Archbishops like judges enjoy free speech

Supreme Court judges and archbishops do not surrender their right to freedom of speech and expression on assuming office. This is why the news channels, which attacked Delhi prelate Anil Couto for writing a letter to his flock on May 8 to pray and fast just before the 2019 general elections, have flouted journalistic norms. The root of religion and politics is compassion while mixing both is a distraction.

Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution guarantees all Indian citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression which is reduced only by the eight heads of sovereignty and integrity of India — decency and morality, security of the state, public order, friendly relations with foreign states, defamation, contempt of court and incitement to an offence. It is axiomatic that religious heads and judges are citizens prior to assuming office so they retain their right to free speech with reticence advised but not prescribed.

Judges and religious heads are both public figures but the former swear to uphold the Constitution while the latter swear to guard their peoples’ faith in God. The judiciary has a duty to the country whereas archbishops have a duty to their flock. The Delhi archbishop’s letter has steered clear of the eight restrictions in Article 19(2) because it only asks his flock to “pray and fast” every Friday for the nation before the 2019 general elections.

Several prominent news channels flayed Delhi archbishop Anil Couto for his innocuous letter which stated: “We are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our constitution and the secular fabric of our nation…It is our hallowed practice to pray for our country and its political leaders all the time but all the more so when we approach the general elections. As we look forward towards 2019 when we will have new government (sic) let us begin a prayer campaign for our country from May 13…”

Just as the three senior judges of the Supreme Court attracted flak for holding an impromptu press conference on January 12, the Archbishop stirred a hornet’s nest with two prominent news channels accusing the Vatican of heading an anti-Narendra Modi camp although the prelate’s letter does not mention any political party. Similarly, Justices Jasti Chelameswar and his colleagues went public after their pleas to CJI Dipak Misra for transparency in allocation of cases proved futile.

One channel declared on prime-time news that citizens could not vote as Christians while exercising their franchise. “You have to vote as a citizen of India”, screamed the anchor who accused the church of not being grateful to the BJP for getting abducted Kerala priest Thomas Uzhunnalil freed from the ISIS. On Thursday, a Catholic priest, Fr Jayaseelan from Tuticorin was among the 13 killed in Tamil Nadu after being shot in the hip by a sniper during an agitation by locals against the Vedanta Sterlite group for flouting environmental laws. That is why religion and politics cannot be kept apart.

Ironically, these news channels, which exercise their right to free speech, have flayed the Delhi archbishop for exercising the same right. Conventions advise judges and priests to be reticent and apolitical. But there is no law to prohibit them from going public. Many judges have been made governors by political parties after retiring from the Supreme Court like former CJI P Sathasivam, who was made Kerala governor by the BJP and Vijay Bahuguna, who resigned from the Bombay high court in the 1990s on corruption charges and later became a chief minister of Uttarakhand.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath unabashedly mixes religion with politics while right-wing groups like the RSS have declared they would garland Christians who reconverted to Hinduism in Goa. Lawyers like Mathews Nedumpara, president of the National Lawyers Campaign for Judicial Transparency and Accountability, opined the news channels flouted the Delhi archbishop’s right to privacy by creating a controversy over a strictly private letter which formulates a prayer for his flock alone. “These letters do not seek votes in the name of religion. After all, politics gives us the governments we deserve,” he said.

In 2017, the Gujarat Election Commission issued a notice to Archbishop Thomas Mecwan for writing a letter to stop “nationalist forces” because “the secular and democratic fabric of our country is at stake”. The letter dated November 21, 2017, exhorted churches across India to hold prayers to elect MLAs in Gujarat who would uphold the Constitution. The news channels telecast the news which culminated in the notice to the archbishop.

However, while the model code of conduct had already come into force in Gujarat in 2017, Delhi archbishop Anil Couto has not violated any law. Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias clarified that the church does not oppose or support Narendra Modi or any political party.

Mahatma Gandhi famously declared that those who believe religion and politics are not connected do not understand either. To sum up, Archbishop Couto said, “I have a duty to advise my flock on matters which affect our right to worship”. After all, there is politics in religion and the media as well, proved by some news channels which are funded by politicians.

Olav Albuquerque holds a PhD in law and is a journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay high court.

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