To mark the first anniversary of his government, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 26 declared the world is “optimistic about India and is enthusiastic about exploring the opportunities India has to offer.”
To which one leader of India’s churches replied:
“We have nothing to celebrate. Rather, we have reasons to be concerned,” said Rev. Roger Gaikwad, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India, a coalition of Orthodox and Protestant churches.
“One year of Prime Minister Modi rule does not augur well for the four years to come,” Gaikwad told World Watch Monitor. “The last one year has been a quite challenge to the (religious) minorities.”
Modi took office on May 26, 2014 after the Bharatiya Janata Party dominated national parliamentary elections. The BJP platform is built upon the concept of Hindutva, a vision of India as culturally and historically Hindu.
Modi made his optimistic claim in an open letter, against the backdrop of a Times of India poll that showed his government to have a 77 percent approval rating. A day earlier, he marked the first year of BJP rule by attending a rally in the northern India city of Mathura, the birthplace of Deen Dayal Upadhyay, a formative figure in the Hindu nationalist movement.
Christians and other religious minorities have reason to take a different view of the past year. In March, on day 300 of BJP rule, a coalition of minority religious leaders issued a report claiming to document more than 600 cases of violence —168 of targeting Christians and the rest against Muslims.
“The future cannot be said to be very inviting,” said John Dayal, a prominent Christian activist and spokesperson for the United Christian Forum, which was formed as reports of intimidation and violence mounted in the months following Modi’s election.
“Modi came to power on development agenda and claims to pursue it,” Dayal told World Watch Monitor. “But the message is quite different. He has made himself contemporary leader of a community and not of a nation. That explains why he launched the anniversary celebrations in Mathura.”
In a May 14 statement, Dayal wrote that BJP rule has prompted “a marked shift in public discourse.”
“There has been a relentless foregrounding of communal identities, a ceaseless attempt to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Hate statements by Union and state ministers, threats by Members of Parliament, state politicians, and cadres in saffron caps or Khaki shorts resonate through the landscape,” he wrote, referencing the colors popularly associated with the BJP and Hindu nationalism.
Ahead of the anniversary, an ecumenical delegation of 16 Christian leaders, including Catholic Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi, met May 23 in the Indian capital and called on Modi’s finance minister, Arun Jaitely, to take their concerns to the government.
“The government is concerned about the bad name for the nation and negative impact of the reports on the attacks,” Rev. Savarimuthu Sankar, spokesperson Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, told World Watch Monitor.
When church leaders drew Jaitely’s attention to “irresponsible and provocative statements” of some of the BJP leaders and ministers, Shankar quoted the minister as saying some of them are “partly uncontrollable.”
“The minister assured us that the government will take prompt action in any attack,” Shankar said. “We hope that past experience will not be repeated.” In Delhi alone, half a dozen Catholic churches have been the target of arson attacks and break-ins.
Apart from the violence targeting religious minorities, government policies have hit the poor “hard,” said Gaikwad, of the National Council of Churches in India.
“Allocations for healthcare and welfare programmes have been reduced. This is also a matter of worry for the churches,” he said.
The opposition Congress Party too blamed the Modi government for “neglect of social sectors.”
“Agriculture, education, health and concerns of small traders who represent the backbone of the economy have all been sidelined,” said Kapil Sibal, senior Congress party leader. “Allocations on education and health have been drastically reduced.”