As the All India Catholic Union (AICU) celebrates its centenary in 2019 the incumbent National President (NP), Lancy D’cunha, has asked me to record the history of the AICU during my tenure as NP (1990-94), and what was happening before that.
I have titled this chronicle “Down the Years … Between the Ears” for a reason. Merely chronicling events is like how history was taught to us in school – insipid. But we need to learn the lessons of history, not just to avoid the mistakes of the past, but more importantly, to find the way forward. That is why I have also dwelt on “between the ears”, or what goes on in our heads – our thoughts and vision, to be articulated in a mission.
My father may have been associated with the Catholic Union of India (CUI), as it was then called, then headquartered in Madras. He had visited there in 1944, when he was appointed the first Indian Envoy of the Legion of Mary. It is therefore highly probable that he was in contact with the CUI leadership. A photograph of 1957, taken at Rome at the Second World Congress of Lay Apostolate, bears testimony to this. My elder brother participated in it, together with Chev Ruthnaswamy, the then President of the CUI.
However, my first interaction with the AICU was three decades later in 1985-1986. We had just formed the Kanpur Catholic Association and were seeking contact/affiliation with the AICU. It was then that we met Antony Maddala who had come to Kanpur on some other work. He put us in touch with Antony Vellara, the indefatigable Secretary General of the AICU. The saga had begun.
The Menezes Era:
In 1986, the AICU was on the horns of a dilemma, not unlike the Congress Party today. The old guard, led by Chev G.S. Reddi M.P. had climaxed. A stiff challenge, and even some legal disputes, had been posed by warring factions in Bombay. Bishop Patrick D’Souza of Varanasi, who was then chairperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) Laity Commission, stepped into the breach; because he realized that the AICU was far too precious to be bogged down in legal squabbles.
He prevailed upon George Menezes, an ex Air Force Officer, Diplomat and management guru, to be the consensus candidate for the post of NP. His was a lateral entry, unlike most other leaders who had risen from the ranks, and possibly stuck in a hole. And so it came to pass that Menezes was elected as the NP at the Annual General Meeting held in 1986 at Calcutta (now Kolkata).
The amazing aspect is that he was elected in absentia. He was not even in the country at the time of the elections. I may here add that for the next decade (1986-1996) there was no tussle or fierce contest for the post of NP. It was considered an onerous task, not a matter of prestige or entitlement.
Menezes ushered in a new era in AICU. The first change was to bring in fresh blood from across the country. The second was to make AICU a truly pan India body. Till then it was largely confined to the southern states. His next action was on inculcating management and communication skills into the moribund Working Committee and the affiliated Catholic Associations (CAs). He also saw the urgent need for training and formation of lay leaders.
Together with Rev Jose Benedict, secretary of the CBCI Laity Commission, he embarked on a vigorous training schedule. The programs were on “Effective Christian Leadership.” He had perceived that there were very few who actually embodied all three qualities.
I can personally recall the Northern India Laity Training Programme held in Kanpur in 1987. We had participants from several states. The efficacy of that program may be gauged by the fact that three future NPs were participants – myself (1990-1994), Norbert D’Souza who was then based in Jhansi (1996-2000) and Dr Remy Denis of Gorakhpur (2004-2008).
Another immediate spin off was that all the nascent CAs, together with the bishops of Uttar Pradesh, united to get Remy appointed as a member of the U.P. Minorities Commission, a first of its kind. Prior to this, U.P. was never in the frontline states of the Church in India.
Another ugly truth dawned on Menezes. The AICU, as with most other lay organizations, was penniless. Even the training programs and the NP’s travel were funded either by the CBCI Laity Commission or by foreign donors with whom Menezes shared a good rapport. The time had come to make AICU financially strong.
From its inception the AICU functioned from Madras (now Chennai) and more recently from the residence of Vellara in Bangalore. Menezes realizing that the seats of both secular and ecclesiastical powers were in Delhi, set about establishing a permanent office there. Menezes did get some funds for the office from a donor agency, but that was inadequate, as was the Corpus Fund that was being built through enrolling Patron Members and Benefactors. Here is where the responsibility fell on my young shoulders.
I had proposed that we organize an All India raffle with a Maruti car as the first prize. Back in 1989 a Maruti was as prized a possession as a Mercedes today. Menezes appointed me as the National Secretary for Resource Mobilization. One million (Ten Lakh) coupons of 2 rupees each were printed in a security press (the kind that print bank cheque books with security features to avoid fraud). This was a joint project with the CAs that got a handsome commission on the sales, depending on their turnover and whether they were pre-paid or post-paid.
The highest sales were recorded in Bombay followed by Vijayawada and Kanpur. Kerala ordered 200,000 tickets and returned them all unsold. A great setback. Nevertheless AICU made a net profit of 300,000 rupees and the participating CAs would have made another 200,000 rupees. Those were princely sums in 1989. More importantly, the sales were duly audited and every single ticket accounted for. It was a win-win situation.
Another significant contribution of Menezes was to organize a National Convention of Catholics in Bombay in 1989. This again was with CBCI collaboration. He wanted to resurrect the statement of the “Church In India Seminar” of 1969 that had unequivocally stated that the AICU “as a representative organization, be strengthened and further developed at the parish, diocesan, regional and national level.”
Laity Sunday was another innovative idea, to empower the laity. Menezes prevailed upon the CBCI to declare the feast of St Thomas More, an erudite layman, as Laity Sunday. This was duly followed for two years and then “the seed fell by the wayside.”
As a former military man Menezes also believed in discipline. The Catholic Association of Bombay, besides court cases, seemed to be causing headaches for all concerned. Menezes took the unpleasant but bold step of derecognizing and disaffiliating the association. As a consequence the Bombay Catholic Sabha was formed. Later in my own tenure I had to take a similar step with the Madras association.
It would be a no-brainer to state that I knew my own tenure best. Perhaps because of my handling of the raffle and the National Convention, Menezes, having completed two terms, (he could have stayed on for a third) chose me as his successor. I was just 39, and a college drop out to boot; very different from an illustrious line of chevaliers and Members of Parliament that had held this august office. Some veterans were aghast at how a commoner from the north could become the NP.
I will share a few thoughts on the circumstances in which I got elected. My children were small (son three years old) and I had just started a fledgling business. Could I assume such a responsibility that would entail constant travel across the country? My wife was furious. I told George that if he wanted me to be the NP he would have to first convince my wife. Skilful communicator that he was, the rest is history.
I did not want to be elected on George’s recommendation. I prepared my own Election Manifesto, perhaps the first of its kind, and circulated it to all the units. Prior to the elections we had a two-day renewal program that George had asked me to organize. One of the resource persons was Jesuit Father Ed Daly, known for adult catechesis. The other was Swami Amalorpavadas, the legend of lay empowerment.
On the second day we were waiting for him. When he was two hours late Vellara panicked. Amalor was never late. Just then we got the news that while driving from his Mysore ashram to Bangalore he met with a fatal accident. A pall of gloom descended upon the gathering. The next day, when I got elected, was Pentecost Sunday. I believe that I was blessed by the Holy Spirit and Amalor’s sacrificial blood. My election sent shivers down the spine of some bishops.
Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, the Papal Nuncio, had read my manifesto. When we met in Delhi a couple of months later, he called me aside and said, “Do what you want, but stay clear of the Rites issue.” This is because in my manifesto I had said that the Rites issue should be restricted to Kerala and not “exported” to other parts of the country. With the benefit of hindsight I can now say that Cacciavillan’s decision has opened up a Pandora’s Box of division in the Catholic Church in India.
In keeping with Menezes’ vision, my first decision was to shift the office to Delhi. The Nuncio inaugurated it. Much as I highly respected Antony Vellara, the then secretary general, whom I consider the greatest stalwart that the AICU has ever produced, I decided to appoint Victor Karunan, a veteran journalist based in Delhi itself, as the secretary general. I requested Vellara to continue as the Treasurer. It was the greatness of the man that he acceded without demur. However, sometime later I had to revert to Vellara.
In that era when there were no computers, email, mobiles, WhatsApp or other forms of electronic communication, Vellara kept banging away at his manual typewriter with heart and soul, hearth and home. Our monthly magazine Vishal Jagruti was also published by him without fail. Former AICU Treasurer David Lobo had once said “Communication is the lifeline of an organization.” Vellara lived that to the hilt. Menezes and I were indeed privileged to have him as our secretary general.
Another major change that I had affected was to choose our own Ecclesiastical Advisor, as provided for in Canon Law. Normally, the CBCI would appoint a bishop, who had no time to attend our meetings. So I chose Monsignor Lucio da Veiga Coutinho, the Delhi based Deputy Secretary General of the CBCI. It was a good working relationship. At the very first Working Committee meeting that he attended he remarked that the CBCI should learn from the AICU how to conduct meetings.
Baptism by fire:
I had little time to settle in to office. Two important events overtook us – the rape of three nuns in Gajraula, not far from Delhi, and the proposed all India Dalit rally. George Fernandes was then a Union Minister. Menezes fixed an appointment and the entire Working Committee went to seek his intervention in the matter. A remark of his did cut to the quick. He asked, “Why do you protest only when nuns are raped? What about so many other poor women who are raped everyday?”
I was fortunate to have two Members of Parliament as my Vice Presidents – Paul Mantosh of the ruling Janata Dal, and Peter Marbaniang of the opposition Congress. Together with Paul and Lennie Gonsalves, our Secretary for Women’s Welfare, we visited Gajraula and met the U.P. minister and the Director General of Police.
Subsequently Coutinho called me urgently back to Delhi to lead a protest march from the Boat Club Lawns to the Prime Minister’s residence. V.P. Singh left a cabinet meeting that was then in progress to meet us. He immediately called up Mulayam Singh Yadav, the U.P. Chief Minister, on the hotline and ordered immediate action. I was to meet the P.M. three times that month – August 2, 11 and 17, 1990. On 11, we had a meeting of Minority community leaders at Parliament Annexe. Paul had arranged for me to attend. At that meeting Ram Vilas Paswan, the Welfare Minister, introduced us to the PM as a force to reckon with.
This is because we had earlier presented him with 500,000 signatures collected by Antony Ambat in Kerala in support of Latin Catholics being classified as Other Backward Classes under the Mandal Commission. As a rule, whenever we met government functionaries, we always took a strong delegation, if not the entire Working Committee. In a democracy numbers count, and we used that to telling effect.
On the day that we had met the P.M. about Gajraula, Lennie had given a clarion call for an all India protest bandh. It was the first time in India that all Catholic institutions in India remained closed on a call given by the laity.
We had just three weeks between our Delhi meeting, Gajraula and the rally on August 17 at the Boat Club Lawns. It was initiated by Prof Saral Chatterji and leaders of sister Churches. However, because of his frail health, Chatterji asked me to lead the rally of about 130,000 persons from across the country. It was the biggest ever Christian show of strength in the capital.
When we met the P.M. in his chamber in parliament during the lunch recess I said to him in chaste Hindi (his ears pricked up) that we had waited 40 years for justice for the Dalit Christians. Singh said that he fully empathised with us, but his government was dependent on the outside support of the BJP, and if he acceded to our request his government would fall the very next day. That, I believe, is the closest that we ever got to getting justice for the Dalit Christians.
At that rally I had declared that if we did not get justice we would not celebrate Christmas socially that year. Churches would not be lit up nor celebrations held, and the savings would be given for the Dalit Christian cause. I myself fasted for 7 days in the cold Delhi winter before Christmas that year, for this and other just causes. Posters were printed and distributed all over the country. The CBCI and several dioceses supported our initiative.
The coming year was again a challenging one for us. It began with the national census. We felt that several Christians did not enumerate themselves as Christians out of fear. So we issued guidelines to all the units and backed it with a media blitz to create awareness about the need for standing up and being counted, quite literally.
General Elections 1991:
Here again we had a major awareness campaign and several political parties included some of our demands for Dalit Christians, Christian Personal Laws and places of worship in their respective manifestoes. We held a seminar in Delhi attended by senior representatives of major political parties. Several units followed suit.
Christian Personal Laws:
Reform of Christian Personal Laws was also part of my election manifesto. We took it up in a methodical manner. Josanthony Joseph had prepared a detailed questionnaire since many people did not know the fine print. This again was circulated to all the units with the request to discuss the issues and send us their considered opinions. This survey held us in good stead later when taking on the obduracy of the CBCI.
For those who came in late, this refers to the laws pertaining to Marriage, Divorce, Succession and Adoption. They were archaic, gender discriminatory or just non-existent. The Indian Divorce Act was passed in 1869 and the Indian Christian Marriage Act actually came three years later in 1872!
These British era laws favoured British males who married Indian women; and also had different provisions for various churches that then existed. If the circumstances have changed so should the laws. As for adoption, though Christian institutions cared for the maximum number of orphans, Christians did not have the legal right to adopt.
Our Secretary, Legal Affairs, Advocate Jose Chiramel of the Supreme Court, prepared a detailed study of the changes required. We met M.M. Jacob, Minister of State for Home, several times in this regard. But the CBCI would oppose our suggestions stating that divorce was against the teachings of the Church. Finally Bishop Bosco Penha took the initiative to call a joint meeting of all the stake holders. The CBCI relented when we said that we were only referring to the civil effects of divorce. In course of time all these demands were met, but not by the Congress Govt.
St Stephen’s Case:
A burning issue that arose was the St Stephen’s College judgment by the Supreme Court. It came to be known as the Fifty Percent Judgment. The mighty Catholic institutions felt threatened. I was asked to address a seminar on the issue in Mangalore. Thereafter we prepared a detailed paper that was printed and circulated to all our units. We also filed a revision petition in the Supreme Court, prepared by Chiramel. Unfortunately, despite hiring Ashok Sen, the former Law Minister, as our counsel, our petition was not entertained.
We commissioned a study on the status of Dalit Christians in Tamil Nadu to strengthen our case for their rights. However, I was not prepared to “prove” to the Supreme Court that they experienced untouchability in the church community. The remedy seemed worse than the disease.
This was the biggest post-Independence railway project that would benefit millions living along the southwest coast. Two senior Catholic bureaucrats, including one in the P.M.’s office, called me to Delhi to ask the AICU to oppose the project on the rather specious plea that it would endanger some historic churches in Old Goa. I declined to play ball on two grounds. Firstly, I felt that the AICU was in no position to determine the cost to benefit ratio, socially, economically or environmentally. Secondly, opposing it on purely religious grounds would have been playing the communal card.
Other than matters of national import, we did not shy away from addressing local issues of perceived injustice that were brought to our notice in writing. We took them up with the concerned authorities. Some of these were the new naval base at Karwar, a cemetery in Jamnagar to which the army was denying access, the termination of two employees from a prestigious school in Kolkata, the Salvation Church, Dadar, Mumbai case before the Charity Commissioner etc.
The climax of my tenure was the celebration of the Platinum Jubilee in Mumbai in 1994. The theme of the celebrations was “Towards an Adult Church”. The articles presented in the Jubilee Souvenir are gems of wisdom. Sample this prophecy from George Menezes. “The BJP will come to power and the Church will be tempted to toe the government line to protect its position and institutions, as it did in Nazi Germany, and recently in Iran.” Would that we heeded past warnings!
What standing AICU had in 1994 may be gauged by the galaxy of dignitaries/speakers at the event – Cardinal Simon Pimenta, Union Ministers P.A. Sangma and M.M. Jacob, Dr Najma Heptullah, Dy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, Dr Rafique Zakaria, noted Islamic scholar, Teesta Seetalvad, champion of Human Rights, and Julio Ribeiro, former Ambassador and Director General of Police.
The President of the International Council of Catholic Men (Unum Omnes) attended our Platinum Jubilee celebrations and was so impressed that he invited us for its next meeting in Vienna, Austria. George Menezes, the Immediate Past President, myself the incumbent, and Peter Marbaniang, the incoming President, all attended. The meeting was an eye opener. There were delegates from several countries, but they mostly represented elitist organizations like the Knights of Columbus or Knights of Malta. I did not come across an autonomous, representative national body like the AICU. Was the AICU then unique not just to India, but to the universal church? If so it is a matter of legitimate pride.
In that meeting I had proposed that this should not be an all male preserve and women should also be admitted. This was shot down by the so-called “developed” countries like the USA, UK and France.
There is much for the AICU to be legitimately proud of as it celebrates its centenary. Yet we cannot rest on our laurels, for there are miles to go before we sleep. No doubt later NPs and other office bearers have contributed immensely to the AICU in unique ways. We should salute all of them. If I have missed out on some important figures in my narrative for the period under review I hope to be excused, as any such exclusion is purely inadvertent. I have had to rely entirely on my fading memory to compile this chronicle.
As it celebrates its centenary the AICU also needs to ask itself if indeed it has moved towards becoming an Adult Church as envisaged by the Second Vatican Council 54 years ago? May God abundantly bless all the past, present and future members of this august body.