Fr Savio Fernandes, head of the social wing of the Archdiocese of Goa, talks about the political situation in the state, and the challenges ahead for the Catholic voter in the coming election.
Election seasons in Goa over the years have seen the archdiocese of Goa, the Catholic church and clergy come under scrutiny for political activism and “interference”﹘as accused by opponents, especially the RSS, BJP and its affiliates.
In 2018, in the run-up to the general election a year later, archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao’s annual pastoral letter saying the Constitution was in danger predictably raised the hackles of Hindutva groups, but that has not deterred the church from issuing an advisory to the laity. It is the council for social justice and peace, the social wing of the Archdiocese of Goa, that now issues the advisory, and the communiqué is direct in raising social, political and humane issues, nudging followers at the time of voting.
In an exclusive interview with Newslaundry, Fr Savio Fernandes, executive secretary of CSJP, speaks about crucial matters linked to the upcoming polls, what should guide Christians and the significance of informed political opinion. Excerpts:
You have outlined the importance of responsibility not just of the candidate but also of the voter?
Voters must choose the right candidate not for selfish motives, because they received personal favours and benefits, but for the common good. Goa is a small state and candidates and MLAs know the people, they make it a point to attend personal occasions like weddings, births and funerals, but it is now important to choose who can deliver the best for development of constituency and state, and rights of the minority community.
Has the advisory helped the Catholic flock to make the right choice in past elections? How do you take the message to the people?
The council’s advisory is an appeal to draw the attention of our people in particular, and to appeal to their conscience to make the right choice. The advisory is circulated among priests of every parish in the state, it is also broadcasted in our Catholic channel, CCRTV, which is watched by a lot of people. The priests then disseminate the contents with groups in meetings, in sermons at church, at Sunday announcements.
As you are aware, the church has always come under heavy attack for so-called interference in political matters?
The Catholic church teaches that we don’t just have a religious responsibility but our faith and Christian life is also about social responsibility. So it is this that we are exercising by guiding people and highlighting important points before they decide who is the best candidate.
So, the accusation that the church is interfering in political matters, is not valid?
Look, we cannot lead a life of a citizen if we do not participate; we are also citizens of this country, after all, not strangers. The politics of this country affects us too, we need to be involved in the politics here.
It’s interesting you’ve also highlighted the national political scenario – of intolerance, misuse of law enforcement agencies to squash dissent and suppress opponents, complete control of media, etc.
Yes these are important issues and by highlighting them, it is to show people that even in a state election, it is important to know the national scenario when we go to choose a candidate and party.
You’ve also raised the issue of forced conversions, farmers’ agitation in the north and others?
Yes, we discuss the national issues in our church sermons, we also discuss these in our regular meetings with the people. In fact these aspects have come from the grassroots, the people, the priests, which we have tried to incorporate in our advisory.
Would you say there’s an attempt to polarise the electorate on religious lines today, with attacks on churches, novenas, as the state has witnessed in December?
The attempts to polarise have always been there especially during elections, but by and large we are a peace loving community, it is only politicians who bring this hostility in.
The council has made it clear who you should not vote for, by pointing out for instance, that private affidavits of loyalty signed by candidates of this particular party do not hold in a court of law?
Defections have been a big issue especially since the last election and people are very upset too. But political parties asking their candidates to sign private affidavits saying he/she will not defect after victory, is only to impress the people but has no legal standing.
There is also frequent misuse of religion through the much publicised blessings, ceremonies, and also offers of free religious pilgrimages. We want to tell voters not to get carried away by these games of political parties.
You have similarly cautioned people not to get lured by a particular party promising financial assistance?
It is highly deplorable that political parties are floating fancy financial schemes which cannot be honoured by a debt-ridden state like Goa. Debts have been increasing in the last couple years, there’s pressure on the treasury, and whichever govt takes over, it cannot be achieved.
You’ve specifically pointed out there are parties that have come in with national ambitions, so as to gain national recognition, even by recklessly cutting secular votes?
We’ve said we should be mindful of communal and fascist forces camouflaging behind the labels of political alternatives. To quote, let us not be manipulated by political experiments, electoral adventurism, and deceptive propaganda.
Are you suggesting that the electorate go back to old parties?
This election is different and tricky. There are now so many political parties, and dozens of candidates in every constituency. Parties are even known to put up dummy candidates. Too many candidates, and votes get spread across, and final results can even vanquish a good candidate.
How do you make people aware of political subterfuge?
It is very important for people to communicate with each other, of narrowing down on the list of candidates, and consolidating their votes for the right candidate. So far, people have been astute, they’ve seen which party can win the most seats to give a stable government. So often have they voted to accommodate that particular party by voting for the candidate.
Perhaps, today, stability is even more the biggest concern?
Yes, but this time with so many parties, it’s going to be difficult to get a clear majority.
You’ve talked about big corporations colonising Goa through political parties?
Goa is fighting environmental issues which are imposed by large corporations, and it is important for people to know which corporation funds which political party. We have seen several protests against the coal hubs, nationalisation of rivers, Mollem power project, double tracking of railways..We have to be alert to corporate-political party nexus.
The council has been in the forefront of people’s movements, it was set up in 2016, to help fisherman versus mechanised trawlers, Konkan Rail, tribal rights, etc?
Environment is a major issue, as it impacts livelihoods of people, and traditional communities. For instance, in tourism, the government is not interested in protecting the stakeholders – those who gave up their traditional occupations whether in coasts or in mining areas – from fisherfolk, to farmers and tribals in the mining belt. The government has pushed development in these lands, even tribals have been in the forefront of agitations in the last five years.
Your work in tribal communities must have raised hackles of the Hindutva groups who have always accused you of conversion of tribals?
We work with tribal communities, there’s no question of conversions. Of course, there have been attempts by the RSS to reconvert people but they have not been successful in their ghar wapsi programs.
Does the RSS provoke the church in Goa?
There have been attempts to play with the history of Goa; we were a Portuguese colony. The RSS has tried to highlight certain issues and base it on dodgy historical documents and facts. This has happened ever since the BJP came to Goa, they have proxy groups to bring these false histories to the fore.
Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has also made a call to restore temples that have been destroyed during colonial rule. Is it yet another attempt to polarise?
The BJP government will always work along with the RSS. The present BJP government has nothing to boast of, no achievements in employment, economy, environment; so, it’s a last ditch effort to bring in votes, playing the religion card.
The church and council have also protected Muslims, though there were attempts by local parishes to isolate Muslims?
The council has fought for the rights of all minorities. There was the issue of giving land for a Muslim burial ground when local priests protested in the area. It was politically motivated, and we appealed to the clergy that Muslims also have a right for burial space. We have also intervened in the government’s beef ban, but there is a dearth of cattle here as Goa has small farmlands; also, officials looking after abattoirs have not put any processes in place. It has hit the livelihoods of Muslim beef suppliers. In the end, it is all about bribery in any industry in Goa.
The church is concerned by the dwindling population of Christians in the state?
This is a big concern for the Church and the community. The reasons are manifold – big numbers migrating abroad, we still have the benefit of the Portuguese passport. The government is insensitive to business needs of small and medium businesses. Shack owners, small guest houses, where business is seasonal, took a big hit during Covid but the government tripled their fees instead of giving them subsidies.
We now encourage people to take up jobs in the civil services, prepare for entrance exams, government jobs, as the community is not well represented here. Christians have lost out in the selection process of government jobs, despite being qualified. It’s been in the news where MLAs have competed to give maximum jobs in their constituencies, and favouritism plays a role here.
But political parties cannot ignore Christian candidates it seems today?
Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement of the influence of the community in elections. They may be only 25 percent but in some areas, like in about six constituencies in south Goa, they are a majority. So, to balance the stakes, Christian candidates are a necessity.
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