Modi’s embrace of Pope Francis is more optics than substance: John Dayal
Social media memes have captured the common mind more than the carefully clicked formal photographs showing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embracing Pope Francis when the two met in the Vatican for a 55-minute meeting last week.
The prime minister’s office and the captive media are hoping the photographs will portray the warmth of the Catholic pontiff for the visiting Indian premier, who is projected as the “Hindu Hridaya Samrat” or “Emperor who rules the heart of [Hindu] Indians.”
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in turn hopes the half a dozen colorful pictures will help sway Christian votes in the elections early next year to the state assemblies of Goa on the west coast and Manipur in the northeastern hills.
Alas, the first of the two most viral memes splices an old photograph of Adolf Hitler with Pope Pius XII with the Modi-Francis visual, while the second shows the Indian premier in the vestments and mitre of a Catholic bishop. No captions were needed. In multilingual India, civil society activists wanted them to reach out far and wide.
Other than in Kerala, whose hierarchy had been in the lead in failed negotiations over six years for a papal visit to India, the meeting has had a tepid reception. It has left civil society aghast, and the Muslim community, the main target of the hostility of state and non-state actors, apprehensive that this may further sunder relations with the Christian community.
Civil society activists have been quite caustic in their statements and remarks. Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, one of the leading activists against religious intolerance, asked if the pope gave an earful to the Indian premier on the custodial death this autumn of octogenarian and ailing Father Stan Swamy, arrested on fake charges and repeatedly denied bail.
Father Stan belonged to the Society of Jesus, of which Pope Francis is also a member. The Jesuits had lobbied internationally for his release. The Jesuit activist working with the indigenous Adivasi people died of Covid in a Mumbai hospital. His lawyers are in court seeking to clear his name of any criminal stain.
But even the leaders of denominational and independent churches have been underwhelmed by the result of the visit. The official statements have focused on climate change and recovery from Covid-19, with no hint of any other issue that may have been discussed.
With over 300 incidents of violence against Christian churches, institutions and faithful reported in the first 10 months of the year, common Christians and lay leaders feel let down. There are no takers for explanations that Pope Francis, as head of state of the Holy See, cannot go beyond diplomatically couched language in bilateral talks.
In the Catholic community, the two cardinals in Kerala were reported by southern English and Malayalam media to be ecstatic and hopeful that the visit, and Modi’s invitation, at last, to the pope to visit India would improve relations between the Church and the government. This is understandable as various members of the hierarchy have been targeted by federal investigating agencies for economic offenses
The bishops also hope a friendlier government in New Delhi will help them in facing the Marxist government in the state with its perceived favors to the strong Muslim community.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has been measured in its statement. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the CBCI and a member of the pope’s consulting group of cardinals, said the CBCI has been working closely with both the federal government and the national civil society in areas such as health, education and social action.
On the issue of memes, and for the record, the founding fathers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were enamored with the Aryan supremacist and his Final Solution. Even during Modi’s stay in Rome, RSS leaders voiced their opposition to conversions to Christianity. And subsidiary militant groups said they would launch a campaign against the pope’s visit, whenever it takes place.
Kerala sees very little state or non-state physical persecution of Christians. Most of the persecution takes place in what are called the Hindi states, or those with sizable populations of indigenous people. And in states such as Karnataka where the BJP for the last three decades or so has been making a deep thrust to polarize the people and consolidate its position not on the current caste sectors but on a unified Hindu thesis.
The archbishop of Bangalore recently rebuffed a government survey of churches, while the archbishop of Bhopal has written to Modi to seek his help in containing the violence of Sangh activists.
India’s large Dalit Christian community, spread over all denominations and in most regions of India outside Kerala, is palpably disappointed. Theirs has been permanent and powerful persecution. They are denied political and development rights given to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists of the same caste groups.
The Dalits had not held high hopes from the visit. But they have consistently beseeched the Vatican to intercede on their behalf as well as to end caste practices within the Church. They have moved India’s Supreme Court to outlaw such religious
The Modi government had perhaps hoped for much in the optics of the prime minister’s meeting with the pope. The prime minister swiftly moved on to the meeting he was attending in Rome, and then left for the United Kingdom for a bigger and longer summit.
The focus now is on how soon Pope Francis will be able to visit India. No dates have been mentioned, nor an itinerary. An India visit is at the best of times a physically testing one, as was realized when Pope John Paul II came here in 1999.
Will the invitation to Francis include multiple halts? Will he just visit Kerala where it will matter the most to the local Church politically? It may also speed up efforts in the Church cleaning up its own act. Or will he go to Chennai where he possibly would have to speak on the issue of Dalit Christians?
Ranchi, where matters of environment, tribal peoples and Dalits are in automatic focus, also wants a place on the itinerary.
Above all, the pope will have to assure the entire Indian Christian community, irrespective of the denomination, that he has their welfare at heart. A short visit to Delhi or Trivandrum will be forgettable, even if coming after more than two decades.
But a meeting with the pope is heavy on symbolism too, and much has been made of the gift Francis gave Modi — a bronze relief casting of a tree to illustrate Chapter 32, Verse 15 from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
It is seen as an assurance of hope and deliverance from the tragedies of the moment. Read it as you wish — relief from the pandemic, the emergence from devastating climate change, or relief from persecution.