"The municipal authorities have given us a verbal assurance that they will not tear down the wall of the church" said Father during the announcements at the end of Mass on Sunday. Nearly five minutes was spent talking about the response of the parish to a notice by the BMC that the road-widening project at Hill Road intends to include a chunk of church property where right now sit the Youth Center, part of the school playground, the grotto and about 80 graves going back to the founding of the parish over 150 years ago.
The story has gotten some press. It's not just St. Peter's, but historic St. Andrew's further down the road and a Parsi agiary (Zoroastrian fire temple) that have been threatened. There have been sit-ins and protests, citizens' committees being formed, and angry letters to the editor. And pretty much everyone is incensed that while religious property is threatened, on the other side of the road from St. Peter's yet another shopping complex is coming up. There's no doubt that money changed hands when that permit was granted. Part of the road has already been dug up. And no, the BMC doesn't wait to ask residents their opinion of its plans to destroy their property.
The wall facing Hill Road is festooned with banners drawn by the students of St. Stanislaus school protesting the proposed plan. "Save our heritage structure" "Road expansion: 93 crores (i.e. Rs. 930 million)/ kids' playground: priceless!" (Some are a little more obscure than others -- "90 feet wide but 6 feet under?")
"However, if the BMC ignores our pleas and crews show up to demolish the wall, we have a plan in place to mobilize all parishioners. No matter the time of day or night, the church bells will be rung, and we have phone and SMS (i.e. text message) networks to get the word out. Please come and form a human wall to protect our parish. Please note that our protest will be peaceful and non-violent."
Verbal assurances by junior municipal officers count for nothing. The BMC, like all branches of the monstrous Indian state, is notoriously inefficient and even more notoriously corrupt. Besides, as my ex-SJ friend S. (and brother of the S. mentioned below) says after Mass, "Everyone knows we Catholics are peaceful. Who pays attention to peaceful protests anyway? I hope they have a better plan in place, including some lawsuits." (Very true. Ironic too, isn't it, in the land of Gandhi?) "I doubt they'd really dare to do this to a mosque. There'd be riots." And there have been -- a sufi dargah was torn down in Baroda in April and nearly a week of rioting ensued. "What they should do if the bulldozers show up, is to form that human wall and arrange for NDTV to broadcast it live. Boy, that will stir things up!" I retort. (And no, I don't think you'll really see Catholics behaving like the Dalit mobs that went on rampage today in Maharashtra.)
I suspect given the number of landowners whose property has been threatened (most are commercial establishments), the courts will get involved and years of litigation will grind their way through the creaky wheels of justice, by which time the BMC will be persuaded to come up with another plan. Or, maybe, the religious freedom/religious minority angle will get some wide press and someone high up will nix this rather ludicrous idea that reeks of both babugiri (inefficient bureaucracy) and dadagiri (bullying). Or, perhaps the new Archbishop will make a plea, or "use influence" (to deploy that common Indian expression) to make the BMC see reason.
Actually, some or all of the above probably did take place -- the proposed demolitions have been, in fact, postponed.
The story is far from over -- Hill Road lies dug up. Despite all the protests, it's not at all inconceivable that some idiot in the BMC will indeed order the demolition. Some things are, however, starkly clear. Private property, one of the cornerstones of a liberal democracy, is not really sacrosanct in India (I think the right to private property, which existed originally in the Indian Constitution, was later abrogated.), where the State really trumps all. And the rights of religious minorities can be quie precarious, even in as cosmopolitan a place as Bombay.
:: Save Our Land from the website of St. Peter's, Bandra. ::