Canara Catholics in Freedom Quest

July 8, 2018

In the wake of the statement of BJP MP Gopal Shetty’s remarks against Christian community in India, there have been mixed comments in the media, including numerous responses from readers in Daijiworld, some readers making genuine inquiries about the contributions/involvement of Christians in the freedom movement. Looking into my archives, I came across the contribution of Canara Catholics, a significant part of Catholics in India, and am presenting the same below so as to shed some light for the genuine seeker of facts.

The participation of Canara Catholics, whether home-based or elsewhere, has to be viewed in the contemporary context. For instance, the commencement of British rule in Canara, following the defeat of Tippu Sultan in 1799, was a matter of joy for the Canara Catholics because it meant liberation of their brethren from 15 years of captivity in Srirangapatanam. Tippu had razed down churches in Canara and confiscated the properties and wealth of Canara Catholics in a massive military operation on Ash Wednesday in 1774.

A century later Jerome Saldanha, a government servant in British Raj at Bombay Presidency, noted in an article in Mangalore Magazine, published by St Aloysius College, which chronicled contemporary developments and views from the closing decades of 19th century: “People of all classes belonging to Canara, specially the Christians, had suffered so dreadfully from Tippu’s regime of terror that they welcomed the British with a sense of relief and joy, and a hope of future peace and prosperity, that perhaps nowhere else was felt in India on the advent of the British. Nor were our ancestors disappointed, for they found that the main object of British rule in India was to secure the happiness of the people over whom it was held.”

Following retirement from government service in Bombay, Jerome Saldanha returned to Mangaluru and represented the district in the Madras Legislative Council. In his later years, he began to move with the rising tide of nationalism and became a sincere admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. When Gandhiji visited Mangaluru in 1929, Jerome, as president of South Canara District Congress Committee, presided at the public meeting addressed by the Mahatma. According to Dr Michael Lobo, who has chronicled the community through two authoritative books, The Mangalore Catholic Community – A Professional History / Directory and Distinguished Mangalorean Catholics 1800 –2000, a photograph of the two leaders taken on the occasion is in the possession of his family. Incidentally, Jerome was born in 1868, one year before the Mahatma, and died in 1947, just a few months before Independence.

Though not an active freedom fighter, Jerome supported the freedom movement through articulation in writing, especially in Mangalore Magazine. For instance, during World War II, in 1942, the Japanese joined the Axis (Germany and Italy) and after capturing Singapore and Burma, were knocking at the eastern border of India. In this context, the moderates among Canara Catholics felt that this was hardly the time for Gandhiji to persist in the Quit India Movement. For, they reasoned, if the Japanese succeeded in taking over India, the position of the country would be infinitely worse off and prospects of freedom might vanish altogether. Instead, they argued, this was the time for Britain and India to stand together in the defence of the sub-continent. One of those who held this view was an eminent lawyer of Mangaluru, Cajetan Lobo who, writing in Mangalore Magazine, went to the extent of insinuating that Gandhiji was, in the context of the war, a fifth columnist. Jerome was quick to rise to the defence of Gandhiji: “It is sheer nonsense to talk of Gandhiji as a fifth columnist…. He is one of the great men of the world - dominated by high ideals …about human family. Whether those ideals are always practicable in our difficult world may be questioned, but that Mr. Gandhi is a great patriot, a great man and a great spiritual leader, who can doubt?”

Another supporter of the freedom movement was Maurice Sreshta, a government servant under British Raj, who retired as post master general, Ceylon. Following retirement, he was elected to the Madras Legislative Council. As Dr Michael Lobo notes, “Throughout his career, he wished to be identified as Indian and he adopted the surname Sreshta (from a Sanskrit word meaning great) – a daring move for a British civil servant at a time when the other civil servants were, if anything, attempting to anglicize their names.” His children were also provided with Indian names in addition to their Christian names. Shortly after returning to Mangaluru from Colombo, in 1928, he spoke to students of St Aloysius College, commending Gandhiji to them.

Yet another Canara Catholic supporter of the freedom movement was Felix Albuquerque Pai, the tile magnate of Mangaluru. Inspired by Gandhiji, he had manufactured salt in defiance of British law (1930). When Nehru came to Mangaluru in 1933, he first landed at the Albuquerque residence at Bolar and was taken in procession to Falnir where a public meeting was held – the reception being financed by Felix Pai.

According to the account by Dr Michael Lobo, the 1930s saw the entry of three Canara couples into the freedom movement – Thomas and Helen Alvares, Cyprian and Alice Alvares and Joachim and Violet Alva. The involvement of the last couple is a long story, well known to merit repeating. Suffice to say that they were the first couple to be members of parliament and Violet Alva ended up as chairman of Raja Sabha. For their wedding in Bombay on July 18, 1936, Gandhiji, though bedridden, sent a message to the couple hoping that the union would result in greater service to the country. He also expressed his joy that “Nothing unseemly as dancing and drinking would have part in the wedding festivities.”

Thomas and Helen Alvares had settled down in Colombo where they opened a branch of their tile business. The couple was converted to the cause of freedom by the Mahatma himself, whom they once entertained to tea. So impressed were they by the Mahatma that they decided to give their children Indian first names. Helen herself adopted the name of Alva Devi. She was a great votary of Satyagraha and articulated it through public speeches.

The third couple was Cyprian and Alice Alvares. Cyprian was arrested in 1930 during Wadala Salt Satyagraha and was one of the few freedom fighters of the Catholic community of Mangalureans to receive Sanman Patra in the 1930s. His wife, Alice, joined Quit India Movement with her husband and went underground. But both were arrested in November 1942 and put in separate lock-ups in Bombay. Alice escaped and went to Daman and worked with the underground leaders – Lohia and Savarkar – while Cyprian was an ailing prisoner. Alice was arrested again and was first interned in the Yeravada prison in Poona and later expelled from Bombay and interned in Central Jail, Mangaluru. The couple operated a wireless system for Congress Radio from their own school.

We conclude with another Bombay-based Mangalurean, John Francis Pinto. He was preoccupied in politics, earlier as freedom fighter and later as a MLA. He became an admirer of Gandhiji soon after the latter took the lead in the freedom struggle in the early 1920s. Because of his admiration for Gandhi, his donning the Gandhi-cap and his active participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1930s, he acquired the nickname as ‘Gandhi Pinto’.

All the above add up to a handful. What were the others doing? They were saying the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father… Give us this day our daily bread”. Earning their daily bread was a backbreaking job for them, as their properties and wealth were confiscated by Tippu Sultan. Even otherwise, the community is basically apolitical and peace-loving.

By John B Monteiro
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Comment on this article

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel, Mangalore

    Tue, Jul 10 2018

    Thank you Dr. Anand and Geeta Pereira for your uplifting comments. I also thank 19 others for responding to the article.
    I am pleasantly surprised to find the article being rescued from fast fading-out page 3 and being hoisted up on “Special” platform. Thank you Daijiworld for initiating, nurturing and sustaining me in electronic journalism.

  • Dr.Anand & Geeta N Pereira, Sakleshpur/Mangalore

    Tue, Jul 10 2018

    Dear Mr. Monteiro,
    Grateful thanks for enlightening us on the contribution of Canara Catholics in the Freedom quest of India. I do hope the concerned BJP MP gets to read your article and shows magnanimity in accepting the fact that the Canara Catholics have not only stood by the flag in the most difficult of times, but have also been instrumental in providing literacy to all sections of society ,there by building a strong India. We are sure, there are many more Canara Catholics who have contributed their might to the freedom struggle apart from the few mentioned here. Members of Parliament are considered highly educated and knowledgeable and should act as a glue in strengthening the bonds that unite different communities. We always look forward to reading your intellectual articles and you for sure are a big inspiration in our lives.

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel, Mangalore

    Mon, Jul 09 2018

    Rev Lawrence Martis, Canada
    Thank you for your concerned response to my article which I read after the article slipped out of the home (front) page and went to page 2. Though it made my day to be called scholar, I am not one. I drifted into journalism and stayed there even while holding a job as corporate communications professional and continue to write in my retirement of 22 years.
    Your suggestion about writing and publishing in-depth studies is apt and welcome. The man who has done this selflessly is Dr Michael Lobo. However, most of his weighty published tomes remain unsold and his ready-to-published manuscripts, running into more than 10,000 pages, remain in his computer archives. He is the go-to-scholar if anyone wants research or publication on the community – especially as sponsors.

  • Robin Mumbaikar, Mumbai/Mississauga

    Mon, Jul 09 2018

    A great article indeed. Having said that, it's sad that most of my konkani brethren will still vote for the same political party that declared Tipu Jayanti. Hypocrisy at its best.

  • Krishna Dasa, Udupi,.

    Mon, Jul 09 2018

    Indian National Congress was on forefront in Freedom struggle and obtained freedom from Grate Britain. Indian National Congress was founded by Christians Dr. Anne Besent & A.O Hume, Congress Leaders and supporters were from minority community, mostly Parsi, Christians and Muslim decedents of Mogul Empire and later few British educated secular cosmopolitan Hindus like Motilal, Gandhi, Bose etc joined Congress,. During the freedom struggle most of the Hindus practicing untouchability and Hindus were hesitant to mix with beef eating muslims, Christans and Parsis . Most of the good solders in any Army including First world war & second world war were Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis. We the Hindus divided in to Brahmins, Dalits, Tribals, Rajputs, Land lords and Landless, Vegetarians & Non Vegetarians etc,. and never able to win any war and lost every war to small group of Foreign traders. Now we write our own fake History.

  • Don, Mangalore

    Mon, Jul 09 2018

    Thank you Sir.

    Many thanks for clearing up many misconceptions about us in India.

  • Rev. Lawrence Martis, Canada

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    independence is an eye opener indeed. Importantly, it has come at a time when some persons and organisations with corrupt ideology and divisive action-plan raise doubts about the Indian-ness of Christian community. Most probably, there is a ton of information on the contribution of Christians towards political independence of India and the ongoing struggle for freedom from poverty, disease, discrimination and coercive forces. I hope, scholars like JB Monteiro would continue to educate us on this topic by searching the private collections, libraries and archives of our institutions. The sketchy and scattered information about Christian political activists, industrialists, entrepreneurs, educationist, civil servants, social reformers and spiritual luminaries of ester years needs to be edited and published in print and audio-visual documents. This would help the Indian Christian community to take pride in its illustrious heritage and prove to others that our patriotism is second to none.

  • Joe Gonsalves, Mangalore

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    Hi Jon. Your well written article is an eye opener to people who had certain wrong notions about our ancestors and veteran freedom fighters.

    I was a school boy when I was going through certain events in the lives and histories of Mangalore Christians. Of course at a time when Mangalore Catholics were going through a difficult period due to persecution, they had to join hands with any party that supported and protected their rights.

    Let us not forget that during the freedom struggle, several Mangalore Catholics joined the movement to claim their rights for freedom from the British.

    Kudos to you John for your factual statements.

  • Alwyn, Canada

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    Hope gopala Anna make some time to read and apologize for his comments passed.agist Christians. Christians are still contribute big time for India but these few third class uneducated ignorant leaders lead the country without having any responsibility for its citizens. Shame on you. Never vote for such idiots. Whole india have issues on one thing is religion.

  • susan, mumbai

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    gandhiji's freedom struggle by non violence was inspired by Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (refence : Holy bible ,holy book of Christians)

  • Francis Lewis, UDUPI

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    One of the best article from you Mr. Monteiro, though no need to clarify.

    Majority of our Hindu brotherens know the contribution of Christians throughout Indian history.

    Tippu fought for his own country. Christians supported British for their freedom. There was no India as one country that time. There were many countries ruled by many kings. Hindus, Muslims etc.,& etc., none of them came in support of Christians that time, except some local communities specially Bunt.

    Sad to note today an ignorant Bunt comment about Christians.

    India's independence and British fighting Tippu has no relation.

    Tippu was a tyrant king whose ambition was to establish his country and convert or kill.

    We should remember the history but we should not hate any communities because of the past current generation got nothing to do with that. We remain Indians and we remain Christians no once can change that.


    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    VERY good article.

  • Jossey Saldanha, Mumbai

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    In 2019 all Minorities should come out and Vote ...


    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    Probably Chai Pakodewala Gopal Shetty has never heard of Dr. Anibesant who being a Christian and British supported the independence movement.

    Fault is these people are the first one to send their children admitted to Christian Missionary School and most of them if educated have a background from Chriistian Missionary Schools ...

    LKAdvani - St Patrick's School, ArunJaitely -St Xavier's, ... Education in India - benefitted from Christian Missionary's, till then only Hindu Brahmin had the right to education ...

    states were Christian Missionary existed are most literate states - Kerala, Mizoram, Meghalaya. Sick of these jokers. First place bhakts were hiding during freedom struggle!

  • Mangalurian, Mangaluru

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    Thank you Mr Monteiro for a well-researched article.

    I am sure tou are alreadt aware that the ploy used by Gopala and almost every BJP politician (which prompted your article) is not about providing to the gullible public any researched history.

    Instead, it is about presenting to the "majority" masses some scheming enemy. Depending on the situation, the enemy is Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, etc etc. And, of course, hoping that the majority will be swayed to vote for the politician.

    But people all over have stopped believing the lying politicians. Possibly to a lesser degree in the BIMARU-Guj belt, as education in that region is pathetically low.

  • Eric Coelho, Mangalore

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    I don't think we need to give detail information about our Catholic contribution to India Pre and Post Freedom.

    With just a population of 2.25% we can create a fear to the BJP and congress including many other parties as we place Humanity binded with true religion on the top of our life.

    We all know like the PM we have many BJP leaders who have Loose Tongue. The best way to ignore them.

    We don't need them to dictate our contribution to India. We as Catholic have done tremendous work all mankind. Our contribution is Unquestionable.

  • Godfrey D'Souza, Mumbai

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    Very informative article by Mr. John Monteiro. Thank you.
    In my opinion there's no need to give any clarification on the silly remarks of Gopal Shetty. He is doing his job according to his party's dictats. Their main aim is to bring about a disturbance among religions.
    These idiots will praise one community when invited for their function and berate another community just for the heck of it and vice versa. People know the history Mr. Shetty.
    I wonder if Shetty was involved in any of the freedom movement to talk about some community that has got a rich and great heritage.
    Please Mr. Shetty look after the gardens and parks that have been razed in Borivli and devise ways of helping people who have elected you rather than making these controversial comments.

  • JBM, muscat

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    gopal shetty is a total illiterate person.LORD FORGIVE HIM ,FOR HE DOES NOT KNOW WHAT HE IS TALKING.

  • i j s Shet., Mangalore.

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    Dear John Bab,

    Your write-up hold a very proper view and it needs wide action - yes, Christians are definitely in no way less patriotic than other Indians, in fact they are more so, if history is gone through with a fine comb. Secondly Christianity came to Kerala on the India west coast in 50 AD or so - much earlier than it reached the west.
    Only want to comment on the name, 'Sreshta' - in my young days i have quietly heard explanations, which remain in my mind and have been shared on suitable occasions. The said adoption of this name by a Mangalorean in civil service of Ceylon. His original family name was 'Pinto', and in Ceylon of the times, 'Pinto ' was a very mean class name, 'Sreshta' as you explained was a high ranking word/name and so he adopted it. As far as it is said, it has nothing to do with patriotism. Thanks.

  • Rajesh, Udupi

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    Tyrant tipu had deal with French bhai bhai. You take Delhi, I take Mysore. He is rogue and only sidda govt and Pak govt finds herosim in him.
    So this Tipu started hating xtians because they were not with French but inclined towards Maharaja and the British. That was only temporary. .

    Later Xtians jioned the freedom fighting bandwagon and participated for this lands freedom. Lets not doubt xtians and buy this Gopal shetty theory

  • Ravi, Barakur

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    But can Gopal Shetty read so much English at time is my question.

  • Vincent Rodrigues, Bengaluru/Katapadi

    Sun, Jul 08 2018

    Good clarification to the unwanted remarks and allegation of Gopal Shetty.

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