Hyderabad: In the nearly six months since he took over as Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Y.S.R. Jagan Mohan Reddy has taken several decisions for the Christian community in the state, drawing criticism from the opposition.
While Andhra Pradesh has had a department in operation for decades to provide benefits to minority communities, the incentives for Christians now are seen as being open-handed from a CM belonging to the same community.
Reddy and his family hailing from Kadapa district of Rayalaseema are followers of Christianity.
Earlier this week, Reddy’s government enhanced financial assistance to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem in Israel and other Biblical places from Rs 40,000 to Rs 60,000 (for those with annual income up to Rs 3 lakh), and from Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 (for those with annual income over Rs 3 lakh).
The latest move comes on the back of an order issued on 27 August, when Reddy’s government allowed the state sponsored tour period of the Biblical places to be enhanced from eight to 10 days.
In its order, the government also permitted the Christian pilgrims from the state availing the scheme to visit four more places — Madaba Church of the Apostles (Jordan), Virgin Mary Tomb, Solomon’s Temple and Mount Moriah (all in Israel).
Reddy’s decisions were announced soon after his return from his first visit abroad to Jerusalem along with his family in August.
‘Burdening the exchequer’
Reddy’s “personal” trip to Jerusalem came under fire from the opposition after the Andhra Pradesh government spent Rs 22.5 lakh on it, stating that cost was towards security arrangements.
The statement came even after an earlier state government order about the Ministry of External Affairs’ approval for the trip had said that the visit was “purely personal and the expenditure shall be borne by the dignitary”.
“Public money is being utilised for a personal religious visit undertaken by the CM, burdening the exchequer,” Lanka Dinakar, a BJP leader who was with the TDP earlier, had said. TDP activists too raised such questions on social media.
In August, the Reddy government issued another order to provide for an honorarium of Rs 5,000 per month for pastors. To know their numbers in the state for budget allocation and allowance disbursal, the government has asked the district collectors to enumerate the pastors through a survey.
While the process is underway, the government is preparing to fulfill other YSR Congress Party manifesto promises for the Christian community — like plots and house construction for pastors, and financial assistance of Rs 1 lakh for wedding of Christian girls, among others.
The BJP has criticised such moves “as deplorable, and as case of state sponsored religious conversions”.
Right-wing activists allege Reddy’s regime as becoming conducive for conversions, rise in the number of church buildings — legally or illegally — in the state.
Video posts on social media recently alleged evangelical activities as being carried out in village/ward secretariat buildings inaugurated by the YSRCP government.
Shifting from its neutral position on religious matters, opposition leader N. Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP also has lately been implicitly accusing Jagan as pro-Christian and anti-Hindu.
‘Not doing anything special’
Speaking to ThePrint, Md Illiyas Rizvi, principal secretary, minority welfare department said, “The schemes and financial aid for Christians in the state are similar to what Muslims and other religious minorities receive like the Haj pilgrim assistance.
“For that matter, these benefits are same like what the poor among the majority community receive in the state. Pastors’ houses initiative broadly falls under the housing schemes for the poor category; likewise is the wedding assistance for Christian girls,” Rizvi said.
“Our government is not doing anything special or out of turn for the Christians,” Rizvi told ThePrint.
According to officials, Andhra Pradesh has seven lakh Christians, constituting about 1.4 per cent of the total population as per 2011 Census.
However, the number of followers of the faith is estimated to be higher in the state. “Many among the Scheduled Castes (especially in Coastal Andhra), have embraced Christianity while remaining Hindus on paper. They are ineligible for Christian benefits,” an official in the minority welfare department said.
Reddy’s father Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy — also a devout Christian, who had also visited Bethlehem and prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem during his tenure as the CM of united Andhra Pradesh — never faced such religion based censure.
“This shows that the criticism now is to target Jagan on religious grounds,” the official above who didn’t wish to be named said.