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OBITUARY
GERARD BECKERS (1924-2006)
A legend of selfless service to humanity
Fr. John Felix Raj. S.J.


Father Gerard Beckers WHO hailed from Belgium, came to India in 1954, fell in love with it and became an Indian citizen in 1978. His colleagues and students affectionately called him “Babu”. He later became attached to St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. He joined the Chemistry department in 1960 taught for nearly 25 years. He was also its head for over a decade. My fellow Jesuit, he was an inspiration to many others and me for many years.

Babu spent the last couple of years of his life in the St. Xavier’s College infirmary. He had been suffering from Parkinson disease. After suffering a fall in the corridor in January 2006 he was bed-ridden. He passed away on December 9 2006. He was 82 years old. His body was handed over to the Nilratan Sarkar Hospital after a moving and a tearful farewell on the College grounds, attended by a large number of friends, colleagues and students on December 11 as he had donated his body and eyes to furthering medical research and education. He had done his best for his own time and now lives for all times.

A doctor in biochemistry and a student-friendly teacher, his interest went far beyond the walls of classroom. In an interview a few years before his death he had said, “ When I joined the college, I was shocked at the atmosphere of the college community. It was largely colonial in mentality, but there were surely people with open minds…” He brought the social dimension of helping the poor and the rural students in the College. His magnetic personality was an inspiration to many students, especially tribal students for whom he started the “Ananda Bhavan” hostel within the College campus in 1964.

He was appointed adviser to the All India Catholic University Federation (AICUF) in 1959. Under his charismatic leadership and guidance, the AICUF flourished in strength and stability. Even before the Government thought of National Service Scheme (NSS), he spearheaded the movement of social involvement and took many initiatives along with student leaders. Babu was a man fired with a passion for justice especially towards the underprivileged. He organized work-cum-leadership camps on weekends and particularly during Puja and summer vacations year after year.

These camps brought together students from diverse regions, religions and cultures, and gave them opportunities to exercise their leadership in a wider world. Many of these camps were conducted in villages to help students to come in touch with the rural poor and know their harsh realities. His aim was to inculcate solid values and attitudes in students so that they could become agents of social transformation in the spirit of AICUF motto: “We are born in an unjust society, and we are determined not to leave it as we have found it.” He infused leadership among students. As a good human being he made the reality of the divine closer to people. He made a difference and the world became brighter. He has given hope to future generations.

Some of their programmes answered concrete challenges. During the communal riots in 1964, the AICUF students were in the thick of the affected areas, rescuing people. As soon as the fury was over, they became engaged in the rehabilitation of the victims. When Maitri Devi founded the “Council for Promoting Communal Harmony”, the AICUF gave her wholehearted support and participated actively in all programmes.

The late 1960s was a critical period. The Naxalite Movement was sweeping through colleges like a tidal wave. The editorial of Deshabrati, the annual magazine of Presidency College read: “1969 marks a turning point in the history of India…the flame of Naxalbaari has spread like a prairie fire in eight provinces… the Indian people have finally embarked on the only correct road for the Indian Revolution, the road to seize power by armed force.”

The class hatred of the Naxalbaari revolutionaries against the establishment found expression in St. Xavier’s College being attacked as February 1970 issue of Deshabrati reports. They ransacked the library and attacked the principal. The AICUF was singled out as a movement ‘aiming at the manufacture of counter-revolutionaries’ and the AICUFers were branded as ‘domesticated goondas’. Fr. Babu Beckers was condemned to death in a printed pamphlet as ‘a running dog of the imperialists’. Two attempts on his life failed, leaving nine stitches on his scalp.

It was on this background of radicalism that the NSS was introduced in St. Xavier’s College from its inception in 1969 and Babu became its first director. Henceforth, the AICUF and NSS joined hands to build a new and just society. Babu was the very soul of these movements, having nourished and fostered them with dedication and love. He gave the movements a direction that was very much in accordance with the message of Jesus, his Mentor.

The students felt themselves to be catalysts of a total transformation and built up their commitment for the future accordingly. Babu induced the students to develop their social consciousness. Blood donation and eye donation movements received tremendous momentum in West Bengal under his leadership. Babu himself donated blood for more than hundred times and was the highest donor in Asia till 1990 when a fellow Jesuit of Chennai overtook his record. Till date the college traditionally carries out his initiative of holding bi-annual Blood Donation Camps every year.

Babu Beckers involved the students of AICUF and NSS in the activities of the Students’ health home (SHH) on AJC Bose road near Sealdah. The most successful programme undertaken for the sake of the SHH’s expansion was a sponsored walk called the “Walk for a fuller life” in 1972. Thousands of students participated in the walk and raised a rupee for every kilometer of the 16-kilometer route. The collection from this venture amounted to Rs 2 lakhs and was given to build the 2nd floor of the SHH with 20 additional beds.

Realizing that India lives mostly in villages, and that villages are the real sources of our national vitality, the students of St. Xavier’s College began the Sherpur Project in 1973. For four years, they organized camps in Sherpur in Murshidabad district for its economic revival. The Sherpur experience included redeeming alienated land, the starting of a thriving vegetable and cattle market, the organization of marginal farmers to irrigate their land, the bringing of electricity, the running of twenty adult literacy centers, the organization of silk worm rearers into cooperatives, and the distribution of one acre land each to four hundred landless families in Hijol.

It was characteristic of Babu that he spent the last years of his life since his retirement from college in 1984 among the poor Santals in Kalna, Pandua and Chamrusai. The poor and the marginalized were the center of his life and work. Babu has left a legacy of social change and universal service to the poor and the marginalized that needs to be carried forward and strengthened.


 

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