Targeting missionaries

Print edition : October 22, 2004

A criminal assault on nuns of the Missionaries of Charity in Kerala, the first such incident involving the organisation in the country, raises concerns about the spread of communalism in the State.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THE political furore that followed the attack on the members of the Missionaries of Charity at a Dalit colony in Kozhikode, Kerala, perhaps drowned a significant statement made by a bewildered victim, Sister Kusumum. "We want the police to find out who the culprits are, not to seek revenge, but to understand why they attacked us," she told mediapersons who visited Sneha Bhavan, the local office of the organisation founded by Nobel laureate Mother Teresa. Sneha Bhavan provides shelter to over 50 inmates, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, all of them poor, sick or old.

Sister Kusumum at a hospital in Kozhikode.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On September 25, a small gang of men assaulted two nuns from Sneha Bhavan and the driver of their vehicle as soon as they reached the `Four-Cent Harijan Colony', at Mampuzhakkadu near Pantheerankavu in Olavanna panchayat. The gang accused them of preparing the ground for religious conversion in the Dalit colony. The nuns were reportedly invited to the colony by a woman who had been receiving rice and essential provisions as charity from them for over a year and who wanted some of her neighbours too to get such help. The assailants told the nuns that they would be burnt alive if they came to the colony again. Finally, when the women of the colony formed a cordon around the nuns, the assailants left the scene threatening that they would wait for the nuns at a nearby location.

The terrified nuns ran to a house nearby to call the police and to inform their colleagues at Sneha Bhavan. Then they took refuge in the nearest police station, at Nallalam. Meanwhile, on hearing the news of the attack, another group from Sneha Bhavan, including Mother Superior Kusumum, Brother Varghese and a visiting member of the Missionaries of Charity from Kenya, Brother Bernard, reached the colony. While they were about to return, a mob, allegedly raising the slogans `BJP-RSS zindabad' and `Bharat Mata Ki Jai', surrounded their vehicle. The mob pushed the outnumbered police personnel aside, smashed the windowpanes of the vehicle and brutally attacked the group members. The mob threw mud at them, hit them on the head and neck with iron rods and metal bangles, and tore their clothes. The group was eventually rescued by the police and admitted to hospital. Although there were initial indications that the first group of assailants were from the locality, residents of the colony later said that "outsiders" carried out the attacks. The nuns also said that the attackers were "outsiders".

Close on the heels of the attack on the nuns, on September 29, "unidentified assailants" broke into the St. Thomas Mar Thoma Church in Thiruvananthapuram city. The altar, curtains and furniture were damaged when the assailants set them on fire, which was contained only because a priest detected it early.

UNLIKE several other States, Kerala had been relatively free of such attacks. But in January 2003, J.W. Cooper, a bishop in a Pentecostal church based in Ohio, the United States, became the target of a communal mob in rural Thiruvananthapuram (Frontline, February 28, 2003). Importantly, the attack came at a time when the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party-Vishwa Hindu Parishad combine was launching a fresh offensive on the religious, social, cultural and political fronts in the State. The incident highlighted the growing intolerance of the Hindutva forces, but it also put the spotlight on the activities of a variety of Pentecostal groups and growing competition among them to win over "human souls" following, especially, the (continuing) power struggles within prominent Churches in the State.

Simultaneously, Kerala also witnessed a large section of the general laity turning to Christian meditation and charismatic centres and small churches and Pentecostal initiatives that sprouted in all parts of the State. In a State where Christians form a substantial section of the population, the mushrooming of such religious centres and activities was viewed with apprehension by the RSS, the BJP and the VHP and they used it effectively to spread their own influence in the name of guarding "faithfuls in the Hindu fold" and protecting them from the "threat of missionary activity". Although the Sangh Parivar's target initially had been the Pentecostal programmes, over the years, charity work and religious activity by a majority of Christian organisations too fell under their suspicious eye, especially after, in the words of Sangh Parivar leaders, "the controversial statement of Pope John Paul II at the turn of the century calling for religious conversions all over Asia".

In Thiruvananthapuram, a march by Left activists with an effigy of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy in protest against the attack on the nuns.-S. MAHINSHA

The editorial published by the BJP's Malayalam daily, Janmabhoomi, two days after the attack on the nuns is a window to the Sangh Parivar's thinking. Titled "The Olavanna incident: Let all the facts come out", the editorial says: "It has become the practice of many Christian Churches today to indulge in religious activity and forced religious conversions in the name of charity work. Many would find it difficult to deny that the main agenda of the Catholic Church and others is forced conversions. In this context we must also take into consideration the call given by Pope John Paul II when he visited India a few years ago. He called for the Christianisation of Asia. On whom does the onus lie to prove that when the Pope's smiling faithfuls descend on the members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes with wheat, clothes and milk powder, they are not trying to implement the Pope's call? Activities that cast doubts naturally lead to criticism. Such activities may work well among illiterate tribal people and others. But it is not surprising if such activities create suspicion in a colony near Kozhikode city. Maybe it is this suspicion that led to the tension... "

The attack at Olavanna is the first such incident against the members of the Missionaries of Charity anywhere in India. Sangh Parivar leaders have repeatedly denied any role in the incident but, at the same time, they also used the opportunity to cast doubts on the charity work initiated by the nuns. The presence of the Kenyan national, Brother Bernard, in the second group that went to the colony has come in handy for the critics. The Hindutva organisations have been trying hard to portray it as a case similar to the Cooper incident, wherein the U.S. citizen was accused of indulging in "illegal missionary activity" while he was "overstaying" in the country after the expiry of his tourist visa. Soon after the attack on Cooper, even while shrill demands were being made for his arrest, the State police controversially ordered him to leave the country.

According to the volunteers of the Missionaries of Charity, Brother Bernard was on a brief visit to Kerala and he had a valid visa that permitted him to stay in the country for one year and undergo training with the organisation. His presence at the colony on September 25 was accidental, according to them, though he reportedly registered himself with the State police only after the incident occurred, a slip, perhaps, that has now come in handy for his tormentors.

WITH hardly a few months to go before the elections to the local bodies in the State, the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), troubled as it was by factional wars in the State unit of the Congress and the serious differences with the minority communities that its previous Chief Minister A.K. Antony ran into, had barely managed to start afresh on a "clean slate" under the new Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his team of Ministers.

The Opposition Left Democratic Front termed the attack as the handiwork of the Sangh Parivar. It also alleged that it proved the failure of the State police under Oommen Chandy. The Dalit colony is generally considered a pro-Communist Party of India (Marxist) area coming under the LDF-ruled Olavanna panchayat. Of late, however, the RSS had intensified its activity in the locality, the latest instance being a mega Hindu ritual held near the colony a few days before the attack occurred. The Sangh Parivar had since then claimed that its "growing influence" had rattled its opponents, both political and religious, and that the first group of attackers included "those from a local club" (known to be run by CPI(M) supporters).

Although Chief Minister Oommen Chandy announced that the police had identified 13 of the assailants, only one person has been arrested so far. Chandy refused to divulge the political affiliation of the assailants or to give further information on the inquiry "prematurely". However, his political compulsions became clear when he sought to use the event to score points with the Opposition at a media conference in Thiruvananthapuram on September 29, soon after his high-visibility visit to the colony and meeting with the victims of the attack.

He said that along with the combined police-Crime Branch inquiry into the attack, the government had decided to conduct a detailed inquiry by a senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer into the "circumstances that led to the nuns' visit to the colony". This, he added, was "the extreme and continuing poverty in the colony", which had "no reliable water or power supply or even a pucca road link" with the rest of the panchayat. He also said pointedly that "Olavanna panchayat had for long been a CPI(M)-ruled panchayat" and that "the panchayat member from the particular area had been elected on the CPI(M) ticket". The IAS officer was asked to inquire why "even after several years under the decentralised local body system in the State and people's planning initiatives, a [CPI-M] panchayat like Olavanna, showcased for its grassroots development achievements, had failed the people of the Dalit colony, though mechanisms like the grama sabhas were still supposed to be working well within the panchayat system". The inquiry report would help the government find out "what had gone wrong with the decentralisation experiment in Kerala" (launched by the previous LDF government) and take "corrective measures" elsewhere in the State, the Chief Minister said.

Oommen Chandy also announced a list of relief measures for the households in the colony, including free ration for a month, pucca houses and jobs for women under the Kudumbashree (poverty eradication) Mission. With barely a few months to go for the panchayat elactions, the attack has, obviously, come in handy for the ruling UDF.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor