Bangalore (AsiaNews) – Faced with a long series of acts of violence and attacks against India’s Christian community at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists, Indian bishops want to breathe new life into the debate about the country’s secularism. Their venue is the 32nd Plenary Assembly of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), which opened yesterday until 9 March.
Speaking at a press conference before the meeting, Card Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, who is CBCI president and archbishop of Trivananthapuram, said that most Hindus are secular.
"Politics is a good thing,” he explained, “but not vote-bank politics. If the entire Hindu community in India decided to be communal, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs would not be safe. Thank God that most Hindus in India are secular. The virtue of secularism should be celebrated by everyone.”
Mgr Thomas Menamparampil, apostolic administrator of Jowai, agrees, up to a point. Known as an outstanding champion of peace and communal harmony, he told AsiaNews that he “would generally agree with Cardinal Cleemis that Hindu society as a whole respects other points of view and is tolerant of minorities.”
And yet, “there is certainly an aggressive minority among them that seeks to keep alive the memories of historic wounds that Hindu society suffered in the past in order to obtain the dominant positions in the country”.
For him, “The mistake of the present Government is to be excessively influenced by this minority, and occasionally surrender to them, especially since its leaders know that they depend on these people's energies to win votes”.
The Plenary Assembly opened yesterday with the participation of all three Catholic rites in India, the Latin, Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar. About 180 bishops from around the country gathered in Bangalore’s St John's Medical College Campus where they will be assisted by 20 priests and groups of religious and lay experts.
Held every two years, this year's assembly will focus on ‘The Response of the Church in India to the Present Day Challenges’. The aim is to address various aspects of the life of the local Church, and think about how to "revitalise the Church and render it more effective in its service to its members and to society at large”.
The Plenary Assembly will also interact with the Conference of Religious India (CRI) and the Catholic Council of India (CCI).
During the press conference, Card Cleemis said that the number of attacks against minority communities in India has dropped, but derogatory statements were causing trouble.
“There is a dignified space for everyone in India to believe, profess and propagate their faith,” the CBCI president said. “However, when the secular fabric of the country is under attack, we all should stay together as one nation and face it.”
Speaking about the attitude to take in cases of intolerance by Hindu radicals, Mgr Menamparampil told AsiaNews that “we need to deal with them with intelligence rather than confront them in aggressive ways.”
In his view, “aggressive self-defence can turn into aggression. Unfairness is not be confronted by unfairness or exaggerations. We should do nothing that could lead both sides to take radical positions or act in a way by which we lose the sympathy of the majority community. We should not emerge in their eyes as merely a ‘contentious bunch’."
At the same time, taking a conciliatory attitude does not mean “that we should renounce our minority rights or close our eyes to hidden ways of pressing the dominant community's interests over those of minorities. It should be evident to these people with vested interests that we are vigilant.”
For Mgr Menamparampil, the path to follow means “winning the support of fair-minded and thoughtful people in the majority community through an ongoing conversation, i.e. ‘public reasoning’ as Amartya Sen would call it.”
Hence, “We should invite a vigorous debate among intellectuals about the danger of surrendering the future of the country to the aggressive elements in society. Dialogue and relationships at every level are the solution.”