Passion Play: Local history, poor governance and divisive politics

by Gautam Pemmaraju

MtCarmelProtest As the picture here suggests, the local parish of Mt Carmel’s on Chapel Road in the western suburb of Bandra in Mumbai, is exhorting upon the Chief Minister of Maharashtra State to exert his efforts elsewhere. Recently, in a most controversial and aggressively conducted manner, the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation), the city’s main civic authority, went on a drive of demolishing ‘illegal’ religious structures, mostly ‘plague crosses’, around Mumbai – from the centre of the city in Mazagaon and Byculla, to the historic Portuguese Catholic suburb of Bandra. The local community, caught off guard and distraught by this unilateral action, has mobilized itself and is vigorously protesting the civic authority’s drive. Various newspapers as well as a few television channels have reported the events, speculating on a variety of issues – the legality of the structures, the timing of the civic body’s actions, official stances, the historical issues and community sentiments. The archbishop of Mumbai, Msgr Oswald Gracias has termed the action ‘unjust’ and ‘illegal’ and in contravention of existing policy wherein structures before 1964 are deemed to be of legal status. In 2009, a Supreme Court bench, while hearing a petition against a Gujarat High Court order instructing state municipalities to take action against illegal religious structures, issued an interim order to all states of the union, to review the status of existing structures that are constructed along roadsides and which obstruct traffic. In compliance of this Supreme Court order, the state government issued a regulation last October to all municipal bodies to take action against ‘illegal structures’. Following this government regulation, various municipal officials of the different wards began to post notices on numerous crosses and other structures (two temples) over the last two weeks to meet a February 28th deadline – there are 749 illegal structures in the city according to official figures. In the central district of Byculla, the officials posted a notice on a Saturday afternoon informing the residents of an impending demolition on Monday, leaving them no time to appeal the action. Subsequently, a cross in Hathi Baug, Love Lane, in the central district of Mazagaon, was removed and its plaque, dated 1936, was damaged. 1

In 2003 this matter had come before the state High Court and the civic body had then been instructed to take action against illegal structures. Members of the Catholic community had then submitted documentation to the civic body regarding individual structures in support of their historical value and legality. Now community members are accusing the municipality of disregarding this documentation and acting illegally.

BazaarRoadCross This unilateral civic action, ostensibly about road widening, reclaiming public spaces and acting against illegal occupation, is not precisely that. It opens up a very wide spectrum of debate: from civic administrative issues, town planning, land reform, land-grab (kabza) politics, law and order, heritage and conservation issues, insidious ideological agendas, identity politics, religious nationalism, migration, historical claims, syncretism, religious inculturation, rights issues, judicial activism and overreach, and the grand, sweeping bottom-line of the Indian political landscape, corruption. It is in fact, a window into India, its many religions, its confounding politics and the pernicious undercurrents that swirl about dangerously, pulling down the powerless and disenfranchised with alarming regularity.

I go to see Fr Warner D’Souza, an assistant parish priest at Mt Carmel’s Church, who is actively involved in the campaign to save the crosses. He discusses the facts of the matter – of how the civic body did not stick to the 15 day notification period stipulated by their own policy; of how several structures, whose documentation has already been presented to the BMC, have received demolition notices; and of how, there is an aggressive stance on the part of the civic body, towards the community. On the face of it, the BMC is controlled by the Hindu right wing Shiv Sena and the state government is of the ‘secular’ Congress party. While there is much speculation as to how this power distribution has or has not informed the demolitions, Fr D’Souza himself stops short of suggesting any particular bias. But there is clearly a sense in the community, he says, of feeling like soft targets. A stone’s throw away from where I live, at the corner of a marketplace selling vegetables, fish and meat, there is an illegal pavement temple which is not more that 15 years old (and a smaller shrine before it), a makeshift illegal mosque, also quite recent, and both are on St John Baptist Road which leads to Mt Mary steps, which in turn lead to the historic Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, commonly referred to as Mt Mary Church. A side road, off of which is the apartment block where Sachin Tendulkar lives and where Aishwarya Rai used to, is known as Cemetery Road on account of the three burial grounds flanking the end of it – one belonging to St Francis of Assisi Church (mostly of Tamil Christians) at whose boundary wall one finds a figurine of the native saint, Vailankkani2 of Nagipattinam in Tamil Nadu, the second a Muslim one, and the third, fallen into disuse and disrepair, a Jewish cemetery. They all face one another.

Fr D’Souza conveys to me the sentiments and the concerns of the community. What seems to be puzzling, upsetting and grounds for serious concern, is the combative and equivocating posture of the civic officials. They keep changing the goal posts, the concerned priest tells me, and the discussions keep shifting from the 1964 cut off date, the 2003 documents that were presented which cannot be accessed but are then suddenly dug out after pressure is applied, the physical positions of the crosses (are they obstructing traffic/road widening or not?; some are at dead ends), amongst other obfuscations. What appeared to be clear policy, i.e., that 1964 is the cut off date and structures prior to that are deemed legal, is sometimes grudgingly accepted by the officials and at other times, rejected as not valid. In other words, there is no clear policy and the officials and thus the administration and system at large, are not just apathetic to the sentiments of the local Catholics, they seem to be actively and pugnaciously trampling on them3. WarodaRoadCross

Crosses and religious figurines, markers, grottos and other structures are widely seen in the western suburb of Bandra. It is a cosmopolitan district, with a large migrant population from various parts of India as well as a growing expat population. In Bandra: Its Religious and Secular History (1927), Braz Fernandes says: “Bandra is beautifully situated in the south-west corner of Salsette and is separated from the Island of Bombay by a broad tidal creek”. He describes it lovingly as ‘the finest panorama on this coast’ and ‘a graceful vista’. The Portuguese started to arrive on the coast as far back as 1507 CE but Fernandes informs us that the earliest recorded incident connected to Bandra “is when during the second descent of the Portuguese fleet on the Bombay coast Dom João de Monroya with seven fustas or pinnaces, entered the Bandra creek, and defeated the commander of the Mahim fort.” A northern area Bassien (now Vasai) fell to the Portuguese crown in 1534 and subsequently Bandra passed into the hands of the Portuguese. Fernandes goes on to inform us that the suburb was granted to Antonio Pessoa who had fought in the battles to capture Bassien and Diu. He was to become a prominent figure in the history of the Portuguese. After early Franciscans, the Jesuits started to arrive in Salsette (one of the several islands that form current day Bombay; Bandra is at its south-west) in 1556 and formed an agricultural settlement as well as a church. By 1603, Fernandes goes on, all of Bandra was Catholic (through conversions of villages) prior to which there was a mixture of ministering Brahmins, the local Koli fisherfolk, who are thought to be the earliest settlers here, the Kunbis (cultivators), the Bhandaris (toddy tappers) and the Bhois (palanquin bearers and creek fisherfolk) – these distinctions are explored by C.J.Godwin in Change and Continuity:A Study of Two Christian Village Communities in Suburban Bombay (1972). The early missionaries adopted the local dialect and there are examples of religious poems written by priests in the language, particularly one by a Fr Francisco Vas de Guimaraens, which Fernandes informs us, was “highly popular amongst the Catholics of Salsette”. De Nobili4 and Beschi, other prominent early Catholic priests, wrote in Tamil and Sanskrit, and Thomas Stevens (1549 – 1619), as Rudolf Heredia writes in Changing Gods:Rethinking Conversion in India (2007), pointing to a process of inculturation, “attempted to make the New Testament story more accessible to the indigenous population with his Krista Purana in the local language”.

This process of inculturation is of great relevance here and Heredia, a Jesuit sociologist, dwells on it quite extensively in his book that explores the history of conversions, ideas of dislocation, alienation with traditions/customs, and the political issues surrounding conversion and faith conflicts. He points to ‘a rich encounter between Christianity and the religious traditions of India’ while arguing that a distinct identity marks Indian Christians “with our own peculiar characteristics. Some carried over from its indigenous past, some derived from the colonial masters, both with variations across geographic and religious denominations”. Interestingly, he points to how the fine cultural balance achieved by ethnic Christianity in India (the Syrian Orthodox Christians5 whose origins date back to the 1st century) was disturbed by the Portuguese, who saw the local traditions as impure. The Portuguese then sought to Latinize them, “subjecting them to a colonial episcopy through the decrees of various ecclesiastical councils”. But over time, particularly as Portuguese influence was seeking more of a foothold, Heredia goes on to explain, the Jesuits then started on a ‘bold and far sighted venture’ by disengaging local Christianity “from its western cultural moorings and present it, not as the local religion of Europe, which was so much a part of earlier missionary endeavour but as a universal religion with a message for all humankind”. Heredia describes several processes of cultural absorption and the contexts of their mechanics extensively here, while importantly, right at the outset, arguing for the need to ‘disarm and discard the aggression and violence of those who indulge in it’. In no ambiguous terms he says: “When freedom of conscience is denied in one area, such as religion, it always affects freedom of choice in other areas: from the more public freedom to choose one’s politics and occupation, to the more private ones of lifestyle and personal relationships”.

This idea of religion essentially linked to culture is a critical one. A delinking thus represents an opposing process forming the very foundations of fundamentalism -extensively explored by French scholar Oliver Roy in his recent book Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways (2010). Right at the outset he points to how the Jesuits had always opposed the Vatican with regard to what the Holy See considered to be idolatrous worship (with regard to Chinese rites). Pointing to Pentacostalism and New Religious Movements (NRM’s), Roy argues that it is not really a ‘religious comeback’ but a transformation and that secularization has created the space for the separation of religion from culture: “What we are witnessing today is the militant reformulation of religion in a secularized space that has given religion its autonomy and therefore the conditions for its expansion. Secularization and globalization have forced religions to break away from culture”.

Cross&kids In 2003 I had spoken to Mr.Anthony D’Souza, a local resident and an ex president of the St Sebastian Co-Operative Housing Society. He spoke of how his family had to give up their ancestral land because they could not afford the development tax that the new government development projects imposed on their land holdings. The acquired land was very poorly compensated, 4 to 12 annas per sq. yard depending on the location of the land. Intense land acquisition, between 1939 and 1947, led to severe displacement and loss of income for several of the native East Indians engaged in fishing, salt-harvesting along the coast and who also worked agricultural land in neighbouring areas. Mr.D’Souza, alongside several other members of his community, at the time I spoke to him, was also engaged in challenging the BMC drive to demolish several wayside crosses in Bandra. He asked quite eloquently: “which came first, the roads or the crosses?” In the yard of his cottage, a cul-de-sac of sorts, there is a cross alongside the boundary wall built by his father Jerome D’Souza in 1927. Falling branches twice damaged it during storms, so Mr.D’Souza shifted its location from the middle of the yard to its present location. “It reminds me of how things used to be” he said, “we used to watch the trains pass by and soldiers used to throw us food items and coins. That’s how I started my coin collection”.

The late Fr Rodney of St Andrew’s told me at that time, that most of the crosses in the area were plague crosses (the history of prominent churches, shrines and ‘relics of old Portuguese times’ are recorded in Braz Fernades’ book dutifully). The Bubonic plague was brought by a Chinese merchant ship in 1896 he said, and it spread rapidly. People of the community prayed fervently and erected crosses to drive away the pestilence as well as in thanksgiving. Dr.Haffkine, a student of Louis Pasteur, who was then conducting clinical trials of a cholera vaccination in Bengal since 1893, was invited to tackle the problem. The Haffkine Institute at Parel, which then served as his laboratory was originally a Portuguese monastery/seminary. Crosses were also erected to ward off evil spirits in such places which were thought to be frequented by them – where three roads met, at old unused wells, at graveyards and cemeteries. They were also erected as boundary markers. The crosses generally bear an inscription of the founder and the date. One of the most prominent and historical crosses can be found in the compound of St Andrew’s Church. It stands seventeen feet high over a pedestal and is made of a single stone. Thirty-nine pictorials and emblems of the Passion of Christ are carved on its surface. It originally belonged to the old college of St Anne, which subsequently became a slaughterhouse, and is now a bus depot near Bandra station. Mtmarychurch

These structures and relics are then repositories of memory, history, culture, and of faith itself. They are intimately linked to the identity of the local community and as Heredia writes, “identity and dignity are intimately connected”. The civic action therefore, given the circumstances and the political events6 of the last two decades, presents itself as an attack on consciousness. It may well be an absolute failure of governance as one architect who works closely with civic authorities pointed out to me. Reading too much into the officials’ actions, he told me, is a tricky proposition. The only thing they are generally beholden to is their greed. It is not just about religious structures he tells me, it is also about roadside hawkers, makeshift corner shops, illegal offices, and need one say, countless other illegal occupations of land, from the filthiest of slums to the fanciest of multi-story blocks7. There is an established food chain – ward officials get hafta (weekly pay-off) to turn the other way and occasionally heftier payments for appropriate paperwork and possible regularization of illegal structures. The control of land, what and who occupies it is the real issue, the architect says, but adds that the current action, particularly the improper notification, is a grave mistake on the part of the authorities. Eager to please lower rung officials, political expediency, and utter incompetence – these all come into play.

My local supplier of bread, eggs and milk, operates right across from where I live. His name is Yasser Arafat (of Kasargod district in Kerala), and he, like most others who run such small grocery shops, has followed one of the many well-trodden paths of migrants from his state. The small shop he had rented out was demolished several weeks ago in a road-widening project, only to be rebuilt within the month. This time around the shop is set back from the road, occupies part of the apartment block compound behind it, and is now, for all practical purposes, a regularized structure. During the one month of road works, Yasser Arafat operated his small but thriving business from a makeshift shack – one that can be fashioned out of handy bits of asbestos, cheap wood, plastic sheets and an illegal electricity connection. Perhaps the most iconic elements of this unforgiving city.

In this land where the demolishing of the Babri Mosque by the militant Hindu right has forever changed political discourse, the body politic, inter-faith engagements and national psyche irrevocably (and for the worse), these seemingly minor instances of attacks on consciousness take on great significance. And when played out in arenas where the linkages and associations to land are as profound and emotive as they are in this case, such actions take on more pernicious meaning. It is the insensitivity and the bellicose posturing of the authorities that is the cause of great concern here, for it hints at darker politics.

FishingBoats Bandra, as most residents will readily claim, has a distinctive charm of its own. Abundant with all kinds of stories, readily shared by native residents and others alike, it always embodied a rarefied cosmopolitan space – unique in its composition and unlike anywhere else. In 2003 I came upon a tablet embedded in the boundary wall of a building in the New Kantwadi area that depicts a chalice atop what well may be an altar which appears to be emanating rays. There are candles to each side of the altar and an arch resting on two columns surrounds this entire depiction. Within the arch there appears an engraving – LOVADO SEJA O MO SACRAM. This description appears in Braz Fernandes’ book and he adds that the tablet was meant to ward off evil spirits. They came in many forms, some as ‘wicked water nymphs’ (or asaras) who led men astray and some as flying golden pigs who tormented innocent passers-by in the dead of night. Fernandes informs us that these “superstitions of Hinduism left so strong an impression upon the Christians, that it was almost impossible to eradicate it from their minds”. Entertainingly, Fernandes continues to write that there were ghosts in human form as well, who were seen to be dressed quite ordinarily which ‘does credit to his taste’ in ‘his sense of propriety’, but then, he asks critically, “whence came that coat and waistcoat, whence those visionary trousers? – alas! They can only have issued from the wardrobe of the seer’s fancy”.

It is indeed the ‘seer’s fancy’ that is critical to this current disturbance – suspiciously appearing to be a symptom of a larger malaise. There is a definitive sense of disquiet. Fr D’Souza and others are considering legal alternatives. The judiciary once again presents itself as the only fair arbiter, or more appropriately, the last resort. But how reliant are we becoming on this already over-burdened judiciary? How many times can we go knocking on those doors? What about the legislature? What about the executive? State governments? Municipalities? Ward Offices? The Chief Justice of India, S H Kapadia, while delivering a lecture in Ahmadabad yesterday, is quoted to have told judges to “not give lectures to society” and not “judge the wisdom of legislatures”.

Who do the people turn to? Is it then a matter of choosing which cross (of the many) to bear?

2 Vailankanni or Velankanni is the town where a basilica of the eponymous native saint, a Marian apparition, is situated. It was one of the worst hit areas of the eastern coast of India by the 2004 Tsunami.

6 A short list: Rise of Hindu religious nationalism, Babri Mosque demolition, historical revisionism by the Hindu right, Anti-conversion laws, the murders of Graham Staines and his children in Orissa, the Gujarat governments pogrom against Muslims in 2002, aside from the long list of corruption scandals involving politicians, public officials, etc.

7 The current Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan replaced his beleagured Congress party colleague Ashok Chavan in a housing scandal known by the name of the apartment block, Adarsh.

The rights to all images used here are held by the author.