MISSIONARY HERITAGE IN GUJARAT’S DEVELOPMENT

There is a telling picture about the contribution of missionaries not only in Gujarat but in the whole of India.  The colorful picture appeared on the cover page of a monthly ‘Sadhana’, March 1999. The artist has drawn Bharatmata in the grip of a large python. The picture is drawn in such a way that Bharatmata is wailing to be liberated from the grip of the huge monstrous python. In order to drive his message crystal clear for everyone the artist has identified the devilish python in large letters “Missionary” and the python’s tongue is drawn as cross. The sari-clad Bharatmata needs no identification. The picture reveals two things for me. On the one side, there is the acknowledgement of the contributions of missionaries in the development of India and on the other side, there is hatred of a section of people for Christian missionaries. There is also the envy of the missionary influence on Indian people and antipathy for the missionaries!

Obviously the artist is well informed and impressed by the missionary contributions in the developments of Gujarat and India. Unfortunately the artist who seems to despise missionaries does not understand the deep meaning behind the missionary contributions. As a disciple of Jesus Christ a missionary is bound to selflessly serve others especially the poor and Dalit people. For, a missionary follows in the footsteps of the one who told him/her to love others including the enemies and also offered himself on the Cross for others.

But the artist and like-minded people are not able to accept the missionaries, who walk on the path shown by Jesus. All the same it is our good luck that most Indian people without distinction of caste and creed do accept and appreciate the missionary heritage of selfless love and service. Moreover, impressed by the missionary spirit there are people who imitating the missionaries do engage themselves in the service of others with much love. Here I would like to speak specially about the missionary inheritance in Gujarat.

The missionary inheritance is experienced mainly in five areas or fields. In the overall development of Gujarat the contributions of the missionaries are outstanding in the fields of education, medical services, social works, literature and socio religious awakening. The vast majority of the people may not know but people living in interior villages in north and south Gujarat know well that the first kacha roads in their area have been built by missionaries with their limited sources like food for work projects. Most of these roads have been later converted to pacca (tarred) roads by panchayats and other   government authorities.

I have edited with my journalist friend Mr. Navin Macwan a bulky volume in 2011 in Gujarati “Vikasna Hamsafar: Gujaratna Vikasma Missionarino Pradan” meaning the contributions of Missionaries to the Development of Gujarat. A reader of the volume will find a short description of the missionary contribution in different fields to the development of Gujarat.

According to the traditions and the historical written evidences are available from the 3rd century that in the first century, that is in AD 52 one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, St. Thomas came to India and spread the teachings of Jesus Christ in South India. But according to available information the missionaries’ arrival and spread of Jesus’ teaching begins only in 14th century in Gujarat.

Gujarati people by nature are adventurous in travelling and doing business in India and abroad. Foreigners came to the west coast of India and made Khambath and Bharuch important ports for trading in cinnamon, pepper, clove, cardamom, ginger and other such spices.Then, using the travel facilities missionaries too came to Gujarat and Christianity took root. Dr. Ishanand Vempeny quoting the Christian Encyclopedia wrote in “Vikana Hamsafar” a historical article entitled Planting of Cross in Gujarat. He quotes, “Landing in Thana in 1321, the French Dominican Jourdin Cathala de Serversae found a small community of Christians were told that there were several Christian communities further north and concretely in Bharuch.”  An British traveler Willkim Hedges has written about the priests of different Christian denominations in his diary in 1666.

Some people think that the encounter of Gujaratis with the Christian religion is as old as Christianity itself. For instance, a scholar like Dr. Gamang Jani says in his newspaper column in Sandesh dated 21 Dec 2007: “The contact of Gujarat with the Christian Religion is as old as Christianity itself.”

The Christian Religion has mainly two branches Roman Catholics and Protestants.  The Protestants made their beginning when a Catholic Priest reformer Martin Luther (1483-1540) revolted against the evil practices that had crept into Christianity of the time symbolized by Rome and became the founder of Protestant Christians.

These Protestant Christian missionaries were the first to spread Christian Religion in Gujarat. As recorded in ‘Vikasna Hamsafar’ a Protestant missionary William Faivi started the first printing press at Surat.  It was the beginning of printing in Gujarat. William Faivi published the first book in Gujarati language in 1820. Then, from Vrajalal Kalidas Sastri of Surat, Joseph Van Somaran Taylor learnt Gujarati in the 1860s and Taylor published the first Gujarati grammar in English alphabets in 1862.Later in 1870 the Gujarati grammar was published in Gujarati alphabets.

In the development of Gujarati literature the Christian missionaries as well as the local Christian writers and poets have made noteworthy contributions. In the literary section of ‘Vikasana Hamsafar’ the articles of eminent writers like Rajvin Chandhari, Kesubhai Desai.Yeshwant Mehta Chimmanlal Trivedi, Yeshwant Trivedi, M. Dalal etc. give a fair idea of the contribution of Christian missionaries and other Christian writers. Then there is Fr. Raymund Chauhan who has written bulky volume of “The grammar of Gamit Language” and “The grammar of Dangi Language.”  His article in ‘Vikasana Hamsafar’ entitled ‘The culmination of tribal culture’ has highlighted the contributions of missionaries in promoting the tribal language and culture. Then the names of Novelist Joseph Macwan, Poet Yoseph Macwan, Essayists Frs. Carlos Valles, SJ and Varghese Paul, SJ are well known names in Gujarati literature. All have been honored with many literary award and honors.

Many people may not know the contribution of Christia missionaries and other writers to Gujarati literature. But all know well or have heard about the contribution of missionaries in the field of education. When missionaries came to Gujarat the Dalits and the poor people were kept out of education. Missionaries from the beginning took trouble to educate those opening schools for them wherever they went. Once an old missionary Fr. Basil Lala Parmar told me, “Fr. Varghese, in Kheda A Gilla (Present Nadiad and Anand Districts) alone we had more than 100 primary schools. Missionaries opened primary schools in interior villages and educated all children without making any distinction of caste or creed. Dalit people in large number got educated. Many of them embraced Christianity because the missionaries accepted them as their own irrespective of their castes or socio-economic background.

I have heard from Fr. Herbert D’ Souza the first Principal of St. Xavier’s college which started in 1955 that in the beginning St. Xavier’s college was one  in which no one wanted to join and study. But in no time it became the best college not only in Ahmedabad city but in the whole of Gujarat.

Two things stand out about the missionary education. First, the standard of the missionary schools started in the cities like Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot, Surat, Jamnagar, Bhavnagar etc. stood out as the best schools for others as challenges and inspiration; and second, missionaries contribution to spread education in the villages and interior places like Dediapada, Ahwa, Subir, Jhankvav are without equal. The missionaries opened schools and hostels for boys and girls and educated specially the Dalits, the Tribals and other poor people.

True, there were a few government schools in tribal area. But till the missionaries opened their schools no tribal boys or girls had passed the SSC! For, teachers and government officials were saying that the tribal children are not interested in education as they wanted only to roam about in the jungles.

But what is the situation now?  According to newspaper reports Vidhya Kiran High at Unai school in Navsari District has been named as the best school both boys and girls.  Most of the teachers in the school now are the products from missionary schools in their own villages. With the declaration of the award the school also received 5 lakhs rupees in awards and prizes. I am happy that I was invited twice by the school principal Sr. Suhasini Parmar and I addressed school children on two different occasions about the importance of “Forming Reading Habits in Education.”

I remember some decades back the same missionary sisters, who run the Vidhya Kiran School at Unai, started a School in Sanand. The sisters visited the villages around Sanand and brought boys and girls and put them in their school and hostels. The missionaries often paid the bus fare to the parents to bring their children to their School and boardings. The village people did not want their girls to be educated then! But now! Now there is rush to get admission. I know the situation well because when the school started my two sisters Celine and Lissy were there serving one after another. They offered medical services to the children and the villagers.

Like in education in the field of medical services too the contribution of missionaries are outstanding. There was a time in Gujarat when 99 percent of the nursing care was given by Christian nurses. A well known writer and novelist Dr. Kesubhai Desai has written about the missionaries in the book Vikasana Hamsafar. He writes, “The concepts of nursing and midwifery were given exclusively by Christians.”

My sister Celine stood first in Gujarat state in her nursing studies. Some years back she worked in the interior tribal villages under Bardiapada and Subir missions. With the Dispensary at the two mission centers she also managed a mobile dispensary driving it herself to interior tribal villages. Once I joined her in her mobile van which she drove through bullock cart roads. In a particular village through her health workers she called all mothers with children two years or younger. Some 30 plus tribal women came with their babies. Celine declared a competition to decide by the mothers themselves which one was the most healthy baby boy or girl. “All children are to be  evaluated one by one with the same standard. The hair, nails and the whole body of the child should be clean. The cleanliness of the clothes also will be considered. Torn clothes have no problem provided they are clean”, she said. After congratulating the winners and giving them colorful toys, she declared, “all the children who participated in the competition are also winners”. Then she gave away toys and colorful children’s dresses to each child and congratulated the mother. She explained to them the importance of cleanliness of not only the children but also themselves, their whole house and surrounding. “We should take care to prevent disease than treating sickness.” Sr. Celine concluded.

On returning in her mobile jeep after she had examined and distributed medicine to some sick people, I told Celine at the wheel, “Celine, now I understand why the people call you ‘The Jungle Queen’, and also your popularity among the tribal people.”

Today the missionary sisters run a few hospitals in cities like Rajkot, Anand, Vadodara, Sanand with very good facilities for medicare. But in the field of medical care the missionaries’ contributions are in interior villages and Tribal areas. Hence writer Dr. Surendra Asthavadi wrote in ‘Vikasana Hamsafar’: “In inaccessible places in Gujarat where there are no roads and electricity the Christian missionaries somehow reached by foot with medicine and other services and guidance which others never even thought of. They also helped the poor in interior villages by   feeding and educating their children through hostels and schools.”

Some years back the missionary sisters were running leprosy hospitals and rehabilitation programmes at places like Ahmedabad (Narol), Bhavnagar, Jamnagar and Surat and serving the leprosy patients. Besides they were offering training to cured patients in stitching and tailoring, making them self-employed with tailoring machines, push carts for selling vegetables and fruits, carpentry equipments and like.

I would like to recall here that some years back Dr. Sister Anette Fernandes of Daya Sadan Hospital, Jhankhvav was awarded by the Health Care and Medical Education Department of Gujarat State for her outstanding services to tuberculosis patients. Similarly Sr. Lissy Paul was awarded by the State Health Care Department for her eminent services in treating sickle cell anemia patients and spreading awareness in tribal villages for treating and preventing the disease.

As I see, one of the biggest contributions of the missionaries in the development of Gujarat is in the area of concentising people about their unhealthy and unproductive customs and blind faiths which keep them backward. The missionaries empowered them to be self sufficient socially, religiously and economically for their own development. For instance, Daudbhai Ousephbhai Macwan wrote in ‘Vikasana Hamsafar’: “The missionaries have contributed a lion’s share in giving a true identity of the Gujarat”.

Fr. Joseph Idiakunnel gave for the first time in Gujarat the idea of ‘Free Legal Aid’ as an ideal.  Later through the Supreme Court Judge Bhagavati the idea of Free Legal Aid was accepted at national level for the whole of India. Fr. Joseph and his colleagues through Free Legal Aid got a few police officials punished for gang raping a tribal woman by name Gunthaben fighting her case up to the Supreme Court. The case made history for the first time police criminals were punished. The case helped as awakening of the tribal people that they are not helpless.

In the words of Navin Macwan, one of the two editors of ‘Vikasana Hamsafar’, “The missionaries have taken the initiative in the empowerment of 80 lakhs tribal people in Gujarat.” Today the new generation tribal youth have made a name for themselves in many fields such as educators, advocates, physicians, government officials, co-operative experts, etc.

Finally, one of the contributors of ‘Vikasana Hamsafar’, writer Dhanananth Oza in his article entitled “The Constructive Activities of the Missionaries” has taken note of the positive contributions of the missionaries. He concludes, “There should not be any opposition to the positive contribution of the missionaries. In Gujarat too the missionary activities have contributed positively to the love and enlightenment in many areas of life. The contributions of the missionaries in the renaissance of Gujarat certainly deserve honorable mention in the history of Gujarat.”

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Changed On: 01-05-2018

Next Change: 16-05-2018

Copyright Fr. Varghese Paul, SJ – 2018