Charitable Bigotry

Let me start with the caveat that I am totally against the politics of Mother Teresa’s model of charity and how the missionaries of charity is run.

The way the entire controversy around the alleged trafficking of infants in Ranchi by nun(s) belonging to the Missionaries of Charity exposes the underbelly of hatred and suspicion of the other on the part of savarna India.

I am not denying the possibility of the allegation being true and there being a racket of trafficking infants involving one or more nuns from this particular home. But on one hand fingers are being raised on an entire institution that has been built brick by brick over a long period of time through the work of thousands of people who dedicated their lives to this cause that they genuinely believe in. While on the other hand fingers are being raised against the entire Catholics as a community conspiring to convert Indian communities through alleged foreign and other devious funding.

The ease with which these allegations have already been accepted as true and the tone of the debate being set based on the presumption of possibility of truth of these allegations is what troubles me. On the day that these allegations surfaced – most of the mainstream media had already started speculating about an organized racket and about how Christian missionaries were conspiring on a funded conversion agenda. So much so that a number of 280 infants having disappeared in an organized racket had started doing the rounds till the ADGP Jharkhand, R. K. Malik had to put a stop to the rumors clarifying that only 4 infants had gone missing and 3 had already been rescued. But by then the damage had been done – newsrooms were running discussions on foreign funding for conversions. The Catholic Church and particularly the missionaries of charity were being painted as dens of evil that were bent on converting people.

Let us start with the first premise that is raising fingers at the credibility and bonafides of the missionaries of charity. Like any other institutionalization process, the missionaries of charity also as it grew would have attracted diverse elements into its fold – and that is inevitable. All kinds of people for different reasons would have walked into its fold. And like any other institution or society there are bound to be criminal elements within its fold. But to brand an institution and tarnish its goodwill based on an individual incident – however horrendous – is worse – especially as this particular institution gives succor to a large number of people that is literally unwanted by society and in many ways is carrying out the functions that ought to be done by the state.

What gets my goat is also that many of the discussants have not done their basic homework while throwing around allegations and generalizing. The reason for this I can only attribute to arrogance based on prejudice. The Catholic Church definitely is a huge monolith with the Pope as the head of the church – but, that does not make it homogenous. Each order has had different philosophies, institutionalization processes, with its own bureaucracy, rules of conduct and engagement, extent of sartorial freedom, asceticism, modes of funding and so on. All catholic orders don’t depend on foreign funding for their activities.

The philosophy of the missionaries of charity is strongly rooted in austerity. The brothers and nuns live a very subsistence life style as compared to many other orders of the church. At the small home for adult mentally disabled men that I have had the opportunity to help in Salem, I have seen some dedicated and honest men – who have dedicated their life to the work they are doing. Some of these mentally disabled men are also physically disabled, others are so unaware of themselves that they make a mess of themselves and do not even have basic toilet habits. It is these brothers who physically wash and clean them. They play with this men – I have seen them patiently bearing the violence that is sometimes unleashed on them with a smile.

Not even for a moment do I mean to romanticize these brothers or nuns. One particular Brother – whose name I am withholding – who I am particularly close to and fond off has no delusions of grandeur or martyrdom. Though not an agnostic, he has deep questions about the nature of his own faith – questions that only a person with depth can have. His association with the missionaries of charity is in his own terms – a part of his own way of searching for his happiness, joy or salvation or what you will call.

This small home with around 50-60 inmates leads a subsistence life – the inmates and the administrators alike. Their minimal funding is from the small monthly stipend that the state government provides for the mentally disabled – which will not cover the costs of living of a single person. They operate with philanthropic help from locals. For instance, almost every day food is donated as a charity by different people as part of their own religious or social obligations. They receive very little by way of money and all of that is audited perfectly.

Except for one inmate whose mother is too poor to look after him and visits him often, all the others are men who have been abandoned by their families for good. Their identities and pasts are not known and they have nowhere to go. This is perhaps one of the few places in India where caste really doesn’t exist! Because most of the men don’t know their own pasts and have been rescued from the streets or been brought to this home by other people. If this home is closed down – it means homelessness for these mentally disabled men which neither the state nor the hate peddlers will rehabilitate.

Even before the Ranchi scandal broke out, these Brothers have been expressing their concern over the government trying to tighten their grip around the organization and placing obstacles in the running of the home. For instance the local administration was placing red tape obstacles on the renewal of their license instead of easing it – which has made it impossible for them to take new admissions – despite demand for it. The administration seems to be hell bent on strangulating the institution into non-existence. The Ranchi scandal appears to have come as a boon for the Hindutva baiters of missionaries of charity to go after them with a renewed vigor.

This incident was also used as a peg to renew discussions on conversions. Even before BJP came to power the UPA government – particularly under P. Chidambaram as the Home and Finance minister was trying to choke the funding particularly for organizations that were working either on Human Rights issues or taking positions that were against the policy priorities of the government – be it Nuclear energy or Kashmir. This was also done pandering to the same savarna majoritarian insecurity over external forces trying to convert India into a Christian or a Muslim country – in this case Christian! Mirror Now had a full fledged discussion speculating the connection between funding, conversion and the trafficking. The problem with this and other discussions was the total lack of homework that went it – a potent medicine for strengthening existing prejudices and paving the pathway for Hindutva fascism.

With regard to funding, if any of the news rooms, discussants or self anointed experts had bothered to even do a basic Google search, they might have had a clue on the politics of funding in India works. Foregoing my own personal critique on NGOisation of politics, I think it is important to get some clarity on this subject to carry this discussion forward. There are and have been institutional foreign donors with Christian names like Christian Aid UK or Danish Church Aid and so on – these names reflect the mode of collection of funds in the country from where the funds originate and do not reflect their activities in any part of the world. In fact, most of institutional funding that comes to India apart from bilateral funding from state agencies and multilateral funding from international agencies and consortiums goes into charity projects because the donors don’t want to get into be sucked into the myriad of politics. There are a few agencies that fund purely empowerment activities. Despite their politics and the desirability of the same – organizations like Christian Aid UK have contributed considerably to the empowerment of marginalized communities and produced leaders from within communities – and these agencies employ and work largely with non Christian groups. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t sectarian agencies like World Vision that employ only Christians – but their impact is also so much lesser.

Insofar as the conversion is concerned, except for a minor few marginal groups – none of the mainstream churches in India receive funding for the express purpose of conversion. Insofar as the Catholic Church to which the missionaries of charity belong – is concerned – they have a strict policy against proselytizing. Conversions are allowed only when a person approaches the church on her own or for the purpose of marriage, if the couple wants to get married under Catholic rituals.

The truth of the matter is that the most dangerous hate funds that have come into India is through the various agencies of the Hindutva family. This is a regular stream of fund that is facilitated by dominant caste diaspora and it is huge. Campaign to stop funding hate in the first decade of 2000 had exposed the nexus of funding to Hindutva organizations and riots – particularly the 2002 Gujarat genocide and thereafter.

In short, connecting funding, conversion and an individual crime to tarnish the entire institutional base of the missionaries of charity – apart from being uncalled for – reeks of entrenched bigotry. If there are institutional lapses that the missionaries of charity is guilty of, I am totally of the opinion that they should be made culpable under the law – and no amount of their goodwill should come in the way. But creating a discourse that fuels hatred and increases suspicion on particular communities doesn’t fall within the ambit of legal processes!

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Bobby Kunhu Written by:

Bobby Kunhu studied Law

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