Books, Articles and Essays
by FR. FELIX RAJ, SJ, DIRECTOR | «
GERARD BECKERS (1924-2006)
A legend of selfless service to humanity
Fr. John Felix Raj.
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
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
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
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.