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Catholic World News News Feature

Betrayal from Within November 20, 2001

By Anto Akkara

The minuscule Christian community in India--numbering just 22 million in a nation of 980 million people--will hold extraordinary significance, and command considerable media coverage, in the national elections scheduled for September 1999. Thanks to the Italian Catholic background of Sonia Gandhi, the president of the opposition Congress Party, Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular are sure to figure prominently in what promises to be a very acrimonious campaign for the election of India's 13th national parliament.

"Mother India has one billion children. And yet the Congress Party wants a foreigner to be the prime minister. The World will laugh at us," screamed placards held out by dozens of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members of parliament as they gathered for a demonstration in the portico of the Indian parliament building in mid-April. Their campaign against the widow of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi began as soon as it became clear that Gandhi might be the head of a new alternative government, after a BJP-led coalition lost a crucial vote of confidence.

Born as Sonia Maino, the woman who now stands among India's most important political leaders became Sonia Gandhi in 1968, with her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi, a member of India's most prominent political family. The young couple, who had met in England while they were both students at Cambridge, were married in India in a Hindu ceremony.

Even as the noisy chorus of Hindu nationalist "patriots" harped on the alleged dangers of allowing a "foreigner" to head the government, cracks began to develop in the united front put up by the two dozen opposition parties which had joined to bring down the BJP coalition government. Ultimately, these fissures in what might have been a new coalition thwarted the bid by the Congress Party to form a new government under Gandhi's leadership. With the opposition in a quandary, Indian President K. R. Narayanan had no viable option but to dissolve the entire parliament prematurely, just 13 months into its five-year term. The new elections will take place with a series of votes on five different days, beginning on September 4 and ending October 1.

Soon, with a new political campaign looming, the hawks in the Hindu nationalist camp were back to their routine of Christian bashing. "Sonia Gandhi, go back to Italy," said posters that appeared around New Delhi around the end of April. Some mainstream political parties, such as the BJP, expressed concern about the Italian origin of the Congress Party leader. But for the Hindu militants of organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the World Council of Hindus, or VHP), what mattered most was her Catholic background. A senior VHP leader Pravin Togadiya kicked off a campaign of vilification against Gandhi and the Church on May 1, declaring that VHP had gathered "sensational information" about Gandhi's alleged connections with an "Opus Dei Mafia" in Italy. He announced that VHP was preparing a series of videotape and leaflets to highlight the "risk" to India's future that would be posed by the accession of "an Italian Catholic" to the national leadership.

"The Indian national Congress Party has become Indian Catholic Congress Party ever since Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the organization," alleged Ashok Singhal, then the acting president of the VHP, at another rally held 10 days later in New Delhi. Elaborating on the Hindu group's "all-out" campaign against the "agent of the Pope," Singhal said that by using the Church as a "political tool", Gandhi had toppled the BJP government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the behest of foreign powers.

Such complaints, of course, were not the first sensationalistic accusations lodged against Christians by Hindu militant groups. For months the VHP and its allies had been accusing Christians of forcibly converting Hindus to the faith. And during the 13-month tenure of the BJP coalition, a flurry of anti-Christian violence had brought disrepute on the government leadership. Nearly 150 different incidents of serious anti-Christian violence had been reported across the country during the period, and in a number of instances, senior ministers of the BJP government had issued statements that were interpreted as justification for the attacks. THE PARTY REVOLT

Even as BJP activists were trying to raise fears of foreign influence, Sonia Gandhi's personal popularity in India was growing. So it came as a total surprise to most political analysts when three senior members of the Congress Party staged an open revolt against Gandhi's leadership.

"It is not possible that a country of 980 million people--with a wealth of education, competence, and ability--can have anyone other than an Indian born of Indian soil to head its government," the three Party leaders wrote in an open letter to Gandhi on May 15. The most noteworthy signature on the letter was that of Purno A. Sangma, who is a practicing Catholic.

In response, Gandhi resigned from the post as the Congress Party's leader, thus adding still more drama to the debate on her foreign origin. But even as she stepped down, she insisted that the arguments against her were fraudulent. "Though born in a foreign land, I chose India as my country. I am Indian and I will remain so to my last breath," declared Gandhi in her resignation statement. She explained that her only motivation to take up the Congress party leadership was due "to the challenge to its very existence."

When Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia's husband and then the Congress Party president, was killed by a suicide bomber during the 1991 election campaign, leaders of the party offered Sonia the mantle of leadership--which, after a great deal of hesitation, she finally accepted in 1998. Her role as the most visible and attractive figure in the party's hierarchy was confirmed in the 1998 election campaign, when her whirlwind tour of the country helped to rally the Congress Party in the polls, saving the party from a looming electoral disaster and gaining 140 seats in the 545-member parliament.

So Sonia Gandhi became the acknowledged leader of a political bloc which had been led by her late husband's family for four decades. Jawarharlal Nehru became India's first prime minister when the country gained independence in 1947, and held that office for 17 years. After his death his only daughter Indira Gandhi (who is not related to Mahatma Gandhi) assumed the Congress Party leadership. Indira herself remained prime minister for 17 years, until her assassination in 1984.

During her tenure, Indira Gandhi had virtually forced her reluctant elder son Rajiv into Indian politics, to maintain the family dynasty, after his younger brother Sanjay died in a plane crash. Rajiv had made it clear that he would have preferred to stay out of politics--in large part, ironically, because the his wife Sonia was so firmly set against any political involvement. But once Rajiv made his commitment, he was quickly pushed to the fore. After Indira's assassination, the Congress Party chose him as its leader, and he soon became India's prime minister. He remained in that post until the Congress Party, still under Rajiv's leadership, lost the 1989 general election.

Stunned by Sonia's resignation of the leadership post, Congress party leaders joined rank-and-file members in demonstrations calling for her return. Some of her most ardent supporters took up posts near her residence in New Delhi and announced that they were beginning a hunger strike. Several Indian cities even reported attempts by Congress Party members to immolate themselves in efforts to force Sonia to withdraw her resignation. As a wave of outrage over the revolt against Gandhi's leadership spread across the nation, her loyalists on the Congress Working Committee (the top executive board of the Congress Party, with 22 members) expelled the three rebel leaders--Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar, and Sangma, all of whom had been members of the Working Committee themselves--from the Congress Party.

A week after the resignation Sonia relented. On May 25, at an emergency convention in New Delhi of the All India Congress Committee, attended by 1,500 elected Congress Party delegates, she rescinded her resignation. "India adopted me 31 years ago when I came here as the daughter in law of Indira Gandhi, and this nation has been part of every moment in my life since then," she said. She predicted that "the people doubting my credentials as an Indian will get a fitting reply in the coming election."


Meanwhile, many Christians in India were left to wonder why the rebels within the Congress Party, by challenging Gandhi's leadership, had apparently "betrayed the secular cause," and possibly aided the cause of the BJP coalition which had been so destructive to the rights of religious minorities. The division within the Congress Party would severely damage the party's chances to defeat the BJP in the coming elections, pundits pointed out--especially in the western and northeastern states where the party rebels have their own political bases.

Furthermore, some observers argued that the charges of "foreign influence" were brought forward by Hindu nationalists purely as a desperate electoral ploy. Father Domenic Immanuel, a spokesman for the New Delhi archdiocese (who will soon take over similar responsibilities for the Indian bishops' conference) said that the BJP complaints about Gandhi's "Italian Catholic origin" were an attempt "to counter the appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi family among the Indian people."

"As far as I know, Sonia is not a practicing Christian. Nobody has ever reported that she goes church. Nor does she keep up links with church people," reported Father Immanuel. The Gandhi marriage was conducted under Hindu rites in 1968, her daughter Priyanka too had a Hindu wedding in 1997. In fact Sonia Gandhi's so-called links with the Catholic Church are "imaginary," asserted Father Immanuel. The Hindu nationalists' loud assertions of a threat that the "Ram Raj" (the kingdom of the Hindu deity) would be replaced by the "Rome Raj" were totally baseless, he said.

However, the political attacks on Gandhi reflected a more general antipathy toward Christians, according to Sathya Deepam (Light of Truth), the most widely circulated Catholic magazine in India. In a June 16 editorial, Sathya Deepam wrote: "By challenging Sonia Gandhi's eligibility to become Indian prime minister, fundamentalists seems to be arguing that Christians also should not be given full citizenship."

The attacks based on Gandhi's background certainly have no basis in Indian law. M. P. Raju, an attorney who practices at the Supreme Court, said that Indian constitution makes no distinction between "natural" and naturalized" citizen and grants citizenship both to those born in India and to those who acquire citizenship under the Indian law. And a court decision has backed that interpretation of the law, in a case specifically involving question of Sonia Gandhi's leadership. "Just because she is Italian by birth, it cannot be said that the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India will be in danger if she is permitted to hold the post of prime minister," ruled the high court of the southern Andhra Pradesh state. This verdict came while the court rejected a plea that sought to bar Sonia from becoming a member of parliament, prime minister, or president.

Even the Communists, arch-foes of the Congress Party in the Kerala, Tripura, and West Bengal states, have come out in support of Gandhi's "full rights" as an Indian citizen. "Every citizen irrespective of origin has equal rights under the constitution," said the Communist Party in a public statement.


One leader of the Congress Party revolt, Sharad Pawar, evidently expected to be chosen himself as the party's candidate in the wake of the Gandhi's original resignation. But why did the other rebels--and especially Sangma, a devout Catholic--join in the rebellion? By "gulping" the Hindu nationalists' bait, Sangma has "played into the hands of those who relish Christian-bashing," said professor Saral Chatterji, director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in New Delhi. He said it was "a mystery to Christians" that Sangma had joined Pawar in endorsing what he saw as nothing more than "the Hindu campaign against Sonia." And the revolt was especially destructive, he argued, because it came at a time "when Christians themselves have been targeted in the anti-Sonia campaign."

In his syndicated weekly newspaper column, the Indian journalist and author Kushwant Singh wrote that "since all is fair in the dirty game of Indian politics," he could understand why Hindu nationalists would raise the issue of Gandhi's foreign birth. But "Pawar has a history of ditching his leaders," Singh wrote, "Sangma joining him leaves me baffled."

Singh went on to describe Sonia Gandhi as "a better citizen" than the rebels--or most others, for that matter--because "she chose to become Indian." He explained:

We are Indians by accident of birth. I am sure, if we had any say in the matter, most if not all of us would have preferred to have been born in countries more prosperous and peaceful than ours.

The "patriotic chest-thumping" about how Gandhi might pose a threat to national interests was "arrant nonsense," Singh concluded.

However, such testimony is unlikely to dissuade the Hindu militants from their anti-Christian campaign, or from placing the focus of their campaign squarely on Gandhi's Italian Catholic background. During the last election campaign, the Hindu nationalists carried out "a vigorous campaign at the village level against her as an agent of the Church and as part of an international conspiracy to control Hindu India," points out John Dayal, national affairs secretary of the All India Catholic Union. Panchachannya (Clarion Call), a Hindi weekly with a circulation of 300,000, had printed side-by-side photos of the Pope and Sonia Gandhi on its cover page during the last election campaign period, recalled Dayal. "So we can certainly expect more vicious allegations this time." [SIDEBAR]

[PULLQUOTE for sidebar]

"I will not endorse the view that the Christian community in India should support Sonia Gandhi because she has a Christian background. This is wrong,"


"Only natural citizens (born in India) should be eligible to hold high offices of the state. This is purely a question of national pride," said Purno A. Sangma, a devout Catholic and former Congress Party leader, in an interview with a CWR correspondent at his residence on July 8.

Sangma was responding to the complaints that he--a Catholic--had been a key figure in the revolt against Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi. In part because he is extremely popular in church circles, Sangma's decision to endorse the nationalistic opposition to Gandhi's leadership had come as a surprise and even an embarrassment to the Christian community in India.

But Sangma saw things differently. "There is no question of the Christian community being embarrassed," he said. "The fact remains that this has nothing to do Christians or the Church. I am against Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister not because she is Catholic but because she was born in Italy."

"I will not endorse the view that the Christian community in India should support Sonia Gandhi because she has a Christian background. This is wrong," continued Sangma. On the contrary, he argues that "the fact that a practicing Christian has chosen to oppose her" exposes the weakness of the BJP's contention that Gandhi is an agent of the Catholic Church." "Had it been the case that the church was behind her, there was no way Sangma would have come against her leadership," he says. "This shows that the Church has nothing to do with Sonia Gandhi,"

The parliamentary leader is certainly not hostile to the public interests of Christianity. "I owe everything to the Church," he readily acknowledges, pointing to his education in parochial schools. But he observes with pride that "the Indian church has never identified herself with a particular political party." He thoroughly approves of that strategy--especially in the context of contemporary Indian politics, in which Hindu militants have sought to impose their own views on the secular society. "Religion is something that I want to divorce from politics. Religious belief has to be set aside. Otherwise, we will be following the BJP," Sangma believes.

Sangma had enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Congress Party, beginning with his election to parliament in 1977 and culminating with his emergence as the unanimous choice as speaker of that parliament in 1996. Pointing out that he had won parliamentary elections handily in all of his six contests to represent the Meghalaya state in the northeast, 51-year old Sangma said that "I have chosen a difficult path" by casting his lot against the majority in the Congress Party on the issue of Gandhi's leadership. "Had I continued in the Congress Party, I would have remained well placed. But the nationalist in me made me speak out. An Indian cannot be a party to a decision where a non-Indian becomes the prime minister."

However, Sangma refused to accept the notion that his break with the Congress Party had helped the cause of the BJP, by supporting the nationalistic protest first raised by Hindu militants. Sangma pointed out that in the past several political parties have called for a constitutional amendment which would stipulate that only natural citizens would be able to head the nation's government.

Sangma said that the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), founded by the three rebel Congress Party leaders who led the intramural revolt on June 10, would keep "equal distance" from both BJP and the Congress Party. He predicts that BJP will suffer politically because of the failure of the coalition government it headed, while the Congress Party will be rejected by the voters because of its insistence on promoting Sonia Gandhi as a leader. These developments, he believes, will pave the way for the NCP to play a crucial role in the formation of the new government after the September elections. So while voters in many parts of the country have barely heard of the fledgling party, Sangma is optimistic about the NCP's immediate future.