Cemetery in crossfire : In the name of the dead

img1 A. J. Philip
23 Nov 2020

I wondered whether I did the right thing in visiting the Ambala Christian Cemetery, known earlier as the European Cemetery, on Jagadhari Road in Ambala Cantonment in Haryana. It was raining heavily and I had to hold an umbrella, while protecting my camera from the rainwater. What’s worse, the ground had become slushy and slippery and I could lose my balance any moment.

What I experienced was the worst in my life. Respect for the dead is something ingrained in our conscience, no matter what faith we profess. That is why funeral processions are always given the right of way and no passenger ever grudges the delay. What the cemetery presented was a heart-breaking sight for a faithful.

Crosses and statues erected over tombs stand broken as marble stones with which the tombs were covered have been either taken away or smashed to smithereens. Weeds as strong and thick as sugarcane grew luxuriously making movement inside the cemetery almost impossible. There could be poisonous reptiles and animals like hyenas inside the bushes.

Stinking drain water was flowing into a portion of the cemetery, at 20.54 acres, easily one of the largest in India. I could not but remember my visit to an all-religion burial ground, near Toronto in Canada, and another at Melbourne in Australia. They were so large and beautiful with millions of flowers blooming at the time we visited.

No, a burial ground need not be large to be beautiful. Once I wrote about the cemetery of a church near Mallapalli in Kerala that I passed by in a bus. It was small but it was really a garden of peace and flowers. At that time, I commented in jest that one would feel like dying and be buried there! That is how a cemetery should be maintained.

But, then, if the cemetery at Ambala, pronounced by the British as Umballa, was all that hunky-dory, I would not have gone there, at the suggestion of a journalist friend. 

I circumnavigated the cemetery to learn that evil forces are at play with a view to grabbing the land for pecuniary purposes.

While the rule says that no construction within 20 feet of the outer wall of the cemetery is permitted, houses and business establishments have come up clearly inside the boundary wall. A portion of the land facing the main road has been cleared of the bushes and, in the process, many graves, raising suspicion about the intentions of a person who boastfully claims that he is the lord of all he surveys in the area.

The cemetery owes its origin to the British earmarking this area as a burial ground for Christians, almost all of whom at that time were British officials, in 1844. When the area was found insufficient, a few more acres were added to it to make the cemetery what it is today.

There is no clear statistics about the number of bodies buried there. Someone said that two lakh bodies were buried over the last 176 years. What is specifically known is that 66 martyrs of World War 1 are buried there. Also, 21 prisoners of the Boer war that happened in South Africa and in which Mahatma Gandhi helped the British as a “stretcher bearer” are buried here.

Ambala was at that time a major military area of the British. Recently, when the French fighter aircraft Rafale were inducted into the IAF, the ceremony was held at Ambala, which was considered secure enough to hang the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi. 

Countless are the Army and Air Force officers, both British and Indian, who are buried here. The huge churches, some of them with their spears piercing into the skies, that belong to various denominations from Catholics to Protestants to Pentecostals are a pointer to the kind of Christian presence the area had at one time.

Also buried in the cemetery are the officials of the East India Company that gave way to the direct administration of India by the Queen following the 1857 First War of Independence, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, who died in harness. 

The cemetery is sacred not just for the British but also for the countless Indian Christians buried there. Among them are many Catholic nuns who served at Ambala, including a senior sister who belonged to Saint Teresa of Kolkata’s order called the Missionaries of Charity. 

I could see a new tomb which had come up a few days earlier as the heap of soil over it was fresh like Mikhail Sholokhov’s “Virgin Soil Upturned”.

At the root of the issue is an usurper who claims that he controls the cemetery by virtue of being a Bishop of the Anglican Church. He is Shaukat Masih Bhatti who occupies a British-era house at 151 Alexandra Road, Ambala Cantonment, with a compound which is as sprawling as that of the official residence of the Prime Minister.

Since the compound is so large, anyone visiting Bhatti by car or on foot can be sized up from a distance. In my case, that job was done by Mrs Bhatti who refused to introduce me to her husband till I told her my autobiography in five minutes. When I showed her a picture I took of her, she dismissed it as very bad as “you made me look like a South Indian”! She did not know that Aishwarya Rai, to name just one, was a South Indian.

Mrs. Bhatti realised that I was no enemy and called her husband, who was, perhaps, too young to be a bishop. Once I told him that I wanted to talk to him about the cemetery, he took me inside the house into a chapel-like establishment with an altar and a sanctuary.

That is when I realised that the house has more occupants than the couple and their children. His brother also stays with his family in the same house.

Bhatti told me that he is the bishop of a church, which is a direct descendant of the Church of England. He said he was one of the prelates who constituted the collegium that elected the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest ecclesiastical authority in England which broke its relations with the Pope some five hundred years ago.

Either Bhatti did not know the British system or he was too clever by half to claim that he was as good as any other Anglican bishop worldwide. The Archbishop is chosen by the Queen from among the two candidates proposed by a commission, out of which one is picked up by the Prime Minister. The PM’s choice is usually the Queen’s choice! 

My question about Bhatti’s theological rooting had taken him by surprise. He said he was an M.Th and he did it from an open university at Ganganagar in Rajasthan. My search took me to an “international” university at the Chamatkar  (Magical) Church compound in the Industrial area there.

I did not want to embarrass him further, so I refrained from asking questions about his enthronement etc. His claim to the house is that his father, the Reverend SM Bhatty, was a Presbyter of the Church of North India. The house was the official residence of the Vicar of the St. Paul’s Church. The church has a glorious history.

It was said about St. Paul’s that if the King or the Queen of England sneezed in Britain, the church felt the cold at Umballa. Bhatti showed me details about the memorial services held at the church when Queen Victoria passed away in 1901, King Edward died in 1910 and King George V decided to be with the Lord in 1936. 

He had a composite file that listed some baptism, marriage and death details, as also visitations by bishops from Lahore. It also had newspaper clippings from the Civil and Military Gazette that even mentioned a burglary that happened at the church.

St. Paul’s was in the news in 1965 when a Pakistani bomb fell on it, destroying the church partially. I wanted to see the church but it was not possible as the Air Force security personnel refused to give me entry. However, he was kind enough to let me step into the Air Force compound a little so that I could take a picture.

The accidental bombing of the church proved catastrophic for the Pakistanis, as the Western media highlighted it to paint the Pakistanis into a corner. It was like the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin in whose vicinity I stayed for a week. 

The church was extensively damaged in British bombing but it is preserved as an anti-war memorial. The St. Paul’s could have been preserved as a museum and allowed journalists like me to visit it. It was in many ways like the St. Joseph’s Convent at Baramulla which the Pakistani tribes attacked while trying to reach Srinagar and take possession of the airport, a plan the Indian Government foiled in 1948. 

Bhatti’s father managed to carry home several precious objects like a heavy, bejewelled cross that suffered damages in the bombing. His connection with the church should have ended when his father superannuated from the church’s service.

Rev SM Bhatti should have vacated the premises when he was asked to do so by the Church of North India vide CNI Bishop Sunil Kumar Singh’s letter dated July 26, 2010. Instead, he has been trying to evict from the building Sneh  Lata Lal, wife of Bhatti’s predecessor, the late Rev HD Lal, who was allowed to stay as she did not have a house of her own. The father-son duo did not allow his successor, Rev Dr Thomas Ninan, to function as Vicar of St. Paul’s either.

Every Sunday, a small group of faithful assemble in front of Bhatti’s residence to worship in a makeshift tent. This has been going on for some time, as “Bishop” Bhatti does not allow them to use the chapel inside. He had the cheek to tell me that not only did he conduct a regular service in the church on all Sundays but also led special worship services for the youth and women on weekdays.

Bhatti claims that he is the chairman of the Ambala Cemetery Committee. How he became the chairman is a cock and bull story. What is unimpeachable is that when the British left India in 1947, all the properties that vested in the Church of England became the property of the Church of North India and the Church of South India.

The Indian Church Measure 1927 lists all the properties the Church of England owned in India. Today, most of them, if not all of them, are in the possession of either the CNI or the CSI, depending on the geographical location of the property. The Church of England has on umpteen occasions disowned the so-called Anglican Churches that are registered in India. They are as legitimate as the university from which Bhatti obtained his M.Th.

It is disconcerting to be told and shown evidence that the “bishop” was once convicted for fraud. True, Bhatti has some documents in his possession by virtue of the fact that he is the son of the priest who did not allow his successor to take possession of St. Paul’s records. Otherwise, he has no claim to hold any post. The cemetery is not the preserve of any one person, as he claims.

Bhatti was asked to hand over the key to the cemetery to a legally-constituted committee of which the priest of the Catholic Church on Lawrence Road is the secretary and treasurer while the priest of St. Paul’s is the President. He has his contacts with the police and civil authorities so much so that he had the temerity not to allow Saint Teresa’s sisters to organise a prayer at the cemetery. 

It is not just a cemetery. It is a protected monument that comes under the care of the Haryana government. No one knows this better than KJ Alphons, MP, who was minister for Tourism in the Modi Government. He recently wrote a letter to the concerned IAS officer who is in charge of the Museum Department to take necessary measures to evict the usurper and hand it over to the legally-constituted cemetery committee.

Bhatti has no locus standi in this. While anyone can call himself a bishop or an archbishop or even a Pope, it is for the state to ensure that a facility meant for the Christians of all denominations is properly managed.

In this case, all the mainstream churches, including the St. Paul’s, the Holy Redeemer and the St. Thomas Orthodox Church, are on one side and on the other is a couple, powerful enough to file cases against anyone whom they find are inconvenient to their larger aim of capitalising on the real estate value of a prime property. 

The Christians of Ambala know that it is almost impossible for them to get another plot of land anywhere in the cantonment or outside where they can bury their bodies in the best Christian traditions, if the machinations against the cemetery committee succeed. That is why the good must prevail over the evil as in the celebration of Diwali. 


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