A 63-year-old British nun caring for leprosy patients for three decades in India’s IT hub Bangalore was preparing to leave the country Monday after the Indian government refused to extend her resident permit without giving any reason.
“I’m leaving with a heavy heart. I feel it’s not my loss alone but a loss to thousands of patients inflicted by leprosy,” Jacqueline Jean McEwan, whom Leprosy patients call their “Mother Teresa,” told The Times of India Sunday.
From the Montfort Missionaries, a Catholic order, in Britain, Sr. Jean, as she was popularly known, wasn’t given any reason by the Ministry of Home Affairs but just asked to leave by Monday, the newspaper added.
Speaking to The Christian Post, Dr. Sajan K. George of the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians said he suspected the role of the Karnataka state government ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which he described as "the government of religious fundamentalists with a retrograde ideology." He also blamed the intelligentsia for being silent, which he said was "more deafening than ever."
The nun had been working with Sumanahalli Society in Bangalore, the capital of the southern state of Karnataka which is seen as the hotbed of anti-Christian violence. The charity, founded by the Catholic Archbishop of Bangalore in 1978 and which has won national and international awards, treats and rehabilitates leprosy patients.
Leprosy-affected persons are still seen as physically and spiritually “impure” and “contagious” by sections of the Indian society. “With the stigma attached to leprosy patients left on the streets to beg, she treated them, undeterred by the stench and wounds. I feel Sumanahalli’s heart has been ripped out. Without her, we doubt Sumanahalli will be the same again,” Father George Kannanthanam, Director of Sumanahalli Society, told the newspaper.
Sr. Jean applied for renewal of her resident permit in December 2010.
“I don’t know the reason. I’ve been living with the poor and needy all these years with the resident permit issued by the Foreigner Regional Registration Office in Bangalore. But this time, the central government denied the extension of the permit without assigning any reason,” she was quoted as saying.
Sr. Jean and a few other medical and paramedical professionals were given permission to reside in India through the Commonwealth Agreement under which people of Commonwealth countries could travel to each other’s countries without visas.
The nun’s departure has left the residents of the Sumanahalli rehabilitation center aggrieved. “With teary eyes,” they said goodbye to their favorite caretaker Saturday, The Hindu daily reported. “She is more than a mother to me. I don’t know how I will manage without her,” said a leprosy-affected person, Shekarappa.
“We have re-sent the [resident permit] renewal application and are hoping against hope for its approval,” Father Kannanthanam was quoted as saying.
Leprosy has officially been eliminated in India although 130,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. The definition of elimination is based on the national prevalence rate, overlooking the fact that large numbers of leprosy-affected persons are concentrated in a few states. Due to this projection, funding for charities has taken a beating, forcing many projects to shut down.
However, it is being suspected that behind the denial of permit extension is the growing number of attacks on Christian workers in Karnataka state. When reported by foreign media, attacks on Christian missionaries embarrass the Government of India.
In January 1999, Australian missionary Graham Steins, who was also serving leprosy patients, and his two underage sons were burned alive by right-wing Hindu extremists in the eastern state of Orissa.
Last month, a Catholic man and two Hindu visitors with leprosy were beaten by suspected Hindu extremists and jailed on charges of conversion in Bangalore, according to Compass Direct News.
Karnataka recorded the highest number of anti-Christian attacks among all Indian states in 2009 and 2010, according to CDN. “Of the at least 149 anti-Christian incidents recorded nationally in 2010, 56 were from Karnataka, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India. In 2009, Karnataka witnessed at least 48 attacks. The year 2008 was even worse, with at least 28 attacks reported in less than two months in August and September.”
However, U.K.’s Guardian newspaper said the official responsible for determining Sr. Jean’s fate was to return from leave Monday, “giving Sister Jean and her patients a sliver of hope of a last-minute reprieve.”