Indian wrestlers Sangeeta Phogat and Vinesh Phogat struggle as they are detained by the police while attempting to march to India’s new parliament, just as it was being inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a protest against Brij Bhushan Singh, the wrestling federation chief, over allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation, in New Delhi on May 28. (Photo: AFP)

By John Dayal

Jun 7 2023

Even though the hierarchy remains mute or speaks in a voice so sanitized as to be shorn of even parts of the truth, the Church is heard loud and clear by civil society in India.

Religious women and men have denounced in no uncertain words the traumatizing of Olympic and world medal-winning women wrestlers, first by a politically powerful sexual predator named by the victims, and then by the Delhi police which brutally terminated their protest.

The occasional nun had gone to the historic Jantar Mantar, not far from the Indian parliament, to join other women groups standing in solidarity with the protesting sportswomen, one still a minor.

Now they are writing signed letters of support to the young wrestlers and through them to the women of India, irrespective of age, religion, caste, region, or status.

The support for the women is comprehensive. Though addressed to the young wrestlers who are agitating for the arrest of a serial molester, it covers a wider constituency and a broader legal canvas of rights and issues of life and dignity.

The call is for the women to reclaim their agency in their homeland, and their demand for a social and political landscape in which they can really say they are free. Free from the threat of being molested, but also an arena where they will not have to barter their ambitions or demean themselves by letting people walk on and bruise their self-respect.

The presence of the religious in the public “chowk,” or commons, is visible and timely.

The recent elections for various state legislatures show the political outlier status of the Indian woman, a situation that is not likely to improve at all in the national general election due by May 2024.

“The religious, especially the nuns, have all along chosen to remain silent and invisible in the public sphere”

Not only are political parties’ nominations not given to them in any significant number, many are named for seats where they do not stand any chance of victory. Their situation is as bad as that of the religious minorities, Muslims, Christians and others, who are in the same boat.

Active with working women, and domestic workers from the tribal communities, in counseling and in family courts as lawyers, the religious have first-hand knowledge of the ground situation in India.

They know about domestic sexual violence through women who seek the protection of the law. And they are privy to the plight of the Dalit and the landless laborers. Some have worked towards sensitizing the women on their rights, and on the apparatus the republic has out in place even if it remains inert and insensitive much of the time.

But the religious, especially the nuns, have all along chosen to remain silent and invisible in the public sphere, and in the media. The press camera always focuses on the nuns in habits, or even in the saffron sari, when the community holds a candlelight protest because it makes for a good picture.  But that is where it ends most of the time.

There could be several reasons for this self-imposed vow of silence. One is fear, not of police or the government, but of rocking the boat in their own community.

A rebuke from a superior or from the parish priest or prelate is not the most pleasant of things. It would rate as high in their mind as being sent on what government servants call a “punishment posting” — a lawyer one day in the Supreme Court or High Court, and a school teacher, or small house superior, the next morning.

Men religious have far more agency. The Jesuits are the leaders in this field, the most articulate, leaving other congregations far behind.

Though transfer is still an instrument of enforcing the vow of obedience, for the women, there is also the unspoken shadow of issues to be addressed and dark spots cleansed within the church and the congregation. They are conscious that they must continue their struggle to make the hierarchy more sensitive to gender issues at home and in the country.

“Many congregations are known for their work with human rights and the empowerment of the poor and the marginalized”

It is against this backdrop that civil society and the community must applaud the spirit of Conference of Religious in India (CRI) president and educationist Sister Maria Nirmalini of the Apostolic Carmelites congregation and her ilk. They have been loud and clear, compassionate if not more diplomatic, in their denunciation of the societal rot represented in the charge made by the wrestlers against their politically powerful head.

“You have dared challenged patriarchy and asserted your agency and human dignity, we the women and men of the Conference of Religious in India salute you,” they said.

The Indian religious are 125,000 strong, and their words can empower and uphold those wavering or weak.

Members of the CRI run educational and medical institutions and social welfare groups in rural and urban areas. They are the presence and face of the Church in towns, cities, and the rural hinterland.  They remain politically non-aligned, but many congregations are known for their work with human rights and the empowerment of the poor and the marginalized.

They have paid a heavy price for this. The government has punished them by withdrawing their license to receive assistance from outside India under the so-called Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA).

Many have been attacked physically and humiliated by the police and state administrations under the so-called anti-conversion laws. Other laws are an ever-present threat, like the sword of Damocles.

The religious have called upon the prime minister himself to take action just as a wrestler wrote to him when their harassment began. That was two years ago.

“We note that the prime minister is aware of the charges. He has often spoken of his support for the cause of women in India and has implemented several projects for their uplift. We hope he will do what is necessary to start investigations into the charges of molestation and other sexual offenses. This will help ensure that such crimes are not committed in the future, especially by men in high office.”

That is a powerful support for the courageous women wrestlers and other women. – UCA News