Insecure of BJP efforts, churches in Meghalaya are getting into electoral politics
This past Sunday, the Catholic Church held a ‘Day of Protest’ across Meghalaya’s Garo Hills to express its concern about attacks on Christian minorities and their growing sense of insecurity.
The protest was triggered by two separate incidents in Madhya Pradesh: one in which carol-singing priests, accused of trying to convert, were detained in Satna; and another, in which ABVP activists reportedly insisted on doing a Hindu puja in a Christian institution in Vidisha.
Officially, the protest was not directed at any party. But in his office in a corner of Meghalaya’s Tura town, a Father belonging to the Catholic Church placed it in the context of upcoming elections in the state, the rise of the BJP, and did not quite skirt where it was targeted. He did not wish to be named.
“These incidents keep on happening. When one Christian is affected, all of us are affected. We wanted to give a message before elections that people here must be concerned at what is happening and act appropriately. It is our duty to alert people about the dangers of the situation.”
Tura is home to both the Catholic and Baptist Church. Catering to the devout of the Garo Hills, leaders of both denominations have played an important role in influencing education, society, and culture of the region. A similar role has been played by the Catholic and Presbyterian Church in the Khasi-Jaintia hills.
But this time around, the different churches may play a far more active role to influence politics in a state with over 70% Christians. The Congress is wooing the church, hoping that the Christian card will neutralise the BJP’s expansion in the state; and regional parties are engaging closely with the different church leaders to seek their support and allay apprehensions that they would go with BJP after the polls. The BJP hopes that the church will, by and large, stay out of politics.
Hindustan Times spoke to church leaders, politicians and local intellectuals to understand the interplay of religion and politics in Meghalaya. Most wished to not be names, a reflection of how sensitive the matter is.
A top opposition leader in the state conceded that the church has always been active in Meghalaya politics.
“There is no official call from any church to support one candidate or the other, as you may have from some Muslim leaders in north India. But faith is important to people. And individual church leaders play a part,” he said.
If a candidate is from a particular church, and has supported the church’s activities, the church may be sympathetic to his cause. “They won’t say vote for him, but at a prayer meeting, they may say people like him have provided service and that is enough of a signal. All leaders try to keep the church happy by being patrons and supporters of its service activities.”
Given that all candidates are usually Christian, the preferences are more individual than institutional. But this time around, the role may be more direct.
Chief minister Mukul Sangma said: “The Church does not play a role. But this time, their attention is drawn because of what is happening across the country to Christian minorities. Based on that, they may respond. But they will decide the nature of the response.” The Congress, other party leaders said, is depending heavily on the church.
When asked what it is about the BJP that makes them anxious, the Father of the Catholic Church in Tura said, “Given this is a Christian dominated state, the BJP will see it as a crowning glory if they can win even a few seats. Their agenda will be to bring in rules and regulations to victimise Christians.”
Specifically, in a place like Garo Hills, 60,000 students attend Christian schools. “We fear they will ban foreign funding for these schools, interfere in administration and in our freedom to run these institutions.”
The Father added that BJP was also trying to consolidate the non-Christian tribals. “They may stir up conflicts in villages by dividing people.” The third concern is with regard to the BJP’s attitude towards beef, a staple diet in these parts, despite the party making it clear that it has no intention to ban beef and would respect the cultural diversity of the region.
Does this mean the Church will campaign? “We will never say support a candidate. And Christians have a right to political freedom, so we can’t tell people not to join BJP. But we will say choose a candidate who allows you freedom and does not interfere with your faith, with what you eat, speak, where you go.”
And the defence
The BJP believes these fears are unfounded. Nalin Kohli, a party spokesperson and a key strategist for the state elections, said: “The Congress is trying to fight this election on a divisive agenda of fear. The BJP’s only agenda is change for development. As far as incidents in Madhya Pradesh are concerned, the police are investigating it and the BJP is not involved in any way at all with it.”
When asked what the party thought of the church playing an active political role, Kohli said, “Certain motivated elements are spreading false propaganda and misguiding individuals including church leaders. We believe the church, being a non-political body, will see through this divisive agenda.”
Back in Shillong, after the Sunday service at the Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians, the city’s oldest church, a group of young men, employed in the state’s police and health departments, discuss politics. One of them expresses doubt about the BJP.
“The RSS has tried to convert Christians into Hindus. Do you think they will try to convert Meghalaya into a Hindu state?” His friend replies, “So many Christian leaders have joined BJP here. This is alarmist. Nothing will happen.”
The tension in Meghalaya is between traditional faith and new political allegiances. How the Church reacts will be important as citizens decide their vote.