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Supporters of far-right candidate Narendra Modi have condemned a college principal for speaking up for justice and the environment during India’s parliamentary election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) complained to the Electoral Commission about Frazer Mascarenhas, principal of St Xavier’s College and a Jesuit priest.
The BJP has frequently used its connections in schools and colleges to try to win young voters to its cause. For instance in October 2013, its Kanpur district president Surendra Maithani announced that a hundred thousand passes were being distributed to students at Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, Kanpur University and other educational institutions, including medical and engineering colleges, to attend a Modi rally.
Indeed in February 2014, five school students in Gujarat, where Modi is chief minister, were reportedly suspended for failing to turn up to a rally in his support.
However the BJP was furious when Mascarenhas wrote to his students urging them to “reasoned choice of individuals and political parties who promise to work for a real quality of life”. He is a sociologist whose doctoral thesis focused on the adivasis (indigenous people of India) and their distinctive cultural identity, and has long been concerned about social and economic inequality.
He did not name any parties or individuals, but mentioned the poor human development indicators in Gujarat, and warned that “The prospect of an alliance of corporate capital and communal forces coming to power constitutes a real threat to the future of our secular democracy.” He also criticised the "worsening situation of environmental degradation and depletion" under the current government.
The Electoral Commission has responded that there is little it can do other than referring the matter to the local education department in case the principal has broken its rules, according to the Times of India. The law and model code of conduct apply only to candidates, political parties, their leaders and agents.
According to the NOMOre campaign, which seeks to defend pluralism and democracy in India against the extreme right, the BJP’s complaint is an attack on the autonomy of educational institutions and intellectual freedom.
It stated, “We are amused to read in the papers that local BJP leaders have said that ‘we are ready to engage with the students in an open debate. But the Principal should have withheld his views till such debate,’” just after BJP activists allegedly assaulted political opponents in Varanasi on live TV.
It also pointed out the double standards of those media which slammed Mascarenhas while ignoring blatant electioneering in educational institutions by the BJP: “TV channels broadcast Modi’s Sri Ram Memorial Oration at Sri Ram College of Commerce (DU) live last year; newspapers carried full-page ads of the SRM University’s convocation ceremony where Modi was the chief guest. Similarly, no channel is aghast at Modi’s plans to take chopper tours of BHU and Kashi Vidyapeeth. This hypocrisy is nauseating.”
Alarmingly, some Modi enthusiasts are seeking to exploit the incident to whip up anti-Christian sentiment. “Mascarenhas’s email is possibly also triggered by the fact that he is a member of the Society of Jesus (hence SJ at the end of his name), a religious congregation of Christian males of the Catholic Church, whose members are known as Jesuits; its headquarters are in Rome. The society is intensely involved in conversions in 112 nations on six continents, and mainly functions through educational institutions,” wrote Sandhya Jain on Niti Central.
Jesuits today serve people of all communities without seeking to convert them, and indeed have done much to help the church to respect and value other faiths. Yet the BJP is part of a Hindu supremacist movement which distorts religion in its own hunger for power, stirring up anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hatred.
During the election, the BJP has tried to present Modi as responsible and non-threatening to minorities, despite his role in the Gujarat violence in 2002 in which an estimated 1,500-2,000 Muslims were murdered. Christians across India have also, at times, been the target of attacks, though not on the same scale.
The furore over a college principal sharing his views with his students is a reminder that, if Modi becomes Prime Minister, freedom of expression and religious liberty may come under attack.
© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector. Her background is in Sri Lanka, and she has a particular interest in the politics, society and religion of that country.Tweet