KOLKATA, India — Catholic Church officials and lay groups have expressed anguish over the Indian government’s nationwide investigation of the Missionaries of Charity, following allegations of human trafficking at a Missionaries of Charity community in Ranchi in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.
The Indian government’s action was prompted by the July 4 arrests of Anima Indwar, a female staffer at the Missionaries of Charity Home at Ranchi, and Missionaries of Charity Sister Concelia. The arrests stemmed from an allegation by Rupa Verma, the chairwoman of the Child Welfare Committee for the Ranchi district, that the home had sold an infant boy to a couple.
The superior of the Missionaries of Charity house, Sister Marie Deanne, was also detained by police, but was released the next day after questioning by the police.
In a July 6 press statement, the Missionaries of Charity stated: “We are shocked at such news, which totally goes against the value and ethics espoused by the Missionaries of Charity, the nuns and its founder. The [Missionaries of Charity] are looking into the allegations against the accused employees in Jharkhand with all seriousness.”
But according to Catholic leaders, the subsequent government-ordered investigation of all Missionaries of Charities activities in India is an unjustified overreaction, motivated by Hindu nationalist hostility to Christians.
“There seems little doubt that the government of India, egged on by the [Hindu] religious nationalism, has decided to teach a lesson to the Christian community in India,” Catholic activist John Dayal said in a statement on behalf of the All India Catholic Union.
“This is obvious in the government ordering an inquiry into every ashram [home] run by the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity across the country caring to abandoned infants, unwed mothers, homeless women and the sick and dying,” said Dayal, in deploring a blanket order issued July 17 by Maneka Gandhi, the federal minister for Women and Child Welfare.
Dayal said that an “obedient media, terrified officials and political appointees in the Jharkhand state government's women and child welfare departments have picked up a case of alleged exchange of a baby for adoption on illicit payment of money into a monstrous media storm.”
“In the process,” he continued, “the government’s religious-nationalist supporters, the Hindu nationalist groups, have accused the Missionaries of Charities, and indeed the entire Church in India, of forcible conversions to Christianity, massive trafficking in children and other crimes.”
“There has been a lapse at the Missionaries of Charity home,” Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), acknowledged to the Register after returning from a July 12 fact-finding visit to Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state, which like India is currently governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “It should have never happened. The MCs have admitted it.”
But Bishop Mascarenhas, who was auxiliary bishop of Ranchi until he became the CBCI’s secretary-general in 2016, said the regrettable incident is being used to “demonize the Church.”
Bishop Mascarenhas said he was “aghast at the exaggerated reports in the media and the political statements.”
On July 11, The Republic, a major news channel known for publicizing BJP perspectives, alleged that the number of babies missing from the Missionaries of Charity home was as many as 280 and branded the congregation as a “multimillion corporation.” However, three days later, the channel abandoned its hyperbolic earlier allegation and reported instead about “three babies sold.”
Meanwhile, a video clip in which Sister Concelia apparently confessed to selling two babies, recorded by police during her questioning, went viral in the social media. Although Jharkhand police have denied leaking the video clip to the media, it was publicized by India’s premier TV wire agency ANI in a July 15 dispatch.
Following the negative reports against the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Mary Prema Pierick, the religious order’s superior general, issued a detailed press statement July 17.
While reiterating that the Missionaries of Charity are “fully cooperating with the investigations and are open to any free, fair and just inquiry,” the July 17 statement elaborated what it said had “actually transpired” at the Ranchi home. stating that the lay employee, Anima Indwar, had carried out the baby sale on her own, without the knowledge of the accused nun.
The congregation said the statement was particularly necessary in the context “of many myths being spread, information distorted and false news being diffused and baseless innuendos being thrown about regarding Mother Teresa’s sisters,” who currently run 244 centers in India and 760 Missionaries of Charity homes in 139 countries.
“The Congregation of Missionaries of Charity vows to continue their wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor, by serving the needy and vulnerable, even in the middle of the unprecedented and unfounded criticism that it faces today,” the statement said. “We have full faith in the courts of law and the investigating authorities and are confident that justice shall prevail.”
Jharkhand police chief D.K. Pandey wrote to the federal home (interior) secretary July 11, urging a freeze on the Missionaries of Charity’s bank accounts “to facilitate an investigation into whether there were violations of regulations covering acceptance of foreign funding,” UCANews reported.
The next day, this was followed by a demand from the powerful Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the organization that spearheads the Hindu nationalism espoused by the ruling BJP, requesting the government to revoke the Bharat Ratna award conferred on St. Teresa of Calcutta in 1980.
After Mother Teresa, the founder of the Missionaries of Charity who was known in her lifetime as the “saint of the gutters” in for her service to the “poorest of the poor,” was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, India subsequently honored her with its Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) — the nation’s highest honor.
The RSS demand provoked Mamata Bannerjee, the Hindu chief minister of West Bengal state, where the sisters have their headquarters in Kolkata, to accuse the BJP of “targeting” and “maligning” the Missionaries of Charity.
“Mother Teresa herself set up Missionaries of Charity. And now they are also not being spared. Malicious attempts to malign their name. The sisters are being targeted. #BJP want to spare no one. Highly condemnable. Let MOC continue to do their work for the poorest of the poor,” tweeted Bannerjee.
The MC nuns have placed more than 7,500 babies, including those of unwed mothers, in adoption in Mumbai alone in 40 years, and “nobody ever made a complaint against them,” Abraham Mathai, a prominent Christian leader and founder of Indian Christian Voice, told the Register.
“MCs have set the example to the whole world of how to serve suffering humanity,” Mathai said.” Now they are being demonized. This is unacceptable.”
When asked for her reaction to the criticisms and actions against the congregation as a whole after the early-morning Mass at the motherhouse in Kolkata July 19, Sister Mary Prema told the Register: “I do not want to say anything more. We trust in God and leave everything to prayer.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.