When YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, a devout Christian, took over the reins of Andhra Pradesh after securing a massive mandate in the April elections, there were whispers in political circles that his faith could someday become a rallying point for the opposition parties to target him and his government.
What was feared in some quarters is coming true sooner than expected. A distinctly communal narrative is being woven around the campaign against the six month old YSR Congress Party government with the chorus of protests intensifying against the alleged “pro-Christian” policies of the government.
Interestingly, the key opposition players — Telugu Desam Party (TDP), BJP and Jana Sena Party headed by actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan — are on the same page when it comes to attacking the government on the issue of “hurting the Hindu sentiments.”
Assistance for Christian pilgrims
What provided the ammunition for the opposition parties was the government’s recent decision to enhance financial assistance to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem in Israel and other Biblical places from ₹40,000 to ₹60,000, for those with annual income up to ₹3 lakh, and from ₹20,000 to ₹30,000 for those with annual income over ₹3 lakh.
A government order issued last week said that the financial assistance would cover the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jordan River, Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee. Similarly, Muslims undertaking Haj pilgrimage would also be given ₹60,000, if the annual income is less than ₹3 lakh, and ₹30,000 is the annual income is more than ₹3 lakh.
The order was issued after Jagan’s return from his first visit abroad to Jerusalem along with his family. The state sponsored tour period of the Biblical places has been enhanced from eight to 10 days and the government also permitted the Christian pilgrims availing the scheme to visit four more places — Madaba Church of the Apostles (Jordan), Virgin Mary Tomb, Solomon’s Temple and Mount Moriah (all in Israel).
Though the policy of providing subsidy for Christian pilgrimage was introduced by the Congress government in the combined Andhra Pradesh in 2013, with assistance of ₹20,000 for pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there is a growing perception that the present government has been very liberal in doling out favours to the Christian community.
Earlier in August, the government had issued an order to provide for an honorarium of ₹5,000 per month for pastors. The State Minorities Welfare Department directed the Collectors and District Magistrates to conduct a survey for enumeration of pastors through a network of village volunteers.
The critics point out that there is no such subsidy for Hindu pilgrimages.
“Such decisions of the government will have a negative impact on the society and lead to polarisation on religious lines,” political analyst T Ravi said.
Family of mixed faith
Jagan comes from a family of mixed faith, representing a syncretic blend of both the religions. A devout Christian who reads Bible every day, Jagan, however, visits temples and pays obeisance to the heads of Hindu Mutts.
In fact, when he assumed office at the state secretariat in Amaravati on June 8 at 8.39 am, the muhurat set by Swaroopanandendra Swami of Visakha Sarada Peetham, he made it a point to seek blessings from Vedic scholars before clearing the first file. After taking oath as CM, Jagan flew down to Visakhapatnam to seek the blessings of the seer.
Jagan comes from a family of politicians who virtually rule the roost in Kadapa district of Rayalaseema region, notorious for faction violence. His great grandparents had embraced Christianity.
Jagan’s mother Y S Vijayamma, wife Bharathi and sister Sharmila are never seen accompanying him to the temples or participating in Hindu rituals. They are devout Christians. Sharmila is married to P Anil Kumar, a Brahmin who converted to Christianity post-marriage and is now a popular evangelist. By and large, the women in the YSR family are practicing Christians while the men have mixed faiths.
The TDP, which is now warming up to the BJP after publicly expressing regret for pulling out of the NDA last year, has been more aggressive in attacking the YSRCP government for “encouraging large scale conversions and openly pursuing a policy of Christian appeasement.”
The government came in for attack for spending ₹23 lakh on Jagan’s “personal trip” to Jerusalem.
“Public money is being utilised for a personal religious visit undertaken by the CM, burdening the exchequer,” Lanka Dinakar, a BJP leader who was with the TDP earlier, said. The TDP activists too raised such questions on the social media.
Meanwhile, the government is taking steps to fulfil other manifesto promises for the Christian community — like plots and house construction for pastors, and financial assistance of ₹1 lakh for wedding of Christian girls, among others.
The BJP has criticised such moves “as deplorable, and as a case of state sponsored religious conversions”.
The BJP and TDP supporters took to the social media and alleged that the present government was encouraging large scale religious conversions and that there has been a sharp rise in the number of church buildings in the state.
The right-wing supporters have posted videos on social media, purportedly showing evangelical activities being carried out in the village/ward secretariat buildings inaugurated by the YSRCP government.
The TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu, who normally steers clear of religious matters, has, of late, been implicitly accusing his bete noire Jagan of hurting Hindu sentiments.
No special favours
The secretary of the Minorities Welfare Department Mohammed Illiyas Rizvi denied the charge that the government was doling out special favours to the Christians.
“These schemes and financial aid for Christians are similar to what Muslims and other religious minorities receive. The housing initiative for pastors broadly falls under the housing schemes for the poor category. Same is the case with the wedding assistance for Christian girls,” Rizvi said.
As per 2011 Census, Andhra Pradesh has nearly seven lakh Christians, constituting about 1.4% of the total population.
The TDP has attacked the chief minister for allegedly refusing to sign a ‘declaration of faith’ that non-Hindus visiting the Tirumala shrine are required to do as per the temple custom.
“Jagan must respect the sentiments of Lord Venkateshwara devotees and sign a declaration of faith whenever he visits the temple for darshan. All non-Hindus are required to sign such a declaration of faith in the Lord. That Jagan’s family follows Christianity is an open secret and he does not bring along his wife for temple events,” senior TDP leader K Kala Venkat Rao said.
Meanwhile, Pawan Kalyan has questioned the successive governments for collecting over 23% tax “only from Hindu temples”, while leaving out the places of worship of other religions.