MUMBAI: As a child growing up in cosmopolitan Mahim, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, now archbishop of Mumbai, was surrounded by people of all faith. "There were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in our neighbourhood. We would celebrate each other's festivals and none of us felt any different on account of religion. The beauty of India lies in the rich mosaic of cultures, languages and cuisines that co-exist in one country," Cardinal Gracias says.
However, he now fears an agenda to divide the country along religious lines and erode its secular fabric, cautioning that it will cause great harm. At a time when BJP MPs like Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti are asking people to vote for 'children of Ram' and not 'illegitimate children', he says it's a shame the government has shown no signs of disapproving such acts. "I wonder if this is a deliberate strategy of the government. Delegations from the Church that have visited the prime minister over such matters have not returned reassured that things would get any better," he says. The government's silence on the involvement of its MPs in communal activities, he says, makes him wonder if it is because it supports such actions.
While India's religious right wing has accused Christians of forced conversions, he says that's something the Roman Catholic Church would condemn. "But when it comes to acts such as ghar wapsi, I see both force and inducement...A person who wishes to convert to the Catholic faith must undergo a rigorous two-year training programme before doing so. After the programme, we need a letter from a priest endorsing that the person has understood the religion before he/she is allowed to convert," he adds. Cardinal Gracias points to the irony that religious extremists have no problem using services provided by Christians, such as schools and hospitals, while continuing to target the community.
"We are very happy to serve everybody. But those who have benefited from our services should have understood our purpose."
An attempt to fragment India along religious lines will hurt the country and destroy the fabric of the nation, he warns, adding that the attempt to force India to fit into the mould of one monolithic society is absurd. "I was once at an event with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Europe. When she spoke of the diversity of the European Union, I told her we had greater diversity in India," he recalled.
While concerned over the turn of events in the country, Cardinal Gracias remains optimistic and says he is sure good sense will prevail. He believes that most people in India are not communal and will ensure a course correction if the country is veering down a path that is not good for it. "I had very good relations with the previous NDA government and I got along very well with the then PM Atal Bihari Vaypayee. He was a delightful man and very reasonable," says Cardinal Gracias, who feels the current government seems more hardline in its religious views than the earlier NDA government. "This government has a tremendous opportunity to take the country forward on the development front, having won the majority in the Lok Sabha. With one party at the Centre, the government can be effective and implement projects it wants. But this cannot be achieved in the face of growing communalism. It will only give India a bad name and hinder progress," he says.
Anahita Mukherji (Feb 1, 2015)