UPDATE from the Jesuit missions in India

While in Malta, Jesuit Provincial of the Dumka-Raiganj province in India Fr Nirmal Raj filled us in with news of the Jesuit missions among the Santal tribals, established by three Maltese Jesuits in 1924.

In 1924 three Maltese missionaries were sent to India to live among the Santal tribals, the most marginalised people in India. The mission they set up began to grow to the extent that in 1962 the Dumka diocese was established, it’s first Bishop having been consecrated in Malta.

In 2012 the Dumka diocese celebrated its Golden Jubilee. The missionary work of those three Maltese Jesuits back in 1924 has now grown into three dioceses spread over a distance of 500km, with 300 priests of which 120 are Jesuits!

Even today there are many who are converting to Christianity. To give an example, in one of the parishes at Easter time, 400 persons were baptised. The evangelisation work is ongoing, with priests working in pastoral care and evangelisation, education and social activities, self-help groups, women’s empowerment and with displaced people.

The students who attend the Jesuit schools are mostly tribals and the poorest members of the community. Originally the Jesuits would go through the villages gathering young children for primary education, but now they also offer high school education and College education. Jesuit Colleges offer Santals and Baharias access to higher education which would otherwise be almost impossible due to huge distances and rejection. 

Besides academic education, the Jesuit schools and colleges greatly emphasise value education, social consciousness and faith formation. That is the main focus.

Without a higher education, Santal tribals, who are still greatly discriminated against, stand little chance to advance themselves. Despite the flimsy ‘tribal quota’ measure that ensures that a particular number of tribals should be given jobs, they still only ever get given the lowest posts. With a good education and determination to succeed they can claim their rightful place in society.

Healthcare is another important Jesuit mission among the tribals. Malaria is a killer, as well as TB, typhoid and other widespread diseases. Pregnant women and infants do not receive adequate medical care. Jesuits, in collaboration with religious sisters, run a large number of healthcare centres.

Funding is always difficult and must come from outside the community. Well-to-do people from the same areas will not have anything to do with the Jesuit work with Santal tribals. The government does run a number of funded projects where the Jesuits are involved, even though they are meagre, and foreign agencies do help a little too.

One big challenge to giving a quality service in rural areas is an inadequate infrastructure - for example, it is common that there will be too many students in each classroom (eg in Majilispur, some classes host almost 100 children), emergency health support from bigger health centres is far away with very poor road communication.

Despite the poor infrastructure and the huge numbers of students in class, parents recognise that without education their children’s future will be very poor, and they struggle to send their children to school. Those who have received education will want their own children to do the same.

The Jesuits there are well aware of the importance of educating girls as well as boys, since girls are still by and large regarded as second-class citizens. So education is offered to boys and girls, with all Jesuit schools now being co-ed.

In fact, in order to encourage girls to continue their education, the Jesuits have opened hostels to accommodate them, without which they will not be able to study due to long distances. Malta’s ‘Mission Fund’ is involved in funding a project to build a hostel for girls.

Caritas used to provide the Jesuits with wheat, which was a great help when it came to feeding the students. Students are fed, with those in hostels receiving, of course, three meals a day. Now this provision has stopped, creating a huge challenge in sustainability.

A small fee is gathered from students who use the hostels. It is a small contribution but one that is important on many levels, even though it is not even half of what it costs to keep the students there.

Teachers in Jesuit schools are paid very little compared to teachers in government schools, and the turn-over is high. However there are still many Jesuits involved directly in education, which ensures good education and formation for life. Students are encouraged to be active citizens in turn, to help those who are poor and to pass on what they have received.

Today, the Jesuits in the Santal missions are involved in the running of 20 colleges, 70 primary schools serving 32,000 students, 165 village primary schools, 70 hostels, 68 adult learning centres, 6 mariage preparation centres, 6 technical skills centres, 8 orphanages, 5 hospitals, 43 health centres and dispensaries and 2 homes for the elderly.

Ever since the first three Maltese Jesuits arrived, 73 Maltese Jesuits have served and often dedicated their entire working lives to the Santals in India.

There are now over 170,000 Christians there.

Some planted, others watered, but it was God who made it grow. (Adapted from 1 Cor 3:6)

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