Asia-Pacific, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines | Analysis

RELIGION: Why India Grieves for Pope John Paul II

Analysis - by Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Apr 4 2005 (IPS) - There is much more to the three-day official mourning India has ordered for Pope John Paul II than the fact that this country’s most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi is both a Roman and a Catholic by birth.

The departed pontiff was the first one in history to have visited India twice – first in 1986 and then in 1999 when the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for its often violent campaigns against ‘induced conversions’, was in power.

In 1986 the Pope crisscrossed the country for 10 full days endearing himself by mingling freely with crowds, much to the dismay of his minders and security personnel. The pope even made fun of their frantic efforts to try and stop him.

But the most memorable part of the 1986 visit – and also most consternating for his attendants – was when he decided to spend more precious minutes than scheduled at the mausoleum of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The Apostle of Peace’ and a soul he held in high esteem.

At the well-known mausoleum on the banks of the Yamuna River the Pope knelt and then it seemed he went into deep prayer and meditation. He had to be shaken by his secretary so that he could move on his next appointment.

When the pope visited India next in 1999, the country – whose constitution guarantees the right to profess, preach and practice any religion – seemed to have regressed in its secular outlook under a fundamentalist wave led by the BJP.

In 1992, BJP supporters had torn down the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya in northern Uttar Pradesh state on the grounds that medieval Muslim invaders had built it over a temple marking the birthplace of the Hindu warrior deity Rama.

The campaign to rebuild the temple paid handsome political dividends for the BJP which portrayed the Congress party and Sonia Gandhi – inheritor of its leadership and custodian of the political legacy of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty – as the main obstacles to their supposedly divine enterprise.

By 1998 the BJP had seized national power after convincing electorates that its battles with the formidable Congress party were no less than a struggle between Ram and Rome.

What followed was a systematic campaign of violent attacks against the Church and Christian institutions in India, the worst chapter of which was the gruesome 1999 immolation by a fanatic mob of the Australian evangelist Graham Staines and his two young sons as they slept outside a makeshift church in a remote part of eastern Orissa state.

In states like western Gujarat, the provincial BJP government went to the extent of giving orders to police to draw up lists of Christians in order to keep them under surveillance for signs that that they were receiving funds for evangelical activity.

It seemed useless for statisticians and well-meaning people to point out that Christians, Protestants and Catholics together, formed less than two percent of India’s one billion people and that if anything their numbers were on the decline rather than increasing.

It was to such an India that Pope John Paul II made his second coming in Nov. 1999 and emphatically declared that evangelism was the right and duty of the Church.

Indeed the Pope chose to sign the ‘Ecclesias in Asia,’ the momentous document which called for ”reaping a great harvest of faith in Asia in the third Christian millennium,” in New Delhi. This was a direct kick in the teeth of the BJP that long accused the church of poaching Hindus to be in its Catholic flock.

The Pope also ignored calls by Hindu fundamentalists that he apologise for atrocities committed by the Portuguese on people in colonies like Goa during the dark days of the Inquisition, and also for carrying out forcible conversions.

The pope’s 1999 visit to India coincided with the Hindu festival of lights or ‘Diwali’ and the pontiff drew parallels with the biblical theme of light conquering darkness and evil. Some Hindu groups complained that it was an insult to their religion to have the pope’s second visit to India in 13 years coincide with ‘Diwali’.

In Gujarat, Hindu chauvinism found a new target in the much larger and more prosperous Muslim minority which found itself the target of the vicious 2002 pogrom which left thousands dead and tens of thousands homeless.

But then, recognizing the true nature of the pro-Hindu enterprise, secular parties joined hands with Sonia Gandhi’s Congress party to roundly defeat the BJP in the May general elections last year.

Clearly the electorate ditched the ‘Ram versus Rome’ argument and was happy that Sonia Gandhi had renounced the prime ministership offered to her and instead entrusted it to Manmohan Singh, a former World Bank economist and a Sikh by faith.

Gandhi retained for herself the chair of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition. By itself the position is an enormously influential one. It also insulates Gandhi sufficiently from charges by ranting Hindu fanatics that she is actually an agent of the Vatican in Rome.

But Pope John Paul II would be remembered best in India for fast-tracking sainthood for Mother Teresa, the universally beloved founder of the Missionaries of Charity that is known best for its work among the poorest of the poor in the eastern city of Kolkata.

In early 1999, less than two years after Mother Teresa’s death, the pontiff ordered the opening of the usually lengthy and tortuous process of canonization in a manner unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church.

Addressing a large crowd that had gathered at the Vatican for the beatification of Mother Teresa on Oct 19, 2003 the Pope declared that in modern times ”God inspires new models of sainthood.”

That may well have been a reflection of how the pontiff saw the papacy itself as one that should be ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century, which is bound to have a major role for Asia where Christ himself was born.

Republish | | Print |