The following is an open letter by A.J. Philip, a senior journalist based in New Delhi, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his visit to the Sacred Heart Cathedral in the national capital on Easter Sunday. Annotations in brackets have been included by this newspaper
Dear Shri Narendra Modi Ji,
I was very happy to know that you visited the Catholic Cathedral Church, New Delhi, on Easter. You also lit a candle in front of the altar and planted a tree on the campus. I am sure the Catholic Bishop(s’) Conference of India (CBCI) authorities would water the plant and ensure its growth.
On the occasion of Christmas, the President of India also visited the same church and expressed her solidarity with the Christian community in the country. Such visits are certainly welcome, as they would help to understand the Christian traditions and practices better.
A few years back, a member of our church married a Hindu girl at our church at Dwarka. Her father also attended the wedding. After the wedding, I met him. He told me that it was the first time that he stepped into a church. He had some worries about inter-religious marriage. Of course, he knew the boy who was his daughter’s colleague.
Whatever apprehensions he had were removed when he attended the church service which was in his own words “elegant and meaningful”. He listened carefully to the prayers and about the duties expected from the groom. “You should clothe her, even if you are naked, you should feed her, even if you are hungry”. In fact, he was much relieved after attending the service.
I am sure you would also have understood some of the Christian practices when you visited the Cathedral Church. I remember the then head of the Marthoma Church of which I am a member, Joseph Marthoma, praising you while addressing a gathering at Kayamkulam (in south Kerala), my native place.
Once when the Metropolitan visited Gujarat, you treated him as a state guest. You sent the Chief Secretary to receive him at the airport and you accommodated him at the state guest house. When he met you, he had one request. He wanted a plot of land for burial in Ahmedabad.
You were kind enough to accede to his request. Someone, blessed with dark humour, commented that you donated the Christians a graveyard. I know how difficult it is to buy land for burial. You actually solved a big problem of the Christian community there.
Although it was your first visit to the Cathedral Church, the place of worship had figured prominently in your election speeches. I am sure you would recall that you as Chief Minister wanted elections to be held immediately after the Godhra incident and the pogrom or “riots” that followed.
The Chief Election Commissioner at that time was James Michael Lyngdoh. He was not prepared to hold the elections immediately. You were upset with him. You told public meeting after public meeting that Lyngdoh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi would meet at the Cathedral Church every Sunday morning and conspire against you, that is “Gujarat”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Sacred Heart Cathedral Catholic Church in New Delhi on Sunday. PTI picture
(In August 2002, Modi had said: “Some journalists asked me recently, ‘Has James Michael Lyngdoh come from Italy?’ I said, I don’t have his janam patri, I will have to ask Rajiv Gandhi. Then the journalists said, ‘Do they (Lyngdoh and Sonia) meet in church?’ I replied, ‘Maybe they do’.” Modi’s barbs had compelled Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, to issue a statement ticking the chief minister off.)
You made the allegation without any rhyme or reason. The fact of the matter was that Lyngdoh was an atheist who did not attend any church. As regards Sonia Gandhi, she was a practising Hindu, not a Christian. She never attended the Cathedral Church and they never met there.
Now that you have the contact details of all the church authorities, you can ascertain from them whether they ever saw Lyngdoh and Sonia Gandhi attending the church together or separately. No, I am not suggesting that you should apologise to both for spreading the lie about them.
You were politically wise enough to know that if elections were held in the wake of Godhra, you would win hands down. Lyngdoh could only delay the election. And finally, when elections were held, you won the state. It was the beginning of your roller-coaster ride as a political leader. In other words, the lie about the Cathedral Church played a role in your success.
I am sure you know that for Christians, the most important days are Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. The day you visited the church, many Christian teachers of CBSE-affiliated schools were forced to go to their schools to conduct evaluation of the board exam papers.
The CBSE had issued an order forcing them to go to school even on Good Friday. Just imagine how you would have reacted if the CBSE had issued such an order forcing teachers to attend schools on Diwali.
That raises the question: Does the Prime Minister of the country have to visit a church? I do not think Jawaharlal Nehru ever visited a church on Easter or Christmas. Nor did he visit a mosque or temple. Yet, he was the most popular leader for all the minority communities.
I really liked the promise you made when you contested the election in 2014. You promised equal treatment to one and all. Is that the case now? A minister in Karnataka was heard exhorting his men to give Christians a thrashing. An impression has been created among the minds of the people that Christians are out to convert Hindus.
We are less than three per cent of the population. There is not a single case of forced conversion to Christianity although some of the anti-conversion laws have been in existence for more than fifty years. Yet, people are arrested in the name of conversion and jailed.
Of course, they would be released for want of evidence but by then they and their families would have suffered. You know what the Indian state did to Fr Stan Swamy. He was arrested for interrogation but he was not interrogated even for a minute after his arrest.
He was suffering from Parkison’s disease and could not hold a glass of water. When he asked for a straw to drink water, the judge gave a month’s time to the prosecution to give its reply. Finally, he died in police custody without the state even submitting a chargesheet against him.
Stan Swamy is already a saint for people like me. I know you want Christians to vote for you in Kerala where they are about 25 per cent of the population. For that, you need not go to any church.
We have a beautiful Constitution. It lists the duties and responsibilities of the people and the government. I as a Christian can practise my religion and preach it without fear. Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists, not to mention Hindus, have the same right.
We are all citizens with equal rights. We do not want any special privileges, except those guaranteed by the Constitution. History bears proof that countries progressed when peace prevailed. That is why the Elizabethan period was considered the most productive period in Britain.
A strong word from you that you will not tolerate hooliganism, lynching and hate campaigns against any community, be it Muslim or Christian or Sikh, will go a long way in ending the sense of insecurity that grips Christians and Muslims in the country.
In other words, what is required is building a sense of confidence and security among the people of India. You should have the moral courage to tell the world that this country belongs as much to Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and others as it belongs to Hindus.
There is no need for you to visit religious places, except for your own spiritual satisfaction. Instead, you can concentrate on implementing your own promise of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas.
Let me conclude by telling you that I am planning a visit to the Statue of Unity and the Somnath Temple at my own cost later this month.
With best wishes