‘Conversion’ Charge Against Mother Teresa Stirs National Protest in India

A broad cross section of Indian society joined with the local Church in denouncing the allegations made by the leader of India’s Hindu nationalist lobby.

Hindu nationalist politician Mohan Bhagwat
Hindu nationalist politician Mohan Bhagwat (photo: 2014 AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

NEW DELHI — Condemnations were issued last week by a broad cross section of Indian society, following a controversial statement by the chief of India’s Hindu nationalist lobby claiming that the goal of Blessed Mother Teresa's famed social service was “conversion.”

From the stunned local Catholic Church to political parties of all ideologies, a chorus of critics decried the denigration of Mother Teresa, who was known nationally as the “Saint of the Gutters” during her lifetime.

This unprecedented political unity followed controversial Feb. 23 remarks by Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or National Volunteers Force) that espouses Hindu nationalism. The RSS utilizes India’s ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party or Indian People’s Party) as its political wing.

“It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa’s work had an ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity,” alleged Bhagwat, addressing a women’s empowerment program in a village near Bharatpur in the BJP-governed western state of Rajasthan.

“In the name of service, religious conversions were made,” claimed Bhagwat, who in recent months has called repeatedly for converting India into a “Hindu rashtra” (nation). The BJP won a clear majority in the Indian Parliament’s national elections last year.

After news media ran banner headlines highlighting Bhagwat’s criticism of Mother Teresa, who was beatified in 2003, the Indian parliament and the Catholic Church responded with strong denunciations of his remarks.

Bhagwat’s “comments have been made against a person who is not just the country’s, but the world’s, legacy. No amount of condemnation can be enough,” Jyotiraditya Scindia of the opposition Congress Party said in parliament on Feb. 24, as shouts of “Shame!” and demands for an apology and condemnation of the incident by the Hindu nationalist BJP government echoed across the parliamentary chamber.

In a statement expressing “concern and distress” over the remarks, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) rejected “casting aspersion on the saintly person of Mother Teresa and attributing ulterior motives to her lifelong humanitarian services to the poor and the sick, to the abandoned and the destitute.”

“It is quite unfortunate that the services of such a world-renowned Nobel Prize laureate and Bharat Ratna [‘jewel of India,’ the nation’s highest honor] awardee be dragged into such unwarranted controversies,” stated the CBCI.


Other Critics

Other critics included Arvind Kejriwal, an anti-corruption activist-turned-politician whose fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (Ordinary People’s Party) trounced the BJP in the Feb. 8 Delhi state election, winning 67 of the state assembly’s 70 seats.

“Spare the Mother,” advised Kejriwal, who had been a frequent visitor and volunteer to “Nirmal Hriday” (home for the destitute), the first charity home Mother Teresa set up as foundress of the Missionaries of Charity in 1952 on the premises of a Hindu temple in the Kalighat suburb of Kolkata. The Missionaries of Charity presently run 735 homes for the destitute, sick and orphans in 139 countries.

Brinda Karat, the firebrand female senior leader of India’s Communist Party, which has a strong base in the West Bengal state that has Kolkata as its capital, similarly chastised Bhagwat for “insulting” the famous nun who is known as “Mother” across the country. “Heal thyself,” she instructed the Hindu nationalist leader.

“It seems Mr. Bhagwat has been completely misinformed. We need not speak. The media is doing that,” Sunita Kumar, a Sikh and spokeswoman for the Missionaries of Charity, told the Register on Feb. 26 from Kolkata, when asked for the order’s reaction to the controversial statement.

Leading national and regional TV channels have attacked the RSS chief for his controversial statement, quoting recorded speeches of former prime minister and BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee hailing Mother Teresa.

“I have been a close associate of Mother since 1965 until her death [in 1997]. I am not a Christian. But Mother never asked me to become a Christian,” pointed out Kumar, who has been a Missionaries of Charity spokeswoman for years, dating back to Blessed Mother Teresa’s lifetime.


‘Mother Respected All Religions’

Kumar, who accompanied Mother Teresa on half a dozen international trips, said that “Mother respected all religions.”

“It is unfortunate that such a statement has been made. We are not angry with him [Bhagwat]. But, as Mother used to say, he may not know what he is saying,” she said.

Reiterating that Mother Teresa worked for the “service of humanity and peace in society,” Kumar insisted that Missionaries of Chaity do not carry out “any kind of religious conversion under the garb of charity.”

“Actually, we should thank Mohan Bhagwat!” Francis Palakeel, a Catholic hailing from southern Kerala state and an officer working with the United Nations presently in Hungary, remarked in his Facebook post on the controversy. “Because of his ignorance, hundreds of people have known Mother Teresa and her noble work better than earlier. Because of his ignorance, several hundreds of posts and good words have spread out to non-Christians, and people have started … praising Mother’s contribution to society,” wrote Palakeel, who cherishes his two meetings and his travel with Mother Teresa in a car.

In an email message to the Register, Palakeel added, “Mohan Bhagwat, in a way, has become an ambassador to Mother Teresa.”


 Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.