Sunday, April 21, 2024

Churches as platforms for corruption


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By Albert Thyrniang

One salutes Ardent Miller Basaiawmoit for publicly saying that some ‘Tymmen basan’ (church elders) were reported to have distributed liquor during elections. To impress the church the UDP’s MP candidate chided the VPP leader for the reverse role of schooling the church’s teachers. In Mawkyrwat, Hamletson Dohling of the NPP too flayed Basaiawmoit for maligning the church elders. This author hails from Mawkyrwat constituency. In the last Assembly elections, people on the ground, including villages surrounding Mawkyrwat, informed that ‘Tymmen basan’ and ‘Rangbah balang’ (village church leaders) did distribute liquor to targeted individuals and cash to families. It is for the VPP boss to declare where the reports originated.
The money came from candidates of political parties. The local leaders, usually ordinary folks, might have done it on their own. They might have not been directed by the higher-ups. However, priests and pastors too received favours from politicians prior to elections. They are christened ‘schemes’ for schools, hospitals or even for church buildings. With the exception of church buildings, there is nothing wrong in this. However, what is wrong is when the grant comes right before elections with the clear intention of wooing church members.
In January 2018 the BJP, with an eye to the then Assembly and the general elections the following year, earmarked a 70 crore package for beautification of church complexes in Meghalaya. Church leaders finally rejected the temptation on the pretext that the offer was a poll strategy. Then why do they accept financial assistance from candidates of other political parties? Why interpret aid as ‘cash for vote’ only when the BJP delivers it? Apart from schemes, priests and pastors pocket hard cash too from candidates when elections are round the corner.
We turn to political donations for grand church functions. It is an undisputed fact that politicians make contributions to various church assemblies (jingiaseng). We have just witnessed the Synod in Ri Bhoi district where, among other attendees, the NPP candidate felt a special connection with the Almighty. Anything for politics! Then there is the East Khasi Hills, the South East zone. the West Khasi Hills, the Jaintia Hills Synod and others. Each denomination has its own annual events in all sectors. Then the processions at the diocese and parish level! To add to the list are ordinations. In Garo Hills are various ‘Sobhas’. For most of these mammoth gatherings politicians are the major source of funds. The chief minister, MPs, ministers, MLAs and MDCs are contributors. According to a senior citizen’s calculation a chief minister and an MP spend at least Rs 50 lakh, a minister 30 lakh, an MLA 20 lakh and a MDC 10 lakh each annually for religious donations. In total the donations from politicians for each annual assembly could run into crores. Further the sum total diverted for religious functions annually could send shock waves. It could be a scam. Much of it goes to food and temporary structures. Wasteful expenditure this!
The money does not come from the pockets of politicians. They are stolen from MP/MLA/MDC schemes. Contractor-politicians may do a shoddy work to spare money for church donations. Legislators may demand a share from the contractors for the ‘noble’ cause. Politicians know they have to contribute to churches to stand a chance of winning. They have to acquire the money from corrupt practices. It is thus a planned malpractice.
The money is looted from the public. It is extracted from infrastructural projects. No wonder roads develop potholes after a year of completion; water tanks have no water; pipes and taps lay broken in villages because a portion of the sanction has gone to the church. Churches benefit from stolen money. The donations are always given in cash, never by cheque. So the money is black. A chunk of money meant for the public is siphoned off for churches. Part of the coinage comes from illicit coal business. So churches are not only complicit in but are causes of corruption. Donation is for mutual benefits. Politicians hope to get votes and are sure religious leaders would not criticise them even if they don’t perform. Religious officials are mighty happy that ‘God’s glory’ is accomplished. Fresh candidates hope to make up the investment if they win. The moot point is that Churches have a hand in this theft.
In a sense the VPP leaders are hailed for the public declaration that they are worthy of the Bible. No religious leaders would dare to do so. They are commented on for braving to campaign for clean politics while clergymen mock them saying, ‘it is easier said than done.’ The VPP is admired for striving for ideal governance. The peak may never be reached but half the climb is better than rock bottom. VPP’s founders are respected for taking on corruption while church leaders enjoy the dubious generosity of politicians. It is therefore natural for churchmen and women to keep mum on misgovernance. The VPP’s founders are appreciated for speaking against poverty while religious leaders, as shown above, further impoverish the poor.
Politicians may use the Bible as a tool to take on corruption, fight injustice and install a clean government, etc. But what if others insist their instrument is the Bhagavad Gita or the Guru Granth Sahib or Quran or any other scripture? What if someone holds the Gita or the Granth Sahib at political rallies appealing for votes? What if a Muslim says he is directed by the Quran to ask the electorate to engage in politics? What if there was a demand for Sharia law? What if others called for Manu-smriti? The country will be full of bigots. That’s why the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is rejected. If the use of other holy books in politics is wrong why should the Bible be right and vice versa? The wise founding fathers gave this multi religious country a secular constitution. So mixing politics and religion is illegal. Taking advantage of religion or the Bible or Quran or Gita or Ram or Hanuman is unconstitutional. The VPP, for misusing the Bible, the NPP for organising prayers in public places have violated the constitution. Right now, the Hindutva right wing is exploiting religion to win elections. It is for us to resist them by being true secularists or fall prey to their trap.
During the VPP’s protest outside the Secretariat on job reservation Christian prayers, replete with closing of eyes, raising hands, singing Christians hymns were seen besides the ‘biblical’ speeches. Are we okay if Hindu groups sit in dharna at the epicentre of Shillong with choral bhajans chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’? Will we not be alarmed if organisations meet close to the seat of power and shout ‘Allahu Akbar’? If we can hum the ‘O Lord My God, How Great Thou Art’ at a political venue why can others not sing their hymns?
A politician can be inspired by the bible, no doubt, but without being fanatical. You can be stirred up by the Holy book without explicitly boasting about it. We can be religious without wearing our devotion on our sleeves. Many reformers were motivated by the ‘Word of God’ but they never overtly professed their faith for the simple reason that in the society there are all sorts of people – believers and unbelievers, theists and atheists. If a politician openly uses the Bible he ceases to be a politician. He becomes an evangelist. A self-proclaimed religious politician antagonises and alienates many. One can dream of being a religious leader-politician-social reformer all in one but such a figure is bound to be divisive.
Politics is essential. Everyone is affected by it. Everyone should be involved in politics but not in petty politics. Even politicians themselves are condemned for petty politics. The Bible believers too must be engaged in the broader sense of politics. The Bible is a record of human history at a particular political era. Much of it deals with social issues, morality, exploitation of the poor and other forms of injustices. Human suffering was also caused by the arrogant rulers and the indifferent and complicit religious leaders. Prophets spared neither of the classes.
The church leaders and Christians should be concerned with governance. They must be attentive to the policies and actions of the government. The church’s politics is for social welfare, inclusive growth and certainly good and clean governance. It upholds the rule of law. It is anti-corruption and anti favouritism. Religious leaders must criticise the government if it fails in its duties. Church leaders can even recommend parties and candidates not because of the donations received but because they sincerely work for the state. Do churches (leaders) adopt the right politics? Distributing cash and liquor for candidates is not the right politics. Seeking donation at the cost of the poor and the development of the state is detestable politics. Not being critical of the government in exchange for favours is no role model politics. It is the politics of corruption.


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