – Syrian Christians –who claim that St Thomas converted their forefathers, who were Brahmins, to Christianity. Refuting this claim, several sects of Dalit Christians, have claimed that the Christian message spread among the oppressed populations in India, even before dominant caste groups took note of Christianity.
Despite the conflicting claims over St Thomas’ arrival in India, the Indian postal department had brought out two stamps – in 1964 and 1973 – in his honour.
St Thomas, therefore, is the Apostle who ties Christ to Christians in India. He also ties Christians as a religious group to India’s pre-colonial history.
In the ICD statement, what stands out is an attempt by the Christian churches to find a sense of belonging in India; to assert Christians are not outsiders but are people who have contributed to India’s nation building. The statement claims, in desperation, that Christians were part of the freedom struggle and Constituent Assembly.
It reminds the conscience of the nation that, 'Christians have contributed significantly, objectively and with excellence in every field of human endeavour to this great nation'.
This means that the churches have taken an effort to communicate the alienation of 2.3 percent of India’s population. But can the Christians claim a niche in India through St Thomas?
A Bolder Move Needed?
St Thomas may not be the answer to Indian Christian prayers for acceptance. In India’s communally polarised political landscape, Apostle Thomas, can be considered just one among the saints tethered to the Christian faith.
To completely negate colonial influence in the spread of Christianity in India may prove to be ahistorical.
What the churches should attempt to do is to take a step back from the debate on origins of Christianity in India.
In a pluralistic country, where secularism is inscribed in the constitution, Christians should not be forced to prove their patriotism. Ideally, in India, Christians should not be forced to defend the Indian roots of Christianity. With this realization, the churches could, instead, spend more of their resources in taking on communalism.
While Christian churches, across denominations, pray for those who have suffered persecution, no substantial attempt has been made so far to come together against the rising communal tensions in the country.
In fact, most Christian churches in the country had refused to offer solidarity to protests led by minorities, including Muslims, against lynching and communal attacks. The Christian churches were conspicuous by their absence during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests of 2020.
When liturgy can give voice to the persecuted, oppressed and marginalised, why can’t the churches question the very premise of being called colonial slaves even after seven decades of Indian independence? After all, St Thomas questioned and was rewarded with grace.
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