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May 12, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Pritish Nandy

The story of Jack Preger

Once upon a time there was a man called Jack Preger.

Not too many people outside Calcutta had heard of him. And even in Calcutta all the rich and powerful people who lived in Alipur and Ballygunge and Chowringhee had no clue that such a man existed.

But in the sad slums of Sonagachhi, in the leprosy clinic in Chitpore, among the poor of Kashipur and the destitute children of Nilmoni Street, in districts like Midnapore and Basirhat where there are no hospitals worth the name, Jack Preger was worshipped.

For he was the one man who could save you from sickness and certain death without ever asking you whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim, a Brahmin or a Dalit. Nor would he try to figure out if you can afford the treatment.

For those who live on the mean streets, in the darkest slums of Calcutta, for the poorest of the poor, as Mother Teresa so poignantly described them, Preger is the face of hope. Of love and charity.

Jack Preger is 69 and English. He was born in Manchester, studied at Oxford. A student of Asa Briggs in social and economic history, he worked for a while as a farmer before joining the medical profession.

He graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and, responding to a radio appeal in 1972, went to Bangladesh where he worked in the refugee camps. In 1975, he set up his own clinic there, with 90 beds for patients as well as two farms for famine victims.

The sick and the poor became his friends, patients, admirers. The locals loved him but he was deported in 1979 when he exposed a racket in the international trafficking of young boys ands girls masterminded by some senior bureaucrats of the Bangladesh government in cahoots with a Dutch NGO.

Preger, having exposed the racket, had no option but to flee Bangladesh. His visa was cancelled, his life threatened. In 1979, Preger arrived in Calcutta as a Commonwealth citizen armed with the official QA 22 form which allowed him under the existing rules to do social work without a visa.

The Foreigner's Registration Office asked him to declare himself as a doctor and missionary worker. Preger argued he was not a missionary. He was a social volunteer and, under the ILO agreement to which India is a signatory, did not need a residential permit to work as one.

But the FRO insisted and Preger got a residential permit for three months on signing the form. After the three months were over, he got deportation orders and left Calcutta for while. He returned in 1981.

Within 24 hours of landing in Calcutta, he received another deportation order asking him to leave India within 72 hours. Preger got himself booked on a flight scheduled 48 hours beyond the 72 hour-limit and declared this to the FRO.

But before his flight could take off, he was arrested and put behind bars. In July 1981, he was charged in Alipore court for entering India without a missionary visa and failing to obey a quit India order!

The case went on for 18 months before it was discovered that the Alipore court did not have the jurisdiction to hear it because Preger lived in Middleton Row! So the case went to Bankshall court.

It took the police five years to present the prosecution's case and, in 1989, Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary intervened on Preger's behalf and the government withdrew its charges. Preger was acquitted after a nine-year Kafka-esque trial.

Meanwhile, his work continued. Among destitutes, lepers and slum dwellers. He was seen as the good doctor: the last refuge of the poor, the sick and the socially rejected.

His efforts found sympathisers who helped him with free service and financial aid to meet the expense of running his clinics and ambulances, the free schools he ran for slum children, the spinning and weaving classes for women in the backward areas of Canning.

But bureaucrats are bureaucrats. As his fame grew among the poor, the harassment also increased. Preger was accused of being a missionary, even though there is no evidence of a single conversion among his patients!

What angered the bureaucrats even more was the fact that the courts always came to Preger's rescue. Meanwhile, Preger founded Calcutta Rescue in 1991. All legal requirements were complied with.

But the application for registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act was refused by the home ministry and, in 1995,the FCRA authorities denied Preger permission to accept donations from overseas support groups.

So, once again, Preger went to court. In March 1996, the Calcutta High Court directed the FCRA authorities to grant him registration within a month from the date of receipt of the court order or give adequate reasons why the application should be rejected.

The court also permitted Preger to accept donations up to a limit of Rs 1 million a month. The FCRA authorities ignored the high court's orders and, instead, appealed to the Supreme Court in September 1996. The Supreme Court, after hearing both sides, permitted Preger to continue to accept donations from foreign sources and increased the limit to Rs 1.5 million a month!

To put to rest all the snide insinuations, the Supreme Court also asked the government to audit the books of accounts pertaining to the receipt and utilisation of all international donations with a view to satisfy themselves about the bona fides of Preger.

Accordingly, the CBI conducted an audit in September 1998 and submitted a report. The authorities, however, have not brought the audit results to the court as yet.

Meanwhile, to continue to stay and work in India, Preger keeps applying for permission and, every time, the FRO stamps his residential permit with the remark "application for extension of stay under consideration".

Whenever he leaves India to visit his family or raise funds from overseas donors, he has to apply for a re-entry visa. Every time. Most times, in fact, he has to seek legal intervention because the visa is not granted. Once he comes in, he has to re-apply for extending the stay.

It is one long nightmare of bureaucratic intimidation and political cussedness. Curiously by a government that prides itself on its secular credentials.

On February 23 this year, Preger received a notice from the FRO asking him to quit India in seven days! He replied, giving reasons why he could not suddenly get up and leave a project that he had built up over two decades, involving so many people, so many volunteers, so many donors.

The FRO rejected the argument and insisted that he go. He then, once again, went to the high court. The court asked the FRO to issue a "reasoned order".

When Preger went to the FRO with his lawyers, he was once again told firmly to leave India. Last month, amidst all the turmoil in Parliament, I read a report in The Asian Age which made me feel proud of our judiciary.

It said that Justice Altamas Kabir of the Calcutta High Court has yet again directed the Union government to speedily grant a return visa to Preger. So that he can continue his humanitarian work in Calcutta.

Yet another relief for Preger. However temporary.

Meanwhile, the game of snakes and ladders continues. Sometimes Preger wins. Sometimes the bureaucrats win. Then Preger goes to court and seeks their help, their intervention. Things revert to normal till the next quit India order comes.

Yet, amidst all this, his indefatigable work goes on. The clinics, the schools, the training centres, the oases of hope in Calcutta's soulless slums.

It is a tribute not just to an amazing doctor who will not yield to a bullying government that throws its brute might behind its cruel system. It is also a tribute to a man's indomitable spirit that keeps fighting the Kafka-esque system in a foreign land that he has accepted as his own workplace.

Pritish Nandy

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