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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: When all roads lead to Rome

Seeing social service as the highest good and as an end in itself, people forced Mother Teresa into a straitjacket. Now, they are not averse to making the most of her eminence

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Sunanda K Datta-Ray

Yogi Adityanath is not the official voice of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But the rumbustious Gorakhpur member of Parliament does reflect the suspicions of others in the saffron brigade and outside when he says, "Mother Teresa was part of a conspiracy to convert Hindus to Christianity""and blames her for the Northeast's secessionist movements. I remember Father Picachy - His Eminence Lawrence, Cardinal Picachy to the world - lamenting that despite her Indian citizenship, the government refused to let her visit Arunachal Pradesh where churches were being burned.

Rebuffed, Mother Teresa went to see Morarji Desai, to whom she had sent an anguished protest about the Orwellian doublespeak of various Freedom of Religion Bills. The prime minister reportedly asked why she was so anxious to visit a sensitive state China was trying to grab. She explained her religious mission and the social benefits that flowed from it. He repeated, "When Arunachal Pradesh does not want your services, why are you insisting?" She replied: "People of Arunachal Pradesh cannot be left orphan, they cannot be deprived of God's message. They cannot be deprived of our services." That provoked Desai's retort: "Service and conversion cannot go together. If people of Arunachal Pradesh do not want your services you should not insist."

No other prime minister would speak his mind so bluntly. On the contrary, Narendra Modi declared in a Mann ki Baat broadcast, "When Mother Teresa, who served the poor in India all through her life, is accorded sainthood, it is quite natural for us Indians to feel proud." All that such public compliments mean, however, is that the government is ready to benefit from Mother Teresa's international fame without necessarily endorsing her domestic mission.

Jack Preger, the doctor who founded Calcutta Rescue, introduced me to the young son of the deputy chief of the British army, who was about to be deported for volunteering to help Mother Teresa while visiting Calcutta on a tourist visa. Yet, Mother Teresa astutely applauded the Emergency when few others would. "People are happier," she commented. "There are more jobs. There are no strikes."

The fact is that fame is an end in itself for many Indians who would probably fawn even on Dawood Ibrahim if he appeared. This is not a comment on Mother Teresa but on our national psyche. Even while basking in the glory of Sunday's canonization, the authorities give their full blessing to rewriting history to justify majoritarian supremacy. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan's "Indianise, nationalise and spiritualise" mission receives every encouragement.

It might surprise Modi to learn that Mother Teresa's own view of her vocation did not include social service as such. She told me herself that the beneficial effects of her labours were of little concern to her. She worked for the destitute because "Our Lord" had said that serving the poor led to salvation. There was an outcry when I wrote this in Calcutta. A storm broke out again when I repeated her words in my newspaper column in Singapore.

Some readers imagined I was running down a living saint whose greatness even foreigners - white Europeans at that! - acknowledge. The Christian concept of salvation being alien to Hindus and Muslims (no matter what religious doctrine might say), readers could not conceive of such sustained and dedicated labour for an intangible objective like salvation. Seeing social service as the highest good and as an end in itself, people forced Mother Teresa into a straitjacket forged out of their own limited imagination.

Now, they are not averse to making the most of her eminence. A Roman holiday might lend some meaning to Sushma Swaraj's portfolio. It could revive Arvind Kejriwal's faded aura and distract attention from his wayward ministers. Sunday's canonization also presents fresh scope for Mamata Banerjee's showmanship. She sports a hijab sometimes and murmurs "khuda hafiz" and "salaam aleikum". The blue-bordered saree, resembling the Missionaries of Charity habit, she wore when unveiling Mother Teresa's statue on her 106th birth anniversary might have been a dress rehearsal for Rome. It's different for devout Catholics. For others, Rome is an all-expenses-paid jaunt that will also allow them to wallow in a celebrity spectacle.

Given the National Democratic Alliance's zeal in promoting Hindu nationalism, neither Modi's public tribute nor the Roman holiday need stop attacks on Christians. At least, Yogi Adityanath, whose Gorakhpur constituency saw the now rapidly expanding Vidya Bharati's first Saraswati Shishu Mandir, is honest about his dislike. Politics everywhere is hypocritical but nowhere more so than in India that is Bharat.

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First Published: Fri, September 02 2016. 21:38 IST