Matters India reporter
Itanagar – Hundreds of Christians came down even from remote mountain villages of Arunachal Pradesh for a four-day retreat that ended with a solemn Mass and public meeting on June 28 to mark the 10th death anniversary of Prem Bhai, a lay Catholic missionary who is known as the ‘Apostle of Arunachal.’
The memorial service led by nine bishops from the northeast region and the public meeting chaired by state chief minister Pema Khandu and former chief minister Nabam Tuki was held at the Holy Trinity Ashram at Banderdewa, at the entry point to Arunachal Pradesh, where Prem Bhai is buried.
Henry Gaikwad hailing from Pune, ventured into Arunachal Pradesh in 1981 as ‘Prem Bhai’. Since a ban on Christian missionaries was strictly enforced in the state at the time, he used to enter it under the guise of carpenter or butcher, and trekked the scattered mountainous villages baptizing many along his path.
Prem Bhai who played a pivotal role in Christianity spreading lin the state, died in 2008 of heart attack at the age of 55 while on a visit to Sri Lanka. With the consent of his relatives, his body was brought to Arunachal Pradesh and was buried at the Banderdewa Ashram he had set up 1991 when ban on missionaries was eased unofficially.
According to the census of 2011, ratio of Christians in the state had reached 30.6 percent of its population of 1.4 million.
“The tribals of Arunachal Pradesh are obsessed with revenge. They believe in ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’. But Prem Bhai has changed our attitude,” Takam Sanjay, president of the Congress party in the state said at the public meeting.
Besides being a zealous missionary, Sanjay who had accompanied Prem Bhai to remote mountain villages bordering China pointed out that Prem Bhai was a ‘great social transformer of the Arunachal society’ and facilitated the education of the youth by sending them to centres outside the state.
“Prem Bhai preached forgiveness and understanding to everyone who came in contact with him. The change in the society giving up revenge has to be credited to him,” added Sanjay, former Lok Sabha member from Itanagar.
“Prem Bhai taught us about not only religion (Christianity) but also humanity. Earlier we could hardly forgive and were bent on taking revenge cutting even people into pieces,” recounted Nabam Rebia, minister for environment and forests.
“Because of him, our people have changed. He opened the eyes of our society. He is surely an inspiration for the entire humanity,” remarked Rebia, describing himself as a ‘non-baptised Christian’.
“If you love Prem Bhai, you must follow what he has taught us,” urged Rebia.
The finest of the tributes to Prem Bhai came from Pema Khandu, the Buddhist chief minister heading the BJP government in the state.
Hailing Prem Bhai as ‘not less than a saint’, the Buddhist chief minister announced even a donation of Rs one million from his family foundation for the development of the Prem Bhai shrine where he has been buried.
After placing a floral bouquet at Prem Bhai’s tomb, the BJP chief minister was the chief guest at the two hour long public meeting during which he paid glowing tributes to the missionary describing him a ‘bother of love’ who was respected by all – local animists Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims for the harmony and the ‘love’ he preached.
Hailing the ‘dedicated service to the people of Arunachal for over 25 years,’ the chief minister pointed out that “wearing tire slipper Prem Bhai travelled to village after village with love for the people and with message of harmony and good relations.”
“Prem Bhai brought about change in the attitude of the people. He told them to give up revenge and avoid clashes between different tribal groups,” exclaimed the chief minister before he surprised 2,000 Catholic gathering declaring that he will repeal the Freedom of Religion Act, enacted in 1978 “in the next session of the (Legislative) Assembly.”
Pointing out that the anti-conversion law “could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians”, Khandu even cautioned that “Any misuse of the law leading to torture of people could trigger large-scale violence in the state and could break Arunachal into pieces.”
The Act prohibits “conversion from one religious faith to any other religious faith by use of force or inducement or by fraudulent means and for matters connected therewith” and provides for imprisonment up to two years and fine up to 10,000 rupees.
“Though I have been told that the law has been never implemented (in 40 years),” said Khandu that if it remained in force, “In future, it could be misused by a Chief Minister, chief secretary or DGP (director general police).”
It was fitting that the chief minister made the declaration to repeal the four decades old law at the 10th death anniversary of the missionary who had faced highest number of arrests – as many as 8 times – and was even beaten up for his evangelisation work.
Saju Thayam, who attended the four day program at the Ashram, recounted how Prem Bhai had been beaten up before his eyes in 1985 when the lay missionary was in his village of Veo near Seppa in East Kameng district.
On learning that Prem Bhai was in the village, student leaders barged into his house where Prem Bhai was staying and took him to government guest house, recalled Thayam.
“After asking him to stop preaching, they slapped him, pulled his beard and even banged his head on the table,” Thayam recounted. “With a warning to leave the place in (hours), they let him accompany us. Even after the beating, he was not complaining but cheerful.”
Taw Tebin, president of Arunachal Pradesh Catholic Association, that organized the memorial service, said that “Most of those 700 who took part in the three-day preparatory retreat were closely associated with Prem Bhai.”
“Everyone wanted this event to be a big one and made generous donation and took up different responsibilities voluntarily,” said Tebin himself, a convert and school headmaster in Itanagar.
Bishop John Thomas Kattrukudiyil of Itanagar was surprised by the ‘tremendous enthusiasm’ shown by the lay association to organise the Prem Bhai memorial.
“They did not ask for a penny from the diocese and managed everything by donations. Certainly, Prem Bhai is alive in their hearts and minds,” bishop Kattrukudiyil remarked.