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Targeting Missionaries

Targeting Missionaries

The night had fallen when we reached a Missionaries of Charity home in a forest area in Kandhamal district in Odisha, where the whole Christian community was attacked for no rhyme or reason. The sisters of the order, founded by Saint Teresa, were providing primary medical care to the people of the area, irrespective of caste or creed.

I was very happy to visit the centre, although it was not planned because I could meet a sister who had just returned from war-torn Baghdad in Iraq. She had spent a few years in the Iraqi Capital where, I did not know, that the sisters who wore the blue-bordered sari ran a centre.

I thought she had a harrowing time in Iraq. No, the situation was quite different. Yes, they would often hear gunshots and see fighter planes taking off or landing from a military airport nearby. They also feared that a bomb might fall on their home and they would die like the thousands who died, first, during the Iran-Iraq war and, later, when the Allied Forces, a euphemism for American troops, destroyed the culturally-rich Iraqi Capital.

The sisters’ job was to take care of the babies who were orphaned by the war. The babies were handed over to the MC sisters by the Iraqi government and it was their responsibility to look after them till they attained the age of three. Thereafter, the children would be shifted to a government facility.

The government did not make any payment for the services the sisters rendered but they had no complaint on this count. The sisters did not need anything, for they were provided everything by the Iraqis. She told me that on Fridays, many, including soldiers, would visit their centre and bring gifts like clothes, biscuits, chocolates, milk powder and soaps for the children.

They would also bring wheat flour, sugar, oil, bread etc for the sisters. If at all they faced any problem, it was the problem of plenty. They did not even have to go out of the centre for shopping. In any case, Baghdad those days was not a great place for shopping. The point to be noted was how caring and grateful the ordinary Iraqis were to the Missionaries of Charity. Many of those babies they looked after would have moved past their teenage.

My relationship with Mother Teresa’s order is very old. In the mid-seventies, I interviewed the Mother when she visited Bhopal to inaugurate her centre. I also had the rare privilege of having a meal with her which, I was told, she extended only to her own sisters.

While I was in Chandigarh, my wife used to visit their centre regularly. Many of my colleagues, friends and well-wishers who greeted me on Christmas, New Year and Diwali would not know that the sweets they gifted me usually went to the home the sisters ran. I always considered the Mother as a saint, long before the church declared her one. 

One of the greatest moments in my life was when I stood on the roof of the Vatican complex, watched and photographed Pope Francis declaring the Mother as a saint. I could see from my vantage position Union Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj sitting in the VIP enclosure and watching the proceedings. No, she was not alone. Millions of people in India watched the proceedings live on television. 

In Kolkata where she had her headquarters, Mother Teresa was never considered a European, born at Skopje, Macedonia, in erstwhile Yugoslavia. She was considered an Indian, more specifically, a Bengali. All these thoughts occurred to me when I read media reports which suggested that a Missionaries of Charity home called Nirmal Hriday at Ranchi was indulging in baby-trafficking. It was a home for unmarried mothers.

Some put the figure of children sold by the centre at as high as 400. I wondered how they could have been doing that. As it transpired, a couple in Uttar Pradesh “bought” one child for over Rs 1 lakh from the Home and because of a dispute, the matter reached the police. During their investigation, they arrested a lady, who did not belong to the order but served at the centre, and a senior sister who is a diabetic and suffering from varicose veins.

The police claim that the lady and the sister confessed to their crime during interrogation. I have no proof to show that they are innocent and as a law-abiding citizen I would be happy if criminals, whatever be the garb they wear, are punished. However, did the police follow the right procedure in this particular case?

The argument that the sister confessed to the crime did not make sense, for a majority of the people would confess to any crime if they are in police custody. After all, confessions made to the police have no legal sanctity. Forget confessions made to the police, even confessions recorded under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code before a Metropolitan Magistrate, do not indict a person.

The reference here is to Swami Aseemanand, who had admitted to having planned terror attacks on Ajmer Sharif, Mecca Masjid, Malegaon and the Samjhauta Express. Did the confession made to Deepak Dabas at Tis Hazari Courts make any difference to his case? Was he not acquitted in two blast cases despite the confession?

What is significant in the case under review is that the sister was not allowed to give her version. I have heard the bishop concerned saying in Rajdeep Sardesai’s programme on India Today that the church authorities were not allowed to meet her and even when the lawyer could reach her, she was kept at a distance so that she could not hear him properly. By the way, she is hearing impaired.

The law very clearly says that whatever be the crime, the person concerned is considered innocent until she is proved guilty. It is also the right of a person to have access to a lawyer. Even Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, the Pakistani terrorist who was hanged to death in 2012, was provided with a lawyer at government cost when no lawyer was prepared to accept his brief.

This being part of the jurisprudence that India follows, the police should have allowed the church authorities to meet the two and provide them with the defence they need. That is why the police action raises doubts. Even if we believe that the two are guilty as the police claim, does it warrant the kind of attack the Missionaries of Charity suffered?

Soon after the arrest, police raided another centre — Nirmala Shishubhavan — in the same state run by the Sisters and the authorities concerned took away all the children from there. One of the children was sick but despite the pleadings of the sisters, the police did not allow them at least to nurse them to health.

Incidentally, in the Visitors’ Book, a senior district official had a few days earlier written that the centre was run in an exemplary manner. What happened all of a sudden to warrant the removal of children to a government facility? Can any government employee look after a baby like the sisters? There is a centre in Bijnor in UP run by a different Catholic order. When I visited the centre in the morning, the sisters were busy cleaning the children. The hall was so stinking that I could not stand there for long.

The sisters themselves advised me to come in the afternoon when they would be ready to meet me. The centre admitted only babies born with deformities whom their parents would leave at their doorstep or on the roadside. I wrote a column on my experience there. 

Can a Child Welfare Committee with government officials provide such service? Does anyone bother about what would happen to the children taken away from the MC Centre?

The MC is a worldwide organisation, which is considered as an epitome of service to the needy. Should the organisation suffer because one of their staff members committed a wrong which the sister concerned overlooked inadvertently or otherwise? Just because Nirav Modi cheated the banks of billions of rupees, do we consider all the bank borrowers as planning to fly away from the country?

A senior RSS leader in Delhi demanded the withdrawal of the title of Bharat Ratna conferred on Mother Teresa. She was the only naturalised citizen to get the award. So far 45 persons have received the award, some of them posthumously. Two of them were non-Indians — Pakistan national Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

The last to get the award was former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was the IK Gujral government at the Centre which decided to give the Mother a state funeral. It was on a gun carriage that the body was moved for the last funeral rites. Will the RSS ask for a withdrawal of the gun salute extended to the late Mother?

I as an individual felt bad that the Mother who abhorred violence all her life was given a gun salute which would have frightened the birds in the vicinity. She was one person who would never let anyone disturb anyone for her comfort. I remember reading what JRD Tata, who once travelled with her on the same flight, wrote about her.

Word spread in the aircraft about her presence. She was trying to sleep but every now and then someone would come and click a picture. The flash would wake her up but she never even once expressed her displeasure. Instead, she blessed them!

Be that as it may, the RSS leader was not speaking in isolation. A few years ago, his boss Mohan Bhagwat attributed motives to Mother Teresa’s work. I wrote an open letter to the RSS chief through these columns requesting him to spare the dead for they are unable to defend themselves. 

Soon after the Delhi RSS leader made the statement, the permanent finance minister-in-waiting Subramaniam Swamy came out supporting the demand. He says he would be able to prove that conversion, not service, was Mother Teresa’s mission. He reminded the nation about a book anti-theist Christopher Hitchens wrote in which she attacked the Mother.

Swamy did not mention that he also wrote books against God, Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton. Hitchens described  Billy Graham as "a self-conscious fraud" and "a disgustingly evil man". He claimed that the evangelist, who had just been hospitalised for intestinal bleeding, made a living by "going around spouting lies to young people. What a horrible career! I gather it's soon to be over. I certainly hope so." It was the first time I ever heard someone say that he would like another person to die!

See, what happened! Graham outlived Hitchens by seven years. Graham would have hit a century on November 7, 2018, if he had not died on February 21, 2018. In comparison, Hitchens was just 62 when he died of cancer. Nonetheless, I would remember him for one brilliant sentence: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. I wish Swamy had promoted all his positions, instead of limiting himself to the  Missionary Position! 

The way the Jharkhand government has been dealing with such issues is not at all surprising. Some time ago, I wrote an open letter to the Jharkhand Chief Minister, Mr Raghubar Das, through these columns. It was entitled “Christians a blessing to Jharkhand”. 

What forced me to write that letter was an advertisement the Jharkhand government published in mainstream newspapers fraudulently quoting Mahatma Gandhi to claim that Christians were converting poor tribals by giving them rice. I published my letter on Facebook but it mysteriously disappeared from there forcing me to post it again.

If this is the attitude of the CM, how else can his functionaries in the districts behave? I want the case to be tried as quickly as possible by giving the accused a chance to defend themselves. However, the police in Ranchi should not behave like their counterparts in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh who remained silent when the local BJP MP’s secretary and his musclemen destroyed the property of a hospital run by the church. 

I wish Mr Raghubar Das had taken a greater interest in matters of administration, as Jharkhand is in the news not only for the alleged child-trafficking but also for starvation deaths.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 16th July 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 29)