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India's spiritual saviour

Published by Newsweek on 1997-09-01

Mother Teresa, the charismatic nun who died September 5 in Calcutta at the age of 87, was hardly a political figure in the conventional sense. But she had a politician's well-honed sense of issues and timing: she knew that in modern-day India, a nation of nearly a billion overwhelmingly poor people, the biggest issue of all was poverty. She attracted larger crowds and invited greater affection than any politician--testimony to her integrity and her humility, qualities conspicuous by their absence in the men and women who govern the world's largest democracy today.

No soaring rhetoric for her, no appealing to atavistic impulses to take to the streets for humanitarian causes--just a simple, central message that resonated among everyday Indians: poverty is not noble nor acceptable, social justice does not automatically follow fitful economic development.

That message seized Indians and nonIndians alike because, notwithstanding the liberalization and progress that are fashionable to cite in this, the Subcontinent's 50th year of independence from the British colonial Raj, the chasm between haves and have-nots in India is so great that they might as well be living in two different countries. Mother Teresa herself would sometimes toss out a statistic or two, softly to be sure but chilling nevertheless: 300 million people living below the poverty line, millions more with options for economic mobility denied. Where were the jobs, she would ask, where was the large-scale investment in human development? What happened to the vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's founding fathers, for a just and equitable India?

Powerful questions, articulated by a simple woman whose frail body packed more power than any other contemporary world figure. Like Gandhi, that power, of course, flowed from her spiritual wellspring. And like Gandhi, Mother Teresa was an unelected spokesman for the poor everywhere--not simply highlighting their despair but also underscoring their hopes. At a time when majority-Hindu fundamentalism was on the rise and Muslims were becoming increasingly worried about their identity in supposedly secular India, no one dared to ask what business did a Christian missionary have representing India on the global stage. When she spoke, all India listened, the world took notice. No small feat that, especially when India's political stature has shrunk internationally in direct proportion to the growth of her social malaise and political corruption. Implicit in what Mother Teresa said was also an indictment of the international development organizations whose many billions had fattened bureaucracies but not sufficiently lifted the poor from their hovels. You did not have to be Indian to understand what she said: just ask the denizens of slums in dozens of Western countries that Mother Teresa visited and where her charitable organizations worked.

That is not to say Mother Teresa's judgment was unassailable on every issue. In a nation that adds 20 million people each year--more than the entire population of Australia--Mother Teresa stubbornly resisted family planning programs. In keeping with her conservative Catholic beliefs, she was vehemently opposed to abortion, which is permitted in India. Some advocates of social development, such as U.N. povertocrats, privately fretted that Mother Teresa was the biggest stumbling block to the international family planning movement, bigger than America's Right-to Life movement and Ronald Reagan in his heyday as U.S. president.

Some accused her of being an ideologue, even though her prescription for India's population problem was predicated on the overriding belief that every child has the inalienable right to the pursuit of a full, happy life free from the malignancy of poverty. Her work in Calcutta's slums illustrated something that the high priests of global development often tend to overlook: in order to pull people out of poverty, it is important to first empower them with self-esteem and with the hope that change is always possible. Her missionary efforts exemplified the notion that, when confronted with Himalayan challenges such as traditional poverty, small steps are more effective than monumental antipoverty programs. And so, for Mother Teresa, it was always one hovel at a time.

In an age of self-promotion where even missionaries succumb to blandishments from publishers and lecture-circuit agents, Mother Teresa did not set out to be a celebrity. This wisp of a woman who was not Indian by birth did not even set out to be a global spokesman for the poor of the third world. But she recognized that, notwithstanding all the fancy talk in the world's financial salons about economic development and market forces, there were people out there whose lives remained mired in the sorry circumstances of their birth. And the reason why her constituency kept growing day by day--in India, in the 127 countries of the developing world, and at the neglected edges of affluent industrialized nations--was that the numbers of those dispossessed also kept growing: more than a third of the world's population of 5.8 billion lives in abject poverty today, in rich and developing states alike.

Mother Teresa told us that the demographics of the dispossessed kept growing because the forces of globalization left more victims in their wake than beneficiaries. It was a sad, troubling message, but one that the mandarins of government and business might do well to heed. In a few days time, the barons of global finance and economic development will gather in Hong Kong for the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They will cogitate over policy, and they will issue grave commentaries on sustainable development. They might do better to study how one small woman, in a simple white cotton saree, didn't bother much with reports and theories; instead, she simply went out into the world and changed the lives of millions.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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