The misgivings caused by the Vatican Declaration Dominus Iesus in September notwithstanding, the Catholic Church cannot go back on the spirit of inter-religious dialogue and mutual respect enkindled by the Vatican Council II in the early 1960s
The Catholic Church’s theology, as expressed in Vatican Council II (1962–’65), represented a paradigm shift. This showed in the way that the Church perceived itself and the attention that it paid to other religions, human freedom and historical consciousness. The Church had arrived at a new self–understanding that distanced itself from a triumphalism that was often associated with a pre–Vatican II Christianity. However, with the appearance of the Vatican Declaration Dominus Iesus (DI) — made public on September 5, 2000 — many feel that a pre–Vatican II theological perspective is being resurrected.
While the timing and tone of DI have raised certain fears about the future of ecumenism, it is good to remember that such a document cannot supersede the teachings of the Council. Before attempting to understand DI it will help to know what Vatican Council II affirmed in its documents about the relationship of the Church towards other religions. We shall then reflect on some of the questions raised by DI and comment on them.
The practice of religion usually suggests a way of life that includes beliefs, moral imperatives and sacred rites supported by an underlying faith in God. These elements unite persons and are meant to bring peace, harmony and deep human fulfilment to their lives. The unifying force of religion is based on the understanding that God is the origin and goal of all peoples on this earth.
Such an understanding is also the basis for different religions working with each other in collaboration and not in competition. When dialogue became the buzzword at Vatican Council II, the official Church was aware that a paradigm shift had occurred in the way the Catholic Church would view other religions.
The document that reflected the new thinking was Nostra Aetate (NA), the declaration on non–Christian religions. Its text has the following passage: “All men form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because
all share a common destiny, namely God” (NA 1).
It is a fact of experience that people of different faith persuasions exist side by side in our world and benefit each other by living out the genius of their own particular religion. In our own country, we can find religious persons who live in closeness to nature and thus enter the realm of the spirit; others fix their hearts and minds on the absolute by refraining from making images of the divine. Still others practise asceticism and give themselves to ritual observances with the hope of communing with the divine.
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflects a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.” (NA 2). Further on, Catholics are exhorted to “acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths” which are found in other religions. We may rightly conclude that more than mere tolerance is connoted in the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding other religions.
Tolerance demands that one party live with another without harming or hurting the other. But tolerance is not enough for building community. Hopefully, tolerance will give way to respect for the other and finally to a mutually enriching dialogue. Harmony among different religions supposes that religions are in dialogue with each other. In such dialogue, a sharing of values, understand-ings and concerns occurs so that a deeper God encounter takes place in both the dialogue partners.
The result of authentic dialogue is a transcending of the positions with which the dialogue partners began. Dialogue that is used for the sole purpose of imposing one’s own point of view on another is not authentic dialogue, but a manipulating strategy. When Pope John Paul II visited India in November 2000, he pointedly confirmed dialogue “as a characteristic mode of the Church’s life in Asia” (Ecclesia in Asia, no. 3), thus confirming what Vatican Council II had initiated.
Vatican Council II in which the official Catholic Church declared its positive assessment of other religions began a new era in the life of the Catholic Church. The beginning of a new historical consciousness led it to acknowledge the ways of the divine in those religions practised by the vast majority of people in the world.
For the first time in 20 centuries, the Church clearly recognised God’s presence in the lives of those who did not belong to the Catholic confession and a clear directive was given to Catholics to act in accordance with the new understanding. In Gaudium et Spes (GS), the Vatican II document dealing with the Church’s relatedness to the world, the Council states that God saves those who are not baptised members of the Church, in a manner known to him (GS 22).
In her teaching, the official Catholic Church upholds the right of a person to follow the religion of his/her choice. In Dignitatis Humanae (DH), the Vatican II document on religious liberty, the following is stated: “The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others”(DH 2).
Although the Catholic Church and her members are convinced of the truth of the Christian faith, they are obliged to uphold the right of all to follow the religion of their choice. In fact, after Vatican II, some predominantly Catholic countries were obliged to change their laws in order to offer all their citizens the freedom to practise and profess publicly the religion of their choosing.
But it has taken centuries for the Catholic Church to change her attitude to other religions and accord them recognition and respect. In the fifteenth century a Council of the Church could still assert that no one who remained outside the Catholic Church, “not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics or schismatics” could partake of eternal life. This view was the logical outcome of the oft-repeated position: “outside the Church there is no salvation”.
For the first time in 20 centuries, the Church clearly recognised God’s presence in the lives of those who did not belong to the Catholic confession.
Today, the official Church does not teach that the unbaptised are lost. In fact, the Church accepts that God saves persons even when they are not found within the visible confines of the Church. Among the many new teachings that Vatican II offered, the one found in Lumen Gentium (LG), a document specifying the nature of the Church, has been of particular significance for grasping how salvation comes to persons who are not members of the Catholic Church.
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (LG 16).
We can rightly conclude that the teaching from Vatican Council II viewed the relationship between Christianity and other religions as positive and beneficial. Secondly, such teaching admitted that persons outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church could be saved. Thirdly, the Council acknowledged the God–given right of every person to choose and follow his/her own religion.
In the light of the official teaching that was enunciated in Vatican II, an understandable surprise greeted the appearance of the Declaration Dominus Iesus (DI). Was DI aimed at the Indian theologians, as Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, suggested? No, one is quite sure. The document claims that it does not teach anything new, but merely presents “the principal truths of the Catholic faith” in areas where “confused or erroneous ideas and opinions” are found.
Can a Catholic discern positive and helpful elements in such a document? He/she can, for DI is an official pronouncement of the Catholic Church having “a universal magisterial nature”. For instance, DI underlines the obligation of the Catholic to share his/her Christian experience of God with all those who look for it. This has always been a legitimate concern of the Catholic Church although it has sometimes used objectionable means to achieve the end.
DI also reminds the Catholic that Jesus Christ remains the central focus for the Christian and the ultimate norm for his/her way of life. DI rightly questions a lackadaisical approach to religion that looks for the lowest common denominator in appreciating the merits of one religion from those of another.
Seriousness in the matter of choosing one’s religion is expected of a person who is making a faith commitment to God. DI asks Catholics to respect the contents of the Church’s faith when fashioning responses to the pressing needs of contemporary culture (DI 3).
Yet, one wonders why DI portrays the sharing of the Christian experience of God only from the standpoint of the mission texts found in Mark 16:15-16 and Matthew 28:18-20 (no. 1). These texts conjure up visions of colonial conquests and campaigns of the conquistadors! Would not such sharing be better illustrated by listing references in Matthew 5:13-14, where the Christian is called to be the salt that seasons or the light illumining the world; or Matthew 25:34-40, which points out that service to the needy makes one a member of God’s kingdom; or John 13:35, where Jesus proclaims that loving another person is a sign of being his disciple?
One can also agree that a believer finds the religion of his/her choice uniquely suitable for making his/her faith commitment and consequently for obtaining salvation.
Mother Teresa made this point very correctly when she said: “I like all religions but I am in love with my own.” Hence, for the Christian, Jesus Christ is unique and makes a total claim on him/her.
But it is not clear how one can view beliefs present in religions other than Christianity as the product of mere human effort (DI 7). And yet, DI itself concedes that God “does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expressions even when they contain “gaps, insufficiencies and errors’” (no. 8). Further, DI would need to justify its claim that the “followers of other religions” even if they can receive divine grace “are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of means of salvation” (DI 22). It is difficult to understand why DI would want to make such pronouncements about the religion of another.
The Catholic in India is deeply committed to the person of Jesus as found in the apostolic faith of the Church. But he/she is also aware of God’s presence in the other religions that must be respected and reverenced. This awareness is the fruit of firsthand experience from living with those of other religions.
The task of the Indian Church is to proclaim the Christian experience as a response to the real needs of people. The Church must not give cause to view this task as a threat to other religions. Hence, Catholic theologians in India living in the midst of religious pluralism continue to theologise in a way that is truly Christian and authentically Indian.
The Church’s official teaching today cannot go back on what was proclaimed and promulgated in Vatican Council II. Whatever be the misgivings that occur because of the style and expression in DI, those of other faiths must know that the spirit of religious dialogue enkindled in Vatican Council II cannot be extinguished.
Colleges and Vocational Training Schools (Total: 292)
(Catholic Church –182, Church of South India-28, The Lutheran Churche-24, The Church of North India-34, The Methodist Church – 17, The Mar Thoma Church – 6, The Seventh-day Adventist Church – 1)
Junior Colleges (Total: 170)
(Catholic Church – 168, The Seventh-Day Adventist Church – 2)
Secondary and Higher Secondary Schools (Total: 3,614)
(The Catholic Church – 3,074, The Church of South India – 203, The Lutheran Church – 92, The Church of North India – 193, The Mar Thoma Church – 29, The Seventh-day Adventist Church – 15, The Salvation Army – 8)
Pre-Primary and Primary Schools and Village Schools (Total: 11,801) (The Catholic Church – 8,733, The Church of South India – 1,896, The Luteran Church – 484, The Church of North Church – 198, The Mar Thoma Church – 135, The Salvation Army – 102)
Technical Training, Industrial and Agricultural Schools (Total: 1,127) (The Catholic Church – 1053, The Church of South India – 65, The Lutheran Church – 2, The Church of North India – 26, The Mar Thoma Church – 7)
Teacher Training Schools (Total: 15) (The Church of South India – 12, The Lutheran Church – 3)
Training College (Total:1) (The Lutheran Church – 1)
Day and Boarding Schools (Total:108) (The Methodist Church – 108)
Lower Schools (Total: 150) (The Seventh-Day Adventist Church – 150)
SOCIAL WELFARE INSTITUTIONS
Hostels (Total: 3,403). (The Catholic Church – 2719, The Church of South India – 338, The Church of North India – 158, The Luteran Church – 110, The Methodist Church – 50, The Salvation Army – 18, The Mar Thoma Church – 10)
Orphanages (Total: 1,645)
(The Catholic Church – 1,320, The Church of South India – 282, The Luthean Church – 33, The Mar Thoma Church – 10)
Dispensaries (Total: 1,875). (The Catholic Church – 1716, The Church of South India – 109, The Church of North India – 11, The Lutheran Church – 19, The Salvation Army – 20)
Primary, Community and Rural Health Centres (Total: 49) (The Lutheran Church – 15, The Seventh-day Adventist Church – 34)
Hospitals (Total: 883). (The Catholic Church – 679, The Church of South India – 67, The Church of North India – 54, The Lutheran Church – 29, The Methodist Church – 8, The Salvation Army – 16, The Mar Thoma Church – 18 The Seventh-day Adventist Church – 12)
Homes for the Aged and the Destitute (Total: 321). (The Catholic Church – 309, The Lutheran Church – 8, The Mar Thoma Church – 4)
Leprosaria (Total: 276) (The Catholic Church – 276)
Rehabilitation Centres — Leprosy (Total: 240) (The Catholic Church – 154, The Church of South India – 41, The church of North India – 11, The Lutheran Church – 3, The Methodist Church – 10, The Salvation Army – 13, The Mar Thoma Church – 8)
Natural Family Planning Centres (Total: 58) (The Catholic Church – 58)
Social Welfare Centres (Total: 279) (The Catholic Church – 276, The Mar Thoma Church – 3)
Creches (Total: 136) (The Church of South India – 136)
Adult Education Centres (Total: 4) (The Lutheran Church – 4)
Schools for the Blind (Total: 3) (The Lutheran Church – 3)
Social Service Centres (Total: 25) (The Methodist Church – 25)
Psychiatric Centre (Total: 1) (The Methodist Church – 1)
Children’s and Women’s Homes (Total: 41) (The Salvation Army – 41)
Employment Bureaus (Total: 36) (The Catholic Church – 36)
Farm Colonies (Total: 3) (The Salvation Army – 3)
Cooperative Societies and Banks (Total: 228) (The Catholic Church – 228).
Ramabai, a forceful woman from the 19th century, is missing from our history books simply because she she mounted a scathing critique of Brahmanical patriarchy . ‘Worse’, she converted to Christianity.
Why has the life and work of Ramabai and, more importantly, her critique of society been marginalised from mainstream history which otherwise is more than generous to the great men (and occasionally women) school of history? Ramabai had all the elements required for a ‘great’ character: she was articulate, learned, confident and forceful — a woman who got considerable media attention when she first burst upon the public arena in the 1870s.
Men of the nineteenth century, both reformists and traditionalists who had been waxing eloquent on the ‘glorious’ position of women in ancient India, suddenly found an embodiment of such womanhood in the person in Ramabai. Welcomed and feted in Calcutta in 1878–79, Ramabai was soon honoured with the title of ‘Saraswati’ for her learning and eloquence, not just in any ‘vernacular’ but in Sanskrit (from which women had been traditionally excluded) — an apt title that was soon to become ironic.
The goddess Saraswati is associated with learning but also with vac (speech or voice). Unfortunately, as Ramabai was to discover, unless this voice or speech tied into what men wanted to hear and what they themselves were saying, it was regarded as dissonant. Ramabai’s critique of Brahmanical patriarchy and her decisive break with its oppressive structure through her conversion to Christianity were too much for those for whom nationalism was synonymous with Hinduism. Ramabai became at best an embarrassment and at worst a betrayer.
Her marginalisation then is not the mere consequence of gender bias in history, although that certainly accounts for a part of it. It is not merely an obscuring, an invisibilising, as is commonly the case with women, but a suppression. Our task then is not just to retrieve forgotten histories but to explore the histories of suppression.
That Ramabai’s absence from dominant history is not a case of forgotten history but a case of suppression is evident from accounts of Annie Besant, whose life and work invariably find mention in any history of modern India. In many ways Annie Besant’s life was a counterpoint to that of Ramabai and was probably perceived as such.
Before Annie Besant came out to India she had been an active member of the women’s suffragette movement. Once she was in India she threw herself into the task of the spiritual and national regeneration of the country. The nation’s regeneration itself was inextricable from a revival of Hinduism. Within a few years of her arrival in India Annie Besant established herself as an outstanding revivalist of Hinduism in south India as she held forth vigorously on the ‘glories’ of ancient and modern Hinduism.
What is significant is that reform itself was irrelevant in her national and spiritual revivalist agenda. Hindu culture was ‘blessed’ in her view and needed no major changes. The chief target of her ridicule, especially in the late nineteenth century, was the social reformers whose influence she regarded as ‘debilitating.’ The impact she had was tremendous, the more so because here was a cultivated European woman outlining the virtues of Hinduism in all its facets as she besought Hindus to avoid the pitfalls of so-called western advancement and revere their own culture.
The newly constituted English–educated elite fraught with ambivalent feelings about themselves and their society found it most reassuring that a member of the ruling race was vigorously defending Hindu society. Annie Besant’s defence of Hindu society and civilisation enabled this class to exorcise any sense of guilt they might have especially in relation to the low status of women in their own families and in the wider community.
Further, as she idealised many controversial practices, including celibate widowhood by a refusal to sanction widow marriage, her sex, her eloquence, her antecedents and her nationality, all worked together to undermine the basis for social reform which a section of the educated elite had begun to recommend.
Over the years Annie Besant revised her position on reforms to some extent but continued to speak and write fervently about Hinduism, with nationalism and Hinduism being intertwined in her social and political agenda. Her approach to women’s issues remained cautious and in her later years she concentrated her energies on building up the Theosophical Society and on the Home Rule Movement.
Despite the changes in her position on the need for reform Annie Besant continued to be associated in the minds of men with her pleas for a revival of Hinduism and for the foundation of nationalism as lying in Hinduism — ‘Without Hinduism there is no future for India,’ as she put it?
An important facet of Annie Besant’s career both in England and in India is that like Ramabai’s it was deeply controversial. But what needs to be noted is that unlike Ramabai, in the final analysis, the controversies around Annie Besant were not of the kind incapable of being accommodated within the dominant nationalist discourse in history, whereas in the case of Ramabai this appears to have been impossible.
Ramabai crossed two Lakshman rekhas: first, she mounted a scathing critique of Brahmanical patriarchy at a time when even contemporary male reformers were shying away from confronting its structure; second, as a high–caste Hindu widow herself, she ‘chose’ to become a Christian, ‘betraying’ her ‘religion’ and thereby her ‘nation’ in the eyes of nineteenth century Hindu society. Not just that, she had led other high-caste Hindu widows to do likewise.
Ramabai’s choice represented an audacious challenge to men: a widow was regarded in nineteenth century Maharashtra as someone who should retreat into the dark spaces even within the confines of the home. That such women could choose to accept a new religion and a break with the faith of their kinsfolk was seen as outrageous. Henceforth Ramabai symbolised a threat to the moral and social order of the kind of nationalism being forged by Hindu nationalists.
It was not without reason that Ramabai was regarded as having betrayed the nation; such a label masked the power relations which determined what the political and social agenda within nationalism should be. It was not an agenda which could include a critique of patriarchy, or of Hindu social institutions and religious practices, when it was voiced by a woman publicly and one who had opted out of the faith and customary practices of her ancestors.
The difference in the way in which Ramabai and Annie Besant have figured in historical writing in both the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as now indicates that there has been an easy conflation not only of nationalism with Hinduism but more importantly of Christianity with colonialism. There is a latent assumption that in opting for Christianity Ramabai and others had accepted the religion of the rulers and had therefore become ‘compradors’ and were complicit with the colonial presence.
Such an assumption is both simplistic and motivated. The mere existence of a relationship between Christianity and colonialism is not enough to treat Christianity automatically as the handmaiden of colonialism. That there were some shared ideological positions is evident but it needs to be noted that there were also major moments and points of tension between the colonial administration and the Christian missionaries.
More importantly, for those who were potential or actual ‘converts’ were Christianity and colonialism the same thing? Did acceptance of Christianity mean the acceptance of colonial relationship or of western dominance over indigenous people? There is no reason to accept such assumptions without an analysis, which has hardly been undertaken, of the many facets of Christianity in India. It is unlikely that such a lacuna is likely to be filled in the near future given the obsession with ‘colonial discourse’ which is currently dominating historical scholarship.
Practitioners of discourse analysis are unwilling to explore pre-colonial structures or to dismantle colonialism itself into its constituent elements. In practice, therefore, such a view ties in with the agenda of Hindu nationalism both in the past and in the present.
(From the preface to The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai, By Uma Chakravarti, Kali for Women, 1998).
Ruth Manorama, herself a part of the Dalit Christian Liberation movement and founder of Women’s Voice and the Dalit Women’s Federation, Bangalore, spoke to Teesta Setalvad on the issue of caste within the Indian church and the un-addressed plight of Dalit Christians.
What about the question of Dalit Christians and women among them?
Of the 20 million Christians in India today, some 160–170 million are Dalits. However, the power within the Church still lies with the upper castes that control all the institutions of better education. So, it is true in a sense that the Church in large part has remained within the control of the upper castes.
Has conversion of Dalits to Christianity liberated them significantly from their earlier plight?
The legacy of the missionaries has alleviated large sections of the most marginalised sections but the endogamy within the Church has remained. Progressive forces from the Christian Dalit liberation movement — of which I am a part — have been working hard to revolutionise the Church and reaffirm its missionary zeal which has always been present in service and justice, not just for the rich but also, for the poor.
However, while critiquing the Church we must always remember that the critical mass of the Church’s functionaries have always worked guided by the philosophy of love and justice. That is part of their faith, as they understand it, guiding them to areas no one else goes.
In the field of education, health and other social sectors, Christian contribution is enormous. In running thousands of institutions for the aged, the infirm, leprosy homes, child-care homes and homes for single women, women’s hostels, too.
For the missionaries who are dedicated to this service, imparting education and running educational institutions itself is evangelism, running a hospital is itself an act of evangelism, going to far-off areas and setting up a health clinic, is evangelism. And for them, the love of Jesus has shown them this way.
Besides, there is a lot of dialectic within the Church. Do you know that women and men within the CSI and Lutheran and Anglican churches have struggled for the right to get women ordained as priests? Today, the Lutheran and Anglican churches in India have ordained their women. This has not happened in the Catholic Church, unfortunately. It is within the Catholic Church, especially, that nuns and sisters need to be liberated from the hierarchy that is rigid and often unsympathetic to their dedication.
The dedication of these nuns is second to none. They go to remote areas where not even a mosquito would go, driven by their mission, giving education and health services to sections are the most uncared for. But the Church that ought to be providing the necessary shield and umbrella is being defensive. The Church needs to stand up and talk the truth and speak out, openly. It needs to awaken, show more solidarity to its sections that are being threatened. It is time for the church to stand up.
You began your career working within the Church but have now moved to more radical pastures…
I began my career working within the church institutions, by getting trained in community organisations, imbibing the radical methodology of Soul D’Alinsky, and later the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire — to conscientise the poor for the their liberation.
While students in the Christian schools were initiated to involve themselves in services of the less fortunate, many of the theologians and activists within the Church were inspired not only by the scriptures but also by a Marxian analysis of society. This coincided with the time when our country was also pursuing the Russian model of socialism.
The liberation theology pursued by the radical Indian churches in the seventies and eighties has inspired many young people of the time. It also helped us to ask the Church very uncomfortable sections related to position, status, power and sharing of resources, distribution of resources and wealth.
Where does the Dalit Christian issue stand today?
The issue of reservations for Dalit Christians remains a key issue when we are struggling for liberation. There is no difference at all between the conditions of the Dalit poor and the Christian poor. Our real task is to get the discriminatory Presidential order of 1950 repealed. Why is the Church evading this critical issue that is important to 75 per cent of Indian Christians?
Would you say that conversion to Christianity has met the expectations of the sections that converted to escape the scourge of caste and untouchability?
Conversion has liberated large sections from the scourge of untouchability, yes. However, it is also a fact that in many parts of India, the Church itself could not escape the clutches of the Hindu caste system. Which is why we have the Syrian Christians, the Goa Brahmin Christians, and grossly discriminatory practices within the Church. Why? Because the Church did not take it’s own theology very seriously, and also because it was not able, or did not want, to address the deep-rootedness of the scourge of caste. After the missionaries left, sections of the Indian Church got sucked into the caste system that catered only to the rich.
Are there attempts within the church to rectify this?
This is now being analysed and addressed, thanks in so small part to the Dalit Christian liberation movement. What we must not forget, however, is that many Hindus converted themselves to various religions to escape the agony of the dreaded, treacherous caste system and the agony of untouchability. Conversion was and is the most available form of awakening for the most downtrodden in the Indian context.
Internally, these large conversions brought a lot of problems to the Church because the new converts, the idealistic pastors, began asking questions, demanding radical and more equitable approaches from within the Church itself.
The conversion issue is being whipped up by communal outfits in the context of brutal attacks on Christian religious persons and institutions. As a Dalit Christian what do you have to say on the issue of conversion?
Even in the face of these brutal attacks and violence led by communal forces, the Church should not be defensive on the issue of conversion. It is still the way out of oppression for hundreds of thousands of our people.
Look, it is the sheer humanity and stupendous success behind the work of Indian Christian institutions that motivates the current attacks. The Church should resist these attacks and speak out firmly. Christian schools and institutes of higher education are producing the best minds, leaders in their fields. Besides, education in Christian institutions comes with a life ethic of caring, justice and compassion that is missing elsewhere.
The Church is afraid to speak out but why should it be? Under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, you have the right to practice and propagate your religion; this is part of individual freedom and personal liberty and it cannot be taken away. Put this in the context of the Indian socio-economic reality where caste is the major source of lived discrimination; if our work by it’s mandate take us to these sections whom no one is looking at, why should we be defensive?
The Church is being unnecessarily defensive. The role of the church has been decisive, it has been a major contributive factor in the building of our nation and it should assert this as such. The Indian Christian has not been committed to anything other than peace and justice.
I honestly believe that missionaries have done more for women’s education in this country than government itself. The women population of this country has been placed under a deep debt of gratitude to the several missionary agencies for their valuable contribution to the educational uplift of Indian women. Of course, at present India can boast of several other religious bodies such as the Brahmo Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, Arya Samaj, etc., doing work in the field of women’s education, but in the past the Christian missionaries were the only agencies in that field… Had it not been for these noble bands of Christian women teachers, who are the products of missionary training schools, even this much advancement in the education of the Indian women would not have been possible; even to this day, in every province, we find the missionary women teachers working hard in a spirit of love and faith, in out-of-the-way villages, where Hindu and Muslim women dare not penetrate.
— Dr. (Mrs.) Muthulakshmi Reddi, in her presidential address to the All–India Women’s Conference in January 1931.
Being a mission school we had a Bible class every morning which nobody minded attending even though the bulk of the students were Hindus. I happened to be a good student of the Bible and carried away many Bible prizes. This fact, and the fact that I was good in English made me a favourite of the Principal. Even in those days, however, there used to be scare-stories about missionaries trying to convert students to Christianity. I remember a wholly unfounded report having reached my parents that some of the teachers were trying to convert me into a Christian!
— Motilal C. Setalvad, first attorney general of India, in his autobiography, My Life — Law and Other Things)
Christian schools have been able to inject a large number of non–Christians with a sense of dedication and commitment to education. That has been a very major contribution. Commitment to education that comes from commitment to scholarship is a good thing. But when it comes from a stronger motive, like service to society or religion or God, I think the commitment is raised to an entirely different level altogether; and such commitment is what you have been able to achieve for a number of years and to communicate to others.
— JP Naik, eminent educationist and a former educational advisor to the government of India.
Logic and reason, and even the most elementary notion of fair play should defy the grand lie. If the lie holds it’s own against lived experience, reason, and the harsh reality of statistics, there must be ‘good reason’ for its tenacity. If hysteria governs its currency, an emotion of unreason clouds clear–thinking and honest responses, the lie has hit upon an emotional chord or bed of support, however perverted. The kind of emotion that helps perpetuate the lie.
The grand lie that I speak of — and we have as a nation been piteous victim to a series of small and big lies over the last two decades or so — is the one unleashed against Christian institutions. It is alleged that the insidious intent of ‘conversion’ is the sole reason why, in the service of their Lord, Jesus, Christians travel to regions ignored and neglected, to people forgotten and even brutalised, to educate, to nurse, to cure and to comfort — all with the missionary zeal that has come to be associated with their life–long work.
The lie took its toll in the past, too. But it has achieved unsurpassed success in the past five years or so, with chilling violence of varied kinds being used against Christians. This despite the dogged service that these women and men of faith continue to perform. We have as a nation allowed the burning of Bibles and the desecration of churches, just as a 400–year–old mosque was demolished to lay the foundation for mass violence against others in our midst. Worse, nuns and priests have been killed and terrorised, sexual violence, too, used to ram home the message.
All these assaults have taken cover under the grand lie. Why do I call it the grand lie?
We need to face our own shame and recognise that based on religion and scripture and the cultures and traditions that have evolved from these, we have created and allowed different levels of denials.
Consider this. As we enter the third millennium of human civilisation, as calculated by the Christian calendar, Christians of various denominations in India, totalling not more than 2.3 per cent of the entire population, are responsible for 25 per cent of the social services provided in the country. Consider this. Forty per cent of the total social work by NGOs undertaken in the country is undertaken by Christian institutions alone.
Consider also this. The UN Human Development Report, 2000, ranks India abysmally low in human development — at 128 out of 174 countries in the world. Low life expectancy (people not expected to survive beyond 40), high levels of adult illiteracy, deprivation in economic provisioning, counted by the percentage of people lacking access to health services, safe water and social inclusion (employment is one indicator) are the areas where Indian governance has failed it’s own people.
A decade–old UNESCO figure tells us that we had 370 million illiterates amongst us. Literacy rates among women of all classes, castes and communities are lower than those of men; other figures of the vast disparities or differences between the opportunities and privileges available to one section as opposed to another tell their own tale:
For example, in India, the illiteracy rate among the scheduled tribes (about 7 per cent of our total population) is 70 per cent compared to 48 per cent for the country as a whole. What does this mean? That, whereas nearly half of all Indians are today denied the basic right to education, among scheduled tribes who live in remote and far flung areas, the deprivation is far higher.
What else does this mean? That, the buzzword on development and progress notwithstanding, we need to dig deeper behind the cold comfort of numbers and see their social relevance. We need to face our own shame and recognise that based on religion and scripture and the cultures and traditions that have evolved from these, we have created and allowed different levels of denials.So that the poor and marginalised oppressed castes, were and still are subjected to inhuman levels of spiritual, physical and material denials; long–forgotten tribes who are the original, pre–Hindu inhabitants of this land were and are rendered even more illiterate; our women, whether Brahman to ‘atishudra’ or ‘mleccha’, were and are not only kept away from education and attendant empowerment, but also subjected to violent abuse, within the family and outside.
We do not, however, rise as a people in anger and shame even while these figures and searing tales of humiliation and cruelty stare us in the face. We are not outraged when the current–day perpetuators of the big lie travel long distances to perform ghar vapsi (return to the home) rites on children, women and men from whom their own forefathers have snatched land, food and shelter for centuries. And then, having forced the re-conversion on the tribal people, and unconcerned about issues like food, education, health and empowerment), say they will construct separate temples for them to pray!
Within this larger sphere of material and spiritual disparity, present day statistics and our history of the past centuries, lies embedded the contribution of Christian individuals and institutions, of varied denominations but all driven by the message of Christ — in building schools to educate girls as well as boys, in reaching inaccessible areas and holding out a caring hand to sections brutalised and excluded by scriptural faith and certainly by living tradition.
It was inevitable that the mission of Christians in India would take them where the Indian establishment, still shackled by caste–bound prejudice, dithers and even after Independence, gingerly refuses to tread. To provide succour and to empower the poor, the tribal, the Dalit, the women.
We turn a blind eye to both realities. And both denials together make up the grand lie. The first is the collective denial of present human development figures that stare us in the face and which are linked to the historical denial of opportunity and fair play to large sections of our population in the past. The second denial is our refusal to recognise the contribution of Christian institutions.
The second denial is indeed linked to the first because it is in the arenas of these past and present day inequities and injustices that Christian individuals and institutions have located their work, their mandate being to work for the most marginalised and underprivileged. To deny the existence of disparity now, and historically, is to deny Christian contribution, then and now, and to claim that its all nothing but convenient cover for conversion. To accept their role is to face our moral and cultural poverty, the rank injustice and marginalisation that we have perpetuated on sections of our people. To accept their role is to nail the grand lie.
It was inevitable that the mission of Christians in India would take them where the Indian establishment, still shackled by caste–bound prejudice, dithers and even after Independence, gingerly refuses to tread.
We have heard so much in recent years about the offensive language contained in the Minute of Macaulay (March 7, 1835). But what we refuse to accept is that elementary and higher education came in through different Christian missions long before the colonially driven and objectionable Macaulay edict, that spoke brazenly about the promotion of European literature and science among the people of India, and that referred to the indigenous people as persons of inferior (heathen) status.
There was a St Francis Xavier who trailed the path in elementary education by exhorting companions to build a school in every village next to which a church was built; today Christian schools number 11,801 (pre–primary, primary and village level); secondary and higher secondary schools total 3,614!
Since as early as the 16th century, several Christian colleges have existed in western and southern India. These colleges were not only in the business of education, but they also created fine libraries and collected archival material valuable for oriental knowledge. Missionaries who set up these institutions of education got engaged and embroiled in the land they came to inhabit. The tracts on biological species, the first dictionaries in many Indian languages, the singular contribution to indigenous dialects, are some of the fruits of that engagement.
It was the Scottish mission, begun in South Konkan in 1822, that inspired the young, Jyotiba Phule, a radical mind from the region of current–day Maharashtra, who was a strong critique of the Hindu caste system in the 19th century. Pandita Ramabai, a Brahmin widow who chose conversion to Christianity as a means of emancipation from the persecution and drudgery of life as a Hindu widow, gave her testimony before the Education Commission in 1882. Official estimates of the time stated that one hundred million women were uneducated, with both Hindu and Muslim traditions historically denying women these rights. Included in this were girls, married women and, worst of all, widows who were subjected to humiliation and denied the dignity of living autonomous lives.
Testifying before the commission, Ramabai had remarked that in ninety–nine cases out of a hundred the educated men of the country were opposed to female education and the proper position of women. It was of little use to build schools without girls to fill them, or without a staff of female teachers. The teaching profession for women was thought to be incompatible with womanly modesty, she had said.
As far back as 1823, the Church of England Missionary Society ran 23 girls’ schools in Calcutta. In 1824, the American Mission opened the first school for girls in Bombay, a school that, incidentally, was open to children of all castes. The threat of the democratising processes that these contributions unleashed are undoubtedly behind the violent resistance to their work, then and now.
In South India, too, it was the missions who pioneered women’s education — the first university college, the first medical school and the first training college for women — the Sarah Tucker College, Palamcottah, the Christian Medical College, Vellore in 1918 and St Christopher’s Training College, Madras in 1923 were set up by them.
In failing to nail the grand lie, we deny not just our past but also present day Indian reality. A few weeks ago, the RSS chief KS Sudarshan demanded, if you please, the ‘Indianisation’ of the church in India. It needs a great lie to hide the truth of the Church’s engagement with the marginalised people of India who are perceived by some as the real ‘problem’ of India.
It is not my intention to uncritically glorify the role of the Church in India. It is definitely my intention to challenge the insidious attempt to deny and dismiss decades, even centuries, of compassion and commitment with a grand lie.
In his late 30s, Narayan Ananthakrishnan, a father of two, was suddenly faced with a medical emergency. He had to undergo a brain surgery at less than 24 hours notice. Which hospital should he choose? Guided by his neuro–surgeon, who consulted with three such institutions, Narayan opted for the low–key Holy Family Hospital at Bandra, Mumbai. Recalling those harrowing weeks, in conversation with Communalism Combat, during which his life hung in the balance, Narayan has warm memories of an institution that lived upto it’s calling — caring for a patient with dignity and compassion.
It was all such a shock. I was not even aware that I was bleeding in my brain. I merely felt an acute pain on the top of my eyes that was unbearable when I went in for the MRA scan. The diagnosis indicated that there was severe bleeding on both sides of my brain and I had to be operated upon immediately.
It all happened within the space of a few hours actually. I left home at around 9 a.m. in June 1999, went through the MRA scan and by 12.30 the diagnosis was known. Things moved at lightning speed after that because there was no time to be wasted. My brother–in–law, a doctor, helped me identify and contact a neurologist, Dr RD Gursani, immediately. There were two options before me in the choice of hospital (to which my neuro–surgeon, Dr Harshad Parikh is attached) since the third, the Hinduja hospital, was beyond our budget.
It was to be either Nanavati or Holy Family Hospital at Bandra. None of us were in favour of Nanavati. Faced with a critical operation upon which my life depended, we chose Holy Family because essentially I am a God–fearing person and we felt that being a Christian hospital, Holy Family Hospital, too, would at least be God–fearing!
It didn’t bother me which God or which religion. First of all, I had faith in the doctor recommended to me who consulted there. Secondly, though I am a Hindu it does not bother me which God or which religion I see in front of me. Be it a Muslim place of worship, a Christian one or a temple. It is the home of God.
I was in the hospital for just under two weeks. The nuns used to make their rounds, the father would come every single morning, check on how I was and ask, “How are you, son?” He would then bless me and say, “Don’t worry, son”. The first time he blessed me was on the morning that my operation was scheduled.
You see, I was under severe stress and pain. It was a critical operation. Soon after the surgery that lasted over four hours, the surgeon came and told my wife, Geeta, “Whichever God it is you pray to, go and thank him. Thank him that your husband is safe. The amount of blood that I have removed from his brain, it was not in my hands to save him. I operate with the same sincerity on all my patients. He survived because of God.”
For the first few days there was unbearable pain, so bad that I could not open my eyes. But my entire treatment there, the handling by the staff, the operative and post–operative care was impeccable. I had no complaints. Post–operative care in my case was especially important since I am diabetic. My blood sugar needs to be tested three to four times a day and the staff did not need to be reminded even one time.
I was in a non–AC room with two beds, but my room and the whole hospital was spotlessly clean, the atmosphere calm and all the rooms spacious and airy. The staff responded immediately to the bells by the side of every patient. The floors, the tables and the toilets were kept scrupulously clean. The staff is well–trained and conscientious about injections and cleaning wounds, the sort of thing that is vital for a hospital.
The whole ambience and atmosphere of this hospital was enriched by the church just across. Patients can hear the mass as it is conducted and this is very soothing, you know. I noticed this only on the fourth and fifth day because the first three days were a living hell with the kind of pain I had to undergo.
The strange thing is that after my operation, we heard so many people bad–mouthing Holy Family Hospital because it is a charitable hospital and so on! I find this ironical because my treatment there by the staff from the ward boy to the nurses was faultless. What struck me most was that there was no indifference in their behaviour towards me. Be it someone in the general ward or the first class ward, they treated every patient with the same concern and care.
Every time my father visited me in the hospital he would say, “Whenever you are feeling sad and afraid, just look up there to the photograph of Jesus Christ. Just look at him and he will save you.
Some things from my harrowing experience have left a lasting impression. I have been to a number of hospitals. My father has been admitted two–three times for operations; we have even admitted him to the Ramkrishna Mission hospital that is also a charitable hospital. But there is a vast difference between the two hospitals. In the atmosphere, the treatment of patients, the caring and dignity, cleanliness, there can be no comparison.
One thing I remember clearly about the Holy Family hospital was the strict adherence to rules. They would not budge from the visiting hours rule, no body was allowed after the permitted time! Even my own brother–in–law, who is a doctor, was not allowed to enter the operation theatre because
he had not taken prior permission from the surgeon. He finally had to approach the head of the department for the clearance. They were very strict about certain things which I think is not happening in all the hospitals and which is why standards are not being maintained.
My wife stayed with me most days. There was another strict rule of not allowing children into hospitals to guard against their picking up any infection. On the seventh or eighth day I approached the Father to give me special permission to let me see my children for just five minutes. I had been through a tough time, come out of it but not seen their faces. I promised that I would not even speak with them and finally they allowed them to come and see me.
The only thing that I remember on the negative side was their inability to register my request for a pure vegetarian meal, be it breakfast or lunch. I made repeated requests to the dietician but the request just would not register! It might sound facetious but once I find either egg or fish in the plate I just lose my appetite. But all things considered I feel that this was a relatively minor complaint.
Above all else, I got this efficient and considerate treatment at a decent and affordable rate. My total bill for a serious brain surgery and fourteen days of hospitalisation, including the surgeon’s charges (normally we have to pay doctors separately) amounted to Rs. 70,000. We must have spent another Rs.15–20,000 on medication and injections purchased from outside. Can you ever contemplate such reasonable treatment in a so–called private hospital?
Besides, no section of the staff was on the look out for tips every other day that has become the hapless norm in most hospitals in the city. From the man or woman who swept the floors to any other member of the staff, they did not accept tips.
I wanted to give them a donation in cash or kind before I left the hospital as a token of my appreciation but they simply refused. My father even spoke to the head sister in Malayalam explaining that what we wanted to give was a token of our appreciation for the institution but she simply said that their rules forbade her from accepting. “The fact that you recovered well is sufficient for us,” she told my father.
We all left the hospital, extremely happy. The greatest happiness of course was in my recovery itself from a critical and sudden brain surgery. Coupled with the warm treatment I received there.
Every time my father visited me in the hospital he would say, “Whenever you are feeling sad and afraid, just look up there to the photograph of Jesus Christ. Just look at him and he will save you.” The photograph of Jesus hung just above my hospital bed.
Xavier’s Social Service Society, Ahmedabad
Among the young and the middle aged of Ahmedabad, a city bitterly scarred by hate and venom, Father Ramiro Erviti has his band of followers and devotees. They maybe silent, afraid to speak out against the insanity and irrationality of hatred. But given a small opening, these young and not so young men speak highly of the man who tried to make them “Men for Others.”
This ability to reach out to the young and his great compassion for the poor drove Father Erviti, a Jesuit priest. He came to India in the early fifties leaving his native Basqueland in Spain and enrolled himself as a teacher at St. Xavier’s School, Ahmedabad.
Any project for the underprivileged living among the squalor of the slums in Ahmedabad today automatically draws in the institution set up by Father Ramiro Erviti, the St. Xavier’s Social Service Society (SXSSS), in October 1976. The institute was a direct response to the educational, health, organisational and environmental needs of poor and marginalised communities of the slums and villages of Gujarat.
For the young, energetic students who were privileged to know Fr Erviti for his ability to take them away from bookish knowledge to the real and experimental, he is missed for the rock climbing and mountaineering courses for the youth, both rich and poor. His successful expeditions to Hanuman Tibba in the Himalayas are talked of with nostalgia. Fr. Erviti’s love for the environment arose not only because of an appreciation of the beauty of nature; he also wanted to do something about the rampant destruction of the environment. So, wherever he could, he began social afforestation programmes, encouraged children to grow trees, save water and protect the environment.
However, it was the way in which he reached out to the poor and marginalised of the slums and villages of Gujarat — week after week he took batches of students to visit the slums, the leprosy hospital, the government hospitals, and the villages around — that was exceptional. He believed that our ability to listen to the poor and the suffering was an integral part of education. He hoped that being sensitised, the students would one day become not merely benefactors, but agents of social change.
Whenever any natural or manmade disaster struck, Fr. Erviti was always there, with a dedicated band of students, colleagues and well-wishers, equipped with tonnes of material help. When thousands were affected during the floods in the River Sabarmati in Ahmedabad or the River Narmada in South Gujarat earlier, during the Morbi dam burst; or during communal riots which rocked Ahmedabad so frequently, relief and rehabilitation was always Fr. Erviti’s top priority.
After setting up the SXSSS, under his inspiration and guidance, a group of young architects and other professionals, came together to form the Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG). The floods of 1973 on the River Sabarmati washed away the hutments of thousands of slum dwellers who lived on the banks of the River Sabarmati. Thanks to the initiatives of Fr. Erviti and the expertise of ASAG — thousands of those rendered homeless were rehabilitated in a unique project called ‘Sanklitnagar’.
Work initially began in Sanklitnagar and then spread to other slums of the city. Around that time, Fr. Erviti also reached out to thousands of adivasi migrants who came to Ahmedabad in search of work. He was instrumental in helping them start an organisation for themselves.
Fr Erviti met with an untimely death — due to dehydration, exhaustion and other internal complications — while on a mountaineering expedition. Fifteen years after his death, however, as it nears its Silver Jubilee, SXSSS still continues in the tradition set by its founder, with greater zeal and enthusiasm. It is involved today in 20 slum settlements and in several rural areas. Its work focuses on advocacy and human rights with a strong bias on the promotion of communal harmony, justice and peace.
I do not think that I can ever de–link myself from the influence of my formative years spent in the cradle of that whole culture with the Salesian priests and their commitment to the education system. The institution that they ran with caring and a deep sense of values, the grooming I got to grow into the kind of person that I am today. All that is part of the unconscious. Something that I carry wherever I go.
This experience goes with me, colours my vision, influences the way I look at things, at the world, the way I act, react and think. It is part of the collective unconscious, in the bloodstream, in the marrow of my bones.
We have millions in this country who are a product of these missionary schools. I grew up with the saga of Mary and Jesus inside of me. My mother, a Shia Muslim, took me to seven churches, every Friday, the month of Lent.
And I was very happy that I came to know of Jesus and his way of looking at the world at Bosco. That whole dimension that is deep inside me was perhaps imbibed from my days at Bosco. The way of looking at things, celebrating Christmas, after which comes the month of Lent, followed by Easter. In many ways I am a truly Christian boy.
Through all my growing up years I never ever felt that a faith was being forced upon me. There was a clear distinction made between the Catholic boys who had to attend Catechism classes while non–Christians learnt had to attend moral science classes. Christianity was never paraded, never imposed. There was not even the faintest such streak among the priests or teachers. The teachers, too, never put especial emphasis on anything ‘Christian’. This harmful propaganda is petty paranoia on our part.
In any case, if Jesus is injected in my consciousness it is not going to disempower me. There are many highs in Christianity that you can draw from. Jesus as a person had a unique way of looking at things. A life assertive outlook, compassion and conscience, who’s appeal is not limited to Christians alone.
The concept of Santa Claus lives on for my children. It is a fairy tale from which all of us are rudely awakened as life dishes out its offerings, but all of us need to keep the concept alive for the young, for the next generation. We should all play Santa Claus till we are rudely woken up!
Now this is something I inherited from my Christian upbringing. And I am grateful for my mother for having chosen to send me to a missionary school.
I owe my formative years to them. Bosco has contributed to my being what I am and I am thankful for the teachers and fathers for being so caring, tolerant and patient with me. I was a troublesome boy, not easy to handle. I was an anti–power and anti-authority kind of guy. But they showed me tolerance and compassion.
We also, by the way, had the best church built through my school that was completed during my school days. It was, and possibly still is, one of the best churches that we have. The marble for it came from Italy. We had some great and meaningful times in that church; I used to go inside and spend long hours. We used to play on the rocks and stone slabs.
Even though I left school many years ago, over the past 20 years or so, since I became a film maker, I have kept visiting and re–visiting the spot, the Church for shootings.
Now, you only revisit what is pleasurable and memorable and my memories of years at Bosco are nothing but that. That upbringing has also made enormous contribution to me as a person, a creative artist and this lasting impression manifests itself in my films, in my work.
Mukta Jeevan Hospital, Shahpur
Ninety kilometres from Mumbai, in Shahpur taluka near the powerloom town of Bhiwandi, 13 nuns from The Helpers of Mary congregation work tirelessly at the Mukta Jeevan hospital and rehabilitation centre “to give people a second life and chance”.
About 300 persons, who are victims of the Hansen disease (most of us know them as ‘leprosy’ patients or ‘lepers’), apart from children of HIV positive parents, who are also innocent victims of the incurable disease, are cared for with dignity and respect. The complex also provides a roof to senior citizens discarded by their families and ignored by society.
As a centre for leprosy patients, the MJH believes in liberating life from leprosy through modern scientific medicine, from deformity through reconstructive surgery and from hopelessness through counselling.
While mass at the central chapel that forms the backdrop of the complex is a regular affair open to all, the evening bhajans, where a mixture of devotional songs in Marathi and Hindi are sung, is where all the participants join in every evening.
Over 90 per cent of the persons living at the Mukta Jeevan complex are non–Christians; a small and caring haven in Shahpur since 1987. Regular benefactors from different communities deposit clothes, grain and other gifts in kind both at Diwali and Christmas.
At the height of the current hate campaign against Christian institutions last year, the marriage by Vedic rites of Baliram Ganchak (32) and Laxmi Jeevan (28) made headline news in the national press. “Souls meet, faiths marry at Shahpur hospice” was how one news report colourfully described how 12 Christian nuns helped arrange the ritual at which the nervous couple took the plunge as a pundit chanted his shlokas, standing shoulder to shoulder with the guests as they sprinkled the holy akshata on the couple.
“We believe that everyone is a child of God, not a Hindu, Muslim or Christian. And we also need to remember that just because someone has leprosy the need to love and be loved is not diminished.’’
“The nuns are like parents to me,’’ Laxmi, the bride had then told the media. Little surprise then that it was the nuns who performed the kanyadaan. Established by the Helpers of Mary in 1987, the Vehloli centre (more home than hospice) has till date treated 85,748 out–patients and 2,116 in–patients.
The Helpers of Mary, which works with people from various sections of society, runs 46 centres countrywide, 19 of them in Mumbai. Three of these are homes for leprosy patients.
Says sister Leela, “We believe that everyone is a child of God, not a Hindu, Muslim or Christian. And we also need to remember that just because someone has leprosy the need to love and be loved is not diminished.’’
Like most of the others at the centre, Baliram and Laxmi have nowhere to else go. Says Sr Leela, “We try to send them back home as far as possible because re–integrating them with their families and communities is the best thing after they’re cured. But this is impossible for many of them as they are destitute and homeless.”
Which is why the centre, which has two 76–bed wards for men and women respectively, is a permanent home to several patients who have long since been cured. Apart from the wards, the centre houses a hospital, where specialists from outside administer treatment. Every time a couple gets married, the nuns present the woman with a mangalsutra, a hamper, a few utensils and a home. The latter, which are furnished, unattached rooms, stand amid a riot of colours and greenery on sprawling grounds.
The cured leprosy patients are given job opportunities in an attached complex that houses a workshop, a weaving centre, welding centre, farm and garden, dairy farm and poultry. Young men who are cured are sent to the Nashik Leprosy Mission centre for training in driving, motor repair, printing and tailoring.
St. Catherine’s Home, Mumbai
In October 2000, film actress Sonali Bendre made news when she donated her Rs. 25 lakh cheque won at the Kaun Banega Crorepati television show to St. Catherine’s Home located in the northern Mumbai suburb of Andheri.
The simple signboard at the entrance of its premises is symbolic of the low profile institution housed within. This institution has been unobtrusively making significant contributions in the field of social welfare for the past 78 years. Their main focus has always been the two most vulnerable sections of our society — children and women.
St. Catherine’s Home’s humble beginnings can be traced back to the year 1922, when Ida Dickenson took the initiative to provide shelter to a group of homeless girls and to give them a chance to grow in an environment of love and care. Thereafter, the Bishop of Bombay requested the Daughters of the Cross to take over and continue the wonderful work of Ms. Dickenson.
In 1948, the institution moved to its current location. The original plot was a generous donation from Joseph Gomes of Amboli. Additional land was donated by one Mr. D’Mello, also of Amboli. Subsequently, adjoining plots of land were either donated or bought from various owners.
The institution has gradually specialised into social welfare with a special focus on the girl child. Today, the institution provides a home to over 320 children. It’s a place where they can grow up free from fear and want and learn to discover themselves and their potential as true human beings.
Firstly, there are the 19 children, aged two to 12 years, who have been born with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), many of whom have watched their parents die. These little ones were found at railway stations, abandoned, in pathetic conditions.
Crayon drawings on the walls, games strewn all around and the bustling Sister Shanti, always keeping the little ones company. Across an entire wall is a well–stocked medicine cabinet stocked with every kind of medicine, next to which is a birthday chart with beaming photos of the 19 children who live there.
“Birthdays are a big deal here. We celebrate each one as if it will be the child’s last — because it just might be,” says Sister Shanti. This is the Snehanilaya project, started in September 1996.
Shanti Sadan, which houses little abandoned children and St. Catherine’s School, which is run on the premises of the Home, has been around long before the Snehanilaya project. The school aims to provide a friendly environment for the children of the Home as well as for poor children from the neighbourhood.
The co–education Marathi medium school has over 1,750 children in its primary and secondary sections. Of these, over 1,500 children are from nearby slums and chawls. In March this year, the school achieved yet another landmark — 73% of it’s students cleared the SSC examination successfully.
The Karunankur project of the St Catherine’s Home, begun just a year ago, is an attempt to rehabilitate abused minors and young girls forced into prostitution. At present 12 girls are housed here.
Besides, the Home also provides shelter to unwed mothers in a special section named Vishvasthan. The Home’s medical staff provides assistance to these young women during their pregnancy and delivery and also gives them tips on how to take care of themselves and their children.
(The above piece is based on information from an article by Namita Devidayal in The Times of India and in the Blaze’s Newsletter).
Film Actress, Rajya Sabha MP, Social Activist
Shabana Azmi is a former student of Queen Mary’s, Mumbai. This is also the school where the former darling of the silver screen, Nargis, did her schooling from. While Nargis was rose to the eminence of being Head Girl of the School, Shabana didn’t because “I was far from Head Girl material, being a very naughty girl”. But she has very warm memories of the school that nurtured her in her formative years.
We had Psalms and hymns being sung in our school every morning. So, in that sense you could say that there was a Christian influence in the general sense. But at no point did I ever feel, nor was I ever made to feel that Christian religion was more important than mine. Never did I experience any feeling of suffocation by the Christian influence.
All festivals were observed or celebrated with equal gusto, all traditions were honoured and respected.
The sheer dedication of Christian institutions, and the women and men who run them, to education is tremendous.
The Irish lady who was the principal of Queen Mary’s when I was at school is now 84–years–old. But do you know, after retiring from the school, she did not go back to Ireland. Today, she is in a remote village in Tamil Nadu dedicated to the education of tribals. Apart from the fact that neither you nor I are doing this, casting aspersions on this commendable dedication to basic education, when hundreds of thousands of our children have no access to basic literacy, is both cynical and spurious.
The other thing I liked about my school was its commitment to an all round education. There were the ex tremely serious lessons on morals and values, you know, like, jhoot nahin bolna chahiye, khana kis tarah khana chahiye. I feel all this helped in moulding all of us into the persons that we are. Which is why I say without hesitation that I am the person who I am thanks to my school!
Each one of us greatly benefited from the outlook that was integral to education in our school. Marathi was given as much dedication and importance as French.
One approach that the school followed that has left a lasting influence on me is that, on principle, children from all classes were, admitted into the school. It was not a school of only the very rich or only the very poor. There was a genuine attempt at a policy of integration so that it did not become a typical, snooty, elite South Bombay school!
I remember so well that on our birthdays we were permitted to wear our birthday frocks instead of the uniform. But the only sweets that we were permitted to distribute among our classmates had to be the kind that all children could afford! None of us were allowed to distribute chocolate pastries, for example, simply because our parents could afford them.
A keen sense of justice and fairness dictated the approach and commitment to education. By the way, Nargis, the darling of the silver-screen in the past was Head Girl of the Queen Mary’s in the 1950s! I was far from being Head Girl material. In fact, I was not even a monitor but I loved every minute of my school days…
There was a lot of singing, dancing, encouragement of theatre and drama, the all round development of the child. It was not a school that concentrated on academics and academics alone. Which is why I loved my school!
While the name given to it by the young Catholic students who founded it in Paris in 1833 is the St Vincent de Paul Society (patron saint of charities), modern day members would like to remind newcomers of the true meaning of SVP — service for victory over poverty.
To renew the church’s commitment to work for the marginalised, Indian branches of the SVP have been active since 1863. In Mumbai, there is a unit of the SVP active in many of the parishes, adopting families, encouraging them to become self–reliant and on a larger scale, setting up leprosy hospitals and homes, and an Aids hospice to provide treatment and a home for families affected by HIV/Aids.
Encouraging traditional talents has also been part of the focus of the SVP. An early scheme begun in the late 19th century was a project to encourage the traditionally highly reputed pottery on the island of Moolampally. The SVP unit called the Verapoly Central Council began this.
Presently, the society runs tailoring and embroidery classes, education schemes, handicraft centres, small scale agricultural projects, the distribution of goats and cows for dairy produce, schemes for knitting of fishing nets, providing fishing boats and nets, homes for the homeless, medical clinics, homes for the aged, and holding eye camps. All activities concerned with self–empowerment and livelihood, in a nutshell.
As far back as 1885, one of the first leprosy homes set up in the country was the one founded by the St Vincent de Paul Society, in Trombay, a Mumbai suburb. The home was erected on a palatial property donated by the well–known Albless family of Bombay and subsequently conveyed to the Society as a gift in trust to be used for a lepers’ asylum.
This was the beginning of the Eduljee Framjee Albless Leprosy Home a major medical relief centre. Since 1992, both men and women are being admitted as indoor patients here.
Apart from the dispersed activities within the 80–odd parishes of the Mumbai Archdiocese — adopting families, providing material and other aid with an aim to encourage self–reliance — the Shanty Bhuwan, Home for the Aged, located at Kalyan and the newly–conceived, 15–bed Aids Hospice (constructed in 1996) at Trombay, today constitute it’s major presence in the region.
Ninety per cent of the ‘beneficiaries’ of all the society’s schemes are non–Christians even though funds for the construction of the Aids Hospice or for any of the other social service projects or schemes are collected largely from the Christian community.
The last fund–raiser by the SVP was a unique method to involve partnership and involvement from the community, justifying the new-found motto of the SVP — Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM).
A total of Rs. 63 lakh was raised from the Archdiocese of Mumbai by enlisting the help of Christian parishioners in seeking “partners in the common cause”. Over 30,000 flyers were distributed through the church to solicit monetary support. A few thousand enthusiastic participants contributed amounts ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 5,000, to become “partners” in this unique scheme that reaped rich dividends.
Now, the society aims even higher to build a 100–bed full–fledged Aids Hospice for men, women and children, suffering from the dreaded disease. The Rs. 4 crore project is ambitious but when completed it will fill a crucial and gaping void.
Yet another instance of a Christian institution, stepping in critical areas where neither government institutions nor private enterprise show any desire to tread.
Three ex-students of Don Bosco school, Matunga, Mumbai, who are even today actively involved itself in the past pupils’ association spoke to Communalism Combat about an institution that shaped their life and vision, firmly yet unobtrusively, through their formative years. Carrying the genuinely Christian belief that within every child there is that something just waiting to come out and flower, the staff and management of Bosco have conveyed to their alumni that caring for others, looking outside narrow concerns of our own lives, engaging in burning social issues are all part of a learning process that never ends. It means a life long engagement with the world around you.
Dr Ram Chaddha
Spine surgeon, Mumbai
I do believe that Bosco is probably one of the premier educational institutions with a history of strong commitment to education. What I appreciate the most about this school is that despite having a prominent shrine next to us through all our schooling days, a shrine that dominates the campus, I never ever felt that Christianity was in anyway being imposed on me.
I am happy to tell you that I come from basically an Arya Samaji Hindu culture where there is no idol worship.
We as non-Christians had the moral science class, and the boarders, who were mostly Christians, the books on religion. My closest friends were boarders and I have gone through their books on religion. The moral science and religion books were almost the same. The only difference between the boarders and us was that my Catholic colleagues visited the church more often than we did and got the chance to taste the Holy Communion which we missed! It was only later in life that I realized that the Holy Communion was something very interesting that we should have shared!
I did not feel in any way different from them. In fact, I was very happy with the fact that I belonged to a school that had, and still has, a committed set of workers so utterly dedicated to education. I’ve noticed that there are only a few communities which have a committed set of workers — Christians, Parsis, or some Jains — who have a tradition of grooming a set of people who have given up a lot of their domestic daily chores for a commitment.
It may be education, it may be health, rehabilitation or whatever. Christians have invested so much on education while Parsis have invested in helping students with educational scholarships, for the alleviation of poverty etc. Many of us who have needed help at various points of time, for medical expenses or other higher education courses, have got it from Parsi trusts, the Tata trusts or the Godrej trusts. They also encourage sports a lot.
For me, being a good human being is more important than being a Hindu or a Christian or a Muslim. I strongly feel that the way they developed my personality from an ordinary child, who probably may have had an inferiority complex elsewhere into an outgoing and confident person, was amazing. Hell, at 10 or 11 years, I was put up before an audience of 3,000 at the Shanmukhananda Hall, the largest auditorium in Bombay! I had to perform in front of the entire auditorium for almost three hours. If I could do that I can face anybody in the world!
‘Why should you point fingers at the Christian institutions instead of learning from their outstanding example?’
Dr Ameet S Patki
I came to Don Bosco because my family had a long association with the Don Bosco Salesians. My grandfather was instrumental in building this school so it was the obvious choice of school for me. We never saw this as a Christian school. As Ram says, we were never even asked to go to the shrine even once. I repeat not once and I am talking about 20-25 years ago. Never even once were we told to visit the shrine.
The school never once discriminated between us, we were all encouraged to bring out the best from within us. At the time, the staff was 70 per cent Christian and the long hours of dedication that these persons spent with us, training us after school hours, in gymnastics, elocution, in preparation for these huge mega shows. Their dedication was amazing.
We are all proud to say aloud that we are from Bosco. They make you into a complete person. We were each one of us made to feel special. As Father Adolf used to say, there is something in each student just waiting to come out. In Bosco, each child grows up believing this.
Those who are casting these unwarranted aspersions on Christian institutions should recognize this tremendous dedication and contribution, value it and learn from it. Persons of other faiths should pick this up, emulate from it. Why should you point fingers at the Christian institutions instead of learning from their outstanding example?
‘For my Brahmin marriage by Vedic rites, a Christian priest came all the way from Spain to bless us’
Dilip S Bhatt
What could be a better illustration of what Bosco stands for than to imagine that even though I am a Hindu, I am the past pupils’ president of the school; I am on the provincial committee. I formed the national federation of Don Bosco Past Pupils and I am its national treasurer. Does this not show that this is not a Christian institution, it is an institution for everyone?
It brought us all together irrespective of caste, colour and creed.
Some of our lifelong mottos we learnt from here — how to help others and help in the Bosco style, to empower the needy, to comfort the sick. This message is so important to remember in the India of today. When we carry such a message out of Bosco into the wider world, and we follow what we have learnt, we not only repay the alma mater for their devotion but also contribute to society as a whole.
The education stressed upon here is one of relevance to the world, problems and issues around you. I really feel that I am proud to call myself a Boscoite and I will continue to feel so until I die.
I got married as per Vedic rights years ago. My marriage took place in Dakor, a Brahmin stronghold in Gujarat, with 95 per cent Brahmins. You will be surprised to hear how the marriage took place. Father Mariotta flew down from Switzerland to attend my marriage in Dakor; he came over there and after our marriage ceremony he blessed both of us. In front of the large village crowd. Not one person gave it a thought. Even though mine was a traditional Brahmin marriage by Vedic rites, a Christian priest came all the way to bless the couple! The whole town was thrilled.
My father happens to be the president of the Brahmin Parishad there. And yet, on that day all of us went through a beautiful experience; it was as if a communion marriage between Hindus and Christians was taking place.
I learnt here that there is no difference between human beings. Even today I go to the temple, mosque, a church.
‘A pride laced with humility is what every Boscoite has’
Jatin V Paranjape
Cricketer, played for Mumbai and India
I come from a family that is a blend of academics and sports. My father is a cricket coach, my mother heads the English department at Ruia College. My parents put me into Bosco because of the emphasis on sport. There was always a very good balance between education and sport there.
When I started playing for the school I was in the fifth standard; it was actually my vice-principal who spotted me one day playing rubber ball cricket. He used to take care of the hockey and football teams but without my even knowing it, he recommended me to the cricket coach. The very next day I found myself playing from the school team! Everything seemed to just follow from there.
At the same time, the teachers took so much pain in the classes to help me keep track of my studies. Unknowingly, this is what this institution has taught me, that you can do a couple of things at the same time. You can both pursue your dream and also academics. I did well in Std X and XII, completed my Company Secretary course while I was already playing for Bombay. I played for India thereafter. At present, I have taken a few months’ sabbatical since I am appearing for the IIM Management entrance examinations.
What was instilled in me at Bosco has stayed within me: yes, Jatin you can play cricket and you can study as well. That is what the class teacher used to tell me. Nothing was actually done to tell me this, but the message has been lasting and has stayed. So apart from being in the team, I was also the class monitor, helping with other kinds of organizing and so on.
Some of my best friends have been the boarders and I am happy to say that I am still in touch with them. There is one unmistakable thing that every Boscoite has, a pride in his institution. It is an unshakable pride. It is not a pride bordering on the egoistic. It is a pride laced with humility. That is what Fr Lionel taught us. It was all done unobtrusively; the message getting across without the other person even knowing or understanding it.
Was Christianity imposed? This is laughable, farthest from the truth. We have a beautiful church here that is the landmark of the area, the city. It does not just belong to the school, but to all of us. It is part of our collective history.
Father Hugh Fonseca
One of six children from Mumbai, I have been a priest for 33 years now. For all the years that I have been a priest, I have believed in getting involved with the problems of the people, in the real life issues that matter.
From 1975 until 1983, I was at the St Pius seminary, Goregaon (Mumbai), with Fr Raymond, his brother, Fr Alvyn and Fr. Alex Carvalho. It was while we worked there that ideas began to take shape and move in a particular direction. In 1980, when we had the consultation for priests, we started the social justice cells.
This work continued as we went into the parishes. I was in the Kurla parish for six years but I lived and worked in Saki Naka. Saki Naka was a very important experience for me as the parish was being controlled by a group of people, Catholics, who were under the sway of slumlords. Over a five-year period, we managed to get it out of the hands of the vested interests. Ultimately people began to take charge of their own lives.
We were, the four of us, idealistic, with strong notions of what faith should be and the role it should play in people’s lives. This churning and reflection within us was against the solely ritualistic faith that was prevalent at the time. The result of this reflection was a paper that we came out with to nudge the Church in the direction that we were going. It was titled, ‘The Faith that has Justice’.
We then took up two parishes, the Jeri Meri and Saki Naka parishes, as experiments; the result was the Jagruti Kendra established in 1989. All four of us worked as a team. There was the handa morcha that we took out to the ward office to protest on the question of water; we protested the shabby collection and depositing of garbage. Each protest sent out a deep inner message to people to take charge of their lives, not to feel helpless and insecure and empower themselves to get what is their due.
In the beginning there was resistance, too, to such a novel approach. At one meeting in Saki Naka where parish counsellors were present, vested interests who had controlled affairs for too long tried to show their strength. They threatened to attack me. That was a real test for the local population. When all of them stood up refused to be cowed down, stood around to protect me, that was the first public show of our victory.
Until then, no one had publicly challenged the authority of the vested interests. This was during 1992 and 1993. Thereafter, I was in Orlem, Malad, another suburb where I spent six years. There, too, a powerful local group, VOTE (Voice of the People Exploited), emerged.
The incident that initially motivated people was the demolition of a chapel at Srilankapada. This became an incident to rally against the local corporation officials, the Shiv Sena corporators and to establish healthy links with the police. The local people took up the initial mobilisation and what we see now is the existence of a strong voice of the laity in Malad. There is the VOTE group, there is also the Lourdes Community Centre that contributes to community service and health works in the area.
Now at Borivli, we are, laity and church together, involved in firming up yet another group, HELP. Here also the aim is to work together on issues that concern all of us, be it attacks on minorities or broader human rights issues.
As a priest, I have always believed that we must guide persons to take control of their lives and to fight for justice. When we began as priests, there was more emphasis on the spiritual and the ritualistic. Today, I see that spirituality lies in working against injustices, for truth. Without this emphasis what use is ritualistic faith alone?
The Church has played a historic role in this country providing education, health and other services. But it is a huge institution that gets tired and lumbers along. It, too needs to be nudged with new ideas, new pushes. We need to look beyond formal education, look at the question of values, civic values, values concerning justice, becoming good and responsive citizens.
In the broadest possible sense, following as we are the work of Christ, we must be prepared to think beyond ourselves, look at the misery and poverty around and do something about it. Like other institutions, the Church here and elsewhere has had aberrations, reflecting the concerns of only the powerful and the rich, the influential, echoing the caste biases that prevail. Yes, we have had our share of aberrations.
There were parts of India where only upper caste priests were accepted, in another case we have had a history of different castes being buried separately. This is something that violates the basic tenets of Christianity. We had one instance, in Goa, of the body of a person callously removed after burial, simply because he belonged to the ‘lower’ caste.
This happened because when the Portuguese came, there were actually mass conversions without any real change in attitude on questions of caste. In other words, your conversion did not change your attitudes.
But having said that, there are people within the church hierarchy and the laity who are trying to make a difference.
Under the theme, “He came to set us free” (the first sermon of Christ in the synagogue) we have recently begun a movement for civic and political cells in each parish within the Mumbai diocese. Through this the conscientisation of people will happen.
(As told to Teesta Setalvad).
Father Alwyn D’Silva
I am an MA in politics. My first appointment when I became a priest in 1975 I was in Vakola, Santacruz (E). Initially I was caught up in traditional priestly work. But slowly, faced with the realities of the world outside, I began to realise that faith has to be linked with justice. Especially, because there was little relation between what happened within the Church to was happening in society.
I remember, for example, that while I was vice-principal of a school at Vakola, I noticed that during the first period itself, students would be trooping out of class and roaming about in the school. Two years later, when I began some community work in the slums where the youngsters lived, I realised that there were no toilets there and so, naturally, they spent the first period releasing themselves.
A cloistered approach from the priest and parish need not get you involved in issues like these but if people are suffering outside, how can we not get involved?
This was also about the time that some four-six priests like us began reflecting on the role of the Church in the community. We used to call it a think tank. Slowly we evolved into an inspirational group concerned with making faith more relevant. This then slowly evolved into the social justice cell of Archdiocese of Bombay in 1981. Finally, a decade later, the official body of the Church accepted it and it now exists as the justice and peace commission.
The guiding principle of this mini-movement inside the Church was that people’s lives, rather than merely ritualistic faith, needs to be stressed. We got inspiration and guidance from Dominque and Nafisa, professors in social work from Andhra Pradesh –- from whom we evolved the idea of working within a community – the idea being to link faith with justice. There were four of us in this movement. My brother, Hugh Fonseca, Alex Carvalho and myself.
Initially there was scepticism from the Church, there was also resistance to work with other communities. But we were clear. That, when we are dealing with social and justice issues we have to get involved with all communities. Jeri Meri, one of our experimental parishes, was where we had a children’s group, a women’s group, a youth group. The main thrust was on the organisation of people, encouraging them to solve their own problems.
There were also difficulties with the hierarchy; but it was a new understanding of faith and action so there were bound to be questions and some friction. I recall an incident when a bishop, Bishop Bosco Pena, was quite supportive. He actually challenged me to begin work with other communities.
So we took up this challenge, managed to work out the dynamics and succeeded. Within Mumbai we had some type of community organisations like Seva Niketan and Bandra East Community Centre. But they were not linked to the parish, they were individual centres. Here the idea was to link each parish with such a cell.
Today this sort of idea has become part of the official mandate; it took us 10-15 years to convince the hierarchy that we need to move with the times. Now we have 35 centres all over Mumbai. (Mumbai has about 80-odd parishes).
In the recent past, with increasing attacks on democratic freedoms of different communities, it becomes even more pertinent that the Church and its units are alert to questions of justice. During the 1992-1993 communal violence in Mumbai, many men and women of the Church opened their church doors for relief and rehabilitation. Now that nuns and priests are also under consistent attack, we need to mobilise on the issue as a threat to democratic freedoms.
The fact that Christian institutions are working in education, health and other areas, with the most marginalised sections and in the context of our country this means oppressed castes, it is inevitable that our work itself comes under attack. However, these women and men of faith are not dithered; at the Seminary I meet them from all parts of the country and they are unshakeable in resolve, determined to complete their life’s mission.
A true Christian believes that it is only under threat, martyrdom and pressure that the church grows –- not necessarily quantitatively but qualitatively. So we have to carry on.
The Church, both as a link with faith and as a physical presence in the parish, has tremendous potential to be a genuine link with the people who live there. To show compassion and caring for their problems. While acceptance to this approach is not 100 per cent, it is slowly growing as the centres become successful, identify with people’s problems and attract young and fresh talent.
Basically it boils down to this. What should faith stand for? Justice issues, real life issues or should we only concentrate on the ritualistic dimension of faith.
While this is a positive development, as in other faiths, the conservative and inward-looking traditions within Christianity are also visible. These persons with a narrow definition of faith and worship don’t see their involvement or the involvement of the Church in politics and civic life. It is growing everywhere; it is a type of spirituality, which is only concerned with personal salvation.
However all said and done, I feel that partly because of the community centres started by some of us, partly because of other pulls and pressures, lay persons increasingly feel that the Church should get involved in politics, in civic issues. These lay persons are taking the initiative. The first step is get people involved.
(As told to Teesta Setalvad).
A Christian priest who has won three journalism awards, received public recognition for tireless social work and been lauded for his contribution to Marathi literature? A man who inspired a citizen’s movement against the goonda–cum–builder lobby at the green tip of Mumbai? Meet Father Francis D’Britto
Vasai village is located about 75 kilometers north of Mumbai city stretching from Bhayander creek at the south to river Vaitarna confluence at the north. This coastal green belt covering 25,000 acres of land is called Vasai–Virar sub–region. This fertile, wooded and green region, north of Mumbai, has been tradition-ally protected by the designed development plans during colonial and post–Independence governments.
However, in August 1988 the government of Maharashtra, with the stroke of a pen, converted this green belt into a residential zone, without any provision for supportive infrastructure. Citizens of Vasai, activists dedicated to sustainable development, genuinely feared that in the wake of the execution of these short-sighted changes made in the plan the environment, structure, topography and demography of this region would be adversely affected. But, predictably there was no voice of discontent whatsoever raised from established political parties, or any other public interest institution.
Around this time, a former municipal commissioner of Mumbai, also voiced public concern about the so–called altered development plan for the Vasai–Virar sub–region, through an article in the Marathi daily, Loksatta. The Marathi monthly Suvarta then took up the issue, breaking local silence with an article, voicing concern about the consequences of this hasty, re-prioritising of the project which was primarily motivated by vested interests, with the powerful builders’ lobby in mind. It was not easy speaking out on the issue, there was an all–prevalent fear of the politician–builder nexus that had terrorized local persons at the time. With little local support at the time, on April 1, 1989 Fr. D’Britto who edits Suvarta, called a meeting of eminent people including politicians and social workers from various walks of life; the response was mixed.
Those opposing the changes to the development plan came together and the Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti was born. Thereafter began a systematic concientising programme, with Fr. D’Britto moving all over Vasai, spreading information and knowledge about the issue. A mammoth gathering of 35,000 people on October 1, 1989, was the culmination.
The meeting was addressed by Vijay Tendulkar, noted Marathi playwright, Kisan Mahta, renowned environmentalist, RV Bhuskute, a former tahsildar of Vasai and Fr. F. D’Britto, the convenor of Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti. Keeping in mind the protection of the greenery and provision of proper infrastructure, a complete revision of the plan was demanded by the Samiti.
Predictably, the supporters of the builders’ lobby initiated a counter-agitation, which created confusion and uneasiness among the people. Also, the official stand of the Church on this issue was quite obscure. Initially, there were differences among lay Christians, residents of Vasai and the Church on the issue. Eventually, after the continued persistence and commitment of the samiti, that had begun appealing to people on principles of greater common good, proper infrastructure, agriculture, preservation of flora and fauna and water–logging problem, the Church hierarchy also lent support to the movement.
There were more challenges before the movement. In the 1990s, new housing colonies were mushrooming on both sides of Naigaon, Vasai, Nala–Sopara and Virar railway stations. In the absence of government provided tap water, people had to depend on ground water. But due to the close proximity of this area to the creek, the ground water was very saline and non–potable. The builders had started extracting potable ground water from the Vasai–Virar green belt to meet this purpose.
Increasing salinity in the ground water in this area as a result of this, had begun damaging agricultural produce. It was the HVSS that studied the situation and invited a scientific body of experts to determine the water table and degree of salinity.
Among them were: 1) AFPRO – Action For Food Production, Ahmed-nager, 2) Coopers & Lybrand, London, 3) Bombay University, department of geography, government of Maharashtra, 4) Thane Zilla Parishad Land Survey.
The results of the survey proved the fears of the HVSS right, after which an agitation against the tanker and builders lobby was initiated. However, the local politicians supporting the builders, started harassing the peasants of the area. In its report dated May 20, 1991, The Times of India stated: “The Christian population of the Vasai–Virar region is being terrorised by groups of toughs, allegedly let loose by local politicians and builders... The unprecedented and unprovoked violence against innocent people has its roots in the agitation against the overuse of wells in the Vasai–Virar green belt. The villages in the green belt, which are showing the first signs of a water scarce area, have a largely Christian population. Over the last few weeks, women in the area had begun a movement to prevent the ‘irrational’ use of their well water which is transported to the newly developed urban area mostly for construction work.”
Finally government officials intervened. Ministerial level discussions were held where HVSS was represented. As a result the tankers were banned from withdrawing water from the Vasai–Virar green belt. It was a clear victory for the Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti.
Another attempt to impose another draft of the development plan for Vasai, this time by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO), newly appointed as the Planning Authority for Vasai–Virar sub–region in 1990, was resisted by the HVSS. In September the same year, CIDCO presented an interim draft development plan for the area. HVSS studied the plan in detail and realised that, again, it was detrimental to the environment of Vasai–Virar area. In their plan CIDCO had proposed huge holding ponds and dumping grounds within existing residential areas in the green zone. This could cause untold harm to the health of the residents.
Once again the Harit Vasai Saurakshan Samiti protested against this plan. On January 26, 1992, a huge gathering of 1,00,000 people was held at Vasai grounds after which 1,00,000 protest signatures were collected and presented to the governor of Maharashtra, P.C. Alexander and to the then Prime Minister, VP Singh in New Delhi, who promised to look into the matter personally. CIDCO had to make alterations in its subsequent plans whereby the green belt would be preserved.
Like Saibaba of Shirdi, Moin–ud–din Chisti of Ajmer and Ayappa of Sabarimalai, the devotion to Fr. Agnel unites all faiths and communities
Overlooking the bay at Bandstand in Bandra stands a landmark commonly known as Fr. Agnel Ashram. To the thousands of devotees that throng the shrine week after week, it is an isle of solace and succour from the grind of city life and its attendant problems. If one were to visit the place on a Sunday, one would be surprised to find a motley crowd comprising of almost every religious denomination in the country fervently praying as one family.
Agnel Baba, as his devotees fondly call him, has carved a niche for himself in the secular pantheon of modern India. Like Saibaba of Shirdi, Moin–ud–din Chisti of Ajmer and Ayappa of Sabarimalai, the devotion to Fr. Agnel unites all faiths and communities. The weekly services are held in Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Konkani, Hindi and English to cater to the spiritual needs of his diverse following.
Who is this charismatic Agnel Baba? Born in 1869 at Anjuna, Goa, Agnelo D’Souza was an archetypal Goan Catholic born and brought up in the faith under the colonial Portuguese rule. His piety and intense spirituality made him an ideal candidate for priesthood. After being ordained a priest, he set about his vocation with ardent fervour and lived a saintly life serving the least of his brethren.
He died at the age of 58 having collapsed immediately after preaching his last sermon. But myth followed the man. His saintly bearing and selfless service caused him to be remembered long after his death. Soon reports of miraculous happenings trickled in. People began to turn to him in distress. Cures and other favours were attributed to his intercession.
Then public acclaim pushed the Church to begin the process for his canonisation as a saint. As an interim step, he has been declared Venerable and his cause is under process by the Holy See.
Though Fr. Agnel was a non-controversial ‘Servant of God’ as he was called, the religious society to which he belonged has been in the eye of a storm since the last few decades. It is a quirk of fate that brought together his almost defunct Society of Pilar with one solitary active member and the founders of the New Society in 1939.
Conceicao Rodrigues and Francisco Siquiera were two young seminarians being trained for priesthood at the Rachol Seminary in Goa. These young men had a dream to establish a missionary order that was dedicated to India. It must be remembered that at that time, the Portuguese missionaries had established their presence in India. The prophetic words of Pope Leo XIII served as inspiration to them. The Pope had said, “Your own sons, O India, will be the heralds of your salvation.”
This was the birth of their endeavour to start an Indian Missionary Society for the evangelisation of their motherland. The term “evangelisation” has been a subject of controversial interpretation for some time. The four disciples of Christ — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were called the “Evangelists”. They followed Christ during the course of his ministry and recorded his words and acts for posterity. The New Testament is a compilation of the written works of these four called the gospels.
The term evangelise has been defined in numerous ways. While the most acceptable would be “spreading the message of the gospels”, the methodology adopted for doing so is varied. To some, it means distributing Bibles to those who have never heard of Christ before. To others it means preaching the message of Christ. To the radicals it might mean converting the “non–believers” to the Christian faith. To the liberation theologians, it would mean identifying with the struggling masses to bring about salvation from material want. The definition keeps evolving depending on the needs of the times and the predisposition of the Church leaders of that epoch.
To the founder of the New Society, Frs. C. Rodrigues, the term evangelisation of the motherland held a different significance. According to Fr. C Rodrigues, “conversion” or proselytisation was not the object of evangelisation.
To quote him: “This missionary concept, besides being genuine and apostolic, opens new perspectives to the missionary apostolate. The missionary, free from the preoccupation of “conversion”, gives himself with redoubled ardour to the evangelisation of all his parishioners, Catholics or non–Catholics. He sees to their education, opening schools wherein the knowledge of the Law of God is imparted to them. He interests himself in their social uplift establishing co-operatives and institutions of social assistance and strives against injustice and oppression.
‘It is our endeavour to foster respect for all faiths and encourage people to work together unitedly to remove social injustice’ – Agnel Ashram
He does not exclude them from his creches, orphanages, asylums, hospitals and other works of beneficence. He teaches them the Word of God, the ten Commandments, the virtues, illustrating them with the examples of saints and heroes from Hagiology, also from history and tradition, in organised conferences, taking opportunity for promoting meetings of common interest, as theatres, cinemas, cultural conferences, through good press; in private conversation; he visits them and does not miss the occasion to get acquainted with them.
On this basis the missionary will not be held as a minister of an alien religion but a minister of God, an exemplary custodian of morality, a benefactor of humanity, a social worker and an intimate friend of every home”. (Cfr. V. Ixtt. July 17, 1954).
With this vision of service to country and people, Fr. C Rodrigues set about his mission. The going was tough. It was most difficult to convince the authorities of the need for a new Indian religious order, the first of its kind. Persistence paid.
On July 2, 1939, the founders founded the new Society of Pilar and established a new constitution with a new charisma and mission. During the first 10 years, they set up 12 elementary schools, 1 middle school, 5 orphanages, 6 health centres and 6 rice banks at Nagar Haveli. The society had its own press and published 50 different publications, two of which were its own periodicals. The editor of these two publications was Fr. Conceicao Rodrigues — Vaurad-deancho Ixtt, a bilingual weekly in Konkani and Portuguese and India, a monthly magazine in English.
Through these periodicals, Fr. Rodrigues took up the defence of various causes of social justice such as fair wages, casteless confraternities, housing etc. However, there was one issue on which the periodicals maintained a stony silence — liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule.
While all the others in Goa toed the official line, these two refused to publish even the official press communiqués issued by the Portuguese government. This earned the ire of the censors and Fr. C Rodrigues was a “marked man”. This policy continued till 1954 when the authorities in Goa got tough. To quote Fr. Rodrigues, “The real motive of my leaving Goa is public knowledge. When the India Legation in Portugal was closed, there were protest meetings in Goa, public speeches, telegrams and a press campaign denouncing the “imperialistic aims” of Nehru and other Indian leaders.
Our paper did not give prominence to these events. Two successive deputations were sent to us with a diatribe against Nehru and other Indian leaders to be published. I did not yield and politely refused to publish.”
With no support from the Church hierarchy, that was heavily biased in favour of the Portuguese rulers, Fr. Rodrigues had no option but to flee to Bombay. His confreres in the Society however stood by him. In fact, the editorial policy of Vauraddeancho Ixtt held firm, until the government in 1961 suspended its publication.
In 1957, the Fr. Agnel Ashram at Bandra was established. In a manuscript he expressed these feelings, “Once out of Goa, freed from the shackles of slavery and oppression of the foreign dominators, in Bombay, I started breathing the pure and dignifying breeze of independent India.”
The liberation of Goa in 1961 did not bring a change of heart in ecclesiastical circles in Goa. With their allegiance to Portugal, many shared the belief that Indian civilisation and culture were inferior. This was anathema to Fr. Rodrigues. He strongly believed in the unity of the nation. India had remained united for centuries despite its diversity of languages, castes, religions and kingdoms. He believed there was a common ethos that united India. The sages and bards of yore had walked through its villages inculcating these values, inspiring and giving birth to its great epics enshrining these values. Fr. Rodrigues believed that the Society had a mission of cultivating and nourishing these values.
However, this was not the happy ending. In order to break the resolute will of the “nationalist priests”, the government in league with certain sections of the Goan hierarchy tacitly began promoting and funding dissension within the Society. This led to a split in the Society in 1977. Despite laborious efforts towards reconciliation, the schism remains till date. The Pilar Society and the Agnel Ashram Fathers are the two factions caused by colonial manipulation with the active support of a partisan hierarchy.
However, the Agnel Ashram Fathers have grown by leaps and bounds. What began as a Technical Trade School at Bandra has matured into the famous Agnel Technical School. The Fr. Conceicao Rodrigues College of Engineering is one of the most prestigious in the city. The Bal Bhavan, housing 70 orphans and the Community Polytechnic, imparting technical training to the rural youth have made their mark.
The Agnel Ashram is the only Christian society in the country to run three engineering degree colleges, 4 polytechnics, 4 orphanages and various other services. The Bal Gram at Goa is a children’s village that helps children grow in tune with nature.
The latest addition is a multi–storeyed Bal Bhavan at Noida, Delhi that can accommodate over 150 orphans. Interestingly, while being shown around the campus, this writer noticed a little recess in the wall in every room of the Bal Bhavan. On inquiring about its utility, he was informed that this was the children’s “mandir” that accommodated the different deities that the inmates wished to worship according to their own religions! A lesson in secularism for the little ones. This year the Agnel Seva Ashram was inaugurated at a function addressed by Swami Agnivesh, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and Fr. Francis D’Sa. The object of this movement is to bring together people of all faiths to work for the common good and appreciate and understand the different religious faiths.
The road ahead is tough, but the Agnel Ashram Fathers are resolute in their mission.
News in Brief
Protests continue at Allahabad's Roshan Bagh, where women have taken leadership and continue to show up on a daily basis voicing dissent against CAA and nationwide NPR-NRC.
Protests continue at Allahabad's Roshan Bagh, where women have taken leadership and continue to show up on a daily basis voicing dissent against CAA and nationwide NPR-NRC.