Kanpur, April 3, 2019: April 1 is a fun day. With the advent of electronic communication I can now fool people across the world. I get fiendish delight in fooling the “powerful”, and have often incurred their wrath.
This April Fool’s Day would have been no different, until I read the story on Antony Madassery, a priest of the already infamous Jalandhar diocese. I don’t know who is fooling who, when an amount of 166.5 million rupees is involved; in which the person caught with so much cash by the police says that the cops that accosted him gypped him off 66.5 million rupees and handed over that much less to the Income Tax (IT) department!
This is straight out of a mystery thriller, compounded by the fact that the Antony in question is the purported right hand man of Franco Mulakkal, the erstwhile bishop of Jalandhar, who is facing serious charges of repeatedly raping a nun of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation that comes under his ecclesiastical jurisdiction. But this is no laughing matter. It is a cruel joke that is bringing disgrace upon the miniscule Catholic (Christian) community in India.
Let us examine the facts, or rather the claims and counter claims. First, the police version. A Press Note was issued by Dhruv Dahiya IPS, the SSP of Khanna in Punjab. He states that the Punjab police seized cash amounting to 96,661,700 rupees on March 29, in the course of routine highway patrolling on the Jalandhar Ambala road.
They were checking for illegal cash in the light of the Model Code of Conduct in force during the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. They accosted three vehicles – an Ecosport No PB10GB0269, an Innova No PB02BN3938 and a Breeza No PB06AQ8020.
The occupants of the three vehicles were Antony, s/o Pappu, r/o Partapura village, Jalandhar; Rachpal Singh of Tarn Taran, Ravinder Lingayat and his wife Shivani of Navi Mumbai, Ashok Kumar of Himanchal and Harpal Singh of Jalandhar. The aforesaid recovered cash was handed over to the IT Dept and Enforcement Directorate authorities for further investigation.
The fun starts now. Antony, s/o Pappu, is actually Antony Madassery. From the surname he is a Malayalee, like Franco. I have yet to come across a Malayalee whose father is called Pappu; a derogatory term used for simpletons in north India. Was Antony trying to hide his identity from the cops? Antony issues his own Press Note the next day (31) on the letterhead of Sahodhaya that has its registered office at 595 Jaisingh Complex, Model Town, Ludhiana. Its Jalandhar office is on Gulmarg Avenue, near Chajja Singh Gate.
Antony states that Sahodhaya is a partnership firm for providing (not selling) books, stationary, uniforms, security etc to schools in Punjab. Strangely the firm’s money is not collected in its registered or branch office, but in Antony’s residence in Partapura village. The note states that Rupees Fourteen Crores had already been deposited in the bank (when and where not mentioned) and the remaining amount of 166.5 million was to be deposited on March 29. For this the staff and guard (no names mentioned) of South Indian Bank (branch not mentioned) were there to take the money to the said bank after counting.
Just then 40-50 people armed with pistols and assault rifles barged into his residence without any search warrant, and forcibly took away the alleged 166.5 million together with mobile phones, and abducted him and others (names not mentioned). He alleges that the “local police” were not informed about the raid (so were they on his take?)
He further alleges that he was forced to sign some documents written in Punjabi that he cannot read (though he has probably been living in Punjab for 25 years). Thereafter the IT Dept served him a notice to give detailed proof of the sum of Rupees Nine Crores Sixty Six Lakhs seized by the police. There was no reference to the remaining sum of 66.6 million rupees that the police had “misappropriated”.
His Press Note goes on to say that he has complained to the Commissioner of Police about the “misappropriation” by the Khanna police; and if no action is taken against them he will file a writ in the High Court. The son of Pappu further claims that every year he complies with all the rules of the IT Dept, and this case has been filed because he is a follower of the church (not Christ)! He claims that his mobile location can establish that he was not in Khanna at the time of the seizure, as alleged by the police. Witnesses that corroborate his version include the bank officials (no names given).
So which version do we give credence to, the cop’s or the priest’s? Enter Bp Agnelo Gracias, the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese, after Franco’s removal. He issues a “clarification”, using the diocesan monogram that is printed on page 9 of the diocesan magazine Christward, April issue. Really fast work! I have seldom, if ever, seen bishops act with such alacrity.
The “clarification” has become necessary because a priest of the diocese is involved. It states that “all are aware of the existence of the group of companies, under the name Sahodhaya for the supply of books … construction of schools, churches etc”. It states that “these companies are not run by the diocese. They are partnership companies with some priests, who belong to our diocese, as partners, with due permission. It is within the ambit of law. The accounts are audited and income tax is paid in advance”.
The clarification goes on to say that the “profits from these companies are used mainly for social work operated through a network of social and charitable services”. The rest of the clarification is but a re-run of the Press Report by Antony. The bishop’s clarification is more of a conundrum, as it raises more questions than it answers.
However, a report published by the Tribune from Chandigarh on April 1 (Fool’s Day) has a slightly different take. It says that 4 priests working under the Jalandhar diocese have been running an independent business with a turnover of 400 million rupees.
Other than Mulakkal’s right hand man Antony, the other three are Jose Palakuzha, Paul and Shine, who are running the partnership firm Sahodhaya. Defending his actions Antony told the paper “I have every right to do business … it is permissible as per Canon Law … it is just like what the Ambanis do”!
A little historical perspective is required before asking some uncomfortable questions. Jalandhar was a part of Lahore diocese before Partition. It was ministered to by the Belgian Capuchins. In 1952 it was made a Prefecture under the English Capuchins, and a diocese in 1971.
As per the Catholic Directory of India 2013, it had 116,968 Catholics in 106 parishes. The local Catholics are mainly Dalits, who were once scavengers; and are still treated as such across the border in Lahore. Hence one wonders how much lay leadership has been nurtured in the diocese? How many of the clergy and religious are local Punjabis?
Antony is reportedly the Superior General of the diocesan Franciscan Missionaries of Jesus congregation founded by Franco. The latter’s alleged rape victim also held the same post in the Missionaries of Jesus (sisters) also under the diocese. All the dramatis personae, including Antony’s partners in crime, sorry firm, seem to be Franco’s country cousins. Are they holding sway over the hapless, voiceless and socially marginalised locals?
Canon Law states that “Clerics are forbidden to practice commerce or trade, either personally or through another, for their own or another’s benefit” (Can 286). Unfortunately, it ends with the caveat “except with the permission of the lawful ecclesiastical authority” So where does that leave us? Based on the above my queries/ observations are as under:
1. Clerics practicing trade and commerce is an exception not a rule. In the instant case it seems to be business as usual, without any justification. If indeed permission was granted it should be revoked immediately.
2. Police are within their rights to conduct a raid in another’s territory if there is a tip off. They cannot be faulted for this.
3. When the Model Code of Conduct is invoked during election time one is not permitted to carry more than 10,000 rupees in cash.
4. As per IT norms cash transactions exceeding 10,000 rupes are not permitted.
5. How did this group collect 300 (140+160) million rupees in cash? This defies all logic and norms of doing business.
6. Why was so much cash kept at Antony’s residence, and not in his office(s)?
7. Banks use counting machines for such vast sums of money. Were such machines placed at Antony’s residence?
8. The good bishop seems unable to distinguish between a partnership firm and a company. He should have refrained from giving a clarification when he was not competent to do so. Besides, social/ charitable works are undertaken by charitable trusts or societies, not by firms/ companies that are profit oriented. I also doubt if they can legally gift their profits for charity.
9. As per IT rules the seized cash can attract interest, penalties and imprisonment, if it cannot be established to be clean tax paid money.
10. Only printed books are exempted from GST. What else was Antony selling/ providing, and are his supplies/ services reflected in his firm’s GST returns?
11. It is morally and ethically wrong for a diocese and its institutions to grant a monopoly of trade to one powerful lobby like Antony’s.
12. The diocese should immediately issue a circular stating that there is no contract between it and Antony’s firm for books, construction, security etc.
13. The bishop, like Pilate, cannot wash his hands off this sordid affair by issuing a mere clarification. He must issue a public notice disassociating the diocese from the said firm. The four priest partners should be transferred to four remote corners of the diocese, to minimise further collusion.
14. I request the Papal Nuncio to immediately institute an enquiry into the whole “business”.
15. There should be a moratorium on diocesan congregations, and the existing members should be amalgamated/ absorbed into other dioceses/ congregations.
16. Immediate steps should be taken for the establishment of Diocesan and Parish Finance Committees. All contributions above Rs 1000/- should be by cheque or direct bank transfer.
17. Franco should be extricated from the territory of Jalandhar diocese.
Failure to act will leave us in a fool’s paradise, being led up the garden path by Antony, Franco and their ilk.
(The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum)