Gujarat bishop’s plea to save India from nationalist forces is an act of citizenship we must support

The Election Commission has asked Thomas Macwan to explain his letter calling for prayers for the victory of ‘humane leaders faithful to the Constitution’.

As a child, I remember my father making me stand in front of convex and concave mirrors so that I could understand the joy and laughter of both the self and of physics. The exaggerations in front of me were unbelievable and watching a bloated self and then a constricted one was always a moment of discovery and surprise. I returned repeatedly for the gift of that experience and the understanding it provided.

As I grew up, I realised that physics gave me a sense of order and then sensed that the disorders of politics were of a different kind. I remembered this insight as I read reports of the Thomas Macwan incident and the hysteria and hyperbole that accompanied it. In a pastoral letter dated November 21, the archbishop of Gandhinagar called for prayers to “save our country from nationalist forces” and for the victory of humane leaders “faithful to the Indian Constitution” in the Gujarat Assembly elections in December. It prompted the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Sudanshu Mittal to demand his arrest for inciting religious hatred. Macwan later clarified that his appeal was not against or in favour of any party.

I also realised it was not just the text of Macwan’s letter that was made problematic but the very presence of the man. Macwan is a Christian, an archbishop writing on the state of current politics. As a Christian, as a minority, as a suspected missionary, the BJP would have changed his sane letter into a red letter day of exaggerations. One also senses that unless the BJP creates storms out of these teacups of sanity, it cannot sustain the tsunami of the communal mind, especially before elections. A simple act of citizenship and caring is construed as an intrusion into politics. The minority becomes alien when it criticises the current political state or appeals to the Constitution.

The archbishop was expressing a worry that many critics have, that majoritarianism has become a substitute for nationalism, and patriotism and citizenship have become terms the BJP will define. When majoritarianism becomes nationalism, the minorities have to be concerned. The nationalism Macwan refers to threatens democracy and the Constitution. Beyond the logic of number, Hindutva patriotism has no sanctity. It is brutal, it is jingoistic, and like a macabre Alice, it uses words to say whatever it means.

Faith in the Constitution

The critics do not understand the pathos and irony of the letter. The nationalism of our fathers was a unifying force, a source of diversity, where differences added to the power of the idea. It was a nationalism where diversity went hand in hand with liberty and equality, which dreamt of a democracy that went beyond the brute power of electoral demography. There is power and irony when Macwan states that “nationalist forces are taking over the country”, as the tragedy and the irony is complete when the majority becomes the nation. It is an ethnic cleansing through concepts because by definition it excludes minorities and dissent and pretends to sanitise a world of violence.

Macwan’s text is, therefore, one of concern, care and courage. It is not a parochial note of an archbishop writing to his flock. The good shepherd is not warning just his sheep. He is warning the nation of the wolf packs of jingoism overrunning the country. His letter is sane, rational and constitutional. His is an act of citizenship that needs to be defended against the inquisitorial vigilantism haunting our country. In fact, his critics seem envious of his choice of words and language. Macwan does not take the high ground, he appeals to the common ground, to the openness of the public and the Constitution. It is his critics who take the hysterical high ground, desperate for an act of television lynching.

Many people miss a subtle point. Macwan acknowledges religion and belief but he talks of faith in the Constitution, which is a faith in democracy. His is an appeal to citizens emphasising the coming election and the difference it could make in their lives. Here is a man who wagers on democracy, even when the odds are against him. It is an act of faith, a statement of hope that his critics – used to political lynch squads and mob jingoism – are not familiar with, a singular man standing up for his way of life and its truth.

Act of prayer

Macwan understands a more creative sense of secularism. He is not referring to the emptying out of religion. His is a dialogic pluralism between his Christianity seeking justice and solidarity and the Constitution and democracy as similar quests for the human and the humane. He believes in prayer and he emphasises that faith and prayer can move majoritarianian mountains. Like Mahatma Gandhi, he believes in the power of prayer and in the courage of conviction. Prayer creates history, he says. Prayer overthrew authoritarian regimes. But he does not stand by prayer alone. He demands courage and citizenship, he demands a greater involvement with democracy where every vote is an act of faith in that great text we call the Constitution.

He also stands up to his responsibilities when he cites the innumerable times the Church has been attacked or vandalised. He is appealing to the public and the Constitution, where his faith in secularism is impressive, when secularism has become an empty act of political correctness, a hypocrisy of table manners pretending to favour the minority. Note that his refrain is not minoritarian, it is openly, secularly constitutional. What threatens his critics is two-fold – a critique of majoritarianism as an ersatz nationalism and a public act of faith in the Constitution. It is a gift of citizenship one must be grateful for and defend at a time when Indians are giving in to jingoism. His is not an appeal to a party; if he is partisan, it is in his loyalty to the Constitution, appealing to conscience and citizenship. One cannot ask for more from this act of prayer and its candid critique of current politics. It shows truth can stand up to hyperboles. Thank you, Citizen Macwan.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School, and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, OP Jindal Global University.

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