By John Dayal
(UCA News) — The dear Catholic Bishop of Pune Couldn’t have picked a worse time to seek dialogue with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu umbrella group working to make India a nation of Hindu hegemony.
The country’s political and social climate is still turbulent following a bloody televised debate in which a spokeswoman for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the RSS, made disparaging remarks about the prophet Muhammad.
She was suspended and her male colleague sacked by the party to prevent a threat of an economic boycott of India by Islamic nations.
Protests in India have been vigorous. Police fired on protesters in Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand. Among the two young Muslims who were killed was a student who was awaiting his high school exam results.
In neighboring Uttar Pradesh, ruled by Hindu monk Ajay Bisht, or Yogi Adityanath, who continues to lead his sect, police arrested 109 Muslim protesters. The Chief Minister is now known as “Bulldozer Baba” due to his high-profile policy of bulldozing the homes of political and social activists who challenge the regime as well as occasional suspects.
This time, the Uttar Pradesh government bulldozed the home of activist Afreen Fatima, who had led a protest against blasphemy. The house belonged to his mother, who is not politically active. Afreen called it an “act of vendetta” and an attempt “to crush government critics”.
Reporters recording the two-hour demolition said the family’s belongings were dumped in an open space nearby. Among the household items and books was a poster saying “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”.
In this difficult situation that has been developing for a week, Catholic and Protestant leaders in India have remained completely silent. This time around, it lacked the empathy and solidarity seen in Karnataka during protests against the new anti-conversion law and the ban on the hijab worn by Muslim students in school and college.
This silence was broken by Bishop Thomas Dabre of Pune, who was part of the Pontifical Council for Dialogue and is known to meet leaders of other religions.
He even surprised his admirers – including this columnist – when he declared: “The Christian community accepts the ideology and principles of the RSS. We need to establish communication and coordination between Christians and [Rashtriya Swayamsewak] Sangh.
The post went viral in Christian circles within minutes, and within an hour sprang up in angry memes on Facebook and Twitter. Many of us thought the bishop had been misquoted.
A Catholic editor, himself a religious, contacted the bishop to clarify what he said or intended to say in his statement. “I am not a spokesperson for the RSS or its defender. In truth, I asked for a dialogue between the Church and the RSS that the Indian Bishops had proposed,” Bishop Dabré said.
Local Marathi-language newspapers published more elaborate articles. The bishop reportedly said, “The Sangh believes in nationalism, the church also believes in nationalism.”
The RSS is neither a religious organization nor a political party. It is a multi-headed and aggressive organization whose political face has ruled India since 2014 with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.
And although Modi intends to lead the party in the 2024 general election for a third term, the much younger Bisht is seen as his most likely successor at some point.
Whether or not that succession happens depends on the RSS, which over the decades has controlled the fortunes of the BJP and its leaders.
Pune, where the bishop’s diocese is located, is known for its religious fundamentalists and its sentiments against religious minorities and Dalits.
Bishop Dabré has known this for all the years after his transfer from Vasai near Bombay in 2009. “Only dialogue will stop the violence and lies of religious fanaticism,” he argued.
Many years ago, as prelate of Vasai, Bishop Dabre said “this was also the message of Mother Teresa”.
The nun, who became a saint, indeed spoke with everyone, including dictators and billionaires. But there is no record of him holding an organized dialogue with the RSS, which was never strong anyway in the Kolkata of his time.
The RSS, which has always opposed all papal visits to India, violently attacked her in the 1990s when she supported the cause of Dalits in general, and Dalit Christians in particular, accusing her of being source of conversions in India.
Surely the Catholic Church knows that the one thing the founding fathers of the RSS supported even more vehemently than their supremacist Hindutva was their visceral hatred of followers of Christianity and Islam.
The RSS documents clearly indicate that these two peoples have no place in Bharat, that is, in India. They should accept second class status if they want to live in this Bharat.
It’s a kind of combination of apartheid and racism – a marriage of the worst in the history of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, colonial Britain and South Africa .
Fortunately, Mahatma Gandhi, the legendary Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru during the freedom struggle assured that this would never happen. Dr. BR Ambedkar has woven these aspirations into a strong declaration of religious freedom and equality in the Indian constitution.
The Indian media, now entirely under the fold of the BJP-RSS, played it, especially in the Marathi-language press. They understand that later explanations will not affect the first impact they will have – gladdening the majority heart and further confusing the Christian community.
As a diocesan leader, Archbishop Dabré essentially speaks as an individual, or at best for his clergy and laity. It does not represent the entire Christian community with over 100 or more different denominations. The Catholic Church itself is rich in three liturgical divisions.
But the damage has been done. Civil society is furious. The Muslim community, which understands that the Church of Kerala is not in love with it, is also taken aback. He expected a different and warmer response from the church outside Kerala where its common devotees are just as victims of Sangh terror in rural and tribal India.
It’s not just that the Christian community in India, including the Catholics, lacks time. We are, of course, always days and weeks too late. Data and analysis don’t even exist on our own persecution by individuals and the state.
And most, including individual bishops and people like me, don’t have the credibility in the community to be empowered to speak on its behalf. The media may or may not know it, but the government, which is in constant contact with vulnerable bishops and ambitious individuals, knows the flaws and vulnerabilities.
Above all, unfortunately, we lack empathy.