Face to Face with Father Cedric Prakash SJ
Category : FACE TO FACE:
Author : Aura Staff
We are living as the German poet Bertolt Brecht said in the times of Nazism “in dark times.” The situation has never been as bad as this in India. Fascism seems to have come to stay. We have reached abysmal depths on every parameter: be it social, economic and political.

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

1. You are a religious leader and a social activist and have been working in this space for a very long time. How did you get involved in this kind of human rights work?

A tough question to answer indeed! But I guess that my social activism began when as a youth, I was deeply involved with a national student movement, the ‘All India Catholic University Federation’ (AICUF). (Significantly, the AICUF will complete one hundred years of its existence in 2024!)

It was in the early nineteen seventies! [email protected] was also in her youth! The nation at that time (and a sizable section of the world too) was caught in the web of dilemmas: the pressures of modernism and at the same time, the grim realities which plagued millions of our country men and women, who were very poor but still looked to a bright future.

As youth, we were mentored by great people (our seniors); there were many of them, absolutely brilliant and committed (I just want to name one of them: that is Fr Stan Swamy – who died whilst still in police custody on 5 July 2021). We read, studied, went through social analysis programmes and worked among the poor and marginalised. All this groomed me and several of my companions towards a long-lasting commitment to read and respond to the signs of the times.

In July 1974, I joined the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in Gujarat. That was the beginning of my religious life. I was exposed in several different but meaningful ways to the grim realities which was the lot (and continues to be so) of large sections of our people: the Adivasis, the Dalits, the OBCs, the

minorities, women and children. I have lived and worked in the remote Adivasi areas of Bhiloda (in North Gujarat) and Umarpada (in South Gujarat) also in the slums of Ahmedabad.

There have been several painful happenings these past years: I have been an eye- witness to many of them and also responded both as an individual and as part of collaborative initiatives. These include: the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi in October- November 1984; the attack on the Christians in the Dangs in December 1990; the many communal riots in Gujarat and particularly the Gujarat Carnage of 2002. In each of these, there was the work of immediate relief and rehabilitation but also the long-term struggle for truth and justice for the victim – survivors

As a priest and religious, I am clear of the teaching of Jesus Christ “whatever you do to the least of my sisters and brothers you did to me.” There is also The Catholic Social Teaching (particularly now of Pope Francis) and that of my own Jesuit order that mandates me to take a visible and vocal stand for human rights, justice and peace.

It is a long answer – but necessary to understand why it is absolutely essential, in fact a non- negotiable, that as a Catholic priest and religious I must be involved in social activism!

2. What is your understanding of the current political climate and situation in India – and what kind of role do religious leaders, organisations and movements have to play in this?

We are living as the German poet Bertolt Brecht said in the times of Nazism “in dark times.” The situation has never been as bad as this in India. Fascism seems to have come to stay. We have reached abysmal depths on every parameter: be it social, economic and political.

Recently the Global Human Index put India at a pathetic low rank of 132 out of 191 countries evaluated. This is a sheer disgrace! There are several other global indices today which put India at rock bottom. The Government of India seems to be totally unconcerned about all these.

The poor in India become poorer every day. The Adivasis are robbed of their jal, jungle and zameen. The Dalits and OBCs and other subaltern groups are still denied the dignity, equality and justice which are legitimately theirs. The minorities (specially the Muslims and Christians) are targeted with hate speech and by a regime which systematically denigrates and demonizes them with their divisive and violent agenda. How else can one explain the virulent and vicious attacks on the minorities through issues like beef-eating, the hijab controversy and the so- called ‘love jihad’. We saw how they abrogated the Constitutional provisions of Article 370 and 35A where Kashmir is concerned.

Why do a slew blatantly unconstitutional laws like the anti – conversion laws take centre-stage in a nation which professes the freedom to preach, practice and propagate one’s religion as a fundamental right? They have not been able to prove one instance of ‘forced conversion’! The Government has pushed through legislation and policies which are against the democratic ethos of the country. We all know what happened with the anti-farmer laws; the farmers are naturally still sceptical that these laws may be re-introduced by the back door. The four labour codes go against the rights of the workers and favour the big corporates. The pitiable conditions of the migrant workers came to the fore when the lockdown was announced in March 2020. The fishermen of Kerala are fighting against Adani because he will soon destroy their livelihood.

India has been placed last in the recent Global Environmental index; the regime has catered to the whims and fancies of those who want to profiteer by destroying the environment: the auctioning of the coal blocks, the destruction of the Aarey forest in Bombay, the introduction of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project despite opposition. The ecological destruction of the Aravalli and the Western Ghats is there for all to see. They have not even spared rivers be it the Ganges or the Sabarmati.

Freedom of Speech and Expression is in the doldrums. Those who take a stand: write and speak against the Government are hauled up, false cases are foisted on them, they are attacked and even killed as in the case of Gauri Lankesh. Most of the media (both print and electronic) are Godi-fied. It is not surprising that India ranked 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2022.

Then we have the issue of the human rights defenders (HRDs) and many others who have taken a visible and vocal stand on critical issues be it the Citizens Amendment Act or for the rights of the excluded and the exploited. The Human Rights Defenders in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case are still languishing in jail. The list is endless of such people, such as RB Sreekumar, Sanjiv Bhatt, Umar Khalid to name a few.

The new National Education Policy (NEP) has been pushed through without the necessary deliberations and debate in parliament. This policy is clearly anti-poor and anti-minority and caters only to a small section of the rich and the elite to the disadvantage of the vast majority of the population.

Corruption is mainstreamed. Crony capitalism is rampant. The BJP reaped a mind-boggling amount to its coffers through demonetization and the electoral bonds. Elections everywhere today for the ruling regime is about the money, muscle, media and machines – which they manipulate so easily.

The list is endless which needs to be addressed.
I do believe that religious leaders, organisations and movements have a role to play in this grim reality which the nation faces today.

The response should always begin with prayer – in total trust in God, Our loving and merciful Father who will accompany us and hear our prayers. He has never let his people down despite the suffering one has to go through.

God however, expects us to do our bit: to read, study, understand and respond to the signs of the times. We all called to be visible and vocal to have the prophetic courage to stand up for truth and justice. We need to do this in collaboration with all women and men of goodwill! Across the religious, caste and class divide!

We need to eschew every form of violence. No religion worth its name preaches hate, violence, the killing of others or the desecration of any religious place. There will be provocations from the other side, but religious leaders must ensure that whatever happens, one should respond to hate with love, to violence with non-violence and to divisiveness with unity. It is important that we respect the religious beliefs of others and work for an India where truth, justice, liberty, equality and fraternity triumph, keeping in mind our secular, pluralistic and democratic framework.

3. The recent remission of the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case has sent shockwaves. As someone who has long lived in Gujarat, looking back at the pogrom two decades later, what do you think is the message behind such actions?

The recent remission of the life sentence to the murderers and rapists of the Bilkis Bano case is very wrong; it goes against the norms of civil society and it provides a legitimacy to the heinous crime by the perpetrators.

Civil society all over the world has been shocked with this remission; besides the group that engineered it were completely partial. Those of us who have worked with the victim survivors of the Gujarat Carnage know the negative impact it will have on those who have already suffered so much. There are news reports of how fear has gripped the village where they live. Some concerned citizens have sought legal interventions so that the remission is cancelled. Let’s see what happens. Several intellectuals and legal luminaries have condemned this remission and demanded that the perpetrators be sent back to prison.

4. A lot of young Indians do wish to get involved in human rights work and civil liberties activism, become lawyers or work in NGOs or even hit the streets. But the intense repression, crackdowns, death and surveillance are a matter of concern. What advice do you have for them?

My advice to them is FEAR NO ONE! We lose half the battle when we give in to fears! Come out into the streets take a stand for truth and justice, for democracy and for Constitutionality!

Yes, it is not easy standing up to a fascist state – and those who blackmail and threaten, harass and intimidate, who foist false charges, who wrongly use the State apparatus – be it the ED or CBI, the NIA, the income tax and even the Election Commission in a most unconstitutional and illegal manner. Those who stick their necks out today – will have to pay a price. We need to think about securing the future of India!

We can see this happening all the time. Duly elected persons from other parties overnight cross the floor (as we have seen in Maharashtra and Goa recently) to the BJP because they are heavily bribed or because they are about to face corruption charges. All corruption charges as we have seen in the case of Shinde and Digambar Kamat are automatically dropped when they join the BJP. This will continue to happen.

But it is urgent and necessary that young people and all those who are concerned about the future of India come out NOW.

5. What ahead, for you, in terms of the work to be done? What is your hope for the future of India and its societal fabric?

There is plenty to be done and we must do it now. We must do it together; collaborating. We owe it to our future generations. We must protect the tremendous wealth of our country.

All of us are called to pray, internalize and actualise the words of our Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

Yes, May all those who read this AWAKE and NOW!

Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
21 September 2022

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