India – right to food

Being prophetic in India today

Fr Cedric Prakash SJ, award-winning Director of Prashant, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace.

In the early hours of 16 November 2011, Sr Valsa John was brutally murdered in Pachuwara village in Jharkhand State. A member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, Sr Valsa had made Pachuwara her home since 1995. Her mission was to join the tribal people to protest against their displacement and exploitation by the powerful coal mafia. That Sr Valsa’s life was constantly under threat was beyond doubt. She repeatedly said so to her family and her close friends and filed a complaint with the local police – to no avail.

The reality in India

Today, millions of dalits, adivasis and other vulnerable communities are still subject to gross exploitation and alienation in India. Many do not have access to clean drinking water, quality healthcare, education, housing, and to two square meals a day.

Faulty and unjust land acquisition policies have allowed multi-nationals and other big corporations to systematically target the land of the poor, causing large-scale displacement. Marginalised minorities are at the receiving end particularly in Gujarat, Orissa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Right-wing fundamentalist forces have directly and indirectly curbed their freedoms and ensured they are treated as second-class citizens.

A new awakening

In response, India is finally seeing a wave of people’s organisations and protests. The Church in India is part of this, waking up from a deep slumber and moving beyond a charity-based approach. Church organisations and individual Christians are becoming more vocal and visible in India in a radical shift towards accompanying people in their quest for justice and peace.

JESA (Jesuits engaged in Social Action), for one, has been actively engaged in defending the rights of survivors of the massacres in Gujarat in 2002 – this at great risk, because everybody knows that those involved in the brutalisation, killing and displacement of thousands of Muslims, belong to the government headed by the current Chief Minister.

In January 2012, JESA (Gujarat) went through a significant exercise: each member attempted “to listen to the cry of my people…” for justice, liberty, equality; a cry for dignity, for genuine access to what is rightfully theirs, for meaningful accompaniment towards a more just and humane society. Challenged by these cries, JESA (Gujarat) members decided on a paradigm shift in their response and to get involved in the Right to Food Campaign. Today this campaign is spread across 900 villages and 50 urban slum settlements in Gujarat alone. What is heartening is that Jesuits in other parts of the country have also started to get involved.

The challenges ahead

The martyrdom of Sr Valsa is a challenge to the Church in India. The Church must accompany marginalised people in tangible ways in their struggle for a more just society. In doing so, the Church should demonstrate unflinching courage to take on powerful vested interests, even at the cost of certain privileges. In February 2012, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India issued a powerful statement at the close of a meeting in Bangalore: We sensed in our hearts our country’s yearning for a Better India… The Church… recommits herself to being a prophetic Church, taking a decisive stand in favour if the poor and marginalized.

Some efforts are being made…but the Church in India has to do much more to be truly prophetic.

To read the bishops’ statement in full, go to http://cbci.in/Statements.aspx