(This Hindu Editorial, February 28, 2015, on Mother Teresa is full of lessons for all and comforting for those who look to her as the saint of the gutter. Dr James Kottoor)
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent comment that the prime motive behind Mother Teresa’s work among the destitute and desperately poor was to convert them to Christianity may have received approbation from BJP members, the Shiv Sena and assorted right-wing Hindu organisations. But the rest of India has responded differently, with people of all faiths — not merely Christians — strongly expressing their objections to what they see as an unwarranted attack on Mother Teresa, a revered figure.
This last week, the issue echoed in Parliament, with opposition parties seeking a clarification from the Modi government. Cornered, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said that the government had nothing to do with the RSS. This drew howls of protest from opposition MPs, who pointed out that the ruling party benches were filled with proud swayamsewaks. Indeed, Mr. Bhagwat’s remarks are being widely seen as part of the Sangh Parivar’s efforts to keep alive the controversial project of religious conversions and ghar vapsi (homecoming).
Mother Teresa, who came to India in 1929 as a young nun, became a naturalised Indian citizen and went on to found the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation that in 2012 consisted of over 4,500 sisters and is active in 133 countries. Of course, this is not the first time that she has been the subject of controversy: during her lifetime, she was accused of being a marketing guru who used her celebrity status to attract funds for the Missionaries of Charity from dubious sources. But the fact remains that when this is set against the body of her work — picking up dying leprosy patients off the streets, washing their sores and allowing them a dignified death, for instance — Mr. Bhagwat’s accusations seem trivial. It was this kind of selfless service for the desperately poor, not her ability to convert souls, that made her such an inspirational figure worldwide. In Kolkata, the city in which she did most her work, she remains an icon, its most human face. In 1979, she won the Nobel Peace Prize; a year later, the country that she made her own awarded her India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, the only time someone of foreign origin has thus been honoured. In 2003, she was beatified as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”. It would be a pity if an icon so treasured by millions in this country for her service to the needy is trashed just to serve the blatantly partisan agenda of the Sangh Parivar, which often involves a periodic questioning of the national loyalties of minority communities.