By Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
There has been so much happening in India in the recent past and particularly, this past week. The country today sits on a tinderbox; waiting to explode at any moment; no one can deny this! A cursory glance around will make one realise the abysmal depths to which the country has plummeted to, during these last four years!
On May 22, the brutal gunning down of anti-Sterlite protestors by the Tamil Nadu police in Thoothukudi is a blatant example of a repressive State machinery. More than eleven people were killed and many more injured, in an authentic people’s movement with legitimate demands. The powers that rule the country are clearly identified with the corporate mafias who care two hoots about the rights of the poor or environmental safeguards.
In the aftermath of the results of the Assembly elections in Karnataka on May 15, the country witnessed the unprecedented act of a governor throwing all Constitutional propriety to the wind. Unethically, he swore in someone to be CM and provided a ‘carte blanche’ to his political party to buy up MLAs from parties which had the requisite numbers to form the Government; fortunately the Supreme Court stepped in and ensured that the ‘pretenders’ in this case were not given the throne. Their game plan did not work and the legitimate victors were given the reins of power earlier this week.
‘Demonetization’ has been a major heist on the country, favouring the rich and the ruling political dispensation. There is enough of empirical data to show how the poor and the middle-class of the country have been affected. Millions of Indians today try just-to-survive without access to the basic amenities of life. They have to scrounge to eke out a living. The poor become poorer every day.
It is not surprising that the Oxfam Report ‘Reward Work, Not Wealth’ released recently during the World Economic Forum held in Davos stated, “The richest 1 percent in India cornered 73 percent of the wealth generated in the country last year, presenting a worrying picture of rising income inequality”. Government policies are designed to be pro-rich, a group, which will certainly be helpful to the ruling political class, when they have to come out more aggressively in the implementation of their agenda. Fuel prices have skyrocketed to an all-time-high, with eleven hikes in as many days.
Suicide by farmers continue in alarming numbers all over the country. ‘Firstpost’(May 24, 2018)reports, “in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, Rahul, a 32-year-old sugarcane farmer, killed himself because he could not afford to treat his younger sister who was diagnosed with cancer and the doctor had suggested a surgery. The local sugar mill owed the household about 300,000 rupees which was not paid at a time when the family needed it the most. Rahul’s suicide was the trigger that compounded the fury and anger of sugarcane farmers from across the state. The farmers united under the banner of ‘Indian Farmer Union’ and held protests at various places.”
A recent report from ‘Crisil’ the country’s leading rating agency, shows that today the rural wage growth has reached an all-time low of 0.2 percent (from 8.4 percent) under the UPA and that the farmers now do not even get a support price!
In another recently released study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) fourteen of the world’s most-polluted twenty cities, are in India; ironically many of them happen to be in Uttar Pradesh including Varanasi city. Healthcare is still beyond the reach of the poor Indian.
In an Adani-run Hospital in Bhuj, Gujarat 111 (out of 777) newborn babies died in a five-month period ending May 20 – a whopping 14 percent! In global indicators on several important parameters, like freedom of religion/belief, human rights, freedom expression – India’s rankings have touched all-time lows.
A fly-over collapses in Varanasi and several ordinary citizens are killed! Human rights defenders like Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, intellectuals and others who take a stand, have false cases foisted on them, they are hounded, harassed and some even killed. On May 21, a poor Dalit in Gujarat was beaten to death and his wife molested. Women and children are consistently targeted if one goes by the number of rapes that have been come to light very recently. The poor and the marginalized, the Dalits and the tribals, the minorities and other vulnerable, are on the receiving end of tyrannical rulers.
Cobrapost in an ‘Operation 136’ sting showed the country how some of the top media houses agreed to run a pro-Hindutva campaign in the run up to the 2019 General Elections. The agenda, in exchange for money (‘black’ of course!) was to denigrate the opposition, highlight all positive stories on the ruling party and to mainstream Hindutva. A clear and strong “yes” from some of the biggest media people in the country to Hindutva, black money and paid news. On the other hand, any journalist who takes an objective stand and for truth and justice is not only intimidated but some brutally murdered!
There is indeed so much happening (warranting 24×7 headlines) in the country all the time, but tragically a good section of our paid and so-called mainstream; media hardly highlight these grim realities. Some of the senior Supreme Court Justices reminded us recently –that what is at stake is the Constitution, the secular fabric, the future of our country!
There is no one ranting and raving on these critical issues on the channels saying, “The nation wants to know”; there is no one demanding from the Prime Minister why he has maintained total silence on the police killings in Thoothukudi ? Why the ‘acche din’ after four years is only a big bluff? Why corruption, criminalization and communalism are the flagships of the country today? These and several more burning questions which affect the soul of the nation and which demand honest, truthful answers!
Instead, what gets prime time news, with the some anchors frothing and fuming is an innocuous circular letter from Archbishop Anil Couto, of the Archdiocese of Delhi written to the Catholics of his Archdiocese requesting for prayers until the General Elections of 2019. The letter dated May 8, is a call for prayer beginning on “May 13, 2018 which marks the Anniversary of the Apparition of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, consecrating ourselves and our nation to the Immaculate Heart”.
An objective analysis of Archbishop Anil’s letter, draw the following conclusions:
• As an Indian citizen, the Archbishop has every right to voice his opinions/views
• As the Archbishop of Delhi, it is his duty to be a Pastor and instruct the Catholics under his care both on spiritual and temporal matters
• It is an age-old practice for Bishops all over the world to send out Circular or Pastoral Letters before any major event (including elections) which could affect their people in any way!
• The letter clearly does NOT take sides; does not name any political party ; does not tell people whom to vote for
• The letter is addressed to a particular group of people ( that is Catholics of Delhi) it is directional in nature; a request and certainly not mandatory
• The letter is a call to prayer!
So then, what is the hullabaloo about? A letter of this nature, to a tiny fraction of a miniscule minority in the country, is perhaps not going to determine the outcome of any elections! (but Christians like any other person of faith do believe that PRAYER WORKS!).
Why is the BJP/RSS combine, with some of their media henchmen, on the ‘warpath’ on a letter, which is asking for prayers? Unless of course. their response is an admission of guilt and fear that, they stand woefully exposed! They are also overly –cautious of what ‘western nations’ may think; after all, several of their kind live in those countries and continue to have their children educated in them. Then there is their ‘standard’ reason: anyone who challenges our agenda and us is not ‘patriotic’!
Archbishop Anil begins his letter with the words “We are witnessing a turbulent political atmosphere which poses a threat to the democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution and the secular fabric of our nation.” There could not be perhaps a better opening statement, so down-to-earth, so contextual- which sets the tone of why one needs to pray and fast.
Can one deny the fact that what we witness in India is not ‘a turbulent political atmosphere’? When a ‘few’ decide what one should eat and wear; see and write; or whom to worship; when the very core of the country’s secular and pluralistic fabric stands to be destroyed; when all that is sacred in the Constitution is being eroded – how can one ever abstain from making such a statement? It is a sin not to do so.
Some of the media fascists in our country would love to defocus from the current realities, which plague our country by providing undue attention to a letter like this. However, what takes the cake is that even some fence-sitting Catholics (who love to run with the hare and hunt with the hound provided they are in good books with the ‘powers that matter’) have also demanded that Archbishop Anil substantiates his statement with documentation/facts. Sounds like a sick joke or perhaps these are NOT aware of what is happening in the country today.
One self-appointed ‘Catholic Leader’ from Gujarat, (who in the past desperately tried to get into the ‘good books’ of Modi and the BJP there), takes umbrage at the letter. Others fear that it may have repercussions on the Christians (a BJP person who no longer finds himself ‘in the news’ wants India to ‘break ties’ with the Vatican!). Pro-BJP Christians have started writing ‘open letters’ (they certainly have a right to do so!) in a poor attempt to justify the unjustifiable!
The rest of the letter is an invitation not only to pray but also to fast every Friday of the week and “that we organize an hour of Eucharistic Adoration every Friday at a convenient time in all our parishes, religious houses and institutions, specifically praying for our nation.”
There is a beautiful prayer attached to the letter, which is recommended to be said during the adoration. The prayer resonates with the Upanishads (from darkness lead me to light), with Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali (into that heaven of freedom), with our national motto ‘Truth Triumphs’, with the Prophets of the Old Testament, with Jesus’ stand on what is wrong in society and above all, with the teachings of Pope Francis, including his insistence that ‘media must be bearers of the truth’.
The prayer above all highlights the guiding principles enshrined in our Constitution: Justice Liberty Equality and Fraternity. (This prayer, with the necessary adaptation should be translated into all Indian languages and could be prayed by all women and men of goodwill across the country in the run up to the elections of 2019).
The life of Jesus: his person, message and mission are without ambiguity! Jesus is no ‘political’ messiah; he is the Saviour who came down to earth to prepare his people for eternal life. Jesus however showed to people that the ‘Kingdom of God’ is in the here and now! He takes sides with the poor and marginalized, with the ostracized and the gentiles. His vision and mission are there for all to embrace. However, he is not afraid to take a stand against the Herods and Pilates, the scribes and Pharisees of his time- they represented an unjust system and all that was wrong in society. Jesus ultimately had to pay the supreme sacrifice.
The Prophets before him did the same and so did countless martyrs after him. Catholic Social Teaching, with the May 1891 Encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ has been consistent on being a voice for the voiceless; in speaking truth to power. Vatican II highlights several of these dimensions. St Pope John XXIII in his 1963 Encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ highlights four non-negotiables for Peace: Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty and calls for their internalization in the Church and in the world.
Over the years, the Church has taken visible and vocal stands against Communism. Some years ago, the Bishops of Kerala were all out on the streets when there was a threat to nationalize education in the state! It is no state secret of the pivotal role St Pope John Paul II played in the dismantling of communism in Eastern Europe. Pope Francis has been consistent with his teachings. He has challenged Bishops and Priests to defend the poor, the outcasts and the oppressed; he has spoken bluntly and directly to oppressive regimes, which do not respect the dignity and the rights of every human.
Some of the responses to Archbishop Anil’s letter sadly show that there are ‘fissures’ in the Catholic Church in India. Some of his fellow-bishops seem to disagree with him; or distance themselves from the letter or just say, “the timing is not right” (when is the right time to speak the TRUTH?). It was a similar scenario last year when Archbishop Thomas Macwan wrote an internal letter asking for prayers prior to the Gujarat assembly elections. The message that comes from those who express their discomfort with such a letter, is loud and clear: they are more interested in protecting their selfish, vested and material interests rather than standing up for the person and message of Jesus which radiates Truth, Compassion Justice, Equality and Liberty for all .
The Bishops of India would be sending out a powerful message of unity, both to the Catholics and the entire nation, if they take ownership of the letter of Archbishop Anil and circulate it (with the necessary adaptations) in their respective dioceses too.
Archbishop Oscar Romero was brutally gunned down by the brutal regime of his country El Salvador on 24 March 1980. The day before he was killed in his Sunday homily he called out to his government saying, “In the name of God, and in the name of his suffering people; those who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven with greater intensity each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression immediately!”
Later this year he will be canonized a saint. He was truly a prophet, a martyr for justice; he was not afraid of the power and might of his Government! He was ready to lay down his life for his people! All of us can learn much from him and even try to imitate him in some ways!
The Church in India desperately needs prophets today, endowed with the vision and mission of Jesus, who get out of their comfort zones and are not afraid to speak truth to power! Every disciple of Jesus is not only invited but also challenged to do so! Do we have the faith and courage to respond to that challenge?
(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights activist. Contact: email@example.com )