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Welby should stand up for Christians persecuted by India

Welby should stand up for Christians persecuted by India

By Zareer Masani
September 12, 2019

The Archbishop of Canterbury has a habit of apologising for Britain's past misdeeds, such as the bombing of Dresden. His latest intervention involved prostrating himself at the shrine in Amritsar, Punjab, and apologising for the hundreds killed by Indian soldiers commanded by a British officer in 1919.

What such apologies achieve is hard to imagine, especially when even the grandchildren of victims are hard to find. The archbishop lying flat on the ground, as though awaiting martyrdom, made lively images for the Indian media.

Justin Welby is an unlikely virtue-signaller, sharing a bloodline with luminaries of the Raj such as Sir Charles Napier, who famously punned "I have sinned" after the conquest of Sind. While maintaining that his trip to India was pastoral, not political, the archbishop lauded India's tolerance of diverse faiths. It did not occur to him how such plaudits might be exploited by India's Hindu chauvinist government of the BJP as it cracks down on the Muslims of Kashmir and suspends their democratic rights with force.

I dared to point this out on Twitter but must have touched a raw nerve, since I found that the archbishop has "blocked" me. As for his Amritsar penance, one wonders if he is aware that the killings were condemned at the time by the British government and the Commons, and that General Dyer, the officer in charge, was forced to resign his commission by Winston Churchill, then secretary for war, who described the massacre as "a monstrous event".

Welby's trip has also managed to stir up criticism from climate scientists, who objected to his message on global warming, and from rival sects of the tiny Anglican Church. Just over 2 per cent of Indians are Christian, the vast majority Roman Catholics. At the very least, one would have expected the head of the Anglican communion to stand up for fellow Christians who have suffered arson and desecration of their churches, attacks on priests and even the rape of nuns. But that would have involved challenging Hindutva, the wave of militant Hinduism that is transforming the tolerant India of Welby's imagination into a land where people are lynched on suspicion of eating beef, which is now forbidden by law.

Welby followed up his prostration with a visit to the high priest at the Sikh Golden Temple next door. Did he realise he was following in the footsteps of "Butcher" Dyer, praised for his massacre by the priests then in charge and accepted as an honorary Sikh? Religious virtue creates strange bedfellows, then and now.

Dr Zareer Masani is a historian of India

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