Why Stan Swamy may have survived ancient India

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Christian priests were also targeted in ancient India. On several occasions over the past fifty years, the Union Home Office has issued orders to foreign missionaries asking them to leave India, often on short notice and often on the basis of fabricated accusations of all parts. But in the past, if such injustices came to light, senior politicians and bureaucrats frequently politely revoked the eviction notice without any hard feelings. Common sense often prevailed at the highest levels of government.

There was compassion – a hallmark of any liberal democracy – rather than the religious hatred and sadism we see today. In the halls of power, there was a genuine appreciation for the priests and nuns who serve among the oppressed in the underdeveloped regions of India. Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest, a man who had done just that, was instead charged with sedition under the draconian Prevention of Illegal Activities Act of 1967. He was denied bail and medical treatment. The death of the octogenarian in police custody has embarrassed India on the international scene. There are no takers for our Ministry of Foreign Affairs meow around the world that Swamy was “treated according to the law.”

In my four decades as a reporter — in three magazines and four newspapers — I have covered the stories of several missionaries who have done commendable work but who have also faced the wrath of local officials or politicians. And many of them have been threatened with deportation. But the press, through its hierarchy, was eager to cover their ordeals. The leaders of the highest levels of power were willing to speak personally to the clergy concerned. From my purpose as a journalist, I can testify to the humanity of previous regimes, at least with regard to the Christian missionaries who worked in some of the more underdeveloped areas of the country. Even the media, which were arguably as close to power then as they are today, reflected this humanity.

After independence, very few foreign priests and nuns were granted Indian citizenship. Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, commonly known as Mother Teresa, was a notable exception. She acquired Indian nationality in 1951. The others live in India, their adopted country, under a residence permit which must be renewed each year. But a notice to leave India, issued by the Union’s Home Office, could shorten even a valid permit, requiring them to pack their bags and leave. As foreigners, they had little legal recourse, limiting themselves to asking the government to review their eviction notices.

One of my first investigative pieces, titled “Is Father Stroscio Guilty?” was published in the Sunday magazine on November 26, 1978. It was my first cover for the late news weekly edited by MJ Akbar. I was not even 20 and still studying at St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, but the magazine published my articles and finally gave me a job after I graduated. The other report – “Are these men dangerous? The illustrated weekly December 22, 1985.


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