THE CONTEXT: This has been open season for clean chits, especially from the Election Commission of India to Namo and Amit Shah. Opposition parties have got their hackles up, claiming that the Model Code of Conduct has been reduced to the Modi Code of Conduct. Other than clean chits, has anybody thought of dirty socks? Why socks? Because the stink is not noticed until the shoes are taken off. Till then everything seems normal, comfortable and acceptable.
By the 23rd of May the billion plus people of India will know if the voters of the country have given a clean chit to the chowkidar, or whether they think he is a chor, with the stench wafting across the country.
There will be no dearth of political analysts and armchair critics giving their expert opinions on the Lok Sabha results. I will not add to that number. My attention is drawn elsewhere, to something that has gone off the radar because of the “cloud cover” caused by the elections and the horrific Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. I am harking back to the events in Jalandhar diocese, which has well and truly gone off the radar. This doesn’t mean that it has lost its relevance.
Some diehard church loyalists could fault me for “washing dirty linen in public”. Not so. The phrase originally refers to women washing cloth used for menstrual hygiene. In our modern age, where sanitary pads are advertised on TV, dispensed from vending machines, and espoused by a pseudo Indian Canadian in his Padman movie, this turn of phrase has lost its relevance.
It would be appropriate to refer to this issue as investigative reporting, to expose the truth, and bring about a much needed course correction in the Catholic Church. This is part of every Christian’s prophetic office. The word chowkidar (watchman) has become au courant this election season, so let us recall the task assigned to the Prophet Ezekiel. “I am making you a watchman for the nation of Israel. You must pass on the warnings I give you. If I announce that an evil man is going to die but you do not warn him to change his ways so that he can save his life, then he will die … and I will hold you responsible for his death” (Ez 33:7-8). Jesus also tells us how to admonish a person who errs; first in private, then in the presence of two others, and if not successful, “then tell the whole thing to the church” (Mat 18:17). So it is actually an obligation to admonish or expose what is wrong.
WHY JALANDHAR? There are two separate and yet interconnected issues, emanating from Jalandhar diocese that have a bearing on the entire Catholic community in India. The first is what I have often referred to as the Frightening Franco Fiasco; the alleged multiple rape of a religious sister by the then bishop of Jalandhar, Franco Mulakkal. Since the 2000 page charge sheet has already been filed it ill behoves me to comment on the merits or demerits of the case. However, what cannot be brushed aside is the hero’s welcome accorded to the rape accused when he got bail and returned to Jalandhar. The other disturbing development is the attempt to portray him as a victim; the latest being an interview given to a “charismatic” TV channel in Kerala.
The other matter of concern is the crores of rupees of cash recovered from Rev Antony Madessery (AM) on 29th March, just a day before the close of the financial year, when all banks would have been overburdened; and when the Model Code of Conduct for elections had already kicked in. AM admitted that the police recovered over 16 crore rupees (CR) in cash from his residence. He had then stated that he had already deposited another 14 CR in the bank. He did not specify if that too was cash. Going by his modus operandi it would be safe to presume that in just a few days he had 30 CR cash with him. I wonder how many lay Catholics in India have ever seen or laid hands on so much cash?
An aside to the story, that does not really concern us, is that about 6 CR was allegedly siphoned off by the police. Latest reports say that about 4 CR of that has been recovered from the errant cops, including two who were holed up in, hold your breath, Vypin Island, off the coast of Kochi, in Kerala.
AM claimed that it was all white money that had been accounted for. Bp Agnelo Gracias, the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese after Franco’s removal from office, gave a “clean chit” to AM, who is believed to be very close to Franco. Gracias graciously states that AM had permission from the diocese to indulge in commercial activities. For those who came in late, AM runs a host of commercial enterprises catering to a wide range of interests; from supplying stationary, uniforms, security guards, transport services and construction work to a host of institutions in Jalandhar diocese, and possibly elsewhere too.
WHAT IS DISTURBING? I come in to the picture for two reasons. The first is that I am a businessman by profession, a writer by passion, and a community leader by vocation. All three compel me to investigate the strange phenomena in Jalandhar. My family has been doing business for 160 years, and earnings have fallen drastically in inverse proportion to growing corruption and unethical business practices. I also manage, albeit in an honorary capacity, a Mall with 1,00,000 sq ft of commercial space. So I am reasonably familiar with how cash comes and goes. Hence I cannot swallow AM’s claim of doing clean business, nor Gracias’ swift issuance of a clean chit to him. I strongly feel that the matter needs to be thoroughly investigated and exposed for what it is. Prima facie this seems to be a case of very dirty socks. Once the shoes are removed (exposed), the stink could verily be all pervasive.
It is an open secret that educational institutions charge exorbitant sums for books, stationary, uniforms etc, and suppliers pay anything from 20% to 50% commission as kickbacks for the same. Hence all AM’s commercial enterprises need to be thoroughly investigated for tax evasion, be it Income Tax or GST on goods and services provided.
The second reason for me to pursue this case in the interests of the community is because I received two emails from Bp Gracias. The sequence of events is that as soon as I read about AM’s 30 CR I wrote an article “A Fool’s Paradise” that was published in several journals, portals and even translated into Malayalam. As stated in the article, I also drew the attention of the Papal Nuncio to these happenings through an Open Letter. In the interregnum Bp Gracias wrote to me. In all fairness I felt it appropriate to send a copy of my letter to the bishop, to which he duly responded.
It being Holy Week, followed by the Easter bombings, I kept the matter on hold. In the larger interests of the community it now becomes imperative for me to make this correspondence public.
In his first email to me dated 16th April, Bp Gracias inter alia queried how I could “swallow anything sensational” He said that the bank manager had issued a “notarised statement” of the amount counted by the bank. The Enforcement Directorate examined all the account books and “was satisfied that everything is legal”. He then warned me that “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. AM, in his press statement had said that he could not read Punjabi, in which the cops made him sign something; even though he must have been living there for at least 25 years. In contrast, Gracias informed me that the priests of the diocese “speak fluent Punjabi”. I would presume that this includes AM.
I responded by sending him a copy of my Open Letter to the Nuncio, and quoting St Paul that “We are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor 4:10). The very next day I received his second email. That was Maundy Thursday. He now seemed to be shooting the messenger.
He called me “the proud Pharisee casting stones at others”. He said that he would pray that I “receive the grace of honesty and the grace of being purged of self righteousness”. Ouch! I didn’t get a clean chit. Over my last 50 years of public life many have strongly disagreed with my views, which is only to be expected. But nobody has used the terms that this worthy has.
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: To understand the mindset of the Catholic leadership of Punjab, Jalandhar included, one needs to go back over a century. Fortunately I have with me Catholic Directories dating back to 1912. I also stumbled across some interesting and influential Punjabi Christian leaders. Dewan Bahadur E.P. Singha (1893 – 1948) was the presiding officer of the undivided Punjab Assembly. A recent article in a Pakistani paper, “The Friday Times” claimed that he and three other Christian members of the Assembly voted in favour of Punjab and its Christian population going with Pakistan. He was probably an Anglican. Another colossus among Punjabi Christians was Rajkumari Amrit Kaur of Kapurthala. She was closely associated with Gandhiji and Nehru and became independent India’s first Health Minister. As one of the Christian members of the Constituent Assembly she chose to forego any special privileges for Christians in India. She belonged to the American Presbyterian Mission.
My question is, how representative of the Punjabi Christians were Singha and Kaur? They were a privileged class. In contrast, the Punjabi Christians were converted almost entirely from among the maha dalit scavenger community. They had neither land nor jobs, and were totally dependent on rich landlords, or the foreign missionaries. They were a subservient people with no voice or standing of their own. With the benefit of historical hindsight would somebody like Asia Bibi in Pakistan or the local dalit Christians of Jalandhar say that Singha and Kaur chose wisely for them? Is history repeating itself in Jalandhar where almost all the clergy and religious hail from Kerala? Have they become the new Brown Sahibs at whose behest they shower petals on a rape accused, or turn a blind eye to priests running commercial enterprises with a turnover of several CR?
Now look at the growth of the Catholic community in Jalandhar diocese. The undivided Lahore diocese in 1912 had 8500 Catholics. After the formation of the Jalandhar Prefecture it had 11,883 Catholics in 1962, 14,979 in 1969 and 25,860 in 1980. Now miracle of miracles, in 2013 there was an astronomical jump to 1,16,968, making it the numerically largest diocese in north India. The Catholic Church is not known for aggressive proselytisation, more so after Vatican II. So what accounts for this exponential growth? After Partition there were a lot of Anglican “lost sheep”, who probably got attracted to the grandeur of the Catholic Church with its myriad institutions.
JUDICIAL SYSTEMS: Coming back to the clean chits, I cannot but compare the judicial delivery systems of Pakistan and India, vis-à-vis the powerful. Former Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto was hanged in 1979 for ordering the murder of a political opponent. In 2018 3-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for holding 4 flats in London. Former strongman President and General Pervez Mussharraf resigned in 2008 to avoid impeachment and is now declared an absconder, living in exile in Dubai since 2016. In contrast in India the only notable politician in jail is Lallu Prasad Yadav. After 33 years the CBI is now re-opening the Bofors case, and Rafaele is yet to take wing (pun intended).
Also look at the amazing sacrifices made in Pakistan for the dalit Christians. Bp John Joseph of Faizalabad shot himself on the steps of the court (erroneously I may add) to protest the blasphemy law. Governor Salman Taseer of Punjab (father of Aatish Taseeer who has just written about Modi the great divider) was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri on 4/1/11, for speaking up for Asia Bibi. Hardly two months later, Minorities Minister Clement Shahbaaz Bhatti, was assassinated on 2/3/11 for the same reason. I wonder how many crorepati priests or bishops in Jalandhar would put their heads on the block for the dalit Christians that they profess to serve?
Back in India we need to reflect on the nexus that powerful godmen have between politics, money and sex; going back to Osho Rajneesh, Dhirendra Bhramachari, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Asaram Bapu and Baba Ram Rahim. Fortunately we have a somewhat better conviction rate when it comes to the so-called godmen. So guys like Franco and AM should not rest smugly depending on good defence lawyers and smart chartered accountants. At the other end of the spectrum though we have a Bollywood star like the “Being Human” Salman Khan, successfully proving in court that nobody was driving his car that killed the pavement dwellers, or nobody poached the black bucks. They just died of natural causes!
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: No matter which way the judge’s gavel will fall, I still find many unanswered questions to what is happening in Jalandhar diocese:
- By all accounts Franco is an influential person. A priest, who was a key witness in his alleged rape case, died under mysterious circumstances. Normally a High Court grants bail in heinous crimes only till the filing of the charge sheet. Franco is an exception. The alleged rape victim, her family and supporters have repeatedly alleged a threat to their lives. Franco is feted on his return to Jalandhar, and his associate AM gets a clean chit from the incumbent Bp Gracias. In contrast, when my own former bishop Isidore Fernandes of Allahabad committed a relatively minor indiscretion by ordaining a Protestant bishop, he was removed from office, and not allowed to stay in the diocese. Justice should be seen to be done. The least that the Papal Nuncio can do is to ensure that Franco is extradited from the geographical territory of Jalandhar diocese, during the period of his trial.
- I question the so-called clean chit given by the tax authorities to AM for the 30 CR cash he had. As per Section 115BBE of the Income Tax Act, as amended in 2016, a person with unaccounted cash is liable to pay 83.25% of the same as tax and penalties, if the source of the cash cannot be accounted for, if there are dubious investments, unexplained expenditure, or amounts borrowed and repaid. If tax evasion exceeds Rs 25 lakhs the person can get rigorous imprisonment of not less than 6 months extending up to 7 years. U/s 271DA, if a party receives more than Rs 2 lakhs from a person in a day the penalty is 100%. I cannot believe that tax authorities would be so lax as to give a clean chit to AM within a few days of the recovery of the cash in question.
- Canon 286 clearly states that “Clerics are forbidden to practice trade and commerce, either personally or through another, for their own or another’s benefit”. Canons 1286(1) and 1290 state that all financial dealings should be in accordance with the provisions of civil law. This does not seem to be so. So why are the Papal Nuncio and the Apostolic Administrator silent?
- According to a report in the Indian Express dt 8/4/19 AM and his group are running 15 business enterprises with a turnover of 60 CR. Are they monopolising contracts with all Catholic institutions? If so, this mitigates against the provisions of the Competition Act 2002 that replaced the Monopolies & Restrictive Trade Practices Act of 1969.
- Does Jalandhar diocese have a Finance Committee that includes lay members (Can 492) and Parish Finance Committees (Can 537)? All of Franco’s and AM’s associates seem to be from Kerala. Have they possibly gone against “Persons related to the bishop upto the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity being excluded from the Diocesan Finance Committee (Can 492:3)?
- Why hasn’t the Apostolic Administrator revoked the so-called permission given to AM and company to engage in trade and commerce? Why doesn’t he make a public statement that AM and team do not have a monopoly over supply or service contracts to churches and institutions?
- Has the Papal Nuncio instituted an impartial enquiry into the functioning of the two diocesan religious congregations (both men and women) that Franco controls?
- What percentage of the priests and religious in the diocese are from among the over 1 lakh Punjabi Christians? Do they have any positions of authority in the diocese?
CONCLUSION: There are many more questions that arise from Jalandhar that probably have an echo in other dioceses across the country. The silence of the Catholic press (that is otherwise quick to lampoon Modi) and of all the national Catholic organisations, beginning with the CBCI, is ominous. Have they closed ranks to protect one of their own? Lots of questions screaming for answers.
When Jesus took a whip to chase the traders out of the Temple in Jerusalem, overturning their tables, he had said “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are turning it into a bandit’s den” (Mat 21:12). We need the whip, and some tables to be overturned. Like Ezekiel, not Modi, I will humbly say “Main bhi chowkidar hoon” (I too am a watchman). It is my Christian duty. I hope and pray that this article will stir the conscience of our leaders, especially those who are quick to give clean chits, without noticing the dirty socks.
* The writer has been serving the community in various capacities for the last 51 years.