With moving expressions of praise and reverence for Mohandas K. Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, Pope John Paul II today began a 10-day tour of India to a cool reception from this capital city's predominantly Hindu population.
Unlike the festive, even delirious, receptions that have greeted the pope on almost all of his previous 28 trips around Asia, the Americas, Europe and Africa, New Delhi reacted to his arrival here from Rome this morning with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm or even curiosity.
Indian President Zail Singh and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi headed the government delegation that formally welcomed the pope on his arrival, and he was given the 21-gun salute and review of a military honor guard that official protocol dictates be accorded visiting heads of state.
But, according to Indian officials, necessary stiff security measures prevented allowing the public to attend the reception ceremonies, thus limiting attendance to a select elite of government officials, diplomats and a typically unruly pack of more than 100 journalists.
Security measures alone, however, did not explain the sparse crowds that watched the pope's progression in a bulletproof limousine to make courtesy visits to President Zail and Prime Minister Gandhi and to pay tribute to Mohandas Gandhi at the simple, marble monument that marks the spot where he was cremated after his assassination in 1948.
In a brief speech, the pope called Gandhi an "apostle of nonviolence," and said the "meaning of his life's work has penetrated the consciousness of the world."
The pope also said a mass before about 24,000 Catholics and made brief visits to the main cathedral and offices that are the seats of the Catholic Church's small presence in New Delhi.
Only a few thousand Catholic schoolchildren were on hand to line the boulevard from the airport to the center of the city and even their cheers could not make up for the general indifference displayed by the capital's estimated 4 million people who went about their business as usual.
There was at least one angry, if small and contained, demonstration against the pope by militant Hindus who burned his figure in effigy and waved placards with slogans such as "Pope go to hell" before police broke up their protests by detaining close to 100 of approximately 150 demonstrators. Among the leaders of the demonstration was the brother of the man who killed Mohandas Gandhi who himself was jailed 20 years for conspiracy in the killing.
"Why should we get excited about the visit of a Catholic pope to our Hindu land," said Shakti Patil, a schoolteacher. "The pope has been invited here to our country as the head of the Vatican state, not as a religious leader. Why should we be any more excited about his arrival than we are about those of such countries as Vanuatu or Greece or Bangladesh who also have come here in recent years?"
Vatican officials accompanying the pope sought to play down the city's indifference by pointing out that there are only about 55,000 Catholics in this city of more than 4 million.
These officials said they expected public reactions to be much different later in the visit when the pope visits the more Christianized South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the former Portuguese colony of Goa.
Christianity is a minority religion in this nation of Hindus, Buddhists and Moslems. Church statistics record that there are about 17 million Christians in all of India, 12.5 million of them Catholics, or about 1.7 percent of the nation's 750 million population.
Pope John Paul chose to underline what he called his "pilgrimage of good will and peace" with a visit to the Raj Ghat memorial to Mohandas Gandhi that stands in a park along the banks of the sacred Yamuna River where the Indian leader was cremated after his assassination by a Hindu fanatic in January 1948 only months after Gandhi led India to independence from Britain.
The pope placed a wreath at the foot of the memorial. Clearly moved by the opportunity to honor the Indian he has often cited as an important influence, the pope knelt before the monument in silent prayer for five minutes, getting up only after the papal nuncio, the Rev. Agostino Cacciavillan, nudged his shoulder to break his reverie