By Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
On Sunday March 23,1980, in powerful homily Archbishop Oscar Romero made a passionate plea for disarmament and peace.
He minced no words as he castigated the government and the military of his country, “I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
He was assassinated the very next day!
Just about a year ago, on October 14 2018, Pope Francis at the canonization ceremony of Archbishop Oscar Romero lauded Romero for leaving “the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to live his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters”. He went on to add, “Let us ask for the grace always to leave things behind for love of the Lord: to leave behind wealth, the yearning for status and power, structures that are no longer adequate for proclaiming the Gospel, those weights that slow down our mission, the strings that tie us to the world”.
The situation in India today, on all fronts, would be much worse than that of El Salvador during the time of Romero.
For almost six weeks now, Kashmir after the unconstitutional abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A is on a complete lockdown. Kashmiris are denied are basic rights and freedoms. The new ‘Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – UAPA 2019 (Amendment Act)’ clearly infringes on the fundamental rights of citizens. Harassment, intimidation and threats to human rights defenders, media personnel, intellectuals and other activists, who have the courage to take a stand for truth and justice, continue with frightening regularity. Freedom of speech and expression, the right to dissent is almost a thing of the past in an extremely autocratic atmosphere.
The ignominy heaped on women and children of our country continues unabated! Millions of our children are still deprived of their childhood! From farmers to sewage workers; from those who receive unjust wages to the unemployed – the vicious circle of poverty and injustice is hardly addressed! In fact, there is apparently a concerted effort to keep millions of people in a dehumanized condition.
The country has never been so corrupt. Law makers are bought to cross from one party to another –we have seen this happen in Karnataka, Goa and Sikkim. The CBI and the Enforcement Directorate will not investigate into corrupt acts and major scams like the Rafael deal, those who have made windfall profits from demonetization and those who toe the line of the current ruling dispensation.
The Judiciary which is meant to be totally independent, impartial, objective and just, is hardly doing itself proud! The National Register of Citizens (NRC) has excluded 19 lakhs people from Assam.
Constitutional bodies which are meant to be totally impartial and objective are made impotent; by the way they conduct themselves, they send a strong message to the country: that they have become ‘caged parrots’- which they are just tools of a vindictive Government!
The economy is in shambles. It has never been so bad in the country. The poor have become poorer; recession is at an all-time high
Minorities are on the backfoot as never before! Lynchings continue as the ‘new normal’. Nothing seems to happen to the criminals responsible for the lynchings since they belong to the Hindutva brigade; Tabrez Ansari was lynched in Jharkhand by a mob on June 17 and he died a few days later.
On September 10 the Jharkhand police dropped murder charges on all the eleven accused of killing him citing the ‘autopsy report’ which says that Ansari died of a ‘cardiac arrest’.
Fortunately most thinking citizens do not believe or accept this absolutely ridiculous conclusion! Several citizens and the faculty and the students of the prestigious IIM- Bangalore have written to the Prime Minister demanding a fresh probe into his murder!
Muslims, Christians and other minorities continue to be at the receiving end of hate and violence. Every effort is being made to ensure majoritarianism and ultimately to impose the ‘hindutva’ agenda on the nation. So, the Prime Minister speaks about family planning, bringing in a national anti-conversion law, makes Parliament to abolish the ‘triple talaq’, and wants to curb foreign funds to certain NGOs. The building of the ‘Ram Temple’ has new impetus! There is growing talk of a ‘Uniform Civil Code’.
On September 16, the Government announced a tightening of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) norms: henceforward, each functionary and member of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) seeking registration under FCRA will have to file an affidavit declaring that “the individual has not been involved in any act of religious conversion or prosecuted for communal disharmony”.
A most ridiculous condition but patently against the minorities! All the utterances and actions are part of a well- calculated strategy! In India today, there are thousands who are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs. The Himachal Pradesh Government recently passed an ‘anti-conversion’ law; if the grapevine is to be believed, the Central Government will also do so soon!
Christians in India, seem to have become the target in of late: a Madras High Court judge who in a highly erroneous judgement spews venom on the Christians. Earlier, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Gopal Shetty from Mumbai declared that Christians are ‘angrez’ (British) and did not contribute to the Indian freedom struggle (apart from not getting his facts right, he conveniently forgot that the greatest supporter of the British colonial rule was the RSS).
In Dhanbad Dt, the vice-principal and a nurse of a Jesuit run-school are arrested on the false charge of sexually abusing a girl child. Earlier in June 2018, another Jesuit, in Jharkhand, was falsely implicated in a gang-rape case and was jailed for life He is still languishing in a cell as his appeal against conviction is pending in the state court.
There have been other cases in Jharkhand too: in July 2018 a sister of the Missionaries of Charity was arrested and jailed on charges of child trafficking; the courts have repeatedly denied her bail, compelling her to languish behind bars.
In the first week of September a Catholic Priest and a catechist were arrested and jailed from Godda district, following allegations that they violated the state’s anti-conversion law and for allegedly having grabbed the land which belongs to an Adivasi!
On September 3, some 500 people, raided the Jesuit St John Berchmans Inter-college campus in Sahibganj armed with wooden sticks, iron rods, pipes, knives, pistols, bricks and stones- assaulted the hostel students and vandalised the property.
In Tamil Nadu, a procession of Christians on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady in Velankanni was brutally attacked. In Gujarat, police have been visiting some of the Catholic Churches demanding to inspect Church records.
In other parts of the country, there is a systematic attempt to create fear and panic among the Christians – through threats and intimidation and even in the disruption of religious services.
The recent happenings against the Christians and other vulnerable communities are not mere aberrations or one-off incidents by “passing mobs”. They are systematic and calculated attempts by the Hindutva forces in connivance with the ruling regime, to denigrate the Christians and other minorities and to put them on the backfoot; these forces, who are against a secular, pluralistic India and the values enshrined in the Constitutions, unleash on the country their insidious agenda, towards the establishment of a Hindu nation- State.
Significantly, on 12 September a report submitted by a UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance linked the BJP with incidents of violence against members of Dalit, Muslim, tribal and Christian communities.
The report prepared by Tendayi Achiume, an independent human rights expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in response to a 2017 UN General Assembly resolution that asked a special rapporteur to profile countries on counts of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
Among other details Achiume says that “the victory of the “Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has been linked to incidents of violence against members of Dalit, Muslim, tribal and Christian communities”. The report has documented the “use of inflammatory remarks by BJP leaders against minority groups” and the “rise of vigilantism targeting Muslims, Christians and Dalits”.
Given, what is happening in the country today there seems to a pathetic lack of response from the Christian community in general and from Church leadership in particular. There has been no outrage from the community to what is happening in Kashmir or Assam; no protests when freedom of speech and expression is being throttled or when human rights defenders are being harassed and even killed.
There are no statements of concern on the plight of the poor and marginalised, on the grim realities which millions of our country men and women (farmers, casual laborers) face today. Corruption has been mainstreamed, the economy in a terrible mess, millions have their jobs overnight and much more – but sadly most Christians just don’t seem to be bothered!
An analysis of this lack of response could throw up several reasons, among them: ignorance of the issues, fear, being ensconced in one’s comfort zone, not courageous enough to take a stand.
For Church leadership, there are also those voices which say “let’s soft-pedal things’’ “let’s not aggravate matters”; “diplomacy might be more effective” etc. The plain truth behind all this, for those in leadership – when one confronts a fascist Government like we have in India – then one may stand to lose one’s privileges and possessions , our institutions and the power that accompany them( many conveniently forget what Jesus told Satan during the temptation in the desert).
Christians in India, however, like ostriches, can no longer bury their heads in sand. They must wake up to the grim reality now! They need to become visible and vocal! The Church in India is called and must demonstrate the courage to exercise her prophetic ministry in order to preserve the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution!
We cannot do it alone! We need to align ourselves with all women and men of goodwill. Whilst we must take a stand when our own are affected, we also need to transcend the narrow confines of my own religion – of any kind of sectarianism. Jesus showed it in very concrete ways- he always took a stand for truth and justice! The suffering people of India are certainly looking to us to be true witnesses, committed disciples of the one we profess to be our Way, Truth, Light and Life! We should shun our hypocritical attitudes, our double-talk and our vested interests- and ensure that we play our prophetic role in the country today!
In ‘Evangelii Gaudium’, Pope Francis does not mince words about the prophetic role we need to play today, “Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle which others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.” (# 218)
In his Apostolic letter ‘Witnesses of Joy’ (2014) Pope Francis reminds us “I am counting on you “to wake up the world”, since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy. As I told the Superiors General: “Radical evangelical living is not only for religious: it is demanded of everyone. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way”. This is the priority that is needed right now: “to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth…a religious must never abandon prophecy”
When his dear friend Jesuit Fr. Rutilo Grande was killed by the regime of El Salvador on March 12, 1977, Romero said whilst presiding at the funeral mass, “The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice as a politician or a subversive element when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of the common good.”
He also said openly and emphatically, “Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me. If they killed Rutilio for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”.
Christians, Wake Up NOW! Tomorrow will be too late! We are called to play a prophetic role in India today! We need to become Romeros for our country!
(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: email@example.com )