Father Cedric Prakash of the Jesuit Gujarat Province has just returned from the Middle East after a three-year stint with the Jesuit Refugee Service there.
Fr Cedric is an internationally acclaimed human rights and peace activist and recipient of several awards including the ‘Legion of Honour’ from the President of France and the ‘Kabir Puraskar’ from the government of India.
He is also a prolific writer on social issues and contextual spirituality. In an exclusive interview to ‘Matters India’ he spoke in-depth to Santosh Digal of his work and his hopes.)
You were in the Middle East for three years. What was your assignment there?
Yes, I was in the Middle East for three years from January 2016. I was invited by the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region to work among the refugees and displaced in the Region (Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon). I was based in Beirut, Lebanon and entrusted with the responsibility of advocacy and communications for the Region.
What prompted you to work in Lebanon?
The late Fr Pedro Arrupe, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, founded the JRS on November 14, 1980, in response to the cries and the plight of the boat people of South East Asia who were fleeing war and persecution. Fr Arrupe was and will always be a source of inspiration and strength to me (as he is to many others). Ever since I heard about the JRS, I always dreamt of spending some time with this excellent organization. Besides over the years several Jesuits who I admire like Fathers Pierre Ceyrac, Varkey Perekkatt, and Jose Changanacherry had spent some years with the JRS in different conflict zones. Listening to their first hand experiences was an added motivating factor for me. Finally in 2015 the then JRS International Director Fr Peter Balleis invited me to work with JRS. I went to see the work in Lebanon, went through a difficult process of discernment and with due permission of my superiors, I finally said “Yes” to a call!
What would you do now in India? Would you resume your human rights activism?
My forte has always been advocacy and communications; my focus has been human rights, justice and peace! I am confident that I will never divert from this core competency. Besides our General Congregation 36 and recently the Jesuit Conference of South Asia have mandated all Jesuits to take a stand against the many human rights violations that take place in the country today due to the ascendancy of fundamentalism and the blatant anti-Constitutional activities of those fascist forces who are against the pluralism and secular character of the country. So do I have a choice? Very obviously, I have already resumed my human rights activism.
How do you assess the current scenario in India for human rights activism?
The current scenario for human rights activism in India is very bad. We hear about threats, intimidation, arrests, foisting of false cases and even death for all those who take a stand for human rights, justice and peace. On the night of December 8 / 9, a young journalist Amit Topno from Jharkhand was brutally murdered for exposing some of the local mafia. Eminent journalist Gauri Lankesh and intellectuals like Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and others have been killed by right-wing elements. Recently five well known human rights activists Sudha Bharadwaj (Faridabad), Arun Ferreira (Thane), Vernon Gonsalves (Mumbai), Gautam Navlakha (Delhi) and writer P. Varavara Rao (Hyderabad) were arrested on absolutely fictitious charges, my own Jesuit companion 80-year old Fr Stan Swamy was searched. I am a close associate of Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, I know how over the years they have been targeted and harassed in every possible way. There are several others – friends and comrades who have to bear the brunt of a very repressive political system. Now the big news is that the Government has decided to snoop into our computers. Something totally unacceptable in a democracy – if this is not fascism at its worst – what is?
What are the major threats facing India? What are the ways to tackle them?
There are several threats facing India today. The major one is of our democratic traditions and to the freedoms and other values enshrined in our Constitution. India in the last few years has fared very badly on every human rights parameter. One experiences this all the time and everywhere. We see the erosion of ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’, the Right to life and the dignity of the human person, a small fringe group of anti-nationals decide what we eat and see, wear and read or for that matter if women can drink in a bar. Lynching has become the new normal. The Government is wedded to crony capitalism: we have seen it in demonetization and how they have mainstreamed corruption. The poor become poorer every day. We are all aware of the plight of our farmers .There is empirical data to show how percent of the country’s population owns mind boggling percent of the country’s wealth. It was unprecedented that four senior most sitting Judges of the Supreme Court held a press conference last January to warn the nation of how the spirit and the letter of the Constitution was being systematically destroyed. One can certainly go on highlighting several other threats.
These threats need to be tackled in an urgent and collective way at every level possible. Citizens from every walk of life must come out in large numbers – be visible and vocal – to ensure that democracy is saved and the Constitution is not changed. The fascist, fundamentalist forces must be put in place. We must hold political parties accountable for their misdeeds and ensure that they focus on Governance and on serving the people. Too much of ‘fekuism’: myths, lies, false promises have been foisted on the nation. We must ensure that we exercise our franchise and motivate all others to do so too. We need to educate people on our Constitutional values and fundamental rights .We need to engage with the media and also be active on it. Yes all of us can do plenty to stem the rot that is taking place in the country.
What is the role of Christians and the church in this scenario?
Christians and the Church in India must play a very active role in addressing the ills of the country .We cannot be fence-sitters. We have to be vocal and visible for a more just, free and equitable India. This I believe is what Jesus expects from us today. In February 2014, just before the general elections that year the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) met in Palai, Kerala on the theme, ‘Renewed Church for a Renewed Society – Responding to the Call of Vatican II’. In a significant message the Bishops said, “When we look at our country, we see corruption plaguing every sphere of society. In such a scenario, Church institutions must be an example of transparency and probity. Another phenomenon is that of internal migration which, while opening opportunities to people, has torn the cultural and religious moorings that sustained them. Globalization too has brought in its wake problems like prolonged working hours which have disrupted family life. We witness the trend to fundamentalism which seeks to dilute the secular character of our nation. Against this trend, we stand by the values upheld by the Indian Constitution and appeal to governments to respect these values”.
“The experience of God will lead us to involvement in and solidarity with the marginalized and the exploited, those suffering from disabilities, those living in the peripheries of economic, cultural and social spheres. We will speak out against all forms of injustice meted out to them and we will defend their rights. We listened to the call of Pope Francis urging us to “work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor’ (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 188). We want the Church to be truly a Church of the Poor”. In the light of the above and in context of what is happening in India today, I wonder if our Bishops will have the courage to play a prophetic role- and issue a statement in 2019 prior to the general elections.
For this, I believe, they need to take a cue from Pope Francis, who has been steadfast in his teachings on discipleship. In a path breaking message for the World Day of Peace 2019, Pope Francis writes, “Everyone can contribute his or her stone to help build the common home. Authentic political life, grounded in law and in frank and fair relations between individuals, experiences renewal whenever we are convinced that every woman, man and generation brings the promise of new relational, intellectual, cultural and spiritual energies. That kind of trust is never easy to achieve, because human relations are complex, especially in our own times, marked by a climate of mistrust rooted in the fear of others or of strangers, or anxiety about one’s personal security. Sadly, it is also seen at the political level, in attitudes of rejection or forms of nationalism that call into question the fraternity of which our globalized world has such great need. Today more than ever, our societies need “artisans of peace” who can be messengers and authentic witnesses of God the Father, who wills the good and the happiness of the human family”.
Above all, we need to consistently remember the temptations of Jesus and have the commitment to shun power, privileges, possessions, and positions. We have to be living witnesses in these critical times and show the country that we are truly disciples of Jesus.
Is Hindu majoritarianism a danger for the Church in India?
‘Majoritarianism’ anywhere is not good for the healthy growth of society- particularly in democracies. Majority communities must necessarily be sensitive to the rights of the minorities. However in India it is not about the ‘Hindu’ majority but of a small group under the banner of the ‘Sangh Parivar’ who is a danger to the whole country and not just to the Christians.
What do you think that India’s constitution that allows for a constitutional nationalism would address the polarization?
The Constitution is very clear: we are a sovereign, secular, socialist democratic republic. Changing any of these essential elements is a non-negotiable. Whilst a debate is always welcome-what constitutes the soul and character of our nation, should never be tampered with.
Why did you become a priest?
That is a long story: to cut it short – it was a CALL – and I said “YES” to it – and I have not regretted that decision for a single moment, ever since. I believe I am called to serve Jesus through his people. I try my best to do so: willingly and joyfully!