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.