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Mainstream, VOL LX No 26-27, New Delhi, June 18 & June 25 2022 [Double issue]

Larger Significance of Naveen Patnaik’s Meeting with Pope Francis | S N Sahu

Friday 24 June 2022, by S N Sahu

Special for Mainstream

updated on June 24, 2022

While in Rome during his visit to Italy on the invitation of the World Food Program (WFP), for sharing the transformative initiatives of Odisha in the field of food security and disaster management Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik paid tributes to Mahatma Gandhi at the MG Memorial Statue at the Plazza Gandhi in the city and called on Pope Francis in Vatican City on June 22, 2022.

Photo of Naveen Patnaik Meeting Pape Francis on June 22, 2022 (courtesy: orissadiary.com)

He met the Pope seven months after providing monetary support from Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to the Units of Missionaries of Charity (MOS) functioning in Odisha when the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) registration of the MOS was not renewed by the Union Home Ministry in December 2021. The audience Naveen Patnaik got with the Pope has also to be juxtaposed with the momentous order of the Supreme Court in June 2022 upholding the measures taken by Naveen Patnaik’s Government concerning the Puri Jagannath Temple Corridor Project and dismissing the public interest litigation filed against it with exemplary costs imposed on the petitioners. It is instructive to note that the Naveen Patnaik regime while allocating crores of rupees for the renovation of several of the much-revered ancient temples located in different parts of Odisha, has also allocated Rs.1 crore each for the development of five churches, six mosques, one gurudwara and one Punjabi mutt in the State.

Cultural Liberty, Religious Pluralism and Secularism

Naveen Patnaik’s first ever visit to the Vatican to meet Pope is historic. That visit combined with an exemplary decision he took in granting monetary support to the units of MOC functioning in Odisha and the funds he has released for shrines of all faiths affirm his commitment to cultural liberty, religious pluralism and secularism, which are part of the basic structure of the Constitution. In doing so, he set a fine example of leadership at a time when minorities are recurrently becoming victims of vigilantism and violence in several parts of the country and India’s image at the global level has been adversely impacted by the remarks of a BJP spokesperson on prophet Mohammed. There was massive backlash against our country from the Gulf region on account of such remarks representing frightening levels of Islamophobia and hate speeches targeting citizens based on their faiths.

On behalf of people of Odisha Chief Minister Patnaik presented to the Pope a ’Patachitra’ painting depicting the tree of life and sought his blessings. Patachitra showcases splendid tradition of painting work of Odisha on a piece of cloth and is acclaimed for exquisite work of art by employing natural colours.

Pope’s Message for Religious Harmony

The cultural liberty and religious pluralism defining the approach of Odisha CM and remaining integral to his architecture of governance is strikingly similar to the approach outlined by Pope Francis in one of his encyclical letters dated 3rd October 2020. The Holy See wrote, “The different religions, based on their respect for each human person as a creature called to be a child of God, contribute significantly to building fraternity and defending justice in society. Dialogue between the followers of different religions does not take place simply for the sake of diplomacy, consideration or tolerance. In the words of the Bishops of India, “the goal of dialogue is to establish friendship, peace and harmony, and to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love.”

Chief Ministers who Called on Pope

Earlier several Prime Ministers of India including Chief Ministers of some States had met Pope in Vatican City. For instance former CPI(M) leader and Kerala Chief Minister E K Nayanar during his visit to Rome in 1997 had met the Pope and presented a copy of Bhagavat Gita to him. In 2016 West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited Rome on the occasion of canonisation Mother Teresa by Pope Francis and met him during that time.

Prime Ministers who Called on Pope

Among the Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru met Pope in 1955 in Vatican when India was engaged in military operation to liberate Goa from Portuguese occupation and confronted the manufactured Portuguese propaganda that Indian attack on Portuguese Goa was an attack on Christianity. Nehru during his meeting with Pope explained that the issue between India and Portugal was political in nature and had nothing to do with Christianity. He could convince the Pope about India’s stand and, therefore, faced no adverse reaction from the Vatican on Goa issue.

Other Prime Ministers who called on the Pope are Indira Gandhi in 1981, I K Gujral in 199, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000 and Narendra Modi in October 2021. Prime Minister Modi, like the then Kerala Chief Minister Nayanar also presented a copy of Bhagavat Gita to the Pope and made a needless statement that there would be disparaging remarks in some circles on his act of presenting Gita to the Pope.

Positive Message of Naveen Patnaik’s Meeting with Pope

Odisha Chief Minister meeting the Pope has sent a positive message across the State and India of harmony and peace cutting across religious and other identities. His statement after paying tribute to Gandhi in Rome that he has been deeply influenced by the ideals of the father of our nation and his invocation of Gandhi’s words that there would not be progress without peace assumes greater significance for our time marked by sharp polarisation process based on religion and majoritarian tendencies. We need to be mindful of the danger being posed from such forces and tendencies to the constitutional vision of India at the centre of which remain cultural liberty, religious pluralism and secularism. Such ideals embodied in Gandhi’s writings and action need to be defended to defend the idea of India facing constant assault from forces representing bigotry.

(S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India K R Narayanan)

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