KOCHI: In the mid-1980s media in Kerala was agog with reports about Catholic girls from the state being taken to Italy with the promise of a career in nursing ending up as domestic helps in nunneries in Europe. The reports mentioned about one Fr. Cyriac Puthenpurackal as one of the kingpins of the racket. The matter came to light when two girls belonging to a group of seven sent by the priest to Italy managed to return to the state after realising that the promised career in nursing was only a bait to lure them into a life in the nunnery.
Although some reports claimed that nearly 5,000 girls from the state were taken in this manner, the matter faded out from public discourse soon. Long before the Italian connection came to the media limelight in the state, Sunday Times of London published a report in the 1970s about girls from Kerala being recruited for becoming nuns in West Germany. The girls were recruited to tide over the acute shortage of nuns in West Germany as the increasingly affluent West Germany found it difficult to attract local girls for the God’s Call. The London newspaper alluding the recruitment as something akin to ‘human trafficking’ created a stir internationally as Catholic Church was officially involved in the matter.
The bulk of the recruitment took place in the 1960s and early 1970s. When the matter came to the attention of the media here, 800 girls had already reached Germany. Today, nearly 50 years later, journalists have embarked on a journey to trace the history of the recruitment and the person involved in the affair. K. Rajagopal, a journalist with over four decades of experience in print and visual media, and Raju Raphael with a long stint in television joined to retrace the history in a 35-minute long documentary film named Ariyappedatha Jeevithangal (Unknown Lives).
According to Mr Raphael, it’s a collaborative work after extensive research and travel in Germany and many parts of India. “Writer and journalist Jose Punnamparambil did the research mainly while Mr Rajgopal and I focused on the narrative strategy of the film,” he said. The film is an exercise in exploring a complex subject focusing on different dimensions of the process, says Mr Rajgopal. “The attempt is not to apportion the guilt or find fault,” he said. “Although the ethics of recruiting girls from Kerala to look after the nunneries in Germany generated a lot of controversy in those days at present the issue has attained a different dimension.”
They found nuns recruited from Kerala controlling the Cologne Diocese and some of the German natives now complain that these nuns have become instruments of the drain of wealth from Germany. The film has great relevance in these times with migration becoming one of the major contentious political and cultural issues in the contemporary world. The bilingual film (Malayalam and German), is produced by Dinesh Kallarackal. The camera and editing are by Prakash Rana while Satyajit scores the music. The film has been shot after extensive travel in Germany and India to document. Some of these nuns are presently leading a retired life in different parts of India.
The background and controversy
Mass recruitments of young Malayali Catholic girls, who had completed matriculation or studying in senior secondary classes, to West Germany took place in 1960s and 70s. The recruitments were intended to fill up the vacancies of nuns in several German convents. The first batch of girls to West Germany boarded a ship from Mumbai in January 1963. Many more such groups followed and by 1972 the figure crossed 800. Sunday Times broke the story, terming the migration of Kerala Catholic girls as “human trafficking”. The allegation was that these girls were used as “slaves” in German convents and hospitals and were forced to work as cleaners and labourers. Certain newspaper reports also alleged that some of them were even forced to prostitution. The reports shocked the country as the national and regional media carried the news given by their European and American counterparts. The media expose was a jolt to both India and Germany. The image of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala and the Catholic Church in Germany took a hit as Bishops of these two churches were involved in recruitment and migration of Kerala girls.