Seventy-three years after India was freed from British rule, our country finds itself enmeshed in a web of communalism and anti-people policies, with institutions of governance that safeguard democracy severely undermined.

For the first 25 years, people were complacent with the Indian National Congress (INC), till the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1974-77, and the suppression of dissent. But, democratic institutions like the judiciary still functioned independent of the Executive and Indira was tried and imprisoned for excesses during the Emergency. An alternate party hastily put together, ruled for a brief 3 years. However, over time, greed for wealth and power became a dominant pursuit.

The alternative to the INC slowly evolved into a right-wing Hindu Nationalist party called the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)[1]. Over successive years the country veered between the two parties and Indian democracy was hailed as one that is alive and mature.

The BJP aligned itself with the Hindu fundamentalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)[2] that actively works at the grassroots with missionary zeal. Hindu nationalism began to establish itself drawing more and more people into its fold. More adherents were claimed to Hinduism than is historically true. They are skilled in spinning new narratives to suit their view of modern India. Narratives were created to show Muslims and Christians as potential threats to the Hindu majority. Several incidents of violence targeted the minority communities.

The 2014 general election swept BJP to power winning 282/545 seats. In 2019they returned with a thumping majority, winning 303/543 seats in parliament, backed by a skilled technological team managing their propaganda machine. They claimed they would restore India to its former Hindu glory. Revival of Hindu rituals, festivals and religious sentiments was used to construct a Hindu nationalist base for the BJP. Politics based on religious nationalism divided the country heralding the death of secularism. Reinforced by hate narratives about minority communities, violence erupted in neighbourhoods that had earlier lived together in harmony and peace.

In the economic sphere, India moved from a mixed economy to a capitalist and global market economy where labour rights were watered down. Private investment was encouraged for creation and accumulation of wealth by a few to the impoverishment of large numbers of citizens in the labour force. Capitalists from different parts of the world found it profitable to invest in India. In turn, many Indian capitalists (resident and non-resident) patronized political parties.

In a shocking move emboldened by its second consecutive win, the government unilaterally revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which guaranteed special autonomy to Muslim dominated Jammu & Kashmir and bifurcated the state into two separate union territories, bringing the region under the direct control of the central government in August 2019. A complete communication clampdown, restrictions on movement and mass detentions in the region enabled the change. In violation of India’s international obligations, the entire population of Kashmir was deprived of their right to freedom of expression, media censorship, detention of political leaders, with little to no redressal. The lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic has further marginalised the people of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and severely affected their access to justice.

The growing opposition to changes in the citizenship laws saw the government using a variety of restrictive laws, including national security and counterterrorism legislation, to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics. Many arrests were made on fabricated charges. The global civil society alliance CIVICUS[3] states in a report of Sept. 22, 2020 that a year into the second term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is an increasingly repressive environment for freedom of expression, association and assembly. Unbridled power vested in the police is used against ordinary citizens, to silence dissenters; Adivasis and forest dwellers for land grab; or stage “police encounters” that target minority groups.

On the 70th anniversary of the birth of the constitution, India was ranked 10 places lower in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s world democracy index.

Since 2014 the NDA government has been rolling back the rights of citizens through cleverly crafted “amendments” to existing Laws to curb any perceived threat to the government, or to pave the way for corporations to flourish. Taking advantage of their majority in parliament the government has been passing bills in parliament with hardly any debate. By increasing the use of ordinances to pass laws, the government flouts democratic norms and undermines the spirit of parliamentary democracy.

The Covid 19 pandemic has provided a good excuse to curtail parliamentary rules so as to limit the intervention of the Opposition for passing of legislations. Several controversial Bills are being passed during the current session of parliament.

Distractions like arrest and questioning of film stars by politicising a star’s suicide probe, helps divert attention from the real problems of the economy already in a downward spiral before the pandemic. The total mismanagement of the lockdown caused untold hardship and death to numerous poor migrant workers.

While India has a vibrant group of activists both men and women, they are a minority. The large educated majority are unconcerned. They do not even go out to vote. Our voting average remains between 50 – 60% at best.

Why did this happen?

  • Complacency of the middle class

Catholics are taught to follow rules and regulations but not to live their faith in the world. Politics is considered “dirty” so they do not engage with it. While we are great at charity, political action is beyond our consciousness. Complacency applies to the whole Indian middle class. There is a severe lack of a mass-based people’s movement.

  • Patriarchy

Patriarchy and democracy are not compatible while feminism and democracy go together. Democracy is built on a human rights framework. “Feminism has fought no wars, killed no opponents, set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety in the streets, for child care, for social welfare, for rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, reforms in the law.”[4]. While every woman is not a feminist, there are several men who are professed feminists. One has to cultivate feminist perspectives and qualities. Jesus was the first feminist. He stood against the oppressive patriarchal norms and traditions of his time. We need to cultivate the feminist values he taught like love, justice, servant-leadership and self-sacrifice.

Democracy is government working for people. It promotes equality, respects all irrespective of financial or social status. Democracy is built on the idea that leaders are elected to serve the people, akin to the servant leadership taught by Jesus with focus on the poor and the weakest sections of people.

Patriarchy privileges the man and establishes hierarchical structures where the upper caste wealthy man is at the top. Male perspectives hold sway and dominate all decision making. It condones exploitation of the poor, the vulnerable, the weak including women for political and economic gain. Patriarchy promotes unsustainable and exploitative capitalism, glorifies and even endorses violence. Both women and men are part of the promotion and maintenance of patriarchy. The culture and tradition that developed within this system puts power in the hands of the wealthy and shrewd to the impoverishment of the poor and marginalized.

Stereotyping has created moulds for people of the different castes/religions/genders. Gender minorities are seen as human aberrations and often persecuted. Minority religions are viewed with suspicion and judged on superficial manifestations which are generalised. Stereotyping breeds elitism, casteism, homophobia, othering of people and constructs social hierarchies contrary to the values of democracy. Often violence is used to keep women, gender minorities and subaltern groups in their social place. The poor woman and girl child are at the very bottom of the patriarchal pyramid and the most oppressed. They are trafficked, exploited as cheap labour and sexually abused as well.

Economic systems are built on patriarchal values and models, so the Gross Domestic Product measures the economic progress of a country, leaving out the unpaid labour of women done in caring and nurturing work in homes, agriculture and the vast array of volunteer work. Very little value is given to farmers who produce our food, which is the basic necessity for life. White-collar workers, and information technology professionals are paid inordinately higher wages, as that sector has high demand and draws in the most money. While India boasts of creating some of the wealthiest men in the world, it has the distinction of having the largest percentage of its population living below the poverty line.

The Way forward

We need to broaden and strengthen the present women’s movement that is very alert and active in India, to form a broad-base people’s movement. Network with them. Having worked for the Commissions for Women at the diocesan, national and Asian level, I feel that the empowerment of women is not a priority in the Church. Not just women but even men have to be empowered with a feminist or rights-based perspective.

Following elections, we should be pursuing political parties ensuring that they keep their election promises like providing good education, universal healthcare and affordable housing to every citizen. We need to organize people to visit their offices, write letters and call them up to show we are alert and watching their performance. Organize meetings with the elected leaders before and after parliamentary sessions.

The globalization of economies aimed at wealth creation has caused extensive environmental degradation. A lot of awareness is needed to make people aware of their own consumption patterns and lifestyles to save the environment. Market values breed a “civilisation of greed”, whereas an infusion of Gospel values through lived example will create a “civilisation of Love”.

To ensure social justice and protection of the environment, dismantle patriarchy. Human rights and human values need to be mainstreamed through all stages of education. All text books should reflect these values. Critical thinking has to be inculcated in education. Farming, nurturing and care work need to be given high value. Discourage machoism and promote feminism. Encourage all to develop their talents and gifts so that they can grow to their full potential as God created them to be. Rules and regulations should reflect equality and social justice.

Using the human rights framework, we need to critique cultures of exclusion. Teach that the personal is political. The way we use our status of class, caste and gender, in relation to others impacts society. The low castes have to change their mindset of begging for their rights, the higher class/castes have to understand that they no longer are the patrons of the poor. In a democracy doing justice is a responsibility and duty. Teach care work to men, make them gentle, caring and loving so that men become partners with women in the home and carry these values to their work spheres as well. Replace organizational hierarchies with circular leadership.

“If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account, it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost”[5], said Dr. BR Ambedkar.

Ambedkar viewed a religion by the way it was practiced in his times and how it affected society as a whole. He strongly disagreed with some practices of Hinduism especially the caste system. He was critical of Islam for the social evils prevalent amongst Muslims. His words and writings have advocated the creation of a modern India where religion is like a guiding light and not a set of rules people need to adhere to at all costs.[6] He critiqued Christianity because of the attitudes of India’s colonial Christian masters towards people of other faiths but admired the teachings of Jesus.

Therefore, we need to highlight and promote the positive values in beliefs and cultures of all faiths. Critique the misuse of religion for political gain. Stress human values and make human rights sacred.

Christians have the blueprint of mission handed to us by Jesus in Luke 4:15-19 and the Gospels. Sadly, the Church leadership has not fully lived up to this mission. It focuses on its institutions, its power and sway in the world. It silences its critics, covers up its wrong doing and is accountable to no one. We first have to set our own house in order before we can point a finger to any corrupt government.

The Church leadership should change itself and its systems radically to become leaven in Indian society. Christian activists find more fulfilling engagement with secular activists who believe in basic human values, than with the Church. In Christian Europe while Churches are empty, the streets are full of protestors against environmental degradation, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, migrants and refugees. They believe in Jesus as they know him in the Gospels, not in the Jesus taught by the clerics.

On the global level we need to lobby the UN to widen its engagement with civil society. A channel has to be created through which people of a country can appeal to the UN to intervene when governments indulge in large scale human rights violations. On the 75th anniversary of its birth a discussion was held on strengthening the voices and participation of civil society, the private sector, academia and other non-state actors in the work of the United Nations. People working at the grassroots level have to be given more leverage in the UN Economic & Social Council. The Catholic Church should ensure its representative in this body as well as in the Committee for the Status of Women is a feminist woman.

Pope Francis’ prophetic voice has a significant impact on the world, but sadly has outdated views on women. Jesuits run large influential educational institutions, which can be seedbeds of change. While engaging the current generation to raise their voice against the unethical and undemocratic moves of governments, education for change is basic for the dawn of a new world of equality, justice and peace. Partnering with women and men with feminist perspectives is an imperative.

Jesuits should engage more in pastoral work! Help and encourage people to change their practises of faith by emphasising a spirituality geared towards a sustainable wholistic lifestyle. Arundhati Roy said, “Another world is not only possible – she is on her way.” Draw in people with a feminist life giving perspective to make a “another world” possible. If Christian living moves from ritualism to a spirituality based on gospel values of caring, solidarity, promotion of justice and peace another world is possible.

***

[1] Bharathaya Janata Party – means Indian People’s Party. It is the Current ruling party in India. It had its roots in the Bharatya Jana Sangh – which is the political wing of the Hindu fundamentalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Jana Sangh joined with others to form the Janata Party in 1977 after the Emergency of Indira Gandhi in India.

[2] RSS – Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, literally translated means National Volunteer Organization was formed in September 1925 in response to oppression of Hindus by British rule In India; is an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, all-male, paramilitary volunteer organisation.

[3] CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. https://www.civicus.org/index.php/who-weare/about-civicus accessed 25.09.2020

[4] Spender, Dale. (December 1990). “Man Made Language”, Routledge & Kegan Paul Books.

[5] Ambedkar, BR. (scrolldroll.com) http://www.scrolldroll.com/b-r-ambedkar-quotes/accessed 09.09.2020.

[6] Vishnu NS in 35 BR Ambedkar Quotes on the Constitution, Hinduism, Islam and India, http://www.scrolldroll.com/b-r-ambedkar-quotes/accessed 09.09.2020.

[Article originally published in Promotio Iustitiae/Image from Jon HoeferPixabay]

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