NEW DELHI, (Dr John Dayal) — Baby Jesus and his mother are, of course, at the centre of the Christians story of the World’s redemption. But to me, it is the Shepherds of Bethlehem who are major characters of the celestial drama. After Mary, they are the ones to see heavenly Hosts, angels if you wish, come to them bathed in heavenly light. Thirty two or so years later, Jesus would say “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven’. You cannot get poorer than a shepherd. And you cannot live s life harder than the life of the man who guards sheep and goats. Specially in the olden days in what are now Israel and Palestine. Most shepherds down really own the sheep they guard. A group of shepherds may be watching over the animals, which are actually owned by many much better off people of the village or the town. It is their job to tend to the animals till their wool has been shorn by the owners, or they are sold off. And they guard them with their life, even when the temperatures dip to near freezing point, and the cold winds pierce through their coarse woolen cloaks.
People in the tribal areas and in India’s 6 lakhs villages would easily identify with these Shepherds of the Bible. They too have nothing really to call their own, apart from the clothes on their back. Many still have no roof over their heads, and do not know where the next meal is coming from. In his time when leaders make promises, which they do not intend to keep, and some they cannot fulfill even if they tried, there is still no one to listen to the cries of the Dalits, the tribals, the fishermen and the landless peasants who are forced to work as cheap labour, working at back-breaking jobs for a pittance.
India’s development story has left these people far behind. Across the country, in every state, the people on the margins face a life that is far from the rosy picture that television and newspapers paint and which governments, legislators and the rich and middle class people of big cities like to believe so their conscience is not burdened.
It may have sent a satellite to the planet Mars and it may dream to put a person on the moon in the future, but India ranks India ranks among the last in international lists of human happiness, dignity and health. The country is almost near the bottom in infant mortality, in the death of young mothers, in malnourishment of both children and adults. A state such as Gujarat, which claims huge strides in development and industrial growth, has a terrible record in these human indices.
The Dalits and Tribals have seen their land, their forest and their water stolen by the government to enrich big industry and businessmen. Their holy hills have been leveled to the ground in search of minerals and fuel. Rivers have been dammed, leaving upstream areas flooded or covered with water. The villagers never get to use the electricity generated in such hydroelectric projects. There are few jobs, and all too many people are either underemployed or working as bonded labour. Their women are sexually exploited; their children go without education.
And yet these people dream. They dream of a life without poverty and sickness, where there is ample food and water for all, and where everyone can sleep under a roof. Above all, they dream of human dignity, and happiness.
Governments cannot fulfill these dreams and hopes.
It is in this environment of hopelessness and defeat that the people on the margins look for hope in Jesus Christ, and his promise of salvation.
The Christmas vision and promise to the shepherds so long ago is also a promise to them, and to us.
Wishing you all joy and happiness, and Merry Christmas. And a blessed New Year.