More Indian or more Christian?
Church leaders risk playing into the hands of Hindu nationalists and should not compromise on their calling
A file image of Archbishop Thumma Bala of Hyderabad marking the symbol of the cross with ash on the forehead of a Catholic during an Ash Wednesday service at St. Mary's Basilica in Secunderabad, the twin city of Hyderabad. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)
Just like Indian Muslims, Christians in the country are also victims of a persistent questioning of their patriotism.
While suspicion of Christian groups has existed since the formation of the Indian state in 1947, this issue has gained in dimension with the election to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has support from Hindu groups working to make India a Hindu nation.
The BJP's electoral victory in 2014 has not only emboldened Hindu nationalist groups to dismiss as unpatriotic all actions and ideas that fail to conform to the aims of Hindu nationalist groups but has also led to increasing anti-Catholic violence, particularly in central India.
It seems this crisis facing Christians was very much on the mind of Cardinal Oswald Gracias when speaking at the conference of Latin rite bishops in Bangalore in February. He reportedly told the gathering: "The Catholic Church needs our nation, and India needs the church … We will be asking our people also to become better Indian Christians. This is the call of today to be fully Indian, fully Christian."
In making such statements, bishops are making a profound analytical mistake not dissimilar to that made by the European Jews from the mid-18th century onwards.
Assuming that it was their external difference from Christian Europeans that was the reason for anti-Semitic hostility, sections of the Jews began to give up their distinctive dress, customs and sometimes religion to try and fit into the mainstream.
As the tragic consequences of World War II demonstrate, this did not stop them from being demonized across Europe and eventually meeting their end largely through the efforts of Nazi Germany. A similar mistake by the Catholic leadership in India could have serious consequences for Christians across the country.
The call to be "fully Indian, fully Christian" offers two suggestions. First, that Indian Christians are not as yet fully Indian, and secondly, that it is possible to identify what it means to be fully Indian and then meet those goals.
The first suggestion in fact plays directly into the hands of Hindu nationalists of all shades who suggest either explicitly or subtly that, given Christianity's foreign origins, Christians in India are not authentically Indian. That this claim is recognized by Christians themselves can be seen in a variety of cultural interventions that purport to be forms of inculturation.
Let us not forget that the attempt to become "Hindu-Christian" by some theologians is in fact identical to the requirement that Hindu groups place on Muslims and Christians in India — that they be Hindu-Muslims and Hindu-Christians, positing Hinduism (understood exclusively in its upper-caste Brahmanical forms) as the base culture of India.
The second suggestion requires more work. The recommendation that Catholics in India should be more Indian and more Christian seems to suggest that Indian-ness is capable of being objectively determined. This is not a sound appreciation of reality.
There is a mountain of scientific research that points to the fact that the unspoken ideal subject of Indian nationalism is the upper-caste (north) Indian Hindu male. Such research points out how even Jawaharlal Nehru's writings demonstrate an unconscious bias of Hindu-ness as the underlying theme of Indian-ness. It is these men, regardless of whether they are Hindu nationalists or secular Hindus, who define, and have been defining, what Indian-ness means.
Bluntly put, given that Christians in India are not in the position of defining what Indian-ness means, there is simply no way in which we will ever be able to approximate the ideals of Indian-ness set by Indian nationalists of any hue.
What killed the Jews of Europe is similar to what threatens all non-Hindu communities in India today: the growth of nationalism.
The problem with most popular analyses of nationalism is that they do not recognize the difference between concepts of the nation and the state. The distinction between the two is perhaps best captured in Hannah Arendt's pithy observation of "the conquest of the state by the nation." In her view, nationalism transformed the modern state from an organ that would execute the rule of law for all its citizens and residents into the nation-state, an instrument of the nation alone.
Modern nationalism is inherently a divisive force, identifying religion, ethnicity or language as the basis of the nation, and in this process inevitably excluding groups within the state or creating hatred of those outside it.
Smaller social groups do not naturally exist as minorities; they are actively created or made minorities through conscious exclusion. That this exclusion is an inevitable aspect of nationalism is made obvious by the fact that the only way secular liberal nationalists across the world can think of the relationship with minority groups is that of tolerance. Not love but tolerance.
In many ways, nationalism is a theology that articulates a mystical relationship between the national-citizen and the nation constructed as a deity. It is when we recognize the theological nature of modern nationalism and the nation-state that perhaps we will become aware that there cannot be a compromise between nationalism and the Christian calling.
In this context, Archbishop Thomas Ignatius Macwan of Gandhinagar was right in the phrasing of the pastoral letter for which he was pilloried. Catholics have a religious obligation to ensure that nationalists do not take over the state.
Fortunately, Catholics in India are not being asked to make a dramatic choice. The Christian call to universalism, one that recognizes neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28), can ensure that Christians are more than able to participate to the benefit of the state but refuse to cooperate in the sectarian projects of contemporary nationalism.
There is of course no need for Catholic leaders in India to actively proclaim a refusal to participate in nationalist projects; this would be a foolhardy venture in the current climate. But there is similarly no need for us to contribute to nationalist rhetoric by asking that we become more Indian.
Our call is to be more Christian, loving all without distinction.
Jason Keith Fernandes is an Indian post-doctoral scholar at the Center for Research in Anthropology, Lisbon, Portugal.