Bishop and Anglican Church fight slavery in India

By Rev. Kevin Dixon

Bishop Ashoke Biswas’ face conveyed kindness as he considered my question: What is the biggest challenge to the Christian church in Kolkata?

Our conversation occurred in the bishop’s office at the end of April, where a large wooden cross hangs above his desk, and walls adorned with memorabilia reflect the bishop’s lifetime of community activism.

Ashoke Biswas is a “son of the soil”. Born and raised in Kolkata – the “City of Joy”— he was nurtured from childhood in the Anglican tradition with its colonial roots and steeped from birth in Kolkata’s complex mix of religion and culture.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata, the first cathedral built in the overseas territory of the British Empire, was completed in 1847. (Photo: Kevin Dixon)

As I waited for him to respond to what I had asked, I wondered if his answer might reflect concern for the survival of the institutional church in India. Then again, Kolkata is where Mother Teresa carried out her ministry among the “untouchables,” and where the grind of poverty wears at the visitor’s soul, and where concerns run much deeper than the wellbeing of institutions.

Finally, Bishop Biswas said, “a great challenge for the church is to overcome the injustices that rob life from so many millions here.” The bishop raised an authoritative hand to emphasize his determination to battle the evil that surrounds him.

Askoke Biswas is one of the most respected Christian leaders in Kolkata. Throughout his ten years as bishop, he has applied considerable influence for the sake of justice. He stands in support of a church-run initiative, Cathedral Relief Services (CRS), which operates out of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata. CRS provides economic empowerment to women who have escaped the sexual exploitation that profits countless brothel owners in Kolkata’s red light districts. The largest of these, called the Sonagachi district, contains an estimated 10,000 sex workers within one square mile, many of whom are minor girls who were trafficked into a life of violence and slavery.

International Justice Mission (IJM), partners with local authorities to rescue these girls and works with local police to arrest and restrain suspected perpetrators. Social workers along with organizations like CRS, private aftercare providers like Mahima Home, and government shelters like Sukanya Home, provide trauma-focused therapy for survivors to restore them to wholeness and strength. IJM’s lawyers follow the criminal proceedings through the courts, representing survivors when possible. IJM’s theory of change has proven that when laws are enforced and perpetrators held accountable, the prevalence of violent crime drops and the vulnerable poor are protected.

The streets of Kolkata are full of colour and life. (Photo: Kevin Dixon)

Countless examples of injustice serve as a backdrop to Bishop Biswas’ ministry in Kolkata. At the beginning of April, a painful chapter was finally closed for two survivors of sex trafficking in Kolkata. Two teen girls were trafficked from Bangladesh and subjected to violent abuse and forced abortions in a brothel. When IJM and local police discovered the abuse and arrived to rescue the girls in January 2012, the girls shared stories of horrific violence, sexual assault and forced drug use. The brothel keeper who exploited them for sex was finally brought to justice and given 10 years in prison—the maximum sentence for her crimes.

On April 2 of this year, a judge sentenced the brothel keeper under multiple sections of India’s penal code, including cross-border trafficking and sexual exploitation of minors. The judge also demanded a fine of 100,000 rupees (about $2,000 Canadian) and recommended the local government compensate the victims for their experience. Officials helped the two survivors return home to Bangladesh in 2014 after their testimonies were complete. IJM supported the girls’ resettlement at home and supported them with two years of rehabilitation support as they healed.

Modern slavery is part of a multibillion-dollar industry. According to the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, more than 40 million people worldwide are trafficked into forced or bonded labour, commercial sexual exploitation, and forced or servile marriage. In 2016, Walk Free Foundation estimated 18.3 million slaves in India alone. American researchers Samuel H. Williamson and Lois P. Cain of Loyola University report that just before the start of the American Civil War the average real price of a slave in the United States was $23,000 US in 2016 dollars, but several organizations such as Anti-Slavery International have found places today where slaves sell for as little as (or even less than) $100 US!

Left to right: Rig David, Executive Director of CRS; Jennifer Hill; Bishop Ashoke Biswas; Kevin Dixon; Rev. Abhir Adhikari, Vicar of St. Paul’s Cathedral. (Photo: Diocese of Calcutta)

Violent injustice like this, offset by the promise of restoration, motivates Bishop Biswas to lend his support to IJM’s efforts. Last September, the Diocese of Kolkata participated whole-heartedly in IJM’s annual Freedom Sunday. Bishop Biswas led the congregation to take a ceremonial oath and commit to ending violence and slavery. White balloons were symbolically released to represent every trafficked victim. The ceremony repeated itself in more than 30 churches from different denominations throughout the city of Kolkata.

“I encourage my brothers and sisters in the church of Canada to stand with us and celebrate Freedom Sunday,” said Bishop Biswas when we met in April. Slavery must end, and Christians must do their part by prayer and action. God led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It begins and ends with God, but that doesn’t mean we can stand by and do nothing.

Rev. Kevin Dixon is the former dean at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Huron.
Since 2015 he has served as vice president of Programs and Operations with International Justice Mission Canada.
IJM’s Canadian office is located in London, Ontario.