January 2015
#Bandra , 1023 Views
The Curious Case of Bandra’s Cross Crusaders

Byline: Kerry Harwin
Photographs: Karen Dias

Secularism, model minorities, and a worthwhile distraction for retired Catholic uncles.

Once every year, a crush of Irish men and women, dressed in brightly coloured matching t-shirts, flood the halls of the United States congressional office buildings. They come with a surprising message: we are illegal immigrants. When you fight illegal immigration, you are fighting us.

Because unexpected though it might be, there are somewhere around 50,000 undocumented (the American code word for “illegal immigrant”) Irish citizens living in the United States. Their appeal is simple: we’re not dangerous, we’re just like you, please let us stay in your country. We’re not like those other immigrants.

Their argument, as they sit down and cajole congressional staffers in a jovial fashion, seems immediately convincing. Their entire pitch, more or less, amounts to “wouldn’t you like to have a beer with us?” And really, you would.

But as they file out of the office, convinced, perhaps, that they’ve struck a blow in fighting for the rights of the Irish, the absurdity of their argument dawns. Because their point isn’t about what they are, but what they are not. They are not Arab or African or Mexican. They are White English speaking Christians. “Come on guys,” they might as well say, “we’re safe, we’re just like you. That law can’t really be meant for us, can it?”

Half way across the globe, in the police stations, BMC offices, and church meeting rooms of Bandra, a similar battle is being fought: We’re different, we’re not scary, please just let us be.

In the late 1800s, Bandra was a series of villages inhabited largely by the Portuguese-converted “East Indians” and the wave of Christians from along India’s western coast that joined them after the Portuguese defeat at the hands of the Marathas. Like many of Bombay’s suburbs, however, the sleepy villages received a sudden population boom when, starting in 1896, a series of outbreaks of the bubonic plague struck overcrowded Bombay.

Medical science at the time being not scientific, the greatest preventative measure one could take was to simply get away from other humans. Bandra’s leafy village lanes provided ideal grounds for an escape. Though crosses both predate this period (some are over 200 years old) and have been constructed since, the late 1800s and early 1900s – Bombay’s years of the black death – were Bandra’s golden days of cross construction.

The crosses, sprinkled across the city, clustered along the western suburbs, reach their greatest density in the area that today rests between Bandra’s Lilavati Hospital and Hill Road. They were often found at the corners of each village, or occasionally on private property, and were intended to provide some sort of blessing to its inhabitants. God was, at the time, as effective a method of preventative medicine as any other. But today, the crosses are under threat. Kind of.

Bhagvaniji Raiyani, a 76 year old retired construction firm owner turned activist, has filed over 100 Public Interest Litigation (PIL) suits, taking on heritage preservation, judicial failures, illegal political advertising, and dozens of other quality of life issues. In 2002, the reportedly atheist activist turned his sights to the illegal construction of religious structures on public land, a practice commonly used as a pretext for encroaching upon such land to establish tenancy rights.

The PIL was successful, and the Mumbai High Court ordered the BMC to produce a list of illegal religious structures. The legal trail becomes convoluted at this point, as a series of follow-up cases were filed, and the Supreme Court of India took up a similar Gujarat High Court case in 2009.

The upshot of the years of legal wrangling, however, seems to be that the list of illegal structures that was first produced in 2003, which includes 46 crosses in the Bandra area, has been reproduced in subsequent court cases. This list divides religious structures into three categories: ‘A’ structures are to be tolerated, as they either do not block civic amenities or have sufficient historical value to warrant their continued protection, ‘B’ structures are to be tolerated but relocated, and ‘C’ structures are to be demolished. Of the 46 crosses in Bandra, 35 fall on the ‘A’ list.

But occasionally, often due to pressure by a builder who intends other uses for the land on which a cross sits, one of the crosses is slated for demolition. And when it is, an army of greying Bandra Catholics with names that start with “D’” mobilize.

One should never underestimate the number of hours that retired Bandra uncles are willing to devote to preserving those things that they feel make their community distinct. Tall and thin, greying but vital, David Cardoz speaks of crosses with the knowledge and intensity of a man who has found his mission. I first meet him in a conference room at Mount Carmel while he has a break between various meetings of Bandra’s Catholics. Cardoz is, it seems, a regular fixture of the church’s political life. As I sit down, he’s ready with survey sheets and court documents, a litany of dates and proofs tripping off of his tongue. Cardoz is ready with his case, and joined by Gordon De Silva of the Bombay Catholic Saba he unleashes it in a torrent as soon as he has an eager listener.

Their case for the legality of Bandra’s crosses rests primarily on their age and their recognition in official city documents. The courts have given some kind of heritage protection to crosses constructed before 1961. City survey sheets from Bandra’s merger with Bombay in 1962 give some indication of when the cross was built. Tikka sheets that Bombay’s British administrators left with the municipal corporation at independence are even better. Cardoz and his team have compiled a detailed list of threatened crosses along with their survey numbers. They feel that they have sufficient documents to prove the legality of 40 of the 46 crosses on the government list.

By Cardoz’ reckoning, the presence of a city survey number indicates that a structure must be legal. He offers up other proofs: many crosses are in line with the trees that once formed property boundaries during Bandra’s village days – they only entered public space during subsequent road widening – and therefore were legally constructed on private land. Many of these proofs, however, seem to miss the point: the fact that the crosses were legal at the time of their construction is not a priori proof of their continuing legality; urban zoning laws can be retroactively changed.

But the larger argument seems to be ideological, and seems to echo strains of those undocumented Irish immigrants. Cardoz and his team point out that the petitioner Bhagvanji Raiyani, had no animus against Catholic crosses that had remained unchanged for a century, intending rather to target ever-ballooning Hindu temples. We were unable to reach Raiyani for comment, but press reports seem to confirm he did not intend to specifically target the crosses. That is, however, a far cry from suggesting that the crosses ought to be exempt from the ruling.

Around the edges of the conversation held in the Mount Carmel Church and during the meeting that took place after our interview, a quiet strain of exceptionalism seems to persist as if to say we’re well behaved, we’re different. That case surely can’t apply to us. Our crosses are small and stone and haven’t grown for decades.

Or, in the words of Cardoz, “This is not an illegal slum put up by somebody. The word ‘illegal’ should never been used.” But the reality is this: though it’s hard to get too upset about a few dozen unobtrusive religious shrines, no list of survey numbers can change the fact that public space – even if that public space was once privately held – is being used for private religious purposes. And whether those purposes are Hindu or Christian, mass faith or model minority, they seem to violate the spirit of India’s constitutional designation as a secular, socialist, democratic republic.

Bandra’s crosses may have accidentally found their way into this dispute, and the government approach to demolition orders – of both Hindu and Christian sites – seems lackadaisical at best: “[The municipal corporation] has made a list and now they’ve done their job,” Cardoz admits. “They’re not trying that hard.”

But when they do try, the churches of Bombay’s western suburbs will be buzzing with resistance. “They did demolish one cross in Byculla,” Cardoz recalls. “[It] prompted a whole public rally in Cross Maidan. They brought remnants of the cross there, like a funeral procession.”

But even in Cardoz’ description of his own community’s activism, a dash of Catholic exceptionalism creeps in when he describes the protest scene getting out of hand: “I understand where that comes from, but that’s not the way this community normally reacts to a crisis of this sort.”

As I prepare to leave the meeting room, a quorum has been reached and the team of Bandra uncles is hard at work, strategizing on the best way to get local officials to recognize the legality of their crosses. For the first time, the municipality has officially acknowledged that it is looking into their claims, and now seems to be the time for a push.

“No, no,” Cardoz says, in his rounded Bandra Catholic English, as I slip out the door,  “Listen, I am telling you. Of course we can try it but they will never go for that.”

There’s no real organized fight against Bandra’s crosses. But from time to time, the BMC is impelled by a judicial ruling to demonstrate action on illegal religious structures. When that happens, cross defenders can rest at ease: in church meeting rooms across the suburb, led by the indefatigable David Cardoz, an army of uncles is buzzing with activity, ready for a crusade the next moment a demolition notice is slapped on a cross.