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Despite Rising Persecution, Indian Christians Remain Invisible in Electoral Landscape

author John Dayal
Apr 24, 2024
Christians constitute 2.3% of India's population, or 22.31 million voters. But their presence will remain essentially unfelt for all the impact they make on the results, or on the representation of their own community in the new Parliament.

It is the biggest show on earth. Ever. The 2024 General Elections, which is the 18th since the Indian Republic was declared, throw up mind-boggling statistics. For the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Parliament, approximately 970 million people out of a population of 1.4 billion people are eligible to cast their vote, including 18 million who reached 18 years of age this year. In 12 states, there are more women voters than men. Among the registered voters are over 48,000 transgenders, identified for the first time in such an exercise.

The mechanics put in place by the Election Commission of India are equally gigantic: 1.05 million polling stations, manned by 15 million personnel to supervise the polling. The votes are recorded on electronic voting machines (EVMs), which remain a source of much controversy but have been deemed legal by the Supreme Court. The results will be declared on June 4.

Christians are approximately 2.3% of the population, and by simple arithmetic, they total about 22.31 million voters. A seemingly large number, the Christian voters, but their presence will remain essentially unfelt for all the impact they make on the results, or on the representation of their own community in the new Parliament. As it is Christians are irrelevant in India’s electoral landscape, more so in the last 10 years when they have been totally invisiblised.

Many call this a pity, at a time when Christian relief and outreach are sought to be criminalised, and its education institutions are under threat of total emasculation. The community sees overwhelming problems, ranging from physical persecution to curbs on institutional structures, some with a 150-year-old record.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Without a strong voice in parliament to press their concerns and demands, the community banks on the Congress and other secular parties for its advocacy in Parliament, and also, ironically the Communist block which the community’s religious leaders otherwise see as an enemy in the state of Kerala.

The activity seen in the community in the Karnataka elections of last year and the leadership shown by Bangalore archbishop Peter Machado against non-state actors persecuting the Christians, and the Muslims, helped galvanise civil society. This, together with a shift in loyalties by an ethnic community, led to the defeat of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party and brought the Congress back to power.

The general election has just seen the first of seven phases completed, covering 102 seats. But with six rounds to go, the final on June 1, it is becoming clear that there may not be even 20 candidates among the 1,000 or so which will be put up by the two alliances seeking to come to power.

Also read: More Than 150 Attacks on Indian Christians in 2024 So Far: UCF

These two are the National Democratic Alliance led by the ruling BJP, and the ‘INDIA’, a loose democratic and religious minorities friendly coalition led by the Congress, together with the Communist parties, and strong regional parties of Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand, Delhi and Maharashtra.

In the past, the BJP has given only token representation to Muslims and Christians. In the last Lok Sabha, it had a lone Christian MP, John Barla from Bengal who was made a deputy minister for minority affairs. Throughout the five years of the last parliament, there was no Christian or Muslim Cabinet minister in the government headed by Narendra Modi.

Modi is now seeking a record third term in office. But he has shown little change in his attitude towards Muslims, who remain his main target in election rhetoric, instead of issues of development, economy or standards of living of the world’s second most populous country.

The prime minister is trying hard to woo the Christian community, especially its rich and powerful Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara sui juris Rites, both based in Kerala where they have a major presence in five of the 20 seats. These are in the central part of the state which stretches in a narrow 500-kilometre swath between the mountains of the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi lighting a candle at Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral Catholic Church on the occasion of Easter, in New Delhi on April 9, 2023. Photo: PIB

Modi and his party have tried hard to gain a foothold in Kerala where the power balance alternates between the Marxist alliance and the Congress. Currently, the Marxists are in power in the state, but 19 of the 20 seats in Parliament are with the Congress. Towards this, they have tried to widen the wedge between the Christians of Central Kerala and the Muslims in the neighbouring northern regions.

Fanning latent Islamophobia among the Christian groups on the one hand, and trying to break the Congress monopoly over especially the Catholic Rites, Modi was able to win over Anil Anthony, the son of prominent Congress leader and former defence minister A.K. Anthony.

This is a blow to India’s oldest political party which has deep roots in the state as it has been able to represent the fishermen and boatmen on the one hand and the rich species, tea, coffee and rubber estate owners, and business segments of the Christians. With little industry in this state, there is no significant corporate and industrial elite.

The BJP, however, has not put up any more Christian candidates in Kerala. The Congress alliance United Democratic Front has five Christians in the fray: Dean Kuriakose, Hibi Eaden, Benny Behanan,  Anto Antony, and Francis George. The LDF has fielded PC George.

Goa has fielded Viriato Fernandes. The number of Christians contesting on behalf of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu is not known, but the state usually has at least two Christians in Parliament. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the two Telugu-speaking states, the count is always difficult to make as several candidates from the Dalit community may register themselves as Hindus. The Congress has fielded at least one known and one Dalit candidate from Telangana.

The situation is even more startling in the eight states of the Northeast which people assume to be largely Christian-dominated. Arunachal has a Christian candidate from the Congress, and the large state of Assam has just one Congress candidate, Roslina Tirky. Jones Ingty Kathar, a former bureaucrat, is backed by the Autonomous Hills People Party.

Barring Orissa and Jharkhand, which may have between them perhaps four candidates from the Christian community, representing the Congress and its allies in Jharkhand and the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, no other party in the remaining states is likely to put up a Christian candidate.

There may be many who join the election fray as Independents. Some claim backing of little-known parts, including a well-known former official and popular campaigner against white slavery, Anson Thomas from a little-known party, the PPI Secular, and Samuel Soni, a candidate in the Punjab put up by a group of independent churches.

Historically only a very few independents, either rich men or scions of former feudal ruling families, have succeeded in the past.

Also read: Modi’s Candle for Christ and Sage Advice for Clergy Will Not Reassure Indian Christians

Lack of enthusiasm for politics 

In a way, the community has brought this upon itself. Over the decades, the young in rural areas, urban areas, and universities have not shown the same enthusiasm as other communities in grassroots politics, trade unions and advocacy groups.

Aspirations are geared towards early employment – for women, nursing remains the eternal favourite with its promise of immediate jobs and an opportunity to make a life in the US or Europe.

In industry-less Kerala, millions of middle-class and working-class youth have gone to the Islamic countries of the Middle East to work from engineer to construction labour and shepherds, their places taken by poor migrant labour from Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar. Their remittances support family and state economy, but their political power is lost.

In Kerala, there is a strong relationship between the Church, especially the three catholic Rites, and the politicians from the community. It is a symbiotic relationship which is fruitful for both, but does little to create grassroots cadres across the political spectrum.

Elsewhere in the country, the Christian community, unlike the Muslim political dispersal, is spread sparsely along former mission stations, railway and military headquarters in towns in the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Deccan plateau, and the old port cities. Two districts of Punjab, Gurdaspur and Amritsar along the border with Pakistan, the Andhra coast and coastal areas of Tamil Nadu have some pockets of Christian dominance, though they do not translate into seats in Parliament.

The lack of grassroots-level political activism and training has kept young people from reaching the political heights they could otherwise have.

This has also not been an area of interest to the Church hierarchy, it would seem, historically since the decades since Independence. The focus was to get political seats through the hierarchy’s relationship with the Congress party. There is no assessment of the Christian presence in influential village and district-level self-governance structures like Panchayats and district boards.

Of late the hierarchy has tried to help youth pass government selection examinations to find places in high and state civil and police services. But even this has not been a well-thought-out programme and remains random, with a very limited success rate.

The church leadership has also sent very confusing signals to its people. A strong segment of the hierarchy seems inclined to align with the ruling BJP, as for decades they have aligned with the Congress. The infamous Christmas party of Modi which saw Cardinals, Bishops, sports icons and gold merchants, bend and bow before the prime minister was the zenith of this thesis. Or the nadir of its political understanding.

And yet there are a handful of hierarchy who have shown a rare spine in the face of this storm. The Archbishop of Bangalore, Peter Machado is one such, together with a band of brave religious from the ranks of the Jesuits, Salesians and others, and several congregations of religious sisters.

The most recent example is of Filipe Neri Cardinal Ferrao of Goa who has outed a seditious government design to sabotage the voting in Goa by organising a free train pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine at Vellanakani. To paraphrase the Cardinal, people give up the pilgrimage and instead go and cast their vote for secular candidates.

Correctly so. Recent years have seen a change in the body politic and the religious and demographic landscape which inflicts great stress on religious minorities. It has rapidly eroded constitutional rights and disrupted the democratic and development of the Christians [and Muslims].

Twelve states in India have anti-conversion laws, which are often used to harass and target Christians. Many fear that the election results could see more states adopt these laws, or even the implementation of a nationwide law. Tribal Christians face attacks and threats from activists of the BJP’s non-state gangs.

The ethnic group of the Kuki Zho in the state of Manipur have for the past one year seen terrifying violence, including rape and killings, with most churches totalling over 320 totally destroyed in the Imphal valley.

Christian NGOs are being labelled agencies of religious conversion and having their licences cancelled.

The election manifestos and campaigns of political parties show that the BJP is banking once more on Ram and religion, rather than on its development record. The most powerful party has also shown its majoritarian bias.

Every vote will count to limit the electoral juggernaut.

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