Wednesday, April 05, 2006
MARCHING ORDERS !
(The Gujarat Government sends out Sisters who have selflessly served the Leprosy patients for fifty-seven years through a Government facility) - Fr. Cedric Prakash sj * The Gujarat Government has done it again ! In an order which smacks blatantly of discrimination, it has wound up the services of five Catholic Religious Sisters who were administering the Leprosy Hospital in Ahmedabad on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Ahmedabad. The decision clearly reflects the mindset of the Government towards Christians and other minorities. The order itself, to handover charge and leave the hospital was given to the Sisters on April 1st 2006, the day after the expiry of another agreement with the Government of Gujarat which was effective from April 1st 2001 till March 31st 2006. The irony is that the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (SMMI) were running the hospital from 7th October 1949 uninterruptedly and selflessly. No reason has been given to the Sisters for the Government not renewing the agreement. One has to travel to early 1948 when the Society of Jesus, under the leadership of Fr. Vilallonga, the then Ecclesiastical Superior of the Ahmedabad Mission used to visit the Leprosy Asylum in Kagdapith, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad city. This Leprosy Asylum was directly under the control of the Government from Bombay. However, the patients lived in very inhuman and deplorable conditions. They were just left to fend for themselves with absolutely no one to care for them or to provide them even with such basic amenities like a toilet. All that the Government would do for them in those days was to send them some meagre ration which would be distributed by a watchman and occasionally some “generous souls” used to come outside the leprosy asylum and throw grain to them from a distance “fully satisfied” that they had done their good deed for the day ! Fr. Vilallonga stepped into the misery of these patients and with typical Christian charity, provided them with solace, recognition and acceptance. He used his good offices to help ameliorate their conditions and because of his constant pleadings, the Government finally relented and agreed that (through a resolution of the Government of Bombay No. 5775/33 dated 30th March 1948) the management of the Leprosy Hospital would be transferred to the care of the Ahmedabad Mission. It was indeed a red letter day for the leprosy patients and very specially for their “saviour” Fr. Vilallonga. But Fr. Vilallonga knew that he could not undertake the arduous task alone. He decided to do the best. He invited the Sisters of the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate who were at that time running the Leprosy Hospital in Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu (one of the biggest in Asia). The Sisters willingly agreed to accept his invitation and on the 7th of October 1949, three of the Sisters arrived in Ahmedabad to take charge of the Leprosy Hospital. Since that eventful day, there has been no looking back . For almost fifty-seven years, it has been a labour of love for these Sisters who have cared for and nursed thousands of leprosy patients, who took refuge in the sanctum of the hospital or who came for treatment as out-patients. The Sisters were able to provide a new dignity and meaning to the lives of these patients, helping many of them to be rehabilitated and ensuring that their children are brought up, well educated and have a future in sight. Over the years, there were several other services provided by this hospital like physiotherapy and reconstructive surgery. The rehabilitation programme included tailoring classes, weaving, carpentry, cane-work and the provision for those who leave the hospital to have a house, own an auto-rickshaw, etc. The bounty and the generosity of the Sisters was unlimited as they touched the hearts of numerous benefactors from Ahmedabad and other parts, in order to help these patients, take their rightful place in society. The programmes organized by the Sisters be it on Leprosy Eradication Day (January 30th) , Diwali, Eid or Christmas were always unforgettable events not only for the inmates but for other citizens who went to share the joy and camaraderie with the patients. Much can be written about the work of the Sisters. In fact, two of the pioneers, Mother Noemi and Sister Marie Juliette were decorated by the French Government with France’s highest civilian award, “The Legion D’Honneur”. So, why did the Government of Gujarat want to suddenly stop the Sisters’ services after fifty-seven years ? Shri Ashok Bhatt, the Health Minister of Gujarat has gone on record saying that “there is no more leprosy in Gujarat !”. How does one account for the fact that there are almost fifty patients living in the hospital premises today and almost hundred others who come regularly as outpatients ? What can one make of the fact that there are several other leprosy hospitals and institutions run by private bodies and even the Government of Gujarat, spread across the State even today ? Whilst the incidence of leprosy has definitely shown a marked decrease, the latest report of “The National Leprosy Eradication Programme” (NLEP) very clearly mentions that in Gujarat, the incidence is approximately one-to-two for ten thousand. Leprosy is definitely not eradicated in Gujarat today ! There are also insinuations that the sisters were proselytizing., This is absolutely ridiculous because most of the patients are practicing Hindus with a full-fledged mandir on the hospital campus, there are a few Muslims and some Christians (who sometimes join the Sisters for their Sunday Mass). The Government suddenly seems to have woken up to the fact that the Sisters were Christians and perhaps it was just too much for them to accept Jesus’ message of Love and Compassion in actual practice. Perhaps, the Sisters were actually preaching Christianity by their very lives of selfless service ! Sister Karuna, who was the Lady Superintendent of the hospital till the 31st of March 2006 was extremely hurt when she voiced her dismay of the way that they were being treated by the Government. “They gave us no reasons” she asserted, “they just told us that we had to leave the place since the contract had expired”. Her companions were all speechless as they slowly went about packing their meagre belongings from the premises they called “home and Convent” for so many years. Sister Martine was there for nineteen continuous years; Sister Mary Jose worked in the Lab, Sister Christina was the Mother figure to the lady-inmates and Sister Mercilline in the prime of her youth serving everyone with a smile. One could see heavy hearts and tears in the eyes of the leprosy patients as a golden chapter of Love, Service and Compassion was brutally being trampled upon by an insensitive and fascist regime. In a statement Bishop Thomas Macwan of Ahmedabad who was the Manager of the Hospital strongly asserts “There is absolutely no reason why the Government should not have renewed this contract save for the fact that we are Christians, serving the leprosy patients of Ahmedabad selflessly, with generosity and with compassion”. The Sisters have left the hospital holding their heads high, knowing fully well that they have accomplished much over the years. The Government of Gujarat now stands accused of depriving some of the most despised people of the State (whom Mahatma Gandhi reached out to) with the healing touch which these Sisters were able to give. As Advani’s rath yatra rumbles through the breadth of the State, preaching hate and inciting violence, will he dare listen to the cries of the leprosy patients of Ahmedabad ?
Related Reports :
One less place for those unwanted
Indian officials insist fewer patients, not religion, forces closing of Leprosy Hospital run by Catholic order
By Kim Barker
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published May 11, 2006
AHMEDABAD, India -- For as long as the leprosy patients can remember, the nuns have cared for them in the government hospital, bandaging their wounds, handing out pills and giving them food.
But last month the state government kicked out the sisters. Soon, the Leprosy Hospital will close its doors.
The official reason is that leprosy is finished, a dying disease. But many here believe the decision has more to do with the pro-Hindu philosophy of the government of the western state of Gujarat, blamed for attacking Christianity and Islam since taking power in the late 1990s.
"I think religion has gone against these nuns," said M.D. Khursheed, the secretary of a nearby leprosy colony of 42 families. "Otherwise, there's no logical reason."
A small number of people are affected by the closing--five nuns, fewer than 100 leprosy patients and 368 HIV-positive patients in another program. But the decision has bigger implications for the government, long plagued by charges of persecuting religious minorities. Christians have been attacked for allegedly trying to convert Hindus. In 2002, Hindu mobs in the state slaughtered more than 1,000 Muslims in riots lasting several weeks.
Official: Leprosy eradicated
Ashok Bhatt, the health minister of Gujarat, dismissed allegations that the decision was based on religion. He said the nuns' contract was not renewed because leprosy has been eradicated from the state.
"These people who have tried to defame Gujarat have no agenda but defaming Gujarat," Bhatt said. "My only prayer is, `God save them.'"
Treating leprosy patients has long been the work of Catholic nuns and Christian missionaries. Leprosy patients--easily recognizable because of missing fingers and toes and facial deformities--have been outcasts in most countries, not just India.
Because the disease is contagious and disfiguring, leprosy patients have typically been isolated, kicked out of their homes and moved into colonies. Often, only missionaries and nuns would care for them.
Catholic nuns, from the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, took over the hospital from the government in 1949. After that, the government renewed the contract every five years. The contract always forbade the nuns from converting patients. Nuns insisted they never tried.
"I lived my Bible," said Sister Karuna, the former supervisor at the hospital. "I did not preach it."
Over the years, advances against leprosy have been made; new drug therapies can cure leprosy within a year. Leprosy cases dropped from about 10 million worldwide in 1985 to about 400,000 last year.
Colonies for so-called lepers have closed; in many countries, attempts have been made to reintegrate them into their communities and families.
`They destroyed our churches'
But in India, that is tough. People with the disease live on the margins, often as beggars. For some in Ahmedabad, the Leprosy Hospital and the leprosy colony are the only places they know as home.
The nuns' contract last came up for renewal in 2001, a few years after the Bharatiya Janata Party won power in Gujarat. Under the government, Catholics have had a difficult time, said Rev. Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest and social activist.
"They destroyed our churches; they beat up Christians," he said.
The government balked at signing the contract in 2001, Prakash said. Only after a lot of pressure and negotiation was it signed, he said.
This year, it was clear the Leprosy Hospital had little chance. Government officials sent a letter in late February saying the contract would not be renewed, and they refused to negotiate.
The hospital will close soon, along with the two other government leprosy hospitals run by Catholic nuns. The sisters have already moved back to their convent, but they are still trying to find a suitable place for their program that helps patients with HIV and AIDS.
The hospital will likely become a research center in the coming weeks, officials said. Remaining leprosy patients will have to leave.
The nuns and advocates worry that the decision will further isolate marginalized groups in India: people with HIV or AIDS, and leprosy patients.
"The government is not punishing the sisters," Prakash said. "They're not punishing the Christians. They're punishing the leprosy patients of Gujarat."
Dr. Julie Desai, the hospital's medical officer, insisted that the care is the same from the government workers who replaced the nuns early last month.
But leprosy patients told stories of being forced to wait outside other hospitals when they had open sores. They said the nuns touched them when caring for them. Government workers do not.
Bhimaji Thakore, 69, a Hindu, has been living at the Leprosy Hospital since Feb. 27. He said he has seen the difference in care between the nuns and the workers who replaced them.
"For all of us, the nuns were our gods," Thakore said. "They did everything for us. . . . These people insulted the sisters. It's like insulting or hurting a god."
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