Father Antony Chacko and Missionaries of Charity nuns stand by the gate leading to the war graves in Ambala Christian Cemetery, a heritage site in India's northern state of Haryana. (Photo supplied)
Christian groups in Ambala in India’s Haryana state have sought government intervention to ensure the dignified burial of their dead after a dispute over a state-owned cemetery.
“Every time we go to bury our people in Ambala Christian Cemetery, it is disrupted and many times we have to seek police help to ensure a peaceful and dignified burial,” said Father Antony Chacko, assistant parish priest of Ambala’s Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in the Diocese of Simla-Chandigarh.
The 176-year-old Christian cemetery has been the only graveyard for the 4,000 Christians of all denominations in Ambala Cantonment town in northern India since the British era.
The cemetery is of historical significance as its 20-acre plot contains over 200,000 graves of Indians and British citizens including 66 graves of soldiers who died in World War I.
The land is owned by the government but its occupancy rights and management are still with the British High Commission, as per government records.
Because of the cemetery's historical importance, the Ministry of Defense through a notification in 1977 brought it under Ambala Cantonment Municipal Corporation and declared it a state-protected monument in 1993.
The government, however, has allowed Christians to bury their dead in the cemetery as they don’t have any other such facility within the cantonment. It formed a committee with representation from all Christian groups for its effective management under guidelines issued by the British High Commission in 1949. Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox clerics living within the cantonment are among members.
The cemetery is on the list of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) under the British High Commission meant for maintenance of war graves. The CWGC also recognizes the Ambala Cemetery Committee and has a contract to maintain its upkeep.
The system worked well until a year ago when self-declared Bishop Shaukat Masih Bhatti of the Anglican Church became the committee's chairman and allegedly restricted the access of other Christian groups to the cemetery.
“The so-called bishop is a fraudster convicted for criminal offenses who now wants to sell prime land in the town in connivance with the land mafia. He is terrorizing Christians who visit the cemetery to bury their dead or for prayers,” Father Chacko told UCA News.
On Oct. 18, Bhatti terrorized sisters from the Missionary of Charity founded by St. Mother Teresa who went there to pray for the departed soul of one of their sisters on her death anniversary.
“Bhatti not only refused to open the gate but also made them wait and finally sent them away,” Father Chacko said.
The priest also accused Bhatti of destroying many graves dating from the British era through a heavy leveling machine as part of his effort to pave the way for the mafia to take over the land, adding that a portion of land is already in the possession of encroachers who have built illegal structures.
The priest and other Christian groups have approached the British High Commission and the government of Haryana to restore the cemetery's original status and save it from being taken over by the land mafia.
K.J. Alphonse, a former federal minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and a member of the upper house, has stepped into save the cemetery from Bhatti and his cronies.
Alphonse, a Catholic, on Nov. 12 wrote to the Archaeological and Museum Department of Haryana seeking its intervention to protect the heritage site.
Referring to Bhatti, he wrote: “He has taken custody of the cemetery and is refusing access to the Ambala Cemetery Committee to maintain the heritage site. He has locked the gate. His objective is to convert this into real estate step by step. This is a war cemetery and government property. Since it is a national heritage, it must be protected and maintained properly.
“Since the cemetery committee is constituted with the blessings of the government, kindly permit it to continue functioning, allowing persons to be buried there and undertaking all maintenance work.”
Bhatti insisted to the media that he was the chairman of the committee and has the right to restrict entry to the cemetery. He also maintained that he is a bishop affiliated to the Anglican Church.