Banglalore, India
Religion Unplugged

Standing almost 35 metres high, Asia’s tallest stone statue of Jesus would look out from a four hectare plot in the Catholic-majority Harobele village on the outskirts of the global technology hub Bangalore, the capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

After a large, undisclosed donation to the Catholic Church’s $US1.5 million project by a local Hindu politician’s family, protests are threatening to shut down the plan. The protests are led by Hindu nationalist groups and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling government, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which also governs Karnataka.

The land donation for the Jesus statue came from DK Shivakumar, who represents the rural district Kanakapura outside Bangalore that includes hundreds of villages, including Harobele. His brother DK Suresh is a devout Hindu and local member of parliament representing rural Bangalore for the Congress Party, the opposition to the BJP.

“Our donation to the Catholic community comes out of our secular, pluralistic outlook and has nothing to do with appeasement politics as the BJP has been saying,” said Suresh. “We have extended support to faiths across the board, including a Jain temple earlier.”

The state revenue minister has said that the state government still owns the hill that the Catholic group wants to install the Jesus statue on, so building cannot proceed until the land is sold or transferred to the church group. Shivakumar told media he gave his land title deed to the church group on Christmas Day and that he had purchased the land from a prior government.

Kanakapura is known for its granite production. If completed, the Bangalore rural stone statue would join the likes of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil (at 38 metres) and Christ the King in west Poland (at 36 metres).

In the same district, the Karnataka government has planned to build two different tall bronze statues in honour of two well-known Hindu pontiffs who passed away recently.

The brothers are known to be close to Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi (earlier Sonia Manio), who has been at the helm of India’s establishment party since 1998. Sonia was born into a Roman Catholic family in Lusiana, 560 kilometres north of Rome in Italy, and met her future husband Rajiv Gandhi in Cambridge in 1968. After marrying Rajiv Gandhi, who was India’s Prime Minister like his mother Indira Gandhi and grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, Sonia became a naturalized Indian in 1993, two years after Rajiv was killed in a terror attack near Chennai.

One BJP leader in Karnataka insinuated that Shivakumar’s gift to the Catholic project was to show his affection for “his Italian mother", an obvious reference to Sonia Gandhi. Sonia hardly displayed her Catholic faith, if any, while there are plenty of photo-ops of her Hindu temple visits. In September 2016, as Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi sent a thank you note to Pope Francis for the canonization of Mother Teresa at a ceremony at the Vatican. She deployed two Congress leaders, both Catholics, to represent the party at the ceremony.

Catholic leaders are now hoping to resolve the Jesus statue by keeping politics out of it. On 5th January, Archbishop of Bangalore Peter Machado led a group of Christian leaders to meet with the Karnataka chief minister BS Yediyurappa, who said he would investigate the statue plan and protests that are challenging it.

A report by a fact-finding team of the Christian Dalit Federation noted that the Catholics in Harobele village are mostly Dalit converts and have been practicing their faith peacefully for over a century now.

“This atmosphere of peaceful coexistence is being vitiated with needless hate-mongering rhetoric now,” the report stated. Dalit converts to Christianity are denied welfare benefits provided to Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits in India’s constitution.

Catholicism in south India began as early as the 17th century. An Italian Jesuit priest Leonard Cinnami established a local mission centre in 1653 in the southern Karnataka region when it was ruled by a Hindu king. The first Protestant mission work in India began in 1706 by Lutherans under the patronage of the king of Denmark in present day Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. American Methodists began work about 170 years ago in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh in North India.

India’s nearly 300 million Dalits, not just considered lower caste but technically outside of caste (earlier called untouchables), have been bound at the bottom of the society for centuries. Many of them embraced the faith thanks to outreach by mission workers. The Wesleyan Methodist Mission from England began its work among the Dalit community in Karnataka in 1836, mostly among the depressed classes of the districts around Bangalore including the Kolar Gold Fields area.

Karnataka has enjoyed substantial religious freedom under broadminded Hindu kings and Muslim rulers. The London Missionary Society established its first Protestant mission in 1810 in the Bellary region in central Karnataka, which was then under the Muslim rulers, the Mughals, who reigned over large parts of India from 1657 until the British started colonized India 100 years later.

Bangalore’s first poor-friendly hospital was started by five European Catholic sisters in 1886 in what began as a small medical facility in old jail barracks. The Hindu king of Mysore, an old name for Karnataka, was so touched by the Catholic sisters’ medical outreach in the wake of a bubonic plague that swept Bangalore in 1878 that he donated 20 acres of land in 1886 to the Catholic order to help cater to growing medical needs.

India’s roughly 25 million Christians are mostly spread around South India, the Northeast and the tribal belt of central India. Almost 25 per cent of Indian Christians live in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where one of Jesus’ disciples, the apostle Thomas, is believed to have come as an evangelist 2,000 years ago. Nearly 15 per cent are in neighboring Tamil Nadu and around five per cent each live in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, now governed by a professing Christian politician.

Stephen David is a Bangalore-based journalist who writes for India Today, Outlook magazine and other outlets about faith and politics.