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Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, SDB

Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, SDB

It was with great hope that I went to the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) office near the Gol Dak Khana post office, a part of the Sansad Marg Head Post Office bearing Pin Code 11001, on September 28. It would not be a misnomer to call the CBCI office and the Cathedral Church on its campus as the heart of the Capital.

It is not for no reason that I say this. Do you know that when you find a milestone that says the distance to Delhi or Mumbai or Patna is, say, 200 kms, it means the distance from that milestone to the head post office in the city is 200 kms. In other words, the post office or head post office of any city is situated at 0 km.

Why I went to the heart of Delhi was to meet the Salesian priest, Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, who had flown into the Capital from Rome early in the morning. The church authorities had planned a solemn reception for him at the Delhi airport but the plan went haywire when journalists, especially television cameramen, made mincemeat of such plans. The priest’s brother was even tripped over a bystander.

I reached the CBCI office one hour before he was scheduled to meet the Press on the promise of an ecclesiastical busybody that the Indian Currents would have an occasion to interview him. When I saw the large number of journalists camping there, I realised that it was impossible to have an interview.

Nonetheless, I decided to stay on and enjoy the proximity that I had to the priest who belongs to the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB), a Roman Catholic Latin Rite religious institute founded in the late 19th century by Italian priest Saint John Bosco to help poor children during the Industrial Revolution. I live close to a Don Bosco school and every time my two-plus-year-old grandson sees it, he exults: “Baby’s school!”, meaning the school where he wants to study.

There is a fundamental difference between a print journalist like me and a TV journalist. She needs what is called a “byte”, a comment or a smart one-liner, from the horse’s mouth to give the impression to the viewers that her channel had an exclusive interview with the person concerned. What a print journalist needs is a tete-a-tete so that he can ask a series of questions that draw the best out of the interviewee. I found the possibility of a two-minute interview as unappealing as a two-minute noodle meal.

As I waited, my memories went back to the late-eighties when one afternoon my journalist friend Ambikananad Sahay of The Statesman and I interviewed Fr Thomas Chakkalakkal, who had just been flown into Patna by the Bihar Police after he had been released by the dacoits who kept him for about a week in the hope of extracting a ransom from the church.

The Jesuit priest told us that on the day he was kidnapped, he made it abundantly clear to his abductors that they could kill him or torture him but they would not get a single rupee from the church. A roly-poly kind of person, he soon won their hearts so much so that they gave him the best piece of chicken when they stole chicken and cooked it for themselves.

Sahay and I were convinced that the best quote that we received was what the dacoits told the priest, “Put down the Bible and pick up a gun”. When the interview appeared in a mass-circulation daily in the priest’s home state Kerala,  tens of thousands would have said, “Praise the Lord”.

Kidnapping has come of age since Fr Chakkalakkal was taken away from his mission station on the edge of a forest area in North Bihar. The abductors of Fr Uzhunnalil were not chicken stealers of Bettiah but hardened political animals using religion to spread terror and to establish a Caliphate! 

By the way, Bettiah was where Christianity arrived first in North India, courtesy the Capuchins from Rome, who were misinformed that the Buddhists of Lhasa were a lost Abrahamic tribe. It was on the way to Lhasa that they camped at Bettiah, met the local king and influenced him the way the early Christians influenced Emperor Constantine to establish political legitimacy for their new-found faith.

As I was advised to shift from room to room and floor to floor for that elusive interview, I was asking myself what would I ask him if I were allowed to ask just two questions. The questions were ready on my lips: 1) What sustained him through his 556 days of captivity when the possibility of a violent death stared him in the face?

While I stood beside him even as he gave exclusive bye after bye to TV journalists, I got the answer to my question. It is said that crisis brings out the best in a person. Here, let me state that I had at one time got disenchanted with Fr Uzhunnalil. That was when his captors released a video in which he complained that the Government of India and the church did not do anything to get him released.

The Islamic State (IS) operatives know the power of the visual media much more than many of us. They are the ones who used public, video-recorded decapitation, not just to spread terror but also to recruit cadres, not from hungry Rohingyas fleeing from persecution in Myanmar but  from fun-loving, English-speaking, young men and women from Europe and America.

Fr Uzhunnalil had just become a plaything in the hands of his abductors who kept him alive only to extract money. He was manipulated to make that revolting statement. 

As I listened to him answering questions alternatively in English and Malayalam, I got the answer to my unasked question: It was his faith in God that sustained him through those difficult days when he was forbidden even from looking out through the window, lest he should get ideas of escape.

It was on March 4, 2016, that Fr Uzhunnalil was taken away from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity centre at  the port city of Aden in southern Yemen. He was praying at the chapel after breakfast when he sensed some commotion outside. What he found outside were the bodies of two sisters from whom blood was still oozing and the killing in cold blood of their gardener. He thought that seven people were killed that day. Actually, the casualty stood at 16.

With no access to newspaper, radio or television, he was clueless about what had happened. Though he had been in Yemen for a few years before the abduction, he did not know the language of his abductors, as he knew only the language of service to mankind. 

The second question that I wanted to ask him was about the Stockholm Syndrome. Union Minister KJ Alphons had found in him a victim of the syndrome. I managed to ask him the question publicly at the Press conference. I did not mention the minister’s name. Nevertheless, I sought the priest’s comments on it.

“I do not even know what the syndrome is”, he answered to the delight of many. An intrepid lady journalist, who made bold to protest against treating some journalists as more equal than equal, explained to Fr Uzhunnalil that Stockholm syndrome is “a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity”. It could be conscious or sub-conscious and could last even after the release.

I would have explained it as the “psychological mystery of loving the abuser”. Given the state of his health and the torture he suffered by repeatedly recalling what happened to him, I did not persist with my question. 

I had only sympathies for him when a certain “gentleman” from a right-wing news-agency asked him a loaded question about intelligence reports that Kerala coastline was full of IS recruits waiting for their rite of passage.

One recurring theme for Fr Uzhunnalil was that he experienced God throughout his captivity. “I am convinced, more than ever, that not a single hair falls from a person’s scalp without God’s knowledge. I am a living example of the Providential care and the power of prayer. Hindus organised special prayers for me in temples, as my Muslim brothers and sisters asked for Allah’s intervention”. 

Yes, he was grateful to his captors that they did not torture him. Yes, they did not use spikes on him, they did not beat him, they did not verbally abuse him, they did not threaten him with a knife or a gun. He was given food and water, sufficient enough to keep him alive.

But is peace mere absence of violence? An average Malayali takes bath at least twice a day. As the story goes, when, over half a millennium ago, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama arrived at Kappad near Kozhikkode, he sought an immediate audience with the Zamorin ruling the area.

The invader who had a high impression about himself wanted immediate talks with the local ruler. When he and his entourage arrived at the Zamorin’s place, he had only  an advice to give the foreigners: “Go, cut your hair and nails, take a bath, eat a hot meal, take some much-needed rest and come back for talks. I am always available here”.

The Zamorin was decent enough not to tell Gama and his countrymen that they were stinking and that they were suffering from Beriberi. To deprive a Malayali of his birthright to have a bath, at least once a day, is torture, though the Geneva Convention might not have defined torture in this manner.

After he had been exclusively interviewed by several TV channels, Fr Uzhunnalil was so tired that he asked for a cup of tea and some biscuits. As the priests around scurried for biscuits, my friend and colleague John Dayal took out an apple from his bag to offer it to the priest. He believes in the adage that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. No, the priest would not accept it, as he was an Insulin-dependent diabetic.

Only a diabetic can appreciate the problems of a fellow diabetic. When Dayal offered him a bottle containing sugar granules, Fr Uzhunnalil took out a few sugar candies from his pocket to tell him that he was well-armed to fight hypoglycaemia.

The terrorists who took him from one hiding place to another did not care to provide him insulin to keep his sugar level under check. It had a deleterious effect on his body. It was more than two weeks since he was released and brought to the Vatican for rest and recuperation. He is not even three scores but he needs support to walk and to keep himself steady. Was not this the result of torture?

As he lived incommunicado for 18 months, he did not know how and under what circumstances he was released. Was it the intervention of the Union government or the Vatican or the Sultan of Oman that played a major part in his release?Was money paid? If so, by whom?

Early this year, Qatar allegedly paid $1 billion in ransom to save some royal family members from their al-Qaeda-linked abductors. It was a tipping point in Qatar-Gulf Arab relations. We may or may not know whether money was paid to secure his release or not.

All that we know is that a thankful and ever-prayerful Fr Tom Uzhunnalil is in India now. For all those who prayed for him and wished to have him in our midst, he epitomises indomitable courage and readiness to attempt great things for Him. He was asked a question about his future plans.

He told the questioner that he would obey whatever his superiors would ask him to do. I wanted to ask him, whether he would like to go back to Aden and do what he had been doing. I know what his answer would be: “If God wants me to be back there, I would take the first available flight to reach Aden”.

As media persons, religious heads and social climbers jostled to have a word with him or to give him a bouquet of flowers or take a picture with him, I got a few precious moments to spend with him alone. 

No, I did not ask him any question. Instead of shaking his right hand that he extended to me, I kissed him on his hand, the same hand that Pope Francis kissed! To me, that was worth all the efforts that I made to interview Fr Tom Uzhunnalil.

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at  ajphilip@gmail.com

(Published on 03rd October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 40)