Why Stan Swamy may have survived old India

The December 1985 cover story of Illustrated Weekly was about six foreign missionaries who were served deportation orders in Madhya Pradesh. After the magazine covered it, politicians intervened to prevent their deportation. In the corridors of power back then, there was a genuine appreciation for priests and nuns who serve among the oppressed in India’s underdeveloped regions. Stan Swamy, who recently died in prison, did not get the same appreciation from either politicians or the media. COURTESY SNM Abdi
Elections 2024
08 September, 2021

Christian priests were targeted in old India too. On multiple occasions in the past fifty years, the union home ministry has handed orders to foreign missionaries asking them to quit India—often on short notice, and often based on trumped up charges. But in the past, if such injustices were brought to light, top politicians and bureaucrats politely frequently revoked the expulsion notice without any rancour. Better 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 corridors of power, there was a genuine appreciation for priests and nuns who serve among the oppressed in India’s underdeveloped regions. Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest, a man who had done exactly that, was instead framed in a case under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 and booked for sedition. He was denied bail and medical treatment. The octogenarian’s death in police custody embarrassed India on the international stage. There are no takers for our foreign ministry mewing the world over that Swamy was “dealt with in accordance with the law.”

In my four decades as a reporter—at three magazines and four newspapers—I have covered stories of several missionaries who did commendable work but who also faced the ire of local officials or politicians. And many of them were threatened with deportation. But the press, across its hierarchy, were eager to cover their ordeals. Leaders at the highest seats of power were willing to personally speak to the affected clergy. From my lens as a reporter, I can testify to the humaneness of previous regimes at least insofar as dealing with Christian missionaries who worked in some of the country’s most underdeveloped regions. Even the media, which was arguably just as close to power then as it is now, mirrored 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 lived in India, their adopted home, on the strength of a residential permit that had to be renewed annually. But a quit India notice, issued by the union ministry of home affairs, could cut short even a valid permit, compelling them to pack their bags and leave. As foreigners, they had little legal recourse, limited to petitioning the government to review their expulsion notice.

One of my earliest investigative pieces, titled, “Is Father Stroscio guilty?” was published in the Sunday magazine on 26 November 1978. It was my first cover story for the now defunct news weekly edited by MJ Akbar. I had not even turned 20 and was still studying in St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, but the magazine carried my pieces and ultimately gave me a job after graduation. The other report—“Are these men dangerous?”—about six foreign missionaries who were served deportation orders in Madhya Pradesh, ran in The Illustrated Weekly on 22 December 1985.

I learnt about the quit India notice served to Rosario Stroscio, an Italian priest and teacher, in 1978 from a small news item buried on page three of The Statesman, Kolkata’s leading English newspaper in those days. The item described a memorandum submitted by the Catholic Association of West Bengal to Anthony Lancelot Dias, the state’s governor, protesting the expulsion notice. Akbar, who was the editor of Sunday, agreed that I should find out why the missionary was being hounded.

A letter Abdi received from Stroscio after the Sunday magazine published a piece which helped stop his deportation. COURTESY SNM Abdi

Stroscio arrived in India in 1939, when he was only 17. His vessel was the last Italian ship to come east as the second world war was about to begin. He joined the Don Bosco Order—a Catholic religious congregation also known as Salesians—learned English and undertook the compulsory courses in theology. Ordained in 1951 after doing his MA from Calcutta University, Stroscio taught at Don Bosco School in Howrah’s Liluah locality for 15 years.

In the mid-1960s, he was appointed principal and rector of the Don Bosco School, in Kolkata’s Park Circus locality. It was a school where the city’s who’s who queued up to get their sons admitted, ranked at par with St Xavier’s, Calcutta Boys and La Martiniere. It is still one of the best boys’ schools and a magnet for the aspirational class.

In 1974, Stroscio was posted as the vicar-general of the Roman Catholic Mission at Krishnanagar, the headquarters of West Bengal’s Nadia district. His life in India had been uneventful until then, barring, of course, his internment in the town of Deoli in Rajasthan, in 1940, after Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy, declared war against the United Kingdom, which then ruled over India. After some Europeans succumbed to the desert heat, the internees—designated prisoners of war—were taken to Mussorie and released after four years.

But little did Stroscio know that a far bigger challenge than internment as a prisoner of war awaited him in Nadia district. Within three years of his posting in Krishnanagar, in June 1977, he received the first quit India notice, which asked him to leave the country in 30 days. Although no explanation was given in writing by government officials, they informally told him that he was being expelled for illegally converting Adivasis to Christianity in Nadia district’s Nuton Goatpara village.

A frantic dash to Delhi saved the day. Stroscio met George Fernandes, the union minister for industries in the Morarji Desai government, who promised to look into the case. And true enough, the home ministry extended his stay in India by six months on a “trial basis.” Subsequently, his residential permit was renewed in January 1978 for a year, till 6 January 1979.

The priest thought that the worst was over and that he would get his yearly extensions in future without any hassle. But on 19 April 1978, he received a letter from the foreigners registration office regretting the government’s inability to extend his residential permit beyond 6 January the following year. In the letter, Stroscio was directed to make arrangements for his departure from India “positively by 06th January 1979.” 

Realising that his days in India were literally numbered, Stroscio sent letters and memorandums to everyone who mattered, including the prime minister and union home minister, demanding to know the reasons for his expulsion. The Catholic Association of West Bengal naturally sprang to his defence. The Association’s letter to the governor merited only two paragraphs in The Statesman but I immediately smelled a story.

When I visited Nadia between October and November 1978, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle began falling into place. Stroscio was a conspicuous figure in Krishnanagar, riding a bicycle in his white cassock. I gathered that his supposed crime was that he helped 40 Adivasi families of Nuton Goatpara in a class conflict against the zamindar—feudal landowner—and the local police. It was clear that he been framed by the administration on behalf of one of Nadia’s richest landlords—who also happened to be the district stringer of Anand Bazaar Patrika, the flagship daily of Sunday’s publisher, Anand Bazaar. The landlord had roped in intelligence agencies and top district officials, who he wined and dined, to send false reports to the union home ministry that the priest was engaged in illegal conversions resulting in communal strife. Stroscio was targeted because he urged Adivasis, who were being oppressed by the rich landlord, to unite and demand their rights.

It was a fairly open and shut case. The exposé in Sunday, running into five pages with photographs shot by Devi Prasad Sinha, won Stroscio a reprieve right away. His residential permit, which was due to expire on 6 January, was extended by six months. It was like a lifeline in choppy waters. He had won a battle, but he was keen to win the war and stay permanently in India. Senior government officials acknowledged to me in private that my report was an eye-opener. Sunday received an impressive harvest of letters to the editor expressing solidarity with the priest and congratulated the magazine for supporting him.

I still have a typed and signed letter from Stroscio on the letterhead of Bishop House, Krishnanagar, dated 8 February 1979. The envelope too is intact. He wrote, “On 28th Dec (1978), I went to Delhi and there I realised that your article had actually turned the tide, in the mind of many important officers, in my favour. The P.M. was still adamant, but on 2nd January he began to relent.” He was alluding to Morarji Desai, the prime minister at the time.

Stroscio got short extensions but the sword of expulsion continued to hang over his head. He was a loveable person. He even dropped into the Sunday’s office a few times to see us. Profusely thankful, he always arrived with a small box of sweets. The magazine’s editor and I agreed we must solve Stroscio’s problem once and for all.

By then, Indira Gandhi had returned as prime minister. We knew that Fernandes who had helped Stroscio in 1977 was now in the opposition and was not in a position to solve the priest’s problem. Ultimately, with Fernandes’s help, we decided to rope in Frank Anthony, an Anglo-Indian member of parliament and Gandhi’s personal lawyer.

An image from the Illustrated Weekly’s story on the deportation of six missionaries from Madhya Pradesh. It shows Indra Iyengar meeting Indira Gandhi. COURTESY SNM Abdi

Stroscio told me that Fernandes fixed his meeting with Anthony in Delhi and Anthony took him to Gandhi in his car. Stroscio remembered that Gandhi was extremely courteous and full of warmth. He had gone to the meeting armed with a copy of Sunday only to find the magazine with his picture on the cover already lying on her table. She promptly put Stroscio out of his misery, saying in her no-nonsense style, “Don’t worry. You can live in India for as long as you wish. Nobody will harass you anymore. I have told them to renew your Residential Permit each year.” The priest recalled that he abruptly rose from his chair to thank the prime minister and say, “May God bless you.” She too got up and wished the priest a safe journey to Kolkata. I was as relieved when Stroscio narrated to me what had transpired in the prime minister’s office.

Stroscio lived an exciting but secure life after that. He even enjoyed the rare distinction of performing an exorcism on Mother Teresa in 1997 because she feared that she was being attacked by the devil. I interviewed him for an exclusive story in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English daily, on the Noble Prize-winning nun’s duel with the devil. Stroscio died peacefully on 9 June 2019 in Kolkata at the ripe old age of 97—his wish to live and die in India fulfilled. He is buried in Kolkata, just like Mother Teresa.

In late October 1985, national dailies carried a story from Bhopal about several other quit India notices issued to six foreign missionaries in Madhya Pradesh. Pritish Nandy, the Illustrated Weekly’s editor, had hired me that year as the special correspondent in Kolkata. But I was more of a roving reporter, free to travel anywhere with the editor’s permission. As I had worked on Stroscio story and knew how quit India notices were misused and abused, I pitched the Madhya Pradesh story to Nandy, who gave me the go-ahead.

In Bhopal, I met Indira Iyengar, the president of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association, who had taken the six missionaries—five men and a woman—to meet the then Congress party chief minister Motilal Vora. The chief minister had promised an impartial inquiry. The prospects of justice were remote as a very powerful couple—Devendra Kumari, a Congress politician and her husband, MS Singh Deo, an officer of the Indian Administrative Services—was gunning for them. Iyengar told me that the couple, famed for their clout in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, wanted the six to be thrown out of India.   

From Bhopal, I drove 750 kilometres to Ambikapur, the headquarters of Surguja district, where the six missionaries, who the government had tried to paint as dangerous aliens, ran schools, colleges and hospitals. At that time, Francis John Wynant was 76 years old; Luc Verstraete, 62; Louis De Raedt, 71; Jaak Somers, 66; Bernel Edwin Getters, 60; and his wife, Sally Joan Getters, 59. Wynant, Verstraete and Raedt were Belgians and Somers, Dutch. The four belonged to the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus, the same congregation Stan Swamy belonged to. The Getters were Protestants from the United States. The six had on an average spent an incredibly long time in India—41 years. And they had been asked to leave in a mere three months, threatened with deportation if they did not.

Kumari was a minister in the Madhya Pradesh’s previous Arjun Singh government and her writ ran in Surguja, which had a substantial Christian tribal population. The region, which was her fiefdom for decades, witnessed the rise of a charismatic tribal leader, Blasius Ekka. He was made a minister in the Arjun Singh government in 1980 but was sacked from the cabinet for attempting to prosecute the timber mafia in Madhya Pradesh which had close ties to several influential Congress leaders. In the state’s March 1985 assembly elections, Ekka contested as an independent candidate and also fielding his supporters from several constituencies in Surguja and the adjoining Raigarh district, where the Christian tribal vote was key.

The six missionaries told me in separate tape-recorded interviews that before the March 1985 elections, Kumari had ordered them to canvas for her and other Congress Party candidates. But they bluntly told her that they would not influence voters. Though Ekka and his allies did not win a single seat, the Christian vote which traditionally went to the Congress was divided. Kumari lost and Dwarika Prasad, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate, got elected by consolidating the non-Christian vote.

Several people I interviewed for the story told me that Kumari turned vengeful after she was rebuffed by the missionaries. A canard was spread that the missionaries had specifically asked Christian Adivasis to boycott the Congress and vote for Ekka and his candidates. I gathered that Kumari and Deo influenced Surguja’s superintendent of police and district magistrate to submit concocted reports to the state home department accusing the missionaries of illegal activities including converting Adivasis through allurement. The home department dutifully forwarded the fabricated files to the union home ministry which issued the quit India notices.  

I named Kumari, popularly known as the rajmata—queen mother—of Surguja, and Deo, who later rose to become the chief secretary of the state, in my report. It was published on 22 December 1985 in the Illustrated Weekly, and was titled “Are these men dangerous?” The timing of the story, just shy of Christmas, made it a hot topic of discussion among Christians across India.

Soon after its publication, Ashok Jain, the chairman of Times of India Group, which owned Illustrated Weekly, organised a luncheon in the Jain House—the Kolkata residence of the Jain family. The luncheon was in honour of AN Sen, the chairman of the press council of India and Nandy flew from Bombay for the event. I was invited too. On the sidelines of the event, Nandy told me that Jain was not too happy with the Illustrated Weekly for espousing the cause of Christian missionaries. “But you needn’t worry,” he said reassuringly.

The Sunday magazine’s cover story about the deportation of Stroscio. COURTESY SNM Abdi

When I told Nandy how Akbar had gone out of his way to help Stroscio, Nandy said that he had already spoken to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Mani Shankar Aiyyar, then the joint secretary in the prime minister’s office, about the missionaries. Nandy’s body language said that their response was positive and the missionaries would not be thrown out.

They were not. Clearly, the Indian government, back in the day when it still had a heart, understood the gravity of the situation. Iyengar, now 84 years old and recuperating from a COVID-19 attack, informed me that thanks to the Illustrated Weekly’s coverage, none of the six priests were forced to leave India. Their residential permits were extended annually. They died one by one and were buried in India, except Bernel Edwin Getters, who left for the United States in 2014 and died in Montrose, Colorado, in 2019. His wife, Sally Joan Getters, passed away in Surguja in 2005. Last year, Iyenger chronicled her fight with the establishment to save the missionaries in a 56-page book titled, “Made in Belgium but Wish to Perish in India.” She gives full credit to the Illustrated Weekly expose for the extensions the six received on their residential permits.     

When I contacted Nandy for this story, he confirmed that Ashok Jain was indeed unhappy with Illustrated Weekly for taking up cudgels on behalf of the missionaries. “But Ashok Jain let matters rest after I defended our reportage,” he told me over WhatsApp. “I defended all the stories I carried as an editor. It was part of our dharma in those days. No buck passing.”  

But much has changed in the decades since. Both Sunday and Illustrated Weekly have folded up. Their editors, Akbar and Nandy, a Muslim and Christian who were household names with successful journalistic careers, both joined Hindu supremacist political parties. Nandy was sent to Rajya Sabha by the Shiv Sena–BJP combine in 1998 for one term.

Akbar first entered the Lok Sabha in 1989 as a Congress MP but later joined the BJP and became the minister of state for external affairs in the first Narendra Modi government. Although no longer a minister, Akbar is still neck-deep in the BJP. He has been sucked into the swamp and is destined to remain there. Nandy’s involvement in politics today is just ankle-deep, I reckon. Unlike Akbar, he seems to be his own man—although his Shiv Sena-BJP link is irrefutable.

Importantly, Akbar stands accused of sexually harassing at least eighteen female journalists, and has also been accused of rape. My request to Akbar for a quote recalling how he went out of his way to rescue Stroscio 41 years ago drew a blank on WhatsApp, despite two blue ticks. My reminder too was met by silence.

Others too have shed their secular ideals to wear the saffron robe. Fernandes, who helped Stroscio not once but twice, turned into a hatchet man for the Hindu Right, after opposing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Jan Sangh for years. In 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons, Philip and Timothy, were burnt to death by the Bajrang Dal, an RSS-affiliate. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee fielded Fernandes—defence minister, convenor of the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance and a Catholic to boot—to ward off international condemnation. Fernandes obliged by attributing the cold-blooded killings to an “international conspiracy” hatched to defame India. He similarly justified the slitting of women’s wombs during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.

Besides Swamy, the viciousness in the new India, in contrast to the humaneness of old India, is evident from a recent expulsion. Two years ago, Enedina Costilla, an 86-year-old Spanish nun, was forced to leave the country. A trained doctor, she arrived from Madrid in 1965, joining the Daughters of Charity—a French Catholic order—and started working in Aliganda village, in Rayagada district, one of the least developed regions of Odisha, 280 kilometres away from Bhubaneswar. She ran dispensaries and schools for 54 long years, lived amidst the underprivileged and spoke fluent Odia.

On 11 August 2019, when the nun applied for the renewal of her annual Residential Permit, she was ordered to leave India in ten days. On 20 August 2019, she boarded a flight to Spain from Delhi. Her departure was unwept, unhonoured and unsung. There was no political outcry. Only the Union of Catholic Asian News published a story on her expulsion when she left. Costilla’s unpublicised eviction exemplifies the media’s complicity in the arbitrariness and hateful agenda of the new India.