India has just begun its electoral process, which will take place in seven separate stages between 11 April and 19 May this year. Fears that this, the most populous democracy in the world, might end up becoming a theocratic Hindu nation have strengthened recently, in light of the fact that the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata (BJP) and its president Narendra Modi are seeking a second mandate. During its present term in office, there has been an increase in interreligious violence, according to the report on Religious Freedom Worldwide by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). The figures speak for themselves: in 2016 a total of 86 people were killed and 2371 injured in 703 separate incidents of sectarian (Hindu fundamentalist) violence; in 2017 the figures were 111 killed and 2384 wounded in 822 separate reported incidents.
The most recent attack – on March 26 – took place in Tamil Nadu against a Catholic school, the Little Flower Higher Secondary School in Chinnasalem, when a crowd of Hindu fundamentalists smashed up the school and even attempted to strangle the religious sisters who were running the school. ACN journalist Maria Lozano interviewed Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, auxiliary bishop of Ranchi and Secretary General of the Indian Bishops’ Conference and asked him about the elections and the gravity of this recent incident.
ACN: We have heard of the increase in attacks by Hindu fundamentalists against religious minorities in other parts of India, especially in the north of the country, but the brutal violence of this recent incident has shocked us. Was there any particular reason for the attack?
Over the last year or so there has been a rise in fundamentalism in Tamil Nadu. Above all, it has been the evangelical or Protestant so-called “house churches” that have complained of these attacks. There is an activist, who publishes on the web stories of groups of Christians being beaten up while praying in their house churches or some little church structure destroyed. But as the Catholic Church, we have not had this type of open attack until this time, at least not such a big one, we have had small, small things. Two years ago there was a Good Friday incident; a mob did not allow us to worship in one place. So we have had incidents here and there. But the Protestant churches or Protestant groups or these smaller denominations have had a lot of problems over the last two years. So it did not come to me as a surprise that eventually we would be attacked. But that it took place on such a large scale is really frightening.
ACN: It must also have been an enormous shock for the sisters of the Franciscan Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who have been running the school for 74 years now. What is the present situation in Chinnasalem? And how are the sisters faring?
It is a small town. And the sisters have been doing a lot of this work for very, very poor children. And in fact the hostel, the boarding school can take girls who come from very poor areas and poor families. I spoke to the sisters a few days ago and I spoke to the Archbishop also, and they say for the moment that some people have been arrested and we are waiting for some more people to be arrested. But for me, it is not what happens after the incident. For me, the whole thing we have to question is how such incidents can even come about in a civilized society.
ACN: But apart from the incident itself and notwithstanding the gravity of it, are you concerned about the social dimension that this kind of attack implies?
How is so much hatred being spread in society and how can we stop this hatred being propagated – that exactly is the question. There are groups that are promoting hatred and these groups are not being stopped, neither in social media nor in actual life, and they seem to be getting political privilege, patronage, and that is my worry, even political authorization, and that is my problem. It is not that these small groups make demands against us or make charges against us or accuse us. The problem is that political leaders are actually encouraging them.
ACN: Do you think this increase in incidents in the last year is also related to the elections?
It might be related to the elections but I think it is going long-term now. I have a very simple philosophy on this. Once you plant the seed of hatred, once you bring the beast, the animal of anger, hatred, violence, that animal cannot be controlled. And this is my worry. All those who are spreading this hatred must know what harm they are doing to society and that it will become difficult to bring back things under control, and if it cannot be brought back under control we will have a problem.
ACN: But this problem is already damaging especially to the minorities in India…
Yes, it is the minorities, but today I was just thinking of that beautiful poem attributed to a German Lutheran pastor: ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me’. So we use this now today because first, you start with one minority and then the second. the Muslims are under attack, the Dalits are under attack and we are under attack, we don’t know who next.
ACN: Does that mean then that in the end, this nationalist fundamentalism which the political leaders are promoting will actually damage the whole country?
We must say one thing in all fairness. A large Hindu majority, and a large Indian majority of whatever religion we belong to, we are tolerant, we accept each other, and we live with each other, we have been living for thousands of years together, this is a multi-cultural, multi-religious diverse society, and we’ve been living with each other and enriching each other. Now we suddenly come to a situation where certain groups are getting strong and spreading this hatred around and that is not acceptable, because eventually, it is the nation that is going to suffer from this. Not just minorities.
ACN: Is India heading towards becoming a theocratic nation like Pakistan?
In 1947 two countries were born, Pakistan and India. Pakistan decided that it would be a country founded on a religion, Islam; our founding fathers in India decided we would not be based on any religion or any one culture but we would be multi-cultural, pluri-religious and with diverse languages and regions. And the country has lived peacefully after that.
ACN: ¿But who are these new people who want to change what the founding fathers decided, and why?
These are certain fundamentalist groups which come up in every society and fundamentalist groups always damage society. But when they start getting overt or covert support from the others then they become dangerous.
ACN: What has been the reaction of the Christian community on hearing this news? Surely these incidents must make them feel very frightened?
We as Christians, we trust in the Lord, we are not afraid. When I asked the sisters ‘Are you afraid?’ they said ‘No, we shall continue our work’. I think that is our spirit, we shall continue our work, we will not be afraid of anyone. We think of Jesus who told us ‘Be afraid of the one who can take care of your soul rather than those who can destroy your body’. So that is our basic principle. I don’t think anyone is frightened and we will go ahead with our work, we will continue serving the poorest of the poor. We know that this will bring us difficulties, this will bring us persecution, and this will bring us even hardships, but we will continue doing our work for the poor, for God and for Jesus.
ACN: One last question: do you believe that it is precisely the fact that you are working with the poorest and most socially discriminated against is one of the reasons why some people don’t seem to like the work of the Church?
We have a saying in my own local language Konkani: ‘Stones are thrown only at a tree that bears fruit’. You don’t throw stones at a useless tree, only at a tree that bears fruit. So I think that one of the reasons we are under attack is that we are serving the poor, somebody does not like that we are serving the poor and this I believe is the real reason why the fundamentalists do not like us.