Cardinal Toppo on India's New Stage

Interview With Prelate in Wake of National Elections

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NEW DELHI, India, JULY 19, 2004 ( The recent elections in India showed that there is «unity in diversity» and a rejection of fundamentalism in favor of peace, says Cardinal Telesphore Placidus Toppo, president of the country’s episcopal conference.

The nationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was defeated and the Congress Party, headed by Sonia Gandhi and sympathetic parties of the left, won control of the legislature following the national elections held in late April and early May.

Q: Eminence, what have these last elections meant for India?

Cardinal Toppo: It has been a great victory for democracy. The people fully exercised their right. No one expected this change; the outgoing government was virtually certain of victory. Instead, the voters rejected a policy that was too close to fundamentalism and elected a new government. And this happened despite the fact that [Prime Minister Atal Bihar] Vajpayee demonstrated he was a good leader.

Q: What are the main challenges facing the government now?

Cardinal Toppo: In such a large country, so populous, poverty remains the greatest challenge. It is not enough to equip cities with more modern technologies. Many people still live in the country, in villages. They also have the right to enjoy the benefits of development.

A government is needed that will promote justice for the very great majority of Indians who still live in very poor conditions. Without justice we will not have peace, and without peace we will not have genuine development.

Those who have put their hopes again in the Congress Party expect this, although we all know it takes years, not days.

Q: India has turned the page. But does Hindu fundamentalism remain, nevertheless, a serious unknown factor for the country?

Cardinal Toppo: Already a few years ago we said that fundamentalism is one of those problems that reappears every now and then, and then passes. Now these general elections seem, precisely, to demonstrate it. Of course, we will have to be alert, but I have the impression that India has begun a new stage.

Let’s not forget that our country is very large and that the incidents that have occurred have never inflamed the whole of India. We are not living, therefore, in a situation like the Iraqi or, looking closer to ourselves, like that of Sri Lanka.

From independence until today, in over 50 years we have remained united and have also gone a long way. Given all our languages and cultures, we are a world in miniature, an example of possible unity in diversity.

The fundamentalists have tried to deny this, but the elections have shown that the people want peace and harmony so that India can grow as a great nation. Young people especially, who at present are the majority of the population, are convinced of this.

Q: You have been the first Indian Christian from the tribal minority to become a cardinal. What have you experienced?

Cardinal Toppo: It was a great surprise. I had never thought of this eventuality. I don’t see it so much as an honor, but as a task at the service of the universal Church.

And at the same time I read into it an acknowledgment of the progress made by the Church in Asia, in India and, in particular, among ourselves, the tribals.

For 120-150 years, the Church has helped us to discover our dignity through its work of human promotion and release from the superstitions and fears which had so strongly conditioned the lives of our forbears.

Therefore, I accepted this appointment with humility and I am trying to work together with the Pope for the good of the Church in Asia and in the world. Without a «plan» of my own, but seeking to discern the plan of God for my people and for the whole world.

Q: What does the caste system still represent for India today?

Cardinal Toppo: The system was abolished by law immediately after independence. But the castes have not disappeared. They still are a part of people’s lives.

It will take time. Only the development of a new mentality will really be able to do away with this system. The cultural influences of globalization, ever more present also in India, can be of help.

But much attention must be paid. Deep down, what else is the individualism of the new culture of today if not another type of caste? Is a system which exasperates the concept of a group that different from one whose sole interest is that of individuals out for themselves?

I am convinced that the only way to really defeat the caste system is to proclaim Jesus’ commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. It is the experience we ourselves, the tribals, have had: By encountering the Gospel we have discovered ourselves to be free.

Q: Christians in India are a small minority. Catholics are only 1.6% of the population, but they have a very important role in the school system. What are the fruits of this commitment?

Cardinal Toppo: I myself am one of those fruits. My parents could not read or write and, like me, neither could many boys and girls.

The educational commitment has made it possible to form priests, but also doctors, lawyers, technicians, and, in the vast majority of cases, non-Catholics. It is the great contribution it has made to India. Everyone comes to study in our schools, all are accepted in our hospitals. We serve anyone, without paying attention to castes or religions.

Q: This was done also in Calcutta by a certain Mother Teresa …

Cardinal Toppo: When she was still living, everyone considered her a saint. I think that the real meaning of interreligious dialogue was manifested in her work: One dialogues with life, together serving the poorest of the poor in all the communities.

Mother Teresa was a gift of God to the world, and to India in particular, even a model of unity in diversity. And still today she continues to inspire millions of people.

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