Gupta: “A State Funeral?”


By Kanchan Gupta
Rediff On The Net September 17, 1998

The live telecast of Mother Teresa’s funeral by Doordarshan has put as serious a question mark on the ”secular” credentials of the Indian state.

How can a state funeral be accorded to a nun whose dedicated service to the sick and the dying was only an expression of her fierce, unflinching and dogmatic loyalty to the Catholic church?

A dangerous precedent has been set by both these actions which have done disservice to a person who, in her lifetime, made it a point to spurn the glitter of highlife for the squalor of Calcutta’s back alleys.

Saturday’s live telecast of the state funeral by Doordarshan, which was taken to homes beyond Indian shores by Star, and reportage by foreign television networks like CNN and ABC, has left those who know little about India (including metropolitan Indians), firm in the conviction that no indigenous Indian’s contribution to the spiritual uplift of our society and welfare of the poor equals that of Mother Teresa’s.

That, of course, is far from the truth.

Vinoba Bhave, Swami Chinmayananda, Acharya Sushil Muni and the Shankaracharya of Kanchi never got the publicity, either in the national or foreign media, that their lives richly deserved, largely because a story on a bhoodan was considered too dry compared to a report on how Calcuttans would be dying in the gutters of the Empire’s erstwhile second city had it not been for a foreign missionary and her team of nuns.

There is also that other factor: A certificate of good work that comes from the West influences how we look at ourselves. Vinoba Bhave, Acharya Sushil Muni and the Kanchi Shankaracharya never sought nor received any such certificate. Hence, we have minimised their contribution.

A third factor has to do with the very nature of Indian secularism, as defined by the liberal intelligentsia at home. Mother Teresa may have assiduously avoided metropolitan India’s highlife; but her rejection did not prevent her from becoming the subject of fashionable discourse in our lib-left society. There was — and remains — a percentage in appropriating an icon celebrated on canvas by none less than M F Husain. By adopting the foreign, they were rejecting that which was Indian — this alone was imperative enough to ignore the contribution by Vinoba Bhave, Acharya Sushil Muni or the Kanchi Shankaracharya to modern Indian spiritualism.

What better proof could there have been that they were the right choice than Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times providing lavish coverage to Mother Teresa’s work?

Cynical though it may sound, Mother Teresa knew the power of the foreign media in moulding the Indian opinion which matters in the corridors of power. True, she steered clear of these corridors — but she encouraged others to roam them in search of ways and means to further her work. While it is true that she did not discriminate between the high and the low, it is equally true that she discriminated, with great deliberation, between local and foreign media precisely for this reason.

A former colleague at The Statesman, Santosh Basak, who doubled as the Associated Press correspondent-cum- photographer in Calcutta, was asked to file a report on Mother Teresa after she returned home from her first spell in hospital. At the Mother House, he found a crowd of local mediapersons jostling for a quote and a shot. The Statesman photographer and reporter were there, too. Mother Teresa refused to make an appearance; a nun came out and told the scribes that “Mother sends you her blessings.” Period.

Basak sent in his ‘other’ visiting card, the one which described him as an AP correspondent. Within minutes, he was ushered into Mother Teresa’s room.

That evening The Statesman had neither a photograph nor a report, but AP had both.

As in life, so in death. An item in one of the Sunday papers quoted Indian photographers bitterly complaining about how the Missionaries of Charity discriminated between them and the foreign paparazzi. The report also quotes a Calcutta-based photographer as saying that these double standards were evident even when Mother Teresa was alive: “We got a ‘God bless you, my son’ but they got the exclusive photographs!”

One such ”exclusive” photograph appeared in a little- known, now defunct magazine called L’Assaur, the propaganda organ of the ruthless dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, better known as Baby ‘Doc’ Duvalier. It shows Mother Teresa holding hands with the despot’s wife. The accompanying report quotes her as paying lavish tributes to the man (from whom she had just received the ‘Legion of Honour’) who had to later flee Haiti in the face of the wrath of his oppressed people.

There are also those uncomfortable facts, but facts nonetheless, of Mother Teresa accepting donations from Charles Keating, later charged with massive fraud, and Robert Maxwell, who paid the bills of his unrestrained debauchery with money pilfered from pension funds.

Mother Teresa, of course, had a perfect explanation for all this, and much more — just as she had for the unseemly spat with Dominique Lapierre over the TV serial based on her life for which she accepted a hefty cheque… which fact came to light years after the payment was made. She was an unabashed servant of God and felt no qualms about the means so long as the end was justified — in her case, caring for the poor, the dying and homeless. And so long as God’s deed was done, nothing else mattered.

She was no social worker trying to change society nor an activist ushering in a revolution. She was a plain, though not simple, representative of the Catholic church, a zealous missionary untainted by thoughts other than that of Christ.

Mother Teresa herself never made any attempt to hide this fact; on the contrary, she would emphatically state she was no social worker. “There is always the danger that we may become only social workers or just do the work for the sake of the work,” she told Malcolm Muggeridge. But by reaching out to the poor, she was reaching out to Christ.

It was this devotion to her chosen calling that made her see ”something beautiful in poverty and suffering”. Her successor, Sister Nirmala, was merely repeating what Mother Teresa believed all her life when she said at her first media conference that ”poverty is a gift of God”. That the poor should accept their poverty with ”contentment”.

It is in this acceptance that the road to Christian salvation lies. And Mother Teresa practised this with full earnestness. Like a good missionary, she was interested in saving the souls of the dying, the destitute and the homeless from eternal damnation, not in saving their bodies from death and decay.

Tragically, a life spent in the service of Christ and the furtherance of Christian faith was confused as a life dedicated in the service of society. It was this attempt to secularise Mother Teresa’s work and her mission, to coopt her into metropolitan India’s secular highlife, that resulted in Saturday’s state funeral with its attendant pomp and glitter, and its live coverage by Doordarshan. For the first time, official India went into mourning for a person religious, and the official media was used to propagate a doctrine that is definitely not secular.

In a sense, in their eagerness to convert Mother Teresa in death into what she definitely was not in life, the secular intelligentsia has minimised her contribution to the Catholic faith. Worse, a great wrong has been committed against indigenous Indians like Vinobha Bhave and the Kanchi Shankaracharya.

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