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Catholic Church in India is all for democracy

Even today when anti-democratic clouds hover over Asia or India Catholic Church here has taken a strong stand for democracy. Church’s support for democracy in India comes through not only the official statements of Catholic Bishops Conference of India but also through the initiatives by the individual Catholics.

Catholic Church in India is all for democracy

By Joe Palathunkal

Whenever democracy was in danger anywhere in India Catholic Church was very much in the forefront to defend it. The best illustration to recall is the national emergency of 25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977 when all civil liberties were suspended.

Exactly during this period Jesuit Father Dr. Sebastian Kappen’s epoch making book Jesus and Freedom was published by Orbis in New York and like any other ruler who does not want to be questioned, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was suspicious of the seven letter word freedom and the hunt started for the author.

Like Jesus who slipped away from being thrown off from the cliff by the Pharisaical Jews, Sebastian Kappen (1924 – 1993) too escaped the hunt but after leaving an indelible seal of Catholic voice on India’s history of democracy.

(Fr. Sebastian Kappen SJ)

Even today when anti-democratic clouds hover over Asia or India Catholic Church here has taken a strong stand for democracy. Church’s support for democracy in India comes through not only the official statements of Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) but also through the initiatives by the individual Catholics, perhaps the latter’s voice is shriller than that of the former.

When we discuss Church’s support for democracy it should not be construed as an exclusive domain of legislative elections and the Catholic Church in India has never adopted a policy of supporting partisan party politics but its focus is on democratic values. CBCI has made it very clear in 2016: “As authentic citizens of the country, we repose our confidence in the democratic values and the Constitution of India.”

Democratic values, undoubtedly, are the Kingdom values of Jesus – human dignity, justice, liberty, equality, fraternity; and all these can be summarized in one term ‘human rights’. In fact, human dignity is the core of a healthy democracy which the Church wants to prevail in this country where there are many forces and values vitiating that biblically bestowed God’s image on every human person.

Though Catholics in India may constitute only just below two percent of the 1.35 billion population of the country, its wide network of educational institutions, social action centres and healthcare networks serve as a dynamic instrument to uphold the above democratic values centred on human dignity and human rights.

Today the threat to democracy in India from multiple forces is a threat to the democratic fabric of the nation mainly resting on diversity. That is why the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru gave this foundational principle of Indian democracy: “Unity in diversity.”

Church in India sees a clear threat to this diversity-based democracy when some political ideologues are vociferous about a nationalism based on majority religion shutting every door to dialogue and dissent. CBCI warned in 2018: “Any attempt to promote nationalism based on any one particular culture or religion is a dangerous position.”

Knowing the seriousness of this ‘dangerous position’ only in its 34th plenary session of February 2020 the Catholic Bishops Conference of India repeated its stand:“Needless to say that dissent should not be misconstrued as un-patriotism. Democracy cannot be built on monologue.”

Democracy cannot accept and must not accept monologue and monoculture as its part or base because epistemologically democracy is a universal political dialogue based on robust diversity. The Church in India sees clear forebodings against such a democracy.

This is what prompted Jesuit Father Dr. Prakash Louis to launch the timely forum “Indian Christians for Democracy” at the end of July and it has already a 500 strong membership drawn from mostly intellectuals who advocate democracy.

About the objective of the forum Dr. Louis says: “As the name indicates, this forum aims at being a platform of the Christians to raise their voice when the democratic and plural nature of the country is trampled upon.”

An author of 12 books related to democratic values, this sociologist with a doctoral study on “People’s Power” based on the grassroots movements in Bihar, the eastern Indian state, is well aware of common people’s inseparable and inevitable relation to democracy and the empowerment that comes through it.

Dr. Louis has expressed very well the agonizing concern of the Church about India’s democracy when he said: “we express our views, raise our concerns and object to all that is undemocratic, authoritarian, majoritarian, casteist, dominant class determined, patriarchal, parochial, falsehood, deception, domineering, to say succinctly all the policies and programs that are anti-citizen and anti-people and anti-poor."

Social activists Fr. Stan Lourduswamy SJ , Vernon Gonsalves, Bismarque Dias, Fathers Thomas Chackalackal , Joseph idiakunnel , Thomas Kochery and Sisters Rani Maria, and Valsa John are all the results of a human rights based pro-democracy consciousness the Catholic Church in India created over the years through its nationwide net work of educational institutions that instilled scientific and logical thinking following the good advice of that great Franciscan William of Okham.

As a result of such an education India had famous Catholic civil servants who upheld democratic values and in this context nobody can forget James Michael Lyngdoh who as Chief Election Commissioner of India (14 June 2001 to 7 February 2004) courageously upheld democracy and democratic values.

Educated at Saint Edmund’s School and Saint Edmund’s College, Shillong, this IAS officer born in 1939, Meghalaya, took bold steps to save India’s democracy proving his probity in public life.

And his test came when Gujarat Legislative Assembly was dissolved in July 2002 nine months before its term was to end as per the norms to force early elections in the state. Seeing it as a sinister move after the riots of February 2002, major political parties vehemently opposed it.

When the matter reached Chief Election Commissioner James Michael Lyngdoh, the ultimate authority to decide elections, with guts and gumption he ruled out early elections. In the same way, when violence was rampant in Jammu and Kashmir, he conducted elections against all the odds and that prompted him to pen the book “Chronicle of an Impossible Election: The Election Commission and the 2002 Jammu and Kashmir Assembly Elections”.

If James Michael Lyngdoh the Catholic Chief Election Commissioner saved the form of democracy in India, a lone relentless voice of India saved the spirit and quintessence of democracy - the human rights. Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash who had been in the battle field of human rights for the last 40 years since his days with All India Catholic University Federation (AICUF) in 1970s, rightly quips looking at the present scenario of India: “Rights have gone all wrong in today’s India!”

Whenever human rights have gone wrong in this country Cedric Prakash did bold interventions and it is part of independent India’s history. The founding of the human rights watch dog Prashant on October 2, 2001was a landmark but he had been there whenever human dignity, the fundamental principle of the Universal Declaration, was in danger.

In 1999 when tribals were attacked in Dangs of Gujarat and Christian Institutions were destroyed, he was there to take the matter to human rights forums. He met the then Prime Minister Vajpayee when he visited Dangs in 1999 to assess the facts. And through Cedric the whole rights violations came to the international eyes as acknowledged by his own detractors in their booklet “True Story of the Dangs”.

But his litmus test came during the Godhra train tragedy of February 2002 and the subsequent communal riots. During these days Cedric Prakash was very much involved in the “Citizens for Justice and Peace” and the “Citizens Tribunal” which brought out the path breaking study “Crime against Humanity”. Finally, he testified before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

For this indomitable voice of human rights and freedom, if honours and awards came to him, it is quite natural. Mother Teresa International Award for Social Justice, World’s Top Ten Peacemakers in Action and in 2010 the highest recognition of France The Legion of Honour. Over the years this relentless voice of democracy and human rights has evolved himself as the voice of Catholic Church in India.

Just before the 34the CBCI meeting Cedric Prakash reminded the bishops of India: “Democracy, so dear to us, is being destroyed; the letter and spirit of our Constitution are systematically denigrated; above all, the pluralistic and multi-cultural fabric of our nation is being eroded.”

This reminder can be taken as a warning from the Catholic Church of India to all those who are in deep slumber about the dangers to India’s vulnerable democracy. If it serves to materialize Delhi’s Archbishop Anil Joseph Couto’s wish, the Church can rejoice: “May the ethos of true democracy envelop our elections with dignity and the flames of honest patriotism enkindle our political leaders.This is our cry, Heavenly Father, in these troubled times as we see the clouds eclipsing the light of truth, justice and freedom.”

(Photo Courtesy - Unsplash.com, Wikipedia.com)

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