“Swarajya is my birthright and I shall have it!” was the battle cry raised by the fiery Bal Gangadhar Tilak during British rule in India. Thanks to the efforts of the likes of Tilak, Gandhiji, Nehru and others, India did eventually get its freedom. It is plain to see that with the freedom of self-rule, earned for us by our country’s conscientious freedom-fighters, came the intrinsic “right to migration” – the right to migrate to any part of the country and the world. Accordingly, practically all the major cities in India have had a significant population of migrants, many of them making the city of adoption their permanent home.
Put plainly, the cause of migration—political compulsions apart—has largely been better prospects of earning a decent living. And so it is that while a city received and welcomed migration for the obvious benefit it brought its inhabitants, city-dwellers made a beeline for migration to foreign shores for the same purpose as that of migrants within the country. We have seen the kind of evacuation efforts periodically put in by our government at the expense of the country’s resources to bring back Indians working abroad during times of war and conflict. But never in human history has one witnessed the kind of migrant movement taking place around the world, particularly in our own country, as has happened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unending lockdown that has followed, death stalking the stalking the path of the returnees. Frankly, the possibility of anybody in the government or the ruling party shedding a tear or two over the pointlessness of the situation of their own making is as remote as the floating of a snowflake in Hell!
A Pastoral Initiative whose time has come
Pope Saint Paul VI, on his visit to India in the year 1964, had said, “Thy own sons, O India, will minister to thy Salvation!” Given the circumstances, it is significant that the first son of the soil to become the Ordinary of a diocese in West Bengal [WB] has decided to give the holistic care of the sheep of his fold top priority by way of making the cessation of migration from his diocese the focus of his pastoral ministry. Laudably, his bishopric plans to enhance his flock’s path to Salvation by focusing on making “young people in his West Bengal diocese efficient and self-reliant so that they do not have to migrate to other states for jobs” ( Matters India 05 May 2020).
Having, as a native Bengali, “seen entire families migrate to other states to work as cheap labour on farms and construction sites” forced to “cut (themselves) off from their language, culture and moorings,” Bishop Shyamol Bose has, as the new Bishop of Baruipur (since 04 May 2020), with a single sweep, deftly seized the bull by its horns! Already beginning to smell like the sheep of his pasture, his is probably the lone sane voice amidst the mindless cacophony of so-called social activism that has so far preferred to lead migrants in general to shout hoarse from the rooftops a variation of Tilak’s slogan, viz, “MIGRATION IS MY BRITHRIGHT AND I SHALL EXERCISE IT TO MY LAST BREATH!” Indeed! That could well be the next battle cry one might hear across the country, what with the Church hell-bent on helping, fostering and pampering migrants like there won’t be another tomorrow, Amen!
Re-think needed as regards the Church’s role
Baruipur is a small diocese admeasuring barely 4200 square miles and comprising barely 22 parishes. But the probable success of the Shyamol Bose experiment within this smallness could well make it to the headlines and the limelight big time! Essentially, the manner in which the Church in India as a whole, through its parishes and its religious houses, busies itself in feeding, clothing and sheltering migrants entirely at its own expense, in the wake of the Coronavirus epidemic, once again brings to the fore the question, ‘what would the Church do without the poor’. Indeed, at a time when even queries like ‘is the priesthood an essential service’ are being bandied about for obvious reasons, what would the Church have done without the poor with all its places of worship and education in a state of indefinite lockdown and its ordained personnel virtually deprived of their ministry so to say! With the repeated extensions of the lockdown, the church will continue to have the time to serve and look after the migrants as well as the poor in general. But, on the one hand, whether the Church, with its financial resources obviously fast dwindling and, on the other, the numbers of her faithful unemployed and desperately struggling to make ends meet steadily rising, considers it proper to continue to spend its time and resources on migrants is the moot question.
The answer methinks lies in adopting a multi-pronged approach that is all-inclusive and of benefit to all concerned. To elaborate, while the Church per se may continue alleviating the hardships of migrants, she would need to earnestly adopt the Bishop Shyamol Bose strategy, even if that means having the newly appointed prelate hold brainstorming sessions for a cross section of people that includes bishops, clergy and religious apart from lay-folk.
Strategies to the fore!
Taking various factors into consideration, particularly in the light of Bishop Shyamol Bose’s scheme of things, the Church in India would do well to -
(a) understand the reality and purpose of her presence not merely in the place of migration but also in the places the populace migrates from;
(b) work on uplifting and empowering the people at the grassroots level, i.e. in the villages and bastis, not along the lines of the compulsions dictated by political slogans like roti, kapda aur makaan but by promoting the uplift of the total human person;
(c) cease all efforts that concentrate on educating merely the girl child and, instead, direct all efforts at educating EVERY CHILD irrespective of its gender;
(d) ensure the upgradation of education at various levels and in equally varied ways;
(e) strive for adult literacy on a war-footing;
(f) offer the government, both at the Centre and in the states, as also the various municipalities, her services in raising the quality and standard of government and municipal education, precisely in keeping with her offer of her religious and medical structures and personnel for fighting the ongoing pandemic;
(g) run both long-term and short-term vocational training courses for youth as well as for adults with due focus on self-reliance – with subsidy from the government if possible;
(h) initiate sensible recreational activities that are both engaging and educative;
(i) strengthen family bonds by focusing on counselling.
Do I belong?
In relation to Catholics in particular, the most significant utterance of Bishop Shyamol Bose concerns his intention to create “a sense of belongingness to the diocese” that “will enhance” the Church’s own sense of “solidarity and commitment to face the challenges jointly.” This could be done through our parishes and SCCs (Small Christian Communities) with the full support and active involvement of the diocesan pastoral centres and the numerous ‘commissions’ in the diocese, not forgetting the Parish and the Diocesan Pastoral Councils, by way of -
i. fostering and promoting a spirit of openness among and between clergy and laity, by conscientiously shifting from the ‘pray-pay-obey’ tactic to one of fair, free and frank sharing that duly takes into account both brickbats and bouquets
ii. initiating faith enrichment at various levels of the family, bordering on the holistic formation of the human person
iii. intensifying catechetical instruction in terms of offering the faithful a clear understanding of the Liturgy and the Sacraments, and various matters concerning the church’s doctrines and documents (Notably, the church in Bombay is already engaging her adherents along similar lines – cfr Journeying together in Faith… )
iv. undertaking the pastoral care not merely of the poor but also of those who are comfortably well-off, keeping in mind that neither wealth nor poverty can of their own accord in any way guarantee our eventual entry into Paradise!
v. encouraging wherever necessary and possible further education outside a given diocese or state, the only string attached essentially being that the individual concerned contributes to church and society alike first in the diocese and state of origin and then elsewhere
vi. not fighting shy of ensuring that discernment of a vocation in life includes the prospects, significance and importance of a vocation to the priestly and religious life
Diocesan leadership in COVID-19 India
To make all the above and more possible the Ordinary of any given diocese in the country would obviously have to first ensure that our priests, religious and faithful willingly work hand in hand, conscious that only collaborative participation can ensure the success of any project or programme. As Bishop Bose suggests, “Every priest and religious will own the diocese and all should feel that it is our diocese and we all should work hard to promote our diocese spiritually, pastorally, economically, educationally and culturally.” This, he says is possible by trusting “in the Lord,” confident that “He will guide us with His Spirit.” Of course, the results of all our trust and effort may certainly not be immediate but the sapling once planted and nurtured cannot but grow in time into a mighty Oak!
That COVID-19 has become a new benchmark in terms of the changes life has foisted upon us is a fact that is here to stay, what with speakers, writers and preachers already talking of “life before Corona Virus” and “life after Corona Virus” albeit the ‘after’ is still nowhere in sight!
It has changed the way people think and see things, prayer and Church now confined largely to the home while assembling to purchase alcohol has become the new norm, the government earning revenue by the crore, never mind that the so-called poor, having no money to buy themselves food and dependent as they are on social largesse for their sustenance, have enough to drop dead-drunk by the roadside, not to speak of untold increase in domestic violence. It was Queen Marie Antoinette who is said to have retorted at the peak of the French Revolution, “If they have no bread, let them eat cake”!
The Government of India deserves to be complimented by the world community for virtually turning that statement into something like “If they have nothing to eat let them drink booze till our coffers swell” as is clearly evident from the fact that, with the cash registers of the government ringing as loud as was expected, wine shops have now once again been shut!
Ironically, the year after which the Corona Virus has been named, viz 2019, has long passed into history but the dreaded disease has not only stayed put but brazenly spread like wildfire so to say, displacing migrants, triviliazing human genius, mocking medical science, and what not! By what then are we going to allow history to judge us – by the way we give in to the tendency to act migrant savvy, pandering to their temporary needs for short-term gain? Or by showing guts in leading them to settle down in a better life in the place of their origin and make for great long-term gain as decent, human beings?(Published on 18th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 21)