Church versus state in India as archbishop rebuked by officials for 'nationalism' warning

Ahead of elections in Gujaret, India's westernmost state, next month, the Catholic Archbishop of its capital, Gandhinagar, has been rebuked by officials in the election commission for urging voters to ensure that the country is 'saved of nationalist forces'.

Archbishop of Gandhinagar, Thomas MacwanArchdiocese of Gandhinagar

The Gujarat election commission on Saturday 'served a notice' on Thomas Macwan, the Archbishop of Gandhinagar and sought an explanation regarding a letter he issued to the Catholic community seeking prayers that voters 'remain faithful to the Indian Constitution' in order that the country can be 'saved of nationalist forces'.

According to the Indian Express, officials said the action was taken on a complaint received by the Election Commission of India (EC) from the Legal Rights Observatory seeking 'immediate action' against the archbishop, whose letter dated November 21 was, it claimed, an attempt to 'generate fear' among voters to 'divide people on the basis of caste and creed'.

Archbishop Macwan said in response: 'The letter has only been sent to the Christian community to pray. We can always pray for good humans to be elected as leaders. It has not been issued with any malicious intention to harm anyone.'

The letter described the Gujarat election as 'significant' for the future 'course of our country' but did not make any references to political parties or explicitly say which way people should vote. It warned that 'the secular and democratic fabric of our country is at stake'. India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a Hindu nationalist and leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It said: 'The dates of the Gujarat state Assembly (polls) have been declared [December 9 and 18]. The results of this election are significant and it will have its repercussion and reverberation throughout our beloved nation. It will influence the course of our country. We are aware that the secular and democratic fabric of our country is at stake. Human Rights are being violated. The constitutional rights are being trampled. Not a single day goes without an attack on our churches, faithful or institutions. There is a growing sense of insecurity among the minorities... poor and so on. Nationalist forces are on the verge of taking over the country. The election results of Gujarat State Assembly can make a difference.'

Further, the letter urged the churches in Gujarat to hold prayers for the selection of 'humane' candidates, adding: 'The Bishops of Gujarat state request you to organise prayer services in your parishes and convents so that people, who would remain faithful to our Indian Constitution and respect every human being without any discrimination, are elected in the Gujarat state Assembly.'

Christians are in a tiny minority in Gujarat, and according to the 2011 Census, they make up 0.52 per cent.

According to the Telegraph India, election commission collector and district election officer Satish Patel said on Sunday that the notice to Archbishop Macwan had been issued following media reports of his letter.

Patel claimed that the letter was aimed at 'confusing' and 'misguiding' voters of minority communities.

'We understand the letter was an attempt to misguide voters and confuse the minority community voters at a time the model code of conduct is in force. Such language should not be used,' he said.