KOLKATA (C.M. Paul) – Pioneer Salesian missionary in Bodoland, Spanish born Fr Jose` Maria Zubizaretta died in Barcelona, 6 February 2012, after a prolonged illness. Since 1991, a member of the San Jordi Salesian community in Barcelona, Fr Zubi was both a popular preacher and much sought after confessor. He was 81years old.
Fr Zubizarreta who is known as “Onsula Father Bwrai” by the Bodo Catholic followers was popularly known as Fr Zubi in short.
Fr Zubi one of the seven brothers in the family was born on 16 September, 1930 at Azcoitia of Spain. He came to India at the age of 17 and was assigned to work in Goa which was then a Portuguese colony. In 1966 on June 24, Fr Zubi started Bengtol Catholic Mission. Besides Missionary works, Fr Zubi established a Bodo medium LP school and another Assamese medium school in Bengtol. The Bengtol Mission became a centre for excellent education and continues to produce lot of high profile alumni.
The parishioners of Bengtol Parish and the Catholic community of Bongaigaon Diocese observed a memorial service in honour of the founder of Bengtol Mission- Fr Zubi, 25 February.
As part of the programme, Bishop Thomas Pulloppilli of Bongaigaon flagged off a religious procession from Bengtol Mission which preceded to Bengtol Bazar and reassembled at Community Hall inside the mission complex where a memorial prayer service was held. The Bishop blessed the newly erected memorial tomb of Fr Zubi in front of the Church that was built by Zubi. Several thousands of faithful from Bengtol, Dotma, Ramfalbil, Kokrajhar, Gossaigaon, Bijni, Barpeta and Bongaigaon thronged in the memorial tomb and offered floral tributes in memory of Fr Zubi.
The programme was also attended by former Agriculture Minister and present MLA – Pramila Rani Brahma, former DC of Udalguri- George Basumatary, priests of Kokrajhar, Ramfalbil and Dotma, Bengtol Parishes – Rev Fr Damian, Rev Fr Eddie, and Rev Fr Lucas Marak and former priests of Bijni and Kokrajhar- Rev Fr Kulandai Swami and Rev Fr Sunni besides other dignitaries.
Two years ago, I had the fortune to interview Fr Zubi on his adventures in the Assam missions.
“I don`t remember how many elephants I killed. May be 13 or 14,” recalled 79 year old missionary scratching his clean shaven face with a vacant look.
He was a pioneer missionary in Assam for some 50 years setting up missions in today`s Bodoland. Village elders in Dumri, Dotma, Bengtol, Kokrajhar, Tangla andBarpeta Roadstill fondly remember him as their hero.
“People would come running in panic seeking my help,” he said lighting up with a sparkle in his eyes.
“Usko hata dho (get rid of him),” they would plead with him referring to the wild elephant that strayed into their village destroying houses and standing crops.
“I would pick up my gun not forgetting to grab the special ‘elephant bullets’ fromSpainand accompany the people to scout for the marauding rogue elephant,” he says narrating the hazards of elephant hunting.
“You`ve to get him with the first shot,” says 5 foot 10 inch elephant hunter moving his body forward to a slightly arched position.
“You can`t afford to leave a wounded elephant,” he cautions, as it would destroy anything that comes his escape path.
“Besides having plenty of meat for the villagers, de-tasking the elephant too is part of the adventure,” says the jumbo hunter explaining qualities of white ivory which turns yellow with age.
“You are paying the price of your popularity,” says Fr Zubi recalling the words of then principal of Assam`s premier Don Bosco School in Guwahati, Fr Thomas Vattathara.
Fr Zubi was then parish priest ofBarpeta Roadin the hey days of the Bodoland agitation. Police recovered Fr Zubi`s ‘elephant gun’ from a militant who stole it from the mission house; and the missionary was implicated by the police and accused of assisting militants demanding separate state for Bodo people. After several futile attempts from Church authorities and local leaders testifying to Fr Zubi`s innocence in the case, the government compelled him to quit India in 1991.
Don Bosco School in Kokrajhar mission which Fr Zubi started was the first Salesian Institution in northeast India to get the minority status certificate from the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, New Delhi in 2008.
“I am a coward now, and I won’t be able to contain the emotion of meeting my Bodo people again and take a final farewell from them,” said Fr Zubi who left Assam 15 years ago on invited to make a visit to Bodoland.