Signing off his article in ThePrint titled Marxist Jesuits are not for tribal welfare. India and Indian Catholics both must realise that, Jaithirth Rao writes thus: “I call for some serious introspection among my Indian Catholic friends. It is they who can best grapple with this thorny issue. Any non-Catholic speaking up will be accused of being non-secular and bigoted. Lay Catholics indulging in self-examination and confronting the imported Marxist rhetoric among their clergy are best placed to re-introduce spirituality and mutual accommodation into their faith and ensure that the forays into the political and materialistic spheres do not take a destructive turn.”
On browsing his profile, I found that Rao is a highly educated and accomplished professional. Though not as highly qualified as Rao, I too had the privilege of studying in the same “Jesuit college in south India” [Loyola College, Chennai] as he did. I also taught there for a year. Being an ‘Indian lay Catholic’, I took up his suggestion of “introspection” and “self-examination” seriously. This has led me to believe that Rao’s article has been written in a hurry, without proper study or understanding of the Catholic Church, Jesuits, Liberation Theology, tribals, Marxism and Fr Stan Swamy himself.
Let us deal with these one by one.
Catholicism and the sanctity of human life
First, the Catholic Church and its core values. Catholicism is the largest practicing religion (as part of Christianity) in the world and is founded on the belief in the sanctity of human life and the inherent dignity of humans. This, as one would see, is also the foundational principle of India’s Constitution, embedded in its Preamble. The Church proclaims that the person is not only sacred but also social. Organisation of our society — in economics and politics, in law and policy — directly effects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. Hence, the Church calls for social and community participation.
Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities — to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, Catholic tradition instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. Its belief is that the economy must serve people, not the other way around. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected — the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organise and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative. Catholics are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation.
Most of these values could be found in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Among all the theologies, dogmas and tenets that Catholicism is full of, to me, this passage from the Holy Bible forms the essence of Christ’s teachings. Describing the Last Judgement, Jesus tells his disciples:
“Then the king will say to those on his right hand, come, blessed of my Father, take possession of the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the World; for I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in naked and you covered me; sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me…!
Then the just will answer him saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee; or thirsty and gave thee drink; and when did we see thee a stranger and take thee in, or naked and cloth thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison and come to thee?
And answering, the king will say to them ‘Amen I say to you as long as you did it for one of these, the least of any brethren, you did it unto me’…” [Matthew 25:31-40]
Jesuits in service
Society of Jesus, commonly known as Jesuits, is a Roman Catholic order of priests and brothers founded half a millennium ago by Ignatius of Loyola for the “greater glory of God” and the good of all humanity. Jesuits seek to “find God in all things” and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ in letter and spirit. With 16,000-plus priests, brothers, scholastics and novices worldwide, they are the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church. They are pastors, teachers, and chaplains. They are also doctors, lawyers, and astronomers, among many other roles in Church and society. In their varied ministries, they care for the whole person: body, mind, and soul. As members of a religious order, Jesuits take three vows — of poverty, chastity and obedience.
For the Jesuits, serving the ‘least of our brethren’ is the true service for the “greater glory of God”. Here is where the ‘Liberation Theology’ comes in. It is a religious movement arising in late 20th-century Roman Catholicism and centred in Latin America. It seeks to apply religious faith by aiding the poor and oppressed through involvement in political and civic affairs. This is what Jesus Christ himself preached and what Jesuits, who are in the vanguard of Catholicism, are supposed to practice. According to Jesuit Fr Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, considered the author of this formative concept, liberation theology echoes the message of the “Crucified Christ.” This is what he has to say: “I re-thought the historical Jesus, and the following of him, including centrally his compassion towards the poor, the announcement of good news to the oppressed and the denunciation of the oppressors. I insisted that for this he died on a cross, and I insisted that the risen Christ is a crucified Christ. The resurrection of Jesus was the reaction of God against the victimizers who killed the innocent.”
This ideology got further refined and took the form of “Liberation through Reconciliation.” Authentic reconciliation is founded on the triad of truth, justice, and forgiveness. Truth is the first step towards reconciliation. Truth necessarily demands justice. Any call for forgiveness must clearly name injustice and seek the removal of the causes of that injustice; from the other side, seeking justice means naming and confronting the oppressors. As true followers of Jesus, Jesuits have adopted the Liberation Theology with three pillars — truth, justice and forgiveness— as their way of serving the materially poor, oppressed and repressed, despised and ignored poor. It is true of entire Catholicism, and indeed the whole of humanity.
And in the Indian context, it is the tribals who are the most materially poor, oppressed and repressed, despised and ignored. The average annual income of Adivasi households in Jharkhand was around Rs 15,000 in 1996. Given the inflation and rise in cost of living, in 2020, the Net Present Value of this amount [Rs. 15000] was around Rs 67,000. Yet the average income of small and marginal households in an Adivasi area in the same year was only Rs 55,000-60,000. This meant there has been continuous decline in the real income levels of tribals commencing from the early nineties when India started adopting the ‘development’ policy of Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation.
Tribals are also the worst victims of this corporate-driven ‘repressive development’ agenda and State ‘terror’ unleashed to implement this. It mainly concerns grabbing of vast areas of forest land that have mining and other resources needed for this ‘development’. And it is among these ‘lesser children of God’ that Fr Stan Swamy worked for thirty years and paid the price with his life for standing up to their constitutional, land, forest and labour rights. As tribal lands were taken away forcibly to subserve the corporates, Stan started a movement to educate the tribals that ‘Owner of the land is also the owner of sub-soil minerals.’ He also opposed the setting up of “land banks” to facilitate big industries to gobble-up tribal land. This made him fall foul of the mining and business barons who have a stranglehold on the state’s economy and politics. Bagicha, the NGO Stan helped found, took up the case of Adivasi youths languishing in prison for years as ‘under-trials’ after being dubbed as ‘Naxals’. This antagonised the state and police authorities. Hence the ‘institutional killing’ of this 84-year-old Jesuit priest.
One wonders as to why in all these, Jaithirath Rao brings in Marxism and that too the “violent Marxist.” It is true that Marxism, that came centuries later than Catholic Church and Jesuits, has adopted certain elements of ‘liberation theology’ like opposition to inequality and exploitation of the working class, and upholding of social justice. But messing and mixing up Marxism with Catholicism, dragging in Stan Swamy and suggesting that the Jesuits oppose the Indian State and are declaring war on Hindu society is venomous and diabolical. It is better if Rao and his ilk desist from such type of propaganda, which is not in national interest.
Writer is former Army and IAS Officer, and chairman, People-First. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)