NEW DELHI – I think I met my first Catholic Religious human rights activist sometime in 1976 in the rural areas of the “steel belt” that runs through what was then undivided Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Jharkhand where all the big steel plants, coal mines, and the steel trade is located.
Those were turbulent times. Indira Gandhi had declared a state of national Emergency [1975-77] almost suspended the Constitution, got the Supreme Court to rule that that there could be no cause for habeas corpus and that normal human rights as we understand them, the right to life and liberty and the rule of law, would not be available to the common man. Indira Gandhi was a Prime Minister fighting to save her regime after the Allahabad High Court overturned her election to the Lok Sabha. But it was her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, aided and abetted by a coterie of self-serving senior officers and a gang of Youth Congress leaders, who had emerged as the real, albeit extra-constitutional, centre of authority. I was in the central Indian badlands researching the major technology step by Indira Gandhi after the later “implosion” of a successful nuclear bomb. This was the SITE, or Satellite Instructional Television Experiment, which brought TV to remote villages with promises of new agro techniques and doles given by the government.
It was in this context that I saw young scholastics moving around with the workers, expressing solidarity, extending moral support. I am not sure if they were Jesuits or Divine Word missionaries, possibly both. But I was happy to see they were involved in the struggles of the common man, at the grassroots, far away from the publicity and the glare of the media which now sometimes motivated some human rights activists.
I regret to say that barring rare exceptions through the decades and the last half of the 20th Century, and some personal experience in the new decade involving Kandhamal and Orissa, I have not seen the Church in a leadership role as a human rights defender, or motivator.
The few times the Church has been active has been when its own vested interests were involved. Cardinals and bishops, quite correctly, exhorted the parishioners to take to the streets, albeit in peaceful processions, to challenge the government of the State of Kerala which sought to control the managements of private colleges, many of which were owned by the Church, or when it meddled in text books.
Back in 1998, 4th December to be precise, the Church called for a nation wide closure of its schools and mass rallies protesting the sudden violence unleashed on the community by elements of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and others closely allied with the Bharatiya Janata party which was then ruling in New Delhi and several other states.
And last year (2010), the Religious for Justice, the Conference of Religious and individual activists, especially lawyers, from men and women Congregations, took up the imitative to see that justice was done to the victims of Kandhamal because the Fast Track Courts were letting off one murderer after another. The initiative will hopefully bring the Supreme Court to bring its weight to bear on the situation so that the miscarriage of justice is brought to a speedy end, and justice is done.
Arguably, if the entire Church had backed the Dalit Christian demand – and they could have taken lessons in agitation advocacy from the Gurjars, the Sikhs and others who bring Union and state governments to their knees within a few days of jamming rail and road traffic on major routes – the issue would have possibly been long resolved. It remains a controversial argument within Church circles and the poor Dalits continue to agitate at Jantar Mantar on Parliament Street four times a year when Parliament meets for its sessions. The efforts by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the National Council of Churches in India to feed Christian MPs at official dinners during the sessions, as a short cut in advocacy — had borne no fruit, as the MPs too keep a low profile on the Dalit rights issue. Anyway, the major Church support for the Dalit Christian issue is not more than ten years old.
In the same light, the Church support for the cause of the domestic workers, most of them Catholic girls from Ranchi, Chhatisgarh and Orissa tribal areas employed in homes in metropolitan areas of Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, can be traced to their religious affinity, rather that their ethnic origins. The Church is not very visible in the agitations of tribals against monopolists and foreign interests denuding forests in Orissa, or stealing the mines in the tribal lands in other states.
No wonder that the Church was invisible when the Sikhs were being burnt alive in Delhi and other cities, when Kashmir Hindus were pushed out of the valley by a combination of Islamic fundaments elements and the political strategy of the governor of that time, or when the Muslims were brutalised repeatedly from Nellie, Meerut, Moradabad all the way to Gujarat 2002. A few convents may have opened their doors to refugees and victims, but the Church metaphorically kept its doors closed, its conscience shut.
The argument that this will be political activity and will bring the Church or the Christian community in direct conflict with the government and the law and order machinery has to be debated, and the Church fears have to be confronted and defeated.
As a practicing Catholic, I do not want the Church to suffer the consequences of some foolhardy action, or some thoughtless agitation.
I certainly do not want to see bishops or priests in jail even though it is my dream that Cardinals lead some pro-people movement against corruption, for food, for a living wage, and above all, for human dignity. What a grand sight that would be!
* John Dayal describes himself as a “human rights activist” who is “fighting for the rights of Muslim, Christian and Dalit minorities” in India and is associated with numerous Human rights groups.