A Discussion with Father Cedric Prakash, SJ, Director, PRASHANT
Background: The context for this discussion is preparation for a consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 10-11, 2011. The consultation is an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Henry R. Luce Foundation. Its aim is to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more important, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was conducted by telephone between Michael Bodakowski and Father Prakash.
In this interview Father Prakash reflects on issues of religious pluralism in India and the challenges to peaceful coexistence. He sees certain interpretations of faith as causing divisions in society. He discusses his organization, which does advocacy works to bring truth and justice to those victims of human rights abuses, particularly with religious dimensions. He also discusses the state of education and gender equality in India.
Interview Conducted on December 2, 2010
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What has been your personal background and journey bringing you to do the work you do today?
I was born in city of Mumbai, which is the commercial capital of India, a very busy and active part of the country. It is the equivalent of New York City for the Indian context. We have a plurality of religious traditions and cultures in Mumbai.
My parents were migrants who came to the city for work around 70 years ago; it was a good place to find work. My father was from Mangalore in the state of Karnataka, and my mother joined him after marriage. We were raised in a small apartment building, which is quite different to what you would consider apartments in the United States. These are one room tenements, perhaps similar to the kind of housing you find in American inner cities.
In our apartment building there were 24 families, mostly living in one room apartments, and we had common restrooms on each floor. The building was very culturally and religiously pluralistic. Most of the families were Christians, Catholics, as well as a few Muslims, Hindus, and Jews.
I went to study in a school run by the Catholic Diocese of Mumbai. In that school, in addition to several Hindus and Muslims; there was also a large Zoroastrians presence. The Zoroastrian community came to India in search of refuge because they were persecuted in Persia. It was a very mixed and diverse environment.
I was born and raised in a Catholic tradition, but we enjoyed a pluralistic religious environment. Whenever we celebrated Christmas, we celebrated with our Hindu friends. When there were Hindu festivals, we celebrated with our Hindu friends, and the same with our Muslim friends. We never really noticed a difference between people that belonged to other faiths.
When it was prayer time in my family, my mother would ask all the children that were visiting our house to say their prayers together whether they were Hindu or Muslim. In a Muslim home we would pray together when it was time for prayer, and we did the same if we were with a Hindu family at the time for puja; we would all pray together. I was raised in this milieu and it was a very rich experience. We truly enjoyed each other’s company.
I pursued my university education and did my graduate studies; all of our friends were from different religious traditions and we did not wear our religious identity on our sleeves. Later, I worked with the Catholic University Federation and at that time, the Catholic Federation was trying to share its very Catholic inclusive identity and trying to engage the university students all over India. This was in the early 1970s.
In 1973, I was invited to Taizé, an ecumenical Christian community in France, and this was a very powerful experience in my life. I traveled to Northern Ireland, and people there wanted to know if I was a Catholic or a Protestant. I kept telling people that I was just an Indian. This experience really struck me because for the first time, I encountered divisiveness in the name of religion.
And as a person growing up in India, this was curious for me, because it was an odd thing to ask if one was a Catholic or a Protestant within the Christian community. This was during the last outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland, and it left a lasting memory.
I came back to India, to the state of Gujarat, and joined the Jesuit order. Gujarat is known all over the world because of Mahatma Gandhi. The Mahatma was an apostle of peace and non-violence and ardent seeker of the truth. On September 11th when he launched the satyagraha movement in South Africa, he said, unless we have the force of truth working with us, we will not be able to find justice and peace. He began this movement as a response to his terrible ordeal with racism in South Africa. He united the Africans and people of Indian origins who were suffering discrimination and injustice.
On the banks of the river Sabarmati in Ahmadabad he started an ashram, and he welcomed people from all over the world. There were many religious traditions represented at this ashram. There was a famous Anglican; many Hindus as well from across the caste system of hierarchy joined him at this ashram. Gandhi began in this fashion a kind of notion that all religions lead to God. Every morning at the ashram, people would sing a beautiful prayer/hymn. The hymn said, “Whether we call you Isvara (Ishwar) or Allah; we are all children of God.”
Gandhi also popularized a prayer by Cardinal John Henry Newman and had it translated into Gujarati by a very famous poet. Every morning Gandhi would repeat the prayer in search of truth. His idea was that any religion and any God has to lead to truth and that truth is found in acceptance and love of thy neighbor. He always used teachings from Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes in his discourses at the Sabarmati ashram.
I began my life as a Jesuit in 1974 in Gujarat, and over the years, through my involvement especially among the poor, I realized that religion was being used to keep people divided and to create violence among communities. In Gujarat and in Ahmadabad, we have had several instances of violence that culminated with the massacre in 2002 that killed 2000 Muslims in our streets and villages; that had a powerful impact on my life.
In December of 1992, after the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya, I was almost killed because I was working in these neighborhoods with a history of communal violence and trying to engender peace.
These various incidents, and all the ideas and inspirations from my own upbringing and from Gandhi, have left important marks. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated. The experience of his death and my experiences in Northern Ireland moved me to commit my life to be a bridge between people and focus on what unites us in order to find commonalities with other people and other faiths. I made a decision to try and overcome divisiveness and be as inclusive as possible, sharing my faith while at the same time learning from others.
Please tell us about your organization, PRASHANT & where does it work, who does it work for, and what programs does it do?
We have many words and names for light in our culture. Prakash means light and Prashant means “all pervasive peace.” In 1999, the Christians in Gujarat experienced a lot of communal violence. There is a pervasive right wing ideology in India called Hindutva. It has no connection with Hinduism, which I believe is a great religion. The people that follow Hindutva are fascists; they are the equivalent from the American context of the Ku Klux Klan, and they draw inspiration from the apartheid of South Africa and Nazi ideology. The basic ideology asks for one nation, one language, and one people.
These are the people that killed Gandhi because they wanted a Hindu nation-state the same way that Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted an Islamic state in Pakistan. They did not succeed; they will never succeed because India has a secular constitution. Over the years, I was working in Ahmadabad and I realized that we needed a center to advocate for justice and peace, working for the poor. However, I realized that in order to do so, we needed to face a reality of the hardships of advocacy, and we needed to highlight the suffering of the poor. On October 2, 2001, which is the birthday of Gandhi and the international day of non-violence, we formed an organization and started the center. I am the first founding director of the center. This center belongs to the Society of Jesus and is run under the initiative of the Gujarat Education Society.
We work at a few different levels. First, we highlight the reality of human rights violations, and we document the hate and violence that is affecting the poor and the marginalized. We highlight important news items and we monitor violations that are taking place in the country and in our state, especially those issues pertaining to religion. Once we see a situation, we try to analyze how to build bridges between the perpetrators and the victims. Many times, perhaps nine times out of ten, this is not possible. We try, however, to highlight the issues, and we engage with other human rights activists within the state and outside the state. We collaborate with the State Department of the United States and the annual Religious Freedom Report, as well as some other American groups and think tanks.
We want people to know what is happening here when people use religion to create violence. These instances of violence have far-reaching consequences, and in the long run, they do not serve anyone. We work with governments and with NGOs, and as an advocacy group, we often have to go to court. We are fighting cases in the High Court of Gujarat and also in the Supreme Court. We also train people at the grassroots level to think about their religion. We try to bring Muslim and Hindu communities together and to engage sacred texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Qur’an. We discuss these texts, including the Bible, so we can get people thinking about how it is possible for diverse religious traditions to live together. We do not do this through preaching, but we encourage people to pray together and to eat together.
I think in the past 10 years, we have made our mark locally and we have a good reputation. We have a fairly strong international reputation and we encourage people across the country to volunteer their time. I am invited all over the country to speak to people about my experiences and about our work and to help others solve these issues in their own communities. In that sense, our efforts do have a snowball effect in different parts of the country.
How about your work on interreligious violence in India more generally?
The problem in India comes in the form of the right wing Hindu understanding of Hindutva. It has in roots in the 1920s and as I mentioned earlier, these are the people that assassinated Mahatma Gandhi because he was trying to bring religious communities together.
Here, in the Indian context, we use the word communalism (it has a negative connotation for us & it implies the manipulation of religion to keep people divided and to help serve petty political gains) in a different way compared to other countries. In India, it is a derogatory and negative term. When one speaks of communalism in India it is on the same lines as the ideology of Marxism and Capitalism. So, in our context, communalism is an “ism” with lots of negative connotations, but it has nothing to do with community and communion that one might think of in a Western context.
Hindutva has been responsible for lots of violence and bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims since independence. The Interior Minister recently said that Hindutva is one of the greatest threats to the Indian nation. Hindutva is trying to “saffronize” the country; believers in Hindutva have adopted the saffron color and associate it with Hindu ideology.
Many of us refuse to give them jurisdiction over the saffron color because we believe colors belong to everybody and do not depend on religion. Hindutva ideology has created multiple problems all over India; for example, in Orissa several Christians were killed and their homes were burned to the ground. This group was also responsible for violence on an Australian missionary and his two little sons who were all burned alive in their jeep, as well as for violence in Karnataka towards the Christians. They have destroyed churches, and we have over 1,000 recorded instances of attacks on Christians.
In Gujarat in 1999, a Hindutva group beat a lot of Christians and destroyed residences of priests and nuns in different parts of the state. However, the height of the 2002 violence was the carnage of Gujarat. Ever since that time, even in the latest report released by the US State Department on International Religious Freedom, you will realize that Gujarat is one of the states with an active communal divide.
I live in the city of Ahmadabad, which was founded by a Muslim king 600 years ago. But today, if you are a Muslim in this city, you are unable to live in large segments of the city because of communal violence, so you have to find a home on the periphery. The Muslims in this city essentially live in ghettos on the outskirts of the city and are not invited to join the larger community. There was a time when the Muslims could not even enter the city to work; they had to work in their ghettos. Things are improving because of a lot of international pressure, but the situation is still not good.
Religious divides are thus a major concern in India. Muslims are the biggest religious minority in India. The Christians only comprise of 2.5 percent of the total population, and in India overall and in Gujarat, Christians barely comprise 0.5 percent of an entire state which has over 55 million people. Yet, violence is a great concern. A lot of my colleagues are Hindus, with some Muslims as well, and we have been trying to work on the violence by creating an environment of communal harmony and peace. We have been trying to bring people together through various efforts. We have also been seeking legal action and trying to address some of these issues through the courts to bring the perpetrators of these heinous acts of violence in the name of religion to some form of justice.
What are the realities of being a Christian leader in a state with such a small minority of Christians, working on peacebuilding issues?
It is not easy. On one side we have the most draconian laws in our state, passed unanimously in 2003, about religious freedom. It says that anyone who wants to change their religion has to get permission of the civil authority. This really affects the Tribal community and also the untouchables and Dalits who are looking to convert out of Hinduism. The civil authority has to grant permission in order for people to change their religion. This is a right wing-inspired law that greatly affects the religious minorities in the country.
Not every Muslim is a terrorist, although that is the notion in different parts of the world post-9/11. I think that the right wing has tapped into that, and they also extend this distrust to the Christian community because they think that every Christian is engaged in proselytism and is trying to convert people. So, as a priest, everything I do is has a connection to converting others and I am met with a level of distrust. They may not be able to say too much negative about me personally because I have a solid track record of engaging people on social issues. However, this is part of the propaganda that the right wing spreads, and it creates divisiveness in the community. They try to demonize us and take the buzz out our work by labeling us as converters and making us feel as though we are outsiders in our own country.
I have been speaking primarily about the state government. The federal government of India is a great government. On August 24 government put on an exhibition on the life of Mother Teresa all around the country. Tomorrow this traveling exhibition is arriving by train in Ahmadabad; a lot of media will be present. The railway authorities who belong to the central government are with us. However, in other parts of the city, there are concerted efforts to sabotage the event. They cannot stop the train from coming to us, but they are trying to play down the importance of Mother Teresa.
We know there is an unwritten order to not allow government workers to see the train and visit the exhibition. We told people that Mother Teresa’s emphasis was always the extremely poor and the orphans, not the important people. But, I use this as an example to illustrate how the right wing tries to minimize disparage religious minorities.
The government is still engaged in trying to compensate the Muslim victims for the carnage in 2002. These Hindutva groups have used all kinds of derogatory language against me and accused me of getting all my funding from foreign governments to destabilize the local government. All these accusations are untrue. So, on the grassroots level of civil society we have a great deal of appreciation and acceptance and there are multiple religious traditions working together to engender peace. However, there are occupational hazards, though I take my inspiration from Jesus; that motivates me, and I continue working for the cause.
Building from that, I know that you are a voice for the Muslims in your state, and abroad you also testified in the US. Can you speak more about this work?
Whatever I do, I do not do it because someone is a Muslim or a Hindu. I believe that everyone is a child of God. I think that if people are using religion as a divisive force, it is my responsibility to get involved because I believe that no religion preaches hate and violence and I am not going to allow such things to continue, if I can help it. I believe that I have no choice but to get involved, because that is the commitment that I have made.
Let me share an illustrative example with you. I have a good friend, a former Member of Parliament who sat on a number of committees in Ahmadabad. He was about 74 years old, and we worked together and knew each others’ family well.
In 2002 during the carnage when a train was set on fire, most people believed that is it was an accident. Even the government said that 59 people lost their lives, and that it was a tragic accident. Yet, days later there was an unprecedented attack on Muslims in Gujarat.
My Muslim friend knew everybody and was very well connected; he knew the police and the Prime Minister of India. He lived in the center of town in an apartment building. One day he heard that a mob was coming to his part of town, and he made some phone calls to the government. Everyone told him not to worry and assured him that he would be safe. When the mob arrived, he went to meet them.
He was a kind person and helped everyone and was a grandfather to everyone around. He went to meet the mob to speak to them and told them that there are mostly women, children, and old people living there, so please move away from this part of town. There might have been a few Hindu families in this housing block, but it was mostly Muslim families. He said to the mob, “Please don’t hurt these people, but if you want to take someone, take me.”
And the mob did. They dragged him out of his home and they cut him into pieces and they barbecued him. This is what eyewitnesses told us. I heard about this incident on March 1st and went in search of my friend, not knowing what had happened to him. I had heard something but did not know the details. I went to his housing complex. It was full of dead bodies, a horrific sight, but I could not find him. In the weeks that followed, I found out what happened to him.
I then took a pledge. My faith does not teach vengeance and Jesus teaches me to forgive. But my faith also teaches me that such things should not be repeated and there has to be an environment of justice. This was a person that helped everyone. Why should he have met with such a barbaric end? I now fight against the death penalty because I don’t think that anyone has to right to take away another person’s life. So, in the past years I have spoken all over university campuses in the United States, and I go to the State Department regularly to testify on behalf of religious freedom violations.
A lot of the funding that supports hate crime in India comes from the Indian Diaspora. This is why the United States is wary of some of these fringe groups that help to fund Hindu fundamentalism in India. Some Muslims have been the victims. I do not grieve for people because they are Muslim or Hindu or Christian. I grieve for people because they are victims of hate and violence. I believe according to my faith that faith and justice have to go hand in hand and you cannot isolate one from the other. Many people here from all different faith traditions are trying to respond to the Gujarat carnage in order to rebuild a more peaceful and harmonious society.
How would you characterize the gender challenges in India? What are the faith dimensions, and are faith-inspired actors successfully working towards gender equality in development?
As a country there is a tremendous room for improvement in terms of gender equality. In my state, there has been marginal improvement but until recently, for every 1000 boys that are born there are only 883 girls. There are high instances of female feticide. The girl child is not allowed to study and there is a tremendous imbalance at every level, with many challenges.
Many groups take some kind of religious sanction to negate the girl child, as well as women. For example, in our text books there is a myth about Lord Rama. It says that when Rama came to Gujarat, he found a place that was very clean. He wondered who was cleaning this area and then he realized that there was a tribal woman called Shabri who was working to keep the place clean. Lord Rama looks to her as an ideal woman and a great disciple because she kept this place so clean in case he decided to visit. This story then becomes a trope about the place of women in society. The boys are taught this type of stereotyping in school, that their mothers and sisters should be at home and clean the house.
The Gujarati language is highly chauvinistic and the onus is always on the women. If anything happens to a woman, for example if there is a case of molestation or sexual assault, or a rape, the onus is always on the woman. The community tends to blame the woman and ask her why she decided to go out of the house or why she wore the clothes she was wearing. Even within the Catholic Church if there is a troubled marriage, the responsibility is always on the woman. The priest will ask the woman if there is trouble in her marriage because she is not obedient to her husband and whether she listens to the mother-in-law.
There is a kind of male patriarchal structure that is accepted within Hinduism and Islam and Christianity. Now there is group in India, a council formed by community elders called KHAP that belongs to a certain feudal mindset. They have passed a law in Gujarat that unmarried girls cannot have a telephone. These things seem like a joke, but we have had several instances of girls and boys who have eloped and gotten married. There are instances where these feudal groups go after young people and catch them and murder them in front of their parents. These are considered honor killings. In some villages if a woman is unmarried she is often regarded a witch and in some instances, such women have been killed. The federal government has made a dramatic improvement for the status of women in the past 5 or 7 years, but in the rural areas things are different.
How about education in India? What are the issues, the challenges, and what is the role of faith-inspired education in the overall education system?
On April 2010 the Indian government enacted a law to make education free and mandatory for every child between the ages of 6 to 14. However, a lot of ground has been lost in the many years before this law. The Catholic Church has tried to take education to the Dalits and the Scheduled Tribes. Across India there is only a 65 percent rate of literacy, but these people are still uneducated because literacy just means the ability to read and write. Now education is open to the poor and the marginalized, to the Dalits and the Tribals. We have 35,000 Dalits and Tribals studying at Christian boarding schools. The law is more idealistic than realistic, and there are several loopholes if people want to avoid getting educated.
The right wing groups have started to focus on education more deeply, but they have a perverse agenda. Vidya Bharati schools are trying to saffronize and increase Hindutva ideology, and they are using these schools to engage in what we call the “Sanskritzation” of Indian culture, to train the youth to become militant. The government schools are in poor condition as well. The teachers have a high rate of absence and they lack resources.
There are lots of madrasas. I defend the right of the Muslim community to have madrasas, though I don’t consider them as a substitute for a proper education. The madrasas only teach the students to read and recite the Qur’an, and this is not enough for a holistic and liberal education.
What other kinds of institutions are there working on development that have faith links or inspiration? What categories do you see? What are the best among them? Which are the weakest?
There are lots of organizations working in the field and many of them are doing a lot of good work. There are groups focused on gender empowerment and on microfinance, but they would not like to be called faith-based organizations. There are more institutionalized groups like the church and there are lots of different organizations, but none of them like to enter the scene with the baggage of being religious. The Hindus will not go into neighborhoods and identify as Hindu unless they are right wing. In India, if you call yourself a Hindu organization it means you are right wing; however, if you are a moderate, you identify as “secular.”
What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful?
I belong to several networks locally, nationally, and internationally. There is a Jesuit group that I am active with and another one called the Concerned Citizens Initiative and a third called Citizens for Secular Democracy. We cannot do things alone and we need the support of wider society to help us accomplish the things we need to do.
What kinds of issues would you like to see addressed during the consultation and what are the most important gaps in knowledge?
There are certain gaps that we are not meeting sufficiently. I don’t want to come to the table as a priest or as a maulvi, but there is something that inspires me and motivates me which comes from my faith tradition. It is difficult when you meet people of other faiths and you want to share your own commitments without isolating the other people. We need to create the ground for communality and try to bring people of other faith traditions together. I have been part of an initiative called the Local Capacities For Peace. The efforts of many are put in a book called DO NO HARM by Mary Anderson. The book notes that in every community there are people who are “connectors” and “dividers.” I think we need to think about whether we are “connectors” or “dividers” before we come to the table in an effort to work together on issues of justice and peace.
The meeting is a good idea, but we will need to be diligent about following up with each other. Very often after such events, people tend to go on with their own busy lives and there is no follow-up.
In my own work on empowerment and peace I am not able to share some of the joys and tribulations of that work with others, and I think sharing is a very important step, so we should promote ways to foster this type of exchange with other practitioners in the field as well. Connecting with others in the field enables us to create ripples of hope and bring people together and create more waves for implementing change.