'I do not call the BJP or RSS as extremist groups, but some small groups all over India have started behaving aggressively after the BJP came to power.'
'These groups think they have the authority to attack anyone and impose their ideas on people.'
Archbishop Leo Cornelio, the Archbishop of Bhopal, recently commented that though Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan wanted harmony and peace in the state, some fringe groups responsible for the attacks on Christians were giving a bad image to MP.
The Archbishop discusses today's India with Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com
The Catholic Secular Forum released a report that painted Madhya Pradesh as the worst state as far as attacks on Christians were concerned. Do you agree with the report?
You have to see where the attacks are taking place. We have a large number of Adivasis and tribals in the state to whom education has not reached so far.
Some fringe elements, who patronise these people, prevent education from reaching them.
They are made to understand that whoever goes to educate them are looked upon as people trying to convert them. That is why they are attacked.
But the government does not take any action against these fringe elements as the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), somehow, is intimidated by these people.
Top government officials are ready to take action, but at the local level these rogues even intimidate the police. That is why justice is slow and sometimes not there at all.
It is not that the government officially supports this kind of violence, but they are unable to control the rogues with a strong hand.
Those at the local level take authority in their hands and create problems.
Is it not the government's responsibility to rein in these fringe elements?
Absolutely! Sadly, some of the government officials are under the mercy of these fringe elements.
It happens mainly in the remote areas. For example, the city of Bhopal does not get affected by such problems.
There is another side to the story too. I want to say that there are some small groups who try to vigorously preach and create disturbances.
Recently, there were reports about some churches being destroyed. They were not actually churches, but huts put up by some groups for prayers. Those were not real churches at all like it was reported in the papers.
Do you feel attacks on churches have increased after the BJP came to power at the Centre?
I do not call the BJP or the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) as extremist groups, but there are some small groups all over India which have started behaving aggressively after the BJP came to power.
Somehow, these extremist groups feel that it is their government, as some of these elements were patronised by the BJP in earlier times. So the government felt obliged to them for coming to power.
Take, for example, what happened at the Bible Convention at Jabalpur. Many people had come from villages for the event and at night, some people came and start attacking those who were sleeping there. Though the attackers were identified and arrested, they were let off soon.
The government should take strong action against such people who take law into their hands. These groups think they have the authority to attack anyone and impose their ideas on people.
Do you feel these fringe elements have affected Prime Minister Modi's image?
Definitely! He was silent in the beginning. Later, he spoke a bit, but there was no action from the government's side.
What is needed is strong action from the government so that these fringe elements also understand that the government is serious about controlling them.
Once they know that they will not get any support from the government, they will keep quiet.
Do you feel unsafe after the BJP came to power at the Centre?
If you ask me whether I feel unsafe as the Archbishop of Bhopal, I would say -- at the personal level -- I do not feel so. But the incidents that are happening here and there are a matter of concern.
It is not a matter of feeling safe or unsafe, we feel the law and order situation has to be preserved.
In such a situation, everyone who does not belong to the majority community can feel intimidated or unsafe.
It is the duty of the government to ensure that every citizen of the country feels safe.
How do you describe Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan's rule?
As chief minister, he has been doing a good job. That is why he has been elected for the third time. If he was not doing well, the people of Madhya Pradesh would not have done so.
MP was one of the six sick states in the country and under him the state has progressed quite well.
The question is how is he dealing with the incidents that are taking place in the state? I feel this government is thriving on advertisement, propaganda, etc. The euphoria that existed during the election is waning now.
Has his way of dealing with the minorities changed this time?
I would not say the situation has deteriorated. Rather, he has always been quite fair. When I spoke to him, he said he did not want any such incidents happening when he was ruling the state.
He also told me that the police would take strong action against anyone who indulges in violence. Like I said, it is the fringe elements that disturb the peace of the state.
What is needed is more vigilance and strict action against them so that they will not repeat these crimes.
Do you feel with the BJP coming to power at the Centre, the fringe elements have become more active all over India and also in Madhya Pradesh?
They were very active in the beginning of the BJP rule at the Centre, and that was because there was silence on the part of the government.
When it became too much, the prime minister said that he would not allow such incidents to happen. After that, I would say that they have gone quiet now and for the past several months, there were less and less such incidents happening though some of them still talk about ghar wapsi and such things.
Now that you spoke about ghar wapsi, let me ask you this. Your religion believes in conversion while most Hindu groups talk about ghar wapsi. Where will these parallel activities lead to?
The word 'conversion' is a tool they are using to attack us. If a student does not get admission in a school of ours, they will accuse us by saying, 'We did not get admission because they refused to convert.' This is wrong.
Thousands of students study in our schools. Do they all convert to Christianity?
You must understand that there are these extremist groups in every religion who vehemently preach. It is wrong to degrade another religion, as India is a multi-religious country.
Conversion itself is a grace of God. Human beings cannot convert a person's conscience unless God decides.
The accusation is that you help people in the tribal areas with the intention of converting them to Christianity...
Yes, they say so. Some time back, even Mother Teresa was accused of having the ulterior motive of converting by (RSS Sarsanghchalak) Mohan Bhagawat but it died down when the majority of India spoke against it.
The majority of Hindus in India have an understanding of what we do and are very, very, tolerant. Only the fringe groups accuse us. And in every religion, there are these extremist elements. Because of them, you cannot accuse all Christians.
If somebody tries to convert against the will of a person, there are enough laws to stop it. But you cannot create laws to target minorities.
Is this the reason why the MP government is reluctant to hand over some government schools in the backward districts to churches? You wanted to run them better so that students benefit from it. You said the other day that the government had not responded to your request.
Our plan was to adopt one or two schools in the backward areas in order to make them model schools.
The government is trying to educate children by giving them books, food, uniform, etc, but not education.
Students get everything free except education whereas in our schools, we give education but we do not give anything else free.
What we say is if the government gives the responsibility of imparting education in one or two schools, we can appoint some of our sisters or fathers there to oversee teaching.
Let the government continue to provide what they are giving till now. They need not even pay our teachers. We think we can help the state and the students this way.
The problem is no government teacher wants to work under our supervision because then they have to really work.
So you feel it is the teachers who are preventing the government from implementing this idea.
Not only teachers, some in the education department are not interested in this idea. Right now, they can take everything easy and not work. When we supervise, we will make everyone work.
It is a complex issue. They do not want to see missionaries getting involved in government schools. They will accuse us of using the opportunity to convert.
What was the chief minister's response to your request?
When I spoke to him, he was very favourable to the idea. He said he alone could not take a decision and had to consult the others. I felt he was not averse to the idea of handing over a couple of schools in the backward areas to us.
Our only intention is to impart good education to the students. It is an attempt on our part to show them the way.
You also said the other day that the Madhya Pradesh Religious Act is being misused now. Why do you say so?
I call this law unjust. We are not talking about freedom to convert; but freedom to practice and preach what you believe in as a Constitutional right.
By me practising and preaching, if somebody wants to convert, why should he go to the collector and get his permission to convert? Is it not intrusion into one's fundamental right?
About the word inducement, how do you define inducement? Is feeding a hungry inducement? Is taking care of a sick woman in a hospital inducement?
One of the most debated words today is intolerance. Do you feel India has become intolerant?
India has always been one of the most tolerant countries in the world where so many cultures, so many languages and so many religions co-exist.
Having said that, with growth, development and the resultant competitive spirit have made people very intolerant because some section of the people want to dominate the others.
Competitiveness has made people intolerant as everybody is in a mad rush to outsmart the other person and win.
Unfortunately, Indians have this crab mentality. Indians believe that they can win only if they pull the other person down.
The more materialistic a person is, the less spiritual he is. Ideologically also, this dominance is happening. That is why some painters and writers were targeted and killed.
India is a religious country as the majority of people believe in some religion or the other. We should have the freedom to express, but without offending others. You cannot hurt or insult anybody's religion or sentiments.
Do you feel the world itself is turning intolerant? We see violence happening all around the world.
It is, but I feel today the media likes to highlight only violence and negative things. There are so many positive things that are happening everywhere, but what gets prominence is bad news or negative news which is sensational.
Only those who do negative things get prominence in the media. This has to change for the violence to stop.