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Christo Thomas Philip

Christo Thomas Philip

It was my first visit to Raxaul, a crowded town on the Indo-Nepal border where the two countries are separated by a rivulet. I realised that I had made the wrong choice of staying at the guest house of the Duncan Hospital there only when I checked in. It was hardly a guest house.

Weeds grew luxuriously around the guest house that had a couple of rooms. The administrator, whom I knew through the late Dr John K John of the Emmanuel Hospital Association, had taken care to provide me fresh bedsheets, pillow covers and towels. The building was cut off from the hospital and the living quarters there. In short, staying there was a little scary.

I did not know that even working there could be so scary, until I read a recent judgement of the Delhi High Court. Christo Thomas Philip was born in 1982 in Pathanamthitta district, where he had his primary education. Later, like countless Indians, his whole family shifted to the US in search of greener pastures.

Philip was a bright student. He did his MD (Doctor of Medicine) from Mayo Medical Centre, Rochester, Minnesota, USA. He did his specialisation in Emergency Medicine from the University of Texas, Dallas. He had all through been holding an Indian passport.

He became an American citizen in August 2012. He could have enjoyed life as doctors not only earned a good salary but also social respect. For the Indians in the US, medical profession is considered the ultimate in life.

His parents could take Philip away from India but they could not take India away from Philip. When he received the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card and a lifelong Indian visa, he felt very happy. He realised that his calling was to serve the poor in India.

So when he got an opportunity to come to India and work at Raxaul, he jumped at it. He knew that the comforts of Dallas would not be available at the Duncan hospital but that did not deter him from his decision to come to India.

Philip knew that he could not practice medicine in India without permission from the Medical Council of India. He got the necessary certificate from the MCI. He really started liking the atmosphere at Duncan.

Here, a word about the hospital would be in order. It serves 11 million people in North Bihar and southern Nepal. It was founded by Dr H. Cecil Duncan in 1930 and was shaped by Dr Trevor Strong and his wife Patricia. The Regions Beyond Missionary Union managed the hospital until 1974, when it was handed over to the Emmanuel Hospital Association (EHA).

I read ‘A Day in the Life at Duncan’ that Philip blogged. This is how he began his chronicle: “People often ask us what a day at Duncan Hospital looks like. So I decided to write down all the events that I could recall from one day at Duncan… Of course, this does not include the 13 vaginal deliveries, the 5 c-sections, 1 breech delivery and 2 twins born courtesy of Dr Dianna and Dr Sharon…

Philip’s day began at 3.30 am when he was “called to see a patient in ICU with a perforated duodenal ulcer who is now breathless. Placed on respirator because his breathing is bad”. His day ended at 8.50 pm. “A couple more calls from the ICU and surgical ward about new patients. Another patient with necrotising fascitis (dying tissue) has come in, that needs to be cleared for surgery. Collapse into bed”.

I could make out from his diary that he was fully involved in his work. More than that, he felt that he was doing a wonderful job. He would not have even in his wildest dreams imagined that what he penned could, one day, land him in trouble. Yes, that is exactly what happened.

Philip got an invitation for a programme in Athens in Greece. He went there via New Delhi and Doha. On April 26, 2016, he returned to New Delhi from Malaga, Spain, on his way to Duncan. At the Immigration Counter at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, he was detained by the Immigration officials. His OCI card and passport were taken away by them and he was kept in the Immigration Detention area.

He was told that he did not have the permission to return to India as his OCI card and visa stood cancelled.

The next day, he was sent back to Istanbul where he was, again, detained for a day because he did not have the necessary travel documents. To cut the story short, he somehow reached the US.

He learnt to his dismay that the Consulate General of India (CGI) at Houston, Texas, had cancelled his OCI on August 1, 2017. His complaint with the Foreigners’ Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs elicited the information that he had violated some section of the Citizenship Act, 1955. No, he had not done anything inimical to the interest of the country of his origin, except that he loved her like he loved Mother Earth.

A person of lesser moral courage and conviction would have left the matter at that. How many could imagine that they could fight a government which claimed to be on its way to become a super power in the foreseeable future? 

Philip was made of a different mould. He wondered why he should suffer when he had not done anything wrong. It was unbelievable for him that the Indian government had issued a “lookout notice” for him. He was mortified at the fact that he was in the black list of the government. He challenged the decisions of the External Affairs Ministry and the Home Ministry before the appropriate authorities who refused to undo the patently wrong and unfair decisions.

Philip learnt to his horror that the charge against him was that he indulged in “evangelical and subversive activities”. He was also accused of converting people. He decided to fight the morbid system. That is how he filed a case against the Union of India in the Delhi High Court challenging the Home Ministry finding that it was dangerous to let him serve the poor patients who flocked Duncan.

The case came up before Justice Vibhu Bakhru. The government produced a document which was handed over to the judge. One look at it would have been sufficient for the judge to conclude how frivolous the charge against him was. Worse, the great Home Ministry had not even done any home work before throwing Philip out of the country.

The document said that Philip was born in the US whereas it was as clear as daylight that he was born in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala and he did his primary education in India. It also said that he could not practice in India whereas he was a registered medical practitioner with a registration number given by the Medical Council of India.

The case could have been decided at that stage itself. No, the judge wanted to give the government another opportunity to prove that his continuance in India would have been prejudicial to the interests of the country.

The judge asked the government that if it had any difficulty in producing evidences against Philip in public, it could do so in a sealed envelope. It complied with the order. The judge was given some top-secret documents in a sealed envelope. What did it contain? My dear readers, do not laugh, as what follows is not a laughing matter. It is a pointer to how our intelligence machinery functions in this country.

The top secret document was the blog that Philip had written about a day at Duncan. It could be accessed by anybody who had access to the Internet, which means it was in the public domain. Since I quoted the blog at the beginning of this column, I refrain from quoting further.

This is what the judge says in his judgement: “The only fact that one can discern from the said article is that the petitioner has a packed day treating patients who are in acute need of medical care… A plain reading of the said article indicates that the petitioner is devoted to his profession and committed to provide the much-needed medical care to patients”.

No, this was not the only secret document. There was another. It was also an article written not by Philip but by another person. What did this article contain? Let me quote the judge himself: “The next article does not appear to have been penned by the petitioner, as it refers to him as a third person. The said article speaks of a tragic life of one of the patients at Duncan Hospital.

“It is stated that the said patient had died on almost three occasions but was somehow saved in the nick of time. The author of the said article appears to be deeply religious and has attributed the same to the hand of God. The said article also states that the petitioner had spent a considerable time talking to the patient about his life and how God must have had a plan for him as he had been saved on three occasions in the nick of time”.

The judge found that the other articles given to him were also “of similar nature”. It was on the basis of this kind of evidence that Philip was humiliated at the airport and kicked out of the country.

The charge against him was that he was converting people but the government could not show any proof whatsoever of Philip having forcefully or fraudulently converted even a single person. 

One must also remember that the hospital, set up by a missionary and nurtured by missionaries, has been in existence for the last 89 years. Even after so many years of so-called “conversion” the Christian presence in the area is negligible, if not nil. Very close to Duncan is the Little Flower Leprosy Hospital, founded, again, by a missionary about which I wrote extensively in the Hindustan Times.

The brother who started it — Kunjachan — was like a God on earth for the leprosy patients. Nobody ever accused him of proselytisation. When I visited the hospital in the mid-eighties, I saw a son nursing the wounds of his father. Today he is my Facebook friend and he practices in the High Court in Chennai. He is a Muslim.

To return to the case, “This court is at a loss to understand as to how such work or medical services could possibly be construed by the Consulate General of India in Houston or the Appellate Authority as contrary to the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India. It has, perhaps, escaped their attention that India is a secular country.

“All persons in this country have a right to practice their faith in the manner they consider fit so long as it does not offend any other person. If the petitioner’s faith motivates the petitioner to volunteer for medical services at the hospital, there is no law (certainly not of this land) that proscribes him from doing so”.

The judge described the CGI’s decision to cancel Philip’s OCI as “wholly perverse” as it “militates against the secular values engrafted in the Constitution of India”. Justice Bakhru has asked the CGI to return the OCI card to Philip and removed all the restrictions he had on visiting India. I hope the government would not go in appeal against the High Court verdict, for it would only expose itself as a bigot which cannot accept unity in diversity.

The judgement has rekindled hope that, all said and done, the Constitution is alive and kicking. While I congratulate Dr Christo Thomas Philip on his victory, I would also request him to return to Duncan and serve the poor people of North Bihar and South Nepal. He is needed more at Duncan than in Dallas. Of course, the choice is his own!

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 21st January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 04)