India today is sitting on a tinderbox! One has just to cast a cursory glance around to realise the abysmal depths, which the country has plummeted to, during these last four years! On 22 May, 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 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 15 May, 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.
‘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% in India cornered 73% 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 dispensation, when they have to come out more aggressively in the implementation of their agenda. Fuel prices have increased to an all-time-high, with eleven hikes in as many days.
Suicides by farmers continue in alarming numbers all over the country. ‘Firstpost’(24 May 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 Rs 3 lakh, 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.
In a 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. A fly-over collapses in Varanasi and several are killed, but in no time, there is a complete ‘blackout’ of that fact! Human rights defenders, journalists who speak out, intellectuals and others who take a stand – are hounded, harassed and even killed. On 21 May, 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 minorities and other vulnerable, are on the receiving end of despotic rulers.
There is so much happening in the country all the time but tragically a good section of our paid and so-called mainstream media hardly highlight these grim realities. There is no one ranting and raving 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. Instead, what gets prime time news, with the some anchors frothing and fuming is an innocuous 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 8 May, 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”.
Analyzing Archbishop Anil’s letter one can objectively arrive at 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 write what is known as ‘Pastoral Letters’ before any major event which could affect their people and particularly just before any elections
· 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
So then, what is the hullabaloo about? Why is the BJP/RSS combine, with some of their media henchmen, on the ‘warpath’ with a letter, which is asking for prayers? Unless of course their response is an admission of guilt and fear that, they stand exposed!
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. Of course, some of the media fascists in our country would love to defocus from the current realities, which plague our country and provide undue attention to a letter like this. However, what takes the cake is that even some fence-sitter 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.
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 with 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).
Jesus’ life, message and mission are clear. He 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 world, 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 XXIII in his 1963 Encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ highlights four non-negotiables for Peace: Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty.
Over the years, the Church has taken visible and vocal stands against Communism. It is no state secret of the 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.
Archbishop Anil’s letter also shows 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 a 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 – that they are more interested in protecting their selfish and material interests rather than standing up for the person and message of Jesus which radiate Truth, Compassion, Justice, Equality and Liberty for all . The other Bishops would be sending out a powerful message both to the Catholics and the entire nation, to take a cue from the prophetic role of Archbishop Anil and make the letter their own, by circulating it 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; all of us need to learn from him. The Church in India desperately needs prophets today, endowed with the vision and mission of Jesus, who get out of their comfort zones and speak truth to power! Do we have the faith and courage to respond to that challenge?
(The writer is a human rights activist. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 04th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 22)