Celebrating the Life and Times of Indian Nuns and Priests

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The Challenge is in the soil of India


Nine years ago, in 2006, I wrote a Public Note, by way to a statement to the media and to the law leadership in India when the Bar Council of India moved the Supreme Court of India, opposing the admission of Catholic consecrated women and men practicing as lawyers in various courts of law. As many others, among them Hindu and Muslim jurists, I too was shocked at the approach and perhaps even implied bigotry in that organisation managing the professional aspects of lawyering. The matter had been adequately settled in the Bombay High Court many years ago when it upheld the marked difference between the vocation of a priest and a nun and their specialized secular profession. The matter was later upheld once again in the Kerala High Court.

I asked :“If the Bar Council feels it still needs to agitate the matter in the highest court of the land, it will have to explain itself to the common man. What does it oppose – the entry of highly committed rand deeply religious activists with a social conscience seeking legal redress for the common man, the poor and the marginalized, demanding equity in law, and providing a voice to the meek? Is it opposed to low cost and free legal aid available to gender victims, to Dalits and the starving. Does it not like commitment and excellence?

“Theologically and under legal definitions, the vocation of a religious is very different from his or her professional career. A priest or nun, after years of theological, philosophical and spiritual training – apart from secular studies – makes a commitment, even a covenant, with God to serve his people to the end of their lives, making sacrifices most humans would not. Many of these priests serve in parishes in religious duties. Many others train as teachers, social workers, doctors, scientists, and even motor mechanics and serve their local brothers and sisters. If the Bar Council is making a difference between professionals – the Advocate Act bars even law degree holders in a full time job in industry or education from practicing in courts – it needs to remembered that when nuns and priests are employed in the university or hospitals, they get full salaries as given to their secular colleagues. It is another matter that most of them deposit this salary with their congregations. Therefore nuns and priests are not employees of a church organisation or of a bishop or superior. Nuns and priests, who are lawyers, whether in Mumbai, Allahabad, Lucknow, Calcutta or Delhi, have done a tremendous job in legal aid and civil society. This I can vouch for by my personal and long experience in long years or working with them. They must be accepted as lawyers and allowed to practice in court in the defence of the poor.”

I have not always been a practicing Catholic, spending as an avowedly Left-wing writer and activist almost my entire youth and two thirds of my professional life as an investigating journalist, Editor and documentary film maker reporting on political, economic and development issues relating to farmers, labour, religious minorities, Tribals, Dalits and others forced to live on the margins of government and public consciousness in the country, and other parts of the world. This is an ideological battleground, and those witnessing it cannot remain untouched with the hidden and open violence against the poor and the weak, with the state complicit, and impunity rampant. This also gave me an opportunity to see the rawness of life at the grassroots, the victimization, and the terror. It also helped understand the political economy, and the lack of social interventions by civil society. Above all, it helped me see the nexus, collaboration and conspiracy between big capital, politicians, the bureaucracy and the criminal justice apparatus — block level judicial officers all the way to the high courts and the   capricious lawyers – as it operates in real life.

The Church — Catholic, protestant, evangelical, Pentecost — was among the few organisations present at the grassroots, sometimes even where the government instruments and personnel were absent, such as in health and education, and there was no civil society, no Non-Governmental Organisations, and in the early years, not a single member of any of the Sangh Parivar organisations. It was not that the church presence was always useful. Sometimes it was just one person, and while he or she could take a ill person to the nearest dispensary, there was little else that was done, other than perhaps a basic evangelisation, and that too not in a very enlightened manner. And sometimes, the church presence became just another part of the formal structures, the church personnel doing the bidding of the local political and administrative bosses. In effect, they became little more than service providers.

But even in the 1970s in my travels in areas that were forested, or were populated by Tribals and Dalits, as they are now generally known, I would meet Catholic consecrated men – I would much rather call them Brothers, Religious Sisters or Nuns and Fathers – working deep in the hinterland, in the areas inhabited by the poorest of the poor.

And they were often working in politically and physically hostile areas long before the hoodlums of the Sangh Parivar sought to make these areas more inhospitable to anyone who challenged their divisive and hate-filled ideology. Even during the terrible days of the Emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi during 1975-1977, when all voices were stifled and police and bureaucracy ruled as petty dictators in some banana republic, there were men and women brining solace to the victims, if bit actually challenging the czars of the ruling structure. I do not know if any priest or Nun was arrested by the police those days. Perhaps not, but many surely would have been warned off, and told to stop their activities.

Many years later, I had another cathartic, even shattering experience that confirmed my oft-articulated sentiment that Catholic Nuns are ordinary women challenged to do extraordinary deeds, that they voluntarily identify themselves entirely with the fate of the poor and marginalised who are at risk of life, liberty or dignity. Some of these religious women for this with their lives. This was my visit to the small hut that Sister Valsa John of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary called home in a distant village in Pachaura, In Pakur in Dumka district of Jharkhand, and where she was brutally murdered in late at night on Tuesday, 15th November 2011. She had been attacked by a group of about 45 men armed with swords, axes and other weapons. Her head was nearly severed from her body. Some Maoist literature and a spade were left behind. The immediate suspicion was that she was killed for she had taken sides with the local Tribals in their long standing confrontation with the corporate sector mining the area for coal. Years later, the suspicions of a conspiracy remain in the public mind, and in mine.

Valsa’s death, the impunity of the state, has made me ask many questions of myself, the laity, other religious, and of course of the Church hierarchy Why are these people honoured, often in a token gesture, after their death by violence or in God’s own time of old age, but never celebrated when they are alive, and why is their work never really acknowledged unless it is in their role as principals and teachers of popular “convent” schools and colleges in metropolitan cities. Above all, where would be the Catholic church in particular, but without its consecrated people, followed by the next question why despite a couple of hundred thousand trained and untrained pastors and bible teacher, the protestant and independent churches have not been able to get trained and committed people who are not mere employees, but the very soul of the social and evangelistic outreach of the faith.

The future of the Church in general, and its evangelistic and social outreach, beyond the homilies and the rituals, depends on its consecrated personnel. Of that there is no doubt in my mind. The Lay component of the church does not lack the zeal, nor the divine calling, to be use and help to his of her fellow human beings. Their limited potential of this intervention despite their more intrinsic “dialogue of life” with people of other religions and social identities in the neighbourhood, is because of the nature of the church in India and the demographic and economic, social and caste compulsions of the people. The membership of the church is largely Dalit, Tribal, peasantry and what can be called the lower economic strata, or at best the lower middle class. There are very few people who can really be counted as economically well off, or rich, despite the high visibility of some tokens of wealth, specially jewelry and large houses on small plots of land, that one gets to see on the western coast of India or in some urban pockets. The issues of living an every day life of survival, trying to eke out a livelihood in an economically hostile ecology looms large on the common Christian. Add to it the vagaries of development in the areas which much of the Christian community lives in, the forested rural hinterland of central India, the plateau of south India, the Dalit hamlets and the mission compounds of north Indian states, there is little surprise that Christian youth find themselves sucked early into the rat race, with no tine to cater to their evolving social consciousness. Outside Kerala, perhaps, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, the Christian presence in trade unions, political parties and other mass organisations in small, and often all but non existent.

This in many ways also shows itself in the lack of political training, if not illiteracy, in the community, despite the thesis that those in some southern and north eastern states play an important role in the political processes of their regions. This is largely because they have large concentrations of populations in limited areas or pockets. This stratification may give them an enviable presence in the electoral politics of their districts, but still keeps them far away from influencing the national political discourse.

This political emasculation, if one can so definite it, makes the community very helpless in a rapidly changing political and economic discourse which is marked by extremely right wing, casteist and communal political on the one hand and a development model propounded not just by the Bharatiya Janata party and the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, but also by regional parties which govern various states specially those rich in natural resources such as Orissa. The recent legislative “economic reforms” that the government has brought in, many of them through ordinances as they could go through the Rajya Sabha where the BJP still does not have a majority of the vote, make it easy for government to transfer tribal and forest lands for industry, risking not just the life and livelihood of the common people but the security if a very fragile ecology and a rapidly depleting forest cover. The only beneficiaries are crony capitalism.

Some would argue that even more critical predation is that of the mind, specially of the very young. The secular and tolerant fabric of society is sought to be changed by that old fascist trick of indoctrination of the pliant psyche and intellect, catching them young, so to speak.

The fact that the Sangh Parivar runs over 57,000 ideology based schools for children in villages across several states, and specially in areas populated by Tribals and the Dalits, groups once called Untoucbable, makes available a cadre of youth and their parents ready to do their bidding in unraveling the secular heritage of the country’s freedom struggle. The stage is being set for this. The government’s senior minister, Mr. Venkiah Naidu, a former president of the BJP, has called for a national law against religious conversions. These laws exist in six states, and have been passed by two more states but yet made cleared by the Governors. It is a matter of a few months before they too are brought into force. These laws have also led to some considerable violence against religious groups in the years they have been in force. United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteurs for Religious Freedom have slammed these laws as infringing the basic rights of freedom of faith and belief, enunciated in the UN bill of Rights, and in fact, an important part of the Indian Constitution.

Other ministers have suggested an immediate enactment of a Common Civil Code, seemingly a good thing, but rooted in the unsubstantiated premise that Muslims can marry four wives at a time, are breeding too fast, and will outnumber the Hindus soon. The law will also impact on Christian personal laws and customs, particularly in rural populations where tradition and custom are the glue that holds their society together.

Mr. Modi’s minister for education, the former TV actor Mrs. Smriti Boman Irani, who has ordered a revision of text books, particularly of history, to incorporate more of ancient Indian traditions including references of Hindu sacred texts. Various important councils in the ministry are now chaired by luminaries wedded to the thesis that India is the fountainhead of all knowledge in the world. The BJP and the Minister hold Hindu sacred texts are the 5,000-year-old source of knowledge on such diverse subjects as plastic surgery, aviation, nuclear weaponry and genetic engineering.

How are these to be questioned, and the trends reversed? The church no longer runs the most educational institutions in the country, with the RSS, the corporate sector, and the government which too is now almost entirely in control of the Sangh ideology have collectively overwhelmed whatever were the values that the Catholic and protestant schools sought to teach for almost a century and a half through much of the landmass, reaching deep into remote areas.

This massive education system, and the growing population of the rural and urban marginalised, therefore pose a tremendous, even an exciting, challenge to the church in general, and in particular to its fighting arm, the consecrated men and women. It remains to be seen if they will rise to the occasion as they have done in the past in the pioneering tradition of Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia. There is the other nagging question if the lay community will be able to continue to give of its sons and daughters to the church in terms of local vocation. The focal points of such calling have always changed with the times, and new areas have emerged to help change the ethnic profile, but not the strength of character and tempo, of those who seek a future in the service of the church and the people.

The growth of the church in India, and its ability to help change the welfare and human rights discourse in India to the advantage of the common people, is, I feel confident, safe in the hands of these brave and committed men and women.

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