Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India who recently visited Sister Concelia Baxla a Mother Teresa Sister in jail.
Last week, I returned from an emotional heartbreaking visit to jail. I paid a long overdue visit to Sister Concelia Baxla a Mother Teresa Sister who along with an employee of the Nirmal Hriday Home, Ms Anima Indwar was arrested two hundred and twenty two days ago on charges of child trafficking. Nirmal Hriday (Immaculate Heart) is one of the 18 houses of mercy run by the Mother Teresa Sisters in the State of Jharkhand. The misuse of the police force, the manipulations of political authorities, the apathy of our justice system in the story of this poor, naive and innocent woman who has devoted all her life to the selfless service of the poor and marginalized is a story of many poor prisoners of our country. Many like her are languishing in jail as under trials waiting for the slow churning of the wheels of justice which often appear to be spun by money power, political clout, massive media propaganda and even blatant manipulation of evidence.
The poor sister suffers from diabetes and varicose veins. Uprooted from her daily routine, left to suffer alone, all of us, her co-sisters, Superiors, Bishops, priests and all who know her and are convinced of her innocence can only look up to heaven in helplessness and hope, as every attempt to even get bail for her has been brusquely rejected by our judiciary at various levels sometimes in a matter of minutes.
I stood there outside the gate of the Birsa Munda jail waiting to be registered along with two other companions and many others for whom this must be a weekly or bi-monthly ordeal waiting to see some beloved living there behind the barbed wires and fortified walls. Every prisoner is allowed a visit once every week or fifteen days as decreed. Tens of poor people, some dejected, some anxious, some desperate wait patiently in front of a shabby structure to meet their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters friends incarcerated and waiting to be freed. Who knows what is going through their mind? A family of 4 stands before me. A boy about 10 years old is carrying a plastic bag of fruits for someone dear in prison. With him is a girl perhaps two years younger. As the lady gives her Adhaar card for registration, the police constable kindly but firmly tells her that the family cannot visit the prisoner because just the previous day he has received a visitor. They will have to come after 14 days. I can see the distress on the faces of the young family as they turn back to go home and I can only look down at the ground with their sadness and sorrow rubbing off on me.
As I get myself registered along with Mr. Vepul Kaisar a dear friend from Kolkata and Adv. Siju Thomas a great collaborator and lawyer friend from Delhi (only three persons are allowed once in seven days), I am anxious, nervous, uncertain as to what I will say to Sister Concelia when I meet her. After all, our best efforts to bring relief to her including the services of the best of lawyers who had come to our aid had so far come to naught. Throughout these two hundred and twenty two days contrasting emotions had welled up in me at every turn. Disbelief when news of her arrest reached me, disgust when false manipulated reports were circulated about the Mother Teresa Sisters, anger when obtaining the copy of the FIR was inordinately delayed due to non-availability of court fee, frustration when the District magistrate summarily dismissed the bail petition, impatience at not being able to get the order from the court even after fifteen days, shock when the sessions court rejected without arguments our appeal for bail, worry when the high court threw out our appeal, joy when a leading lawyer willingly took up our case pro bono in the Supreme Court and despair when the Supreme Court also would not allow our poor sister any relief.
What pains me most is that an elderly woman, suffering from ill health could not get bail because the charges had not yet been framed. At the back of my mind was the Supreme Court order by a two judge Bench headed by Justice Madan B. Lokur which had ruled in February 2018, “Another important facet of our criminal jurisprudence is that the grant of bail is the general rule and putting a person in jail or in a prison or in a correction home is an exception. Unfortunately, some of these basic principles appear to have been lost sight of with the result that more and more persons are being incarcerated and for longer periods. This does not do any good to our criminal jurisprudence or to our society”. But this yardstick does not seem to be applied for Sr. Concelia. Neither the fact that she was a woman, nor her ill health, nor her age could move the judges to grant her the simple relief of being out on bail. What would I say to Sr. Concelia? How could I tell her that we had collectively failed her? How would I face her knowing within myself that she would be there for some more time till God granted her mercy through human beings who till now appear to be merciless.
I was engrossed in my thoughts of self reproach and utter helplessness as she was brought before us with two other women behind a double barred and netted window. “How are you?” I asked her. I am ok she said. Then she looked at me long with moist eyes and broke down crying. I thought it was her despair, her feeling of being let down by us, her misery of suffering that was playing on her. How wrong I was! Her next words stunned me. “pardon me my Lord”, she said, “I have brought shame to the Church”, she burst out. “But I am innocent my Lord”, she sobbed. As she kept weeping, I tried to console her telling her that she has not hurt the Church but that rather on the contrary we feel helpless as we cannot bring her out despite knowing that she was completely innocent. It was genuine sorrow, not self pity but agony for the suffering of the Church which suffers with her.
Deep within me I was full of admiration for this brave, selfless woman. Here she was in jail, suffering humiliation and shame because political powers wished to use her to punish the Church for working for the poor, the marginalized and the destitutes. She was not worried about her own travail. She was concerned about the harm her arrest had done to the name of the Church. I did not know how to react. Even as I stood touched and emotional, she continued sobbing. “My Lord”, she said, “I prayed so much that I may be released but perhaps God did not want it”. How could I tell her that some political power somewhere has decided that she be the sacrificial goat to get at the Church. “I pray”, she continued “and say my Jesus, ‘you suffered and died for me, can I not bear this suffering for you though I am innocent’. I accept God’s will”, she said and burst out into a heart wrenching sob. As for me, I stood there across the barred, netted cage from which she was speaking unable to control my emotions anymore as tears flowed from my eyes and my voice broke down trying to console her. I needed a pause to regain my composure. I move aside and ask my companion to continue speaking to her. After some time, he broke down too. I did not have the courage to ask him what had transpired.
I took over and resumed my conversation with Sr. Concelia a few moments later. She told me that though she gets Mass every Sunday, she would like to have communion everyday. I could not assure her that consecrated hosts could be left with her because of the difficulty of securing their safety in the circumstances in which she was staying. When I told her this again her reaction was of resignation to the will of God.
Ever since my visit to that jail, my faith in God and his Church has been reinvigorated. This simple woman with her faith in God, her dedication and devotion to the church, her readiness to accept suffering as the will of God has taught me more than one lesson. But it also raises in my mind many questions about justice and perceptions about innocence and guilt.
Even as I write this reflection, I have come to know that the alleged case of “Human Trafficking” against Sr Concelia is now being conveniently represented as a case of “Irregular Adoption”. The couple who is supposed to have “purchased” the child has been given anticipatory bail on the statement of the girl who gave birth to the child that she has handed over the child of her own free will. The maid at the hospital who helped in the transfer of the child to the “adoptive parents” has also been granted anticipatory bail. Meanwhile our poor sister continues to be in Jail, two hundred and twenty two days in jail. She belongs to a Religious Order where sisters not only are not allowed to possess any money or belongings, but on their transfer carry just a bucket and a saree besides the one they wear.
The nuns are allowed to visit their homes once in 10 years for three weeks, and can go home for a week if either of their parents die. But what they do possess is a rich community life which sustains them, the daily Eucharist which strengthens them and the comfort of serving the poor and the marginalized which motivates them. Sister Concelia is deprived of all three because of the repeated denial of bail. This is what pains me most. Meanwhile Sr. Concelia lives the words of Psalm 9:9: “The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” Meanwhile, I pray that my faith in God and love and dedication to the Church maybe as great as hers
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