A Discussion with Father Richard William Timm, Congregation of Holy Cross
With: Richard William Timm Berkley Center Profile
March 25, 2015
Background: Father Richard William Timm has witnessed much of the history of Bangladesh since he arrived as an educator in 1952 with the Holy Cross Fathers. A renowned biologist who has written textbooks and continues to teach, he became heavily involved in the Catholic response to cyclone Bhola in 1970 and the Liberation War in 1971, working closely with Caritas Bangladesh ever since. He also has dedicated much effort and action on human rights and justice. In this discussion in March 2015 with Nat Adams in Dhaka, he reflects on high points of his career. Asked what represents the most important force for positive change in Bangladesh, he highlights participatory approaches that he links to the Paolo Freire approach to education.
Could you reflect on your history with Holy Cross in Bangladesh?
Holy Cross has been here [in Bangladesh] for over 150 years—I’ve written a book on the history of the order. I’ve been here for 63 years; this is my sixty-fourth year. When I came here there were only 300,000 people living in Dhaka, and now there are 15 million! That was in 1952. We had a fairly large community at that time. We had mostly foreigners. I think there were only two local brothers, one of whom entered the order in the 1800s!
For a long time the policy was against having any locals taken into the community. There really were not even the facilities for local seminarians. Then our American Bishop, later Archbishop, began to articulate a policy intended to build up the local church. Some are still living today who have very favorable attitudes towards religious life and the congregation because of the efforts made at that time. It was a sound policy and by 1970, all the bishops were local. The first local Archbishop of Dhaka was Theotonius Ganguly in 1967. He kept his family name instead of taking a Portuguese name. He did his doctorate at Notre Dame in yoga philosophy and he is now a candidate for sainthood. I was with him for eight years and I always called him a saint!
You were trained as a biologist. Was that part of what brought you to Bangladesh?
I was focused on research and teaching for my first 40 years in Bangladesh. I was a zoologist, an expert in nematodes. In fact, I discovered several species myself, and other scientists have named several new genera or species after me. When they opened Notre Dame College here in Dhaka, they had somebody to head every department except for science, and they needed someone desperately, so they wanted me to get a quick degree in one year and come over and open the science department.
I was lucky because I was sent to Catholic University of America. A priest two years ahead of me told me that on the first day the head of the department would ask me if I have the undergraduate requirements for mathematics and physics. He told me that if I said no, the head of the department would say “you realize that you’ll have to make them up,” but that’s the last I’d ever hear of it. So thankfully I got out of that! I ended up getting through my master’s degree and doctorate in three years without any undergraduate degree, but I had a lot of help. I got a lot out of the experience because there are so many resources for parasitology in Washington; that was my focal area.
When was Notre Dame College founded and what was the initial mission behind the school?
Notre Dame College was founded in 1949, the year of my ordination as a Holy Cross priest. I had two classmates who joined that year. For a long time, Holy Cross had aspirations to found the college. Archbishop Graner was strongly in favor of it too, so they got some priests together in the country with appropriate backgrounds.
There were over 100 colleges at that time. I wrote a textbook of college biology that was used in all of the colleges, but the quality of education was not always very good. At the time of the Partition of India in 1947 there wasn’t even a medical college in the whole country. They took part of the Arts department from the University of Dhaka for the Medical College. The Holy Cross order wanted to provide an institution of academic excellence and contribute to the growth of the education system in East Bengal.
We were teaching in English at the beginning; all the higher education was in English at that time so we thought we didn’t need much Bengali—well, we did! In 1970 they went completely into Bengali for everyone, all educational institutions, so it was a little hard for me to pick up Bengali so fast. I’m now a bit out of it now because I’m 92 years old and I’m starting to forget all my Bengali as fast as I learned it earlier.
What was your experience during the Liberation War?
I got ambushed twice by the freedom fighters, but fortunately there were always some of my students among them. I was wearing U.S. Army pants and I had a black beard, so I looked pretty much like a Pathan (one from the northwest frontier provinces of India) from West Pakistan. In fact when I went to the government house to make complaints about the treatment of the Hindus on Monpura Island, the Punjaabi major took me for a Pathan!
Many people were exploited in the name of religion at that time. They were mostly young people; they didn’t know anything and they were told to look for the kaffirs and kill them. Kaffirs are the non-believers, the Hindus. And the sad thing about it is that many of the local people that turned against the Hindus and became collaborators ended up joining the “peace committees” after the war. The mawlanas (Muslim religious leader) were generally the heads of the peace committees.
Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, the present finance minister, wrote a book on the war and participation from those inside and outside the country. I was one of the ones who contributed to the introduction of the book by the publisher, and in that introduction I said that unfortunately the true history of the war inside the country will never be written. Muhith remembered that comment and just last year he brought that up to me again.
The Liberation War still seems so present, particularly with the International Crimes Tribunal and all of the discussion around that. What do you think about the way it’s being dealt with now?
The judge who was the head of the International Union of Judges, just after the war interviewed me and asked me my opinion. I said I was very strongly for trials because it will do a lot to prevent any future acts of genocide. Of course the trials fell through at that time. I was on the committee that discussed reconciliation and justice and I got a lot of materials from South Africa about their reconciliation process and so forth. I think the process is more open now because the Hindus have been able to testify without fear.
When did you become involved in the work of Caritas and with humanitarian work more broadly?
I joined Caritas in 1971. I was completely committed to a research career prior to that, so it was really something I had never considered or planned for at all. It started in the wake of cyclone Bhola in 1970. I went down to Monpura Island, which was the worst affected area, with students as part of the relief effort. We were working with a new NGO, which was founded just to work on that island. It had been devastated, completely covered by 20 feet of water. They asked me to direct the rehabilitation program. I was there for seven months.
How did you begin getting involved in human rights work?
Most of our work up until the mid-1970s was focused on relief and rehabilitation, both for the cyclone and the destruction caused by the Liberation War. We wanted to work on justice in the wake of some of the atrocities committed during the war. And I felt that since Muslims make up 90 percent of the population, we had to work closely with them if we are going to do effective justice work. We organized a seminar that engaged all of the relief agencies and they were gung ho for the idea. We had monthly meetings then, and we wrote a constitution and then registered a separate body as CCHRB, Coordinating Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh.
In 1974 I was asked to be director of the Justice and Peace Commission by the Bishops. This was a highly sensitive topic in Bangladesh, but I would say it’s even more important than development, because peace is a precondition for development. There were very few human rights agencies then, but we invited all of the development agencies and I impressed upon them the necessity of knowledge of human rights for development, especially development for the poor, which most of the NGOs were engaged in.
You have a reputation as someone who speaks the truth even if it’s unpopular.
Yes! I remember that USAID once asked me to evaluate their program. They said that the director in the U.S. was foaming at the mouth when he read my analysis. At that time they were paying international development people $500 a day to work on these projects. These were people who didn’t know Bengali, who didn’t know the culture. I was on one of the projects with one of them. They kept asking me to change my evaluation and ended up not putting any of my criticisms into the final report.
One of my worst critics here was the Archbishop. He said, "Why should I risk the whole Church for the work of one man?" He’s an intelligent person, and he was the spokesman for the Christian community here. But, whenever they had gatherings on Church matters, they were never very interested to talk about justice. I was executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission for 23 years. It was mainly to expose Catholics to justice work. There was really no national or international involvement; they didn’t feel that was their place. But now they have finally gotten into some advocacy. They have taken up climate change. That’s a safe topic.
What do you think the general perception is of Catholics in Bangladesh? Do you think there is generally a positive feeling about the Catholic and Holy Cross communities?
Yes, they look to us for leadership. A lot of this is related to our work in local communities. Even after the formation of Bangladesh, though, many of the Holy Cross brothers were only interested in their work in education, and they weren’t doing anything else in society. But now a lot of them are getting into different activities. There’s one brother here—Brother Nicholas, an American brother, he’s been able to mobilize a lot of funds, and has started a range of different projects for the poor. The work of Catholics in education, health, and also other development areas is well recognized by the government and all the political parties. Brother Ronald Drahozal is another well-known and respected brother, he has developed a very large institution for treating alcoholics and drug addicts both male and female.
I think that the Christian community as a whole has a reputation as moral and trustworthy. Christians are rarely caught up in corruption. These are the qualities that Christians have and are well respected for. Samson Choudhry was the head of Square Pharmaceuticals and the richest Christian in Bangladesh. When he died at the age of 85, he received wide acclaim. He was universally respected. He paid his taxes faithfully and he was always honest about everything. He didn’t owe a single penny to the government; he paid everything. That was highly unusual so he has set such a good example in this country where corruption is so widespread.
How do you think relations with the Muslim community have changed since you’ve been in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh has a tradition of tolerance. That began to change at partition, but fortunately they didn’t have the kind or violence seen in other parts of India because Gandhi visited East Bengal, the year before partition after there had been some troubles between the Muslims and Hindus. He set up a peace ashram, which is still there in Noakhali district, and he had such a strong influence the following year; during partition there weren’t any big riots here. Sadly things have been deteriorating recently.
In the 1990s there were a lot of attacks by Islamic groups on BRAC and other NGOs, but Caritas and the Catholic community were never attacked in the same way. Why do you think that was?
In the beginning there was suspicion that Caritas would be making conversions, or only serving Christians. But very soon people found out that it was not true, and that Caritas worked for everyone without discrimination in their relief programs. Regardless of religion, they were all included in our programs.
Still there is propaganda about Catholic proselytism, particularly now in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. For the last 20 years we have been blamed for converting the Buddhists and Muslims to Christianity. They claim that there have been thousands of Christian conversions. Many of the claims target me personally. They say I founded 14 missions and converted 100,000 Catholics. But I wasn’t even allowed in the Hill Tracts! This accusation was published in one of the fundamentalist newspapers.
It’s well known that the Muslim population in the Hill Tracts has been rising because of the influx of Bengali settlers. Now the indigenous communities are the minority in all three districts. The government had sent out a secret letter to all of the districts to send 2,000 poor families to the Hill Tracts, and they were each given 5 acres of land, some of them 10 acres. They just took away the land wherever they pleased from the tribal people. A lot of land grabbing is being done by the military. This is political. The Chittagong Hill Tracts is totally controlled by the army and the politicians depend on them so they often won’t challenge them.
You’ve been here for so long working on development and human rights, what is your perception of the progress that has been made overall?
There has been wonderful progress on the women’s side. Bangladesh has done well, living up to the Millennium Development Goals. There have been a lot of programs targeting the poor, including food-for-work programs, many of which target women explicitly. Some of the goals were met two years ahead of schedule. But there were many different programs that were failures or where there was graft and corruption. There was one World Bank supported program that provided monthly payments of 150 taka for persons over 60 years of age, but many of the people I asked had never heard of this and had never got that money. This is one thing I want to look into now, when I get more time.
And on the human rights side, do you think there has there been some improvement?
There’s much more awareness of human rights in Bangladesh now than there has ever been, but still among the politicians there is a lack of understanding of their duties to the people. The UN themselves are keenly aware that there’s nothing on duties in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it never says anything about the relationship between rights and duties. The only mention is of social duties, not individual duties. The president of Bangladesh said that, "We have a perfect right to march in the streets; it is given to us by our constitution." Just imagine, a perfect right to march in the streets, and even though there are only seven areas set aside for the political parties to use for their gatherings, they still believe that.
The older people in politics have a certain perspective and you can’t shake them out of it. They are the one who have been there for years and are fixed in their ways. The political process is not functional and you need to get them out of there. It’s now up to the youth to change things.
What issue now do you think is the most important in Bangladesh? What do you think people should be dedicating their energy towards?
What I feel has been the most important, but it is something that others don’t recognize as such, is participatory development that really engages the local community, using Paulo Freire’s approach to education.
Caritas began the approach in 1977, and we had 17,000 groups of poor people, half men, half women. There were a minimum of 15 people in each group. For organizing it you needed a Caritas worker, but he was just a participant observer. The Caritas worker didn’t lecture or correct the local people. If they made a mistake in their discussion, then by the Socratic method the Caritas worker would bring it out of them.
BRAC used the method and published 60 charts of village problems and by looking at those charts villagers would immediately start talking. So they had one chart at each weekly meeting, and they would identify the problem and then try to ascertain its causes. Local people can do excellent social analysis, even though they are illiterate, because they know the problems of the village. They know who dominates over them and how and why. For a long time they had this patron-client relationship in which the patron would provide loans at the time of a wedding and so forth, and they would sign a blank piece of paper or stamp their thumbprint on it, and they never knew how much they owed so they were always in debt to the patron. This patron-client relationship has been broken; it’s not very valid any more. The problems with this system were clearly identified in these group sessions.
The model can also be used for government accountability, for example if a government worker doesn’t show up for six months in a row. They can report that to the group and then they have to give a development report each month to the center. The people’s representative can report that to the government and they can take the necessary action. They’re happy to get the support of NGOs because finally they can catch all these officials who are lax and bring them up to the mark.
At our last meeting on this approach, the final evaluation, I brought up that I had noticed that the justice actions of these groups had declined a lot. They tended to say, ‘oh that’s a good thing, because there have been so many actions that we don’t have all of these problems anymore in our area.’ I brought the approach up to a leading economist in Bangladesh; he said he didn't realize that the Paulo Freire method was being used. I think it’s a very effective and empowering approach and I think there should be more emphasis on expanding its use throughout the country.