“The church is confronting injustice”: The archdiocese of Goa has called for anti-CAA rallies

The Council for Social Justice and Peace, the social-work wing of the archdiocese of Goa, has planned another march and a public meeting on 30 January. Courtesy Sagun Gawde / Herald
28 January, 2020

On 24 January, the archdiocese of Goa spearheaded a rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 at the iconic Lohia Maidan in the southern town of Margao. It was first the church-backed anti-CAA rally in the state. Thousands from various religious communities attended the rally. The speakers also cut across community lines. They included well-known social activists, priests, writers and doctors who spoke against what they called the twin threats of the CAA and the National Register of Citizens.

Many leading members of the opposition parties in Goa sat in the crowd, listening to the speakers. This included Digambar Kamat and Luizinho Faleiro, former Goa chief ministers from the Congress party, and Churchill Alemao, who was earlier with the Congress and is currently with the Nationalist Congress Party. Vijai Sardesai, a former deputy chief minister from the Goa Forward Party, Alexio Reginaldo Lourenco, a member of the legislative assembly from the Congress, and Jose Philip D Souza, a former NCP MLA were also present.

The Council for Social Justice and Peace, the social-work wing of the archdiocese of Goa, had called the rally, together with civil-rights groups such as the Goa unit of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations and Concerned Citizens of Goa. Before the CSJP rally, several priests had spoken about it from their pulpits, during mass, asking people to attend in large numbers. The build-up to this rally was significant. In sermons preached in some parishes in south Goa on 19 January, the Sunday before the rally, priests urged parishioners to join the public gathering on 24 January to save democracy and save the constitution.

Savio Fernandes, the executive secretary of the CSJP, told the Herald, a daily newspaper in Goa, “The Citizenship Amendment Act and the government’s intention to implement a National Register of Citizens are literally shaking the foundations of India’s existence as a pluralistic, multi-faith society where all citizens are supposed to be equal before the law.” He added, “The amended Citizenship law would undermine the commitment to equality before the law enshrined in India's constitution.”

Until the 24 January rally, Goa had seemed to be sitting on the fence on the CAA issue. There had been no student protests and only one previous anti-CAA rally in Panaji in December 2019. But the church’s call galvanised Goans, including fence-sitters and political figures, to be emphatic in their opposition to the CAA.

The speeches at the rally were forceful and direct. One of the speakers was Oscar Rebello, a leading member of the Goa Bachao Abhiyan, or Save Goa Campaign, a citizens’ movement. “It is not just a Christian’s choice alone whether you want to be secular or communal,” Rebello told the crowd. “It is not just a Muslim’s choice whether this country should be secular or communal. The Hindus of this country have made a choice to be secular and this is what is making the BJP so angry.” He added, “This is not a protest of Christians and Muslims and liberals like us. It is as much a protest by the Hindus of this country, against the demolition of the constitution.” Most speeches described the anti-CAA protests happening across the country as a secular protest cutting across religious lines.

Another speaker, Prabhakar Timble, an educationist and the former president of the Goa Forward party, highlighted that the CAA protests are being voluntarily organised by the youth and the public. “The political leaders are not seen on the stage,” he said.

Timble pointed out that a similar public rally had been planned in the northern Goa town of Mapusa but that collector denied permission at the last moment. Suggesting that the government was scared of the protests, he said that the permission being withdrawn was “not a defeat of protestors but of the government.”

Rama Kankonkar, a tribal-rights activist from the mining belt of Goa, also spoke at the rally. He said that NRC would also impact Hindus. Referring to Adivasi Hindus, he said, “Do tribals have birth certificates?”

Devasurabhi Yaduvanshi, a social activist and another speaker, highlighted what she perceived as the motives behind the CAA and NRC. Referring to the home minister, she said, “There is a much larger game. Don’t forget this Amit Shah is an excellent planner. Detention camps are for show but the real plan of CAA and NRC is to disenfranchise as many Muslims from the voting, as they don’t vote for BJP. Catholics here, you are next.” She added that the intent was also to remove Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from voting. “The vote share of the BJP will increase and they will keep winning for the next fifty years by means of these acts,” she said.  

Meanwhile, Muzaffar Shaikh, a prominent Muslim leader of Margao, told the crowd at the rally, “Many MLAs came to support us today. A small protest started from Margao has become big today and we will be on the streets until the law is repealed.”

However, taking a slightly different view, Radharao Gracias, an advocate and a former independent MLA told me that while the CAA issue needs to be addressed, by directly participating in the protests, the Church is “playing into the hands” of the BJP. He added, “The CAA is aimed at polarising along religious lines. After this rally, the other side is already upping the ante criticising the Church for polarising society at the other end.”

Francisco Colaco, a cardiologist, disagreed with this view. He told me the role of the church is not to only preach from the pulpits but to galvanise Christians into peaceful protest and non-violent action. “We have to stand in solidarity with those affected,” he said.

I spoke to three priests—Fernandes, Victor Ferrao and Jose Rodrigues—who defended the church’s decision to participate in the CAA protests and said that the religious body has always been with the people. Fernandes told me, “All matters relating to life and society are of concern to the church.” He added, “By intervening at this point the church is confronting unconstitutionality and injustice. The church stands for equality for all. This is a Christian obligation.”

Victor Ferrao, a professor at the Rachol Seminary in south Goa, supported this view. He said, “Nobody is apolitical. Right from the time of Goa’s liberation, the church has been a part of all public agitations, from the Ramponkar movement to the Konkani agitation.” The Ramponkar movement was for the protection of the rights of small-scale fishermen, and the Konkani agitation was a movement for declaring Konkani as the official language of Goa.

Ferrao added, “The church isn’t doing it for its own cause, it is standing by its people, it is joining this agitation to defend the Constitution.” Echoing the other priests, Jose Rodrigues, a parish priest of the Grace church in Margao, told me, “Where there is injustice the church will raise its voice.”

Several residents of Margao believed that the church’s intervention was the catalyst that Goans needed. Cleofato Coutinho, a senior lawyer, told me, “I was happy to see Hindu as well as Muslim speakers at the rally. But the rule of the role of the church is prominent and has to be recognized. In Goa, whenever the Church has directly intervened, the issue gets amplified.”

However, the Goa BJP president Sadanand Shet Tanavade dismissed the rally as insignificant and described it as organised by the opposition parties. “We don’t think much about this rally,” he told me. “The Margao rally was an opposition rally.” He said that the BJP had organised a “pro-CAA rally in Panjim” and claimed that “20,000 people came for it.” He added, “People are with the BJP.”

Meanwhile, the CSJP has planned another march and a public meeting on 30 January, the death anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Fernandes told me that the march has been planned from the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatoda, an area in Margao, to the main Margao market. When I asked why this was planned immediately after the 24 January rally, Fernandes said “People want to continue the agitation and this is not about Catholics or Christians alone.”