The rape case against Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal has finally received national attention. It took five fellow nuns of the survivor to hit the streets for even the people in Kerala to wake up to it. Despite hogging headlines in Kerala from time to time, the investigation into the case has been limping along.
On August 13, Investigating Officer DSP K Subhash submitted an affidavit in the Kerala High Court that concluded: “During the course of investigation so far conducted and the available evidence collected so far, It is revealed that the accused Bishop Franco committed unnatural offence and committed rape repeatedly on different dates from 05/05/2018 to 23/09/2016 on Sister (survivor nun) against the will and consent of her by abusing his dominance over her as Bishop of Jalandhar after confining her in the guest room no. 20 of St Francis Mission Home, Kuravilangad”. It was assumed that the arrest of Bishop Franco was imminent.
The High Court seemed satisfied by the seven-page ‘Statement of Fact’ submitted by the Investigating Officer (IO) detailing the efforts of his team since the filing of the first information report on June 28. In fact, the team headed by the DSP had been camping in Jalandhar when the case was being considered in the High Court. It was expected that the team would conclude their investigation in Jalandhar by arresting Bishop Franco, following his interrogation.
Instead, the team came back to Kerala after fooling around in Delhi and Jalandhar for several days. Even the “interrogation” of the Bishop happened under very curious circumstances, with the Bishop evading the investigating team after keeping them waiting for close to four hours. The media crews reporting the case from the Bishop’s house in Jalandhar were roughed up by the Bishop’s personal security staff. It seemed the IO and his team had come under pressure from many quarters.
With the IO not getting the go-ahead to arrest the Bishop despite concluding his inquiry, there have been reports in the media for well over a week that the officer had sought permission to be relieved from the case. Al this despite the fact that Section 41 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) empowers an Investigating Officer to decide on arrests. Inspector General (IG) Vijay Sakhre, who is overseeing the investigation and the State Police Chief, Loknath Behra, are likely to take the final call on the politically sensitive case, with the consent of the state government.
With floods in Kerala distracting everyone, the investigation had subsequently lost steam. It was in this context and following speculations of the IO’s plea for recusal from the case that these five fellow nuns sat on a protest. There was another report doing the rounds that the case could be handed over to the Crime Branch. The nuns feared it was a ploy to derail the case.
It was a rare sight to witness a group of nuns protesting in public against the state and the Church. It was extraordinary because nuns are never known to rebel—and never in public. Their entire existence is centred on discipline and obedience. Although many people were initially taken aback, prominent members of civil society have now joined them in their protest. It is only the political parties and individual politicians that still seem to be in two minds on the issue.
What is at stake?
The nun hails from the Catholic Church that enjoys a hallowed status in Kerala society. It was the same Catholic Church that spearheaded the “Liberation Struggle” to oust the first Communist government in the state in 1959. While the Church has since reconciled with the Marxists, the clout of the Church stands undiminished in the state. More than 80 per cent of the 18 per cent Christian population in the state hail from the Catholic Church. These votes are coveted by both the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the state. While the Church backed the UDF back in the day, the Marxists are actively wooing the clergy to shift their votes following the erosion of their traditional Hindu vote bank.
The patriarchal Church hierarchy and their apologists are throwing their weight behind the Jalandhar Bishop. The Syro-Malabar Church-run Deepika daily (Kerala’s oldest newspaper-Estd 1887) has blacked out the protest of the nuns in the last three days when other newspapers have covered it prominently, even making it their lead story. The politicians too are treading a fine line to protect their vote banks. What all of them fail to understand, however, is how the public opinion in Kerala is decisively in favour of the nuns.
With the Police appearing to go slow in the case, it’s assumed Bishop Mulakkal’s status is coming in the way. Moreover, legal experts have pointed out how a mere complaint under the Section 164 in the Code of Criminal Procedure before the Magistrate (along with a medical report) is sufficient to arrest the accused in a case of this nature.
“The government is either scared or hand-in-glove with the Bishop. Would a layman be afforded the same luxury as the Bishop?”—one of the protesters at the venue demanded to know.
Despite being a relatively unknown figure in Kerala before this controversy arose, Mulakkal is one of the most influential Bishops in the Catholic Church today. He not only wields influence in his diocese of Jalandhar (encompassing most of the districts of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh) but also in Delhi and Kerala. Having done his post-graduation from Amritsar, he is familiar with the topography, well-versed in the local language and has emerged as a prominent figure in Punjab’s political circles.
Rising swiftly in ranks, Franco has also been a beneficiary of the Church’s accumulation of massive wealth and goodwill earned through decades of social service. While the church has contributed immensely to Kerala’s emergence in health and education, it has, of late, been beset by a spate of scandals. Bishop Franco’s case would hopefully prompt the Church to collectively introspect on their failings and the infinite powers wielded by the bureaucrats of God. And it might also reopen the long-standing demand of believers for a more equitable church order—one that gives more prominence to the laity.
As justice continues to evade the victim, the Courts might have to step in very soon. The nun’s family plans to approach the Kerala High Court for redressal if the Kerala Police continues to dither on the arrest of Bishop Mulakkal. The media spotlight on the case might, however, prompt the state to act in the nick of time.