2020 has been marked by the most drastic changes in human lives and livelihood situations that my generation has seen globally. As August approaches discussions are rampant on social media and news channels about how people have responded to the challenge. For many us, COVID updates decide our status, schedule and conversations. However, for Anupama Kelamangalathuveliyil, Neena Rose, Josephine Villoonnickal, Ancitta Urumbil and Alphy Pallasseril, 25th March did not change much. Not because they had special immunity to the virus, but because their lives had already been disrupted over two years ago. On 27th June 2018, they registered a complaint that opened a Pandora’s box of legal and religious contradictions and conflict that has disrupted their peace, security and identity.
These women, all members of Missionaries of Jesus, MJ congregation residing at the St Francis Mission Home, Kuravilangad in Kerala’s Kottayam district, have had two years of real-life experiences on ‘shutdown matters’. They made one decision – to support a companion, a sister from their congregation to fight for justice. This has resulted in the rest of their congregation, their parish church and the institutional church authorities socially and physically distancing themselves from them and the complainant.
“I was only 15 when I joined the convent. Initially, I was just learning English. Only after completing my 12th standard was I formally initiated into religious life in the congregation. Thus, for most of my life, my closest family has been the congregation. The congregation defined my life, my friendships, my work and my thoughts. Being targeted and feeling isolated within the congregation was a big letdown.” Sr. Neena Rose MJ
The silence was loud; the wiping out of their names from transfer lists and data bases both virtually and otherwise was vigorous and complete. It has been disturbing to see the picture of the accused prominently displayed on the Jalandhar diocese website while the link to the MJ congregation was removed. The link to information about the MJ congregation was also taken off from the website for the Pala diocese where the St Francis Mission Home is situated. The Missionaries of Jesus, Jalandhar congregational website itself has either been taken down or is untraceable.
Many supporting the institutional church tried to discredit them. A torchbearer in this defamation campaign has been the Christian Times, a YouTube channel. This channel released two videos in the thick of the investigation that claim that the complaint is false and casts aspersions on the complainants character and defames her: one titled ‘Bishop Franko മനസ്സ് തുറക്കുന്നു’ [i.e. ‘Bishop Franco speaks his thoughts’] was released on 30th September, 2018; another where PC George ‘reveals the truth’ was released on 3rd October 2018. The most ostentatious show of support to the accused was when he returned to the Bishop’s House in Jalandhar after being released on bail. Every time the sisters read reports of church leaders visiting the accused – in jail or otherwise, they too waited for such responses, but almost none have visited them. This ‘othering’ by the rest of their congregation and church authorities has been the toughest part since their lock-in.
“Initially each day was a struggle – to deal with unpleasantness from within the congregation, also the indifference of church authorities to our pleas for response and protection. Also, the fact that close to twenty members from our own MJ congregation went to meet the chief minister of Kerala, to plead for the release of Bishop Franco when he was arrested after the public protest. It is very difficult to recall and talk about those times even now. We felt uprooted. Our entire world – the convent, parish and our work – all snatched away from us in response to our support for the complaint.”-Sr. Josephine MJ
The first protest, the first visit to the police station, the first interview with the press, the first conversation with the police, the punishing look from close associates and strangers are all vivid. But this no longer pulls them down. As days, and then months, passed by after the complaint, they realized two things. First, that struggle for justice is going to be long. Second, it is going to be mostly lonely.
“During the phase between the cases and counter cases the two pillars of strength were our unity of our six-member team and the support of our families. All our immediate family members have continued their support in spite of the problems they faced locally. In my parents case, when a unit meeting [members of a church are usually organized into smaller units that interact more closely] was scheduled at our house, some members of our unit opposed it, but the parish priest supported us. Finally, those who opposed went ahead and cancelled the meeting in our house without asking us. Many who were close to my parents don’t speak to them anymore.” says Sr. Anupama MJ.
What is interesting is the way they have adapted to deal with their lock down. There is a confidence in the shared conviction that their stand is aligned to their faith; their truth, their cause to bring justice to one of their own – one who over the years has been a pillar of support to them as a friend, a sister, a mother, a guide and leader. Now, as sisters in solidarity, they are standing up for each other. They started to consciously and actively work towards keeping themselves positively engaged. The case was important, but so was their survival. Being religious, their spiritual growth was as important as the physical and intellectual. They worked hard and tried many things. Gradually, a plan developed.
“It is a fact that the follow up of the court case is stressful, but our method of dealing with that is to discuss issues together till we reach consensus on the way forward. Twice we called a senior religious sister and professional counsellor to speak to us on stress management and help us with meditation. We come together as a group at least thrice daily – to pray, to read a book, for meals and to simply talk. Some things we pursue individually: I practice yoga every morning, some of us enjoy reading, others tending to poultry, growing vegetables and even stitching. Four of us have enrolled for our Masters degree through correspondence. The list keeps getting longer”, says Sr. Alphy MJ.
Their many ventures – growing vegetables, stitching clothes and masks, maintaining the poultry unit –don’t run on a loss, but they can’t be termed as big or profit-making either. The value they add to the sisters’ lives however, is beyond the monetary. Both their labour and its fruits have built their confidence and been a source of joy. They have shared the vegetables, the eggs and the clothes and masks with residents of the convent, the workers, their families and the police on duty. To be able to give when one is left with nothing has been a deeply empowering experience for the locked-in sisters.
Much has changed between 2018 and 2020 though. While there is no denying the hurt they feel, they have stopped feeling humiliated by such instances anymore. The healing has come from a concentrated effort by the sisters to regain control over their emotions and daily lives. Thus, when the CBCI published its 2020 directory with the accused as the Bishop of Jalandhar, it was just a fact check on the position of the official catholic church and nothing more. They have gained also from a sense of solidarity they have experienced from individuals who believe in them and their cause. One among them is Sr. Lissy Vadakel. When it became known that she had given a witness statement to support the complainant, she was given a warning, threatened and has been isolated from other members of her congregation ever since.
“Initially many felt that we are the troublemakers, only after we got a chance to explain ourselves did some people started supporting us. Even now even when I visit home, my mother never sends me alone to church fearing for my safety. The court proceedings and the investigation has brought out evidence against Bishop Franco in a way that cannot be ignored by the public and the church authorities.” Sr. Ancitta MJ
After being charge sheeted in April 2019, Franco Mulakkal has failed to appear for most of the hearings. From January to March 2020, he was absent for eight consecutive hearings. He petitioned to have the case discharged – this was rejected first by the trial court and then on 7th July 2020 by the High Court of Kerala. Consequently, the accused was directed to appear before the Sessions Court for the framing of charges and commencement of the trial. This time he used COVID and the lockdown to manipulate proceedings. Within hours of being issued a non bailable warrant on 13th July 2020, he submitted that he had tested positive for COVID and asked that the proceedings be delayed. Subsequently, the execution of his warrant has been delayed twice – first till 29th July and then till 7th August 2020 on which date his COVID status will be reviewed. The three weeks between 13th July to 7th August can be critical to this, as it provided a window of time for the accused to file his petition for dismissal of the case in the Supreme Court. The petition in the Supreme court is expected to be heard very soon. It is difficult to believe that the absence of the accused from the court leading to a warrant, and the almost immediate filing of a COVID positive report was not part of a strategy to gain time. While that may be considered a master stroke, it is also a fact that two years on, the sisters continue putting up a good fight. Here is hoping that we soon see new beginnings, with justice being served, consequences for the accused and freedom and solidarity for the sisters.
Kuravilangad diaries: by winnu das & anita cheria 30th July 2020