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13 August, 2013

A pilgrim’s progress to wider ecumenism

Rev. Dr. M.A. Thomas (1913-1993), Founder of the Vigil India Movement and the Ecumenical Christian Centre, Bangalaore, whose birth centenary falls this week  

B.R.P. Bhaskar

I am not one who can truthfully claim I have no regrets. I can readily confess to one. I regret that I did not get to know Rev. Dr. M. A. Thomas sooner than I did. The regret is all the greater since there was an opportunity to make his acquaintance two decades earlier.

In the 1970s I received an invitation from Rev. Thomas to attend a meeting at the Ecumenical Christian Centre, Whitefield, Bangalore, to discuss press reform. Indira Gandhi’s government was toying with the idea of a law to regulate the press and there was sharp division in the country on the issue.Rev  M. A. Thomas decided to take up the issue. I was News Editor at the UNI headquarters in New Delhi and my preoccupations did not allow me to travel to Bangalore. In 1991 I was preparing for retirement from Deccan Herald, of which I was Associate Editor. After leaving the job I wanted to engage myself in public life without being hampered by the professional journalist’s commitment to give equal consideration to all, regardless of who is right and who is wrong. I was on the look-out for a non-governmental organization with which I could associate myself and work for causes I considered right without having to be solicitous to those who were in the wrong. I happened to discuss my plan with Dr. M. Basheer Hussain, former Principal of the Government Law College, Bangalore, who was an occasional contributor to the newspaper. I told him I had two conditions: the organization must be non-political and non-communal. He suggested that I consider working with the Vigil India Movement, of which he was a member of the Board of Trustees, and arranged a meeting with Rev. M. A. Thomas, the Founder President.

Rev. Thomas told me I could come in and involve myself in any activity which falls within the broad range of human rights. “This place is open to you,” he said. “You can decide what to do.” I grabbed the offer. It was agreed that I would help with the editing work on hand, which involved production of an occasional publication named Vigil and editing of two books he planned to publish. One of the books was an English version of his life story, which had been published in Malayalam earlier.  The other was a collection of articles he had written and speeches he had delivered over several decades. The two books helped me to understand the man and his mission. That was when I realized how much I had lost by not making his acquaintance earlier.

Editing of the two books gave me an opportunity to appreciate the qualities of head and heart that set Rev. M.A. Thomas apart from others and see the story of his life as a pilgrim’s progress towards wider ecumenism. He grew up in Kerala as the feudal society was crumbling and reform movements, inspired by visionaries, were seeking to bring into being a modern society. He has recorded how, early in life, along with a few friends, he actively propagated the idea that Jesus alone was the Saviour.  He then involved himself in the activities of a group which was promoting the ideal of religious harmony.  It was this early exposure to religious teachings and the concept of oneness of mankind which, in the fullness of time, led him to found the Ecumenical Christian Centre and the Vigil India Movement, two institutions which he bequeathed to us. The ECC was born out of his commitment to the principles of Ecumenism and the VIM testifies to his faith in the ideal of Wider Ecumenism.

The popular apathy to the denial of rights during the Emergency proclaimed by the Indira Gandhi regime prompted him to found the Vigil India Movement. He provided logistical support to a small band of people who were secretly working against the Emergency. He recognized the need to educate the people about their rights as human beings and prepare them to fight to protect and preserve them. The Emergency ended when the people used the opportunity afforded by the election, which was called to give it legitimacy, properly and threw out the regime lock, stock and barrel. Animated by a desire to ensure that there would never again be an Emergency, he continued with the work of forming Vigil units in different parts of the country and encouraged them to take up cases of human rights violations in their immediate vicinity. While the country has a plethora of human rights organizations, VIM was about the only national body with networks at the grassroots level. Over the years Vigil units were engaged in a wide range of activities in varied fields such as civil rights, women’s rights, Adivasi and Dalit rights, environment rights etc.

Rev. Thomas made a heroic effort to contain the spread of communalism in the wake of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy. He promoted a dialogue between Hindu and Muslim groups with a view to defusing the tense situation.  While the mission did not succeed, it deserves to be marked as the only non-governmental effort of its kind.

He was one of the first in the country to foresee the dangers inherent in the globalization process. Even as the Western countries were canvassing proposals to create a new dispensation in place of the expiring General Agreement on Trade and Tariff  he realized that it would have harmful consequences for the poor countries and for the poor people in the rich countries. Under his leadership, VIM campaigned vigorously against the iniquitous order that was on the way.

He was also one of the earliest in the country to recognize the dangers inherent in the developmental paradigm promoted by the Western countries. He pointed out that it would cause immense damage to the environment and expose vast sections of the population to deprivation. He called for sustainable development.

When a Vigil activist wrote to Rev. Thomas about the Kerala government’s Agasthyavanam Biological Park project which will result in the eviction of 55 Adivasi families from their traditional habitat in the reserved forest, he asked me to visit the area and study the issue. I found that the project will violate laws relating to forests, environment and wildlife. The issue was not merely one of protecting the Adivasi families but preventing destruction of the environment. The bureaucrat who was the prime mover behind the project had enlisted the support of all political parties by offering their local leadership the right to nominate two or three persons each for the 50 odd jobs that will be created. In the circumstances I saw little chance of our being able to get the government to scrap the project. The government could easily go ahead with the project even though the Adivasis were vowing they would die rather than move out of the forest.

Rev. Thomas told me not to worry about whether or not we will succeed. “If you are convinced that the project is bad, oppose it,” he said. “We will do what we believe is right.” He asked me to mobilize a campaign against the project. Accordingly, I organized three seminars on the subject at Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode. As suggested by him I invited Mrs. Lakshi N. Menon to the seminar at Thiruvananthapuram, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer to the one at Kochi and Gandhian P.P. Umer Koya to the one at Kozhikode. At his instance I also produced a special issue of Vigil with focus on protection of the environment. 
In response to the Vigil India Movement’s representation, the Centre wrote to the State government asking it to abandon the project which ran counter to the laws. The State government thought it could overcome our objections by shifting the administrative buildings of the project to a place outside the reserve forest. It decided to acquire a rubber plantation just outside the forest for the purpose. The owners of the plantation, who moved the high court against the acquisition proceedings, produced in the high court the copy of a letter the Centre had written to the State pointing out that the project violated various laws. The court passed an order staying work on the project and said the issue could be reopened if the Centre withdrew its objections. That experience convinced me of the soundness of Rev. Thomas's advice to do the right thing without worrying about the result.

During my brief association with him I could see how he maintained constant vigil and identified instances of human rights violations which demanded immediate attention. He saw the Vigil India Movement not as a body of self-appointed human rights defenders but an organization in which ordinary people came together to agitate for right causes. He developed a strategy to optimize the limited capabilities of the organization. He said the Vigil India Movement was a tent. “If there is an issue to be tackled at some place we go and pitch our tent there,” he added. “We may succeed, in which case we move to some other place where there is a battle to fight. Even if we do not succeed we may find it prudent to move on and pitch our tent somewhere else where there is a cause to take up.”

When it became clear that acceptance of foreign funds aroused suspicions about the motivations of human rights defenders Rev. M.A. Thomas announced that the Vigil India Movement would no longer accept donations from abroad.

As I look around and see human rights violations on the rise, I cannot help muttering to myself, parodying the poet’s lines: "Achan, thou shouldst be living at this hour". 

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