Human rights are cultural concepts, evolving continually in response to socio-cultural and political changes. Since 1948, when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), there have been further resolutions, declarations, covenants and laws. All these expressions of human rights have been advanced due to the continuous, collective struggles of marginalized people all over the world, who continue to experience human rights violations and abuses (including by police and governments), together with the support of social scientists and non-governmental organizations.
During the last half century in India, the country I will focus on here, innumerable people’s movements with a rights-based approach (RBA)—especially among minority groups, fishers and farmers—have emerged. They have been demanding their “right to have rights” and a rectification of the injustices done to them for centuries by the so-called elites and upper classes. Their demands are based on rights granted in the Indian constitution, and in national laws and international covenants. Some recent laws, including the Right to Information (RTI), the Right to Education (RTE), the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the Right to Food (RTF), were enacted mainly due to public pressure exerted by people’s movements all over India.
Jesuits since the establishment of the Society of Jesus have been committed to serving God, by serving people who are poor and excluded. In India, Jesuit social activists and lay colleagues have been active participants in the difficult struggle for the rights and living conditions of Dalits (former “Untouchables”) and tribals (indigenous peoples) particularly since the 1970s. In these four decades Jesuits have established, against great odds, more than 100 social centres among these vulnerable communities “to educate, agitate and organize,” as the famous Indian reformer Dr. Bhimrao “Babsaheb” Ambedkar once said.
Although each centre’s approach and level of participation in social movements may vary, all of them remain committed to empower, protect, promote and affirm the rights of Dalits, tribals and other suffering and marginalized communities. The aim has been to affirm inherent community rights, rather than individual’s rights, over the natural resources of jal, jungle and jameen (water, forest and land) and over their socio-cultural identity and dignity.
In 1989, the Jesuit Conference of South Asia (JCSA) chose defending the rights of “dalits, tribals, women, unorganized labour and illiterates” as a priority for work (Kathmandu statement). It was to permeate all ministries of the Society of Jesus. Reaffirming this commitment in 2000 with the publication of “Walking with the Poor,” JCSA specifically urged its social apostolates to go beyond charity and development “to promote structural changes for justice” through a rights-based approach.
Collective action by Jesuits in Social Action (JESA) came about particularly after the World Social Forum (WSF) meeting in Mumbai in 2004. WSF provided the impetus to JESA to establish a common platform, called South Asian Peace Initiatives (SAPI), with other like-minded organizations. This helped to foster confidence in one another and to move from isolated struggles to building alliances. People began to feel that “we are not alone.” The unity gave new hope and energy to carry on the struggle and to build a just and equitable society.
In the decade that followed, SAPI empowered its members through issue-based meetings, deliberations and joint preparation of peoples’ manifestos before national and state-level elections, as well as through rights-based training, campaigns, lobbying and publications. These efforts led to the formation of an advocacy platform called Lok Manch (People’s Forum) in 2016 on the issue of Right to Food, which touches the lives of millions of the most poverty-stricken people in India.
Studies have shown that more than 2.5 million people die of hunger in India every year, most of whom are women and children. In 2014 more than 100 people died of starvation in the tea gardens of Darjeeling alone. The Human Life Development and Research Centre (HLDRC), which is the Jesuit social centre in Darjeeling Jesuit Province, works among tea garden employees, to empower and equip them to claim their basic rights, including the right to food.
The struggle to affirm the rights of excluded peoples to food, shelter and due entitlements through organizations like Lok Manch and HLDRC is only a starting point for advocacy for Jesuits in South Asia, not an end!!
This article first appeared in the Spring & Summer 2018 issue of CJI’s Mission News. Xavier Jeyaraj is director of the Jesuit Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) in Rome and a member of the Jesuit Province of Calcutta in India.