By Fr. Cedric Prakash sj*
The cry for social justice has become today loud, clear and very shrill! It is a cry that no longer seems to be the prerogative of only the poor and the marginalized as several from across the social strata want their voices to be heard; these include students from prestigious universities in India and abroad, academia and intellectuals, litterateurs and poets, film-makers, playwrights and other celebrities – the list is endless. The cry, the refrain is the same everywhere, “We want Justice!”; one is reminded of the uprising of workers led by trade union leaders of yesteryears. This time however, whilst the script remains the same- the ‘dramatis personae’ has changed. Those who cry out are not just crying out for themselves – they are crying out for the rights of others, for the sanctity enshrined in the Constitution, for democracy, for the children of tomorrow!
So February 20th 2016, the ‘World Day of Social Justice’, comes to all of us as a grim reminder that India and the world at large is desperately in need of social justice. True, on this day, there will be the usual ceremonies and tokenism; the rhetoric from the politicians (particularly the governing class) who will once again indulge in empty platitudes. Many of them will be totally unaware that UN mandate for this day states that “Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability. For the United Nations, the pursuit of social justice for all is at the core of our global mission to promote development and human dignity.”
So how does one address the tragedy of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student of Central University in Hyderabad- who was desperately fighting against discrimination and harassment? Or for that matter the current imbroglio that has gripped the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi – all because some students wanted to question the systemic ills in society –particularly the way the minorities are targeted? JNU student Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and some other students are today in jail on charges of ‘sedition’. Their arrest is a clear signal that freedom of speech and expression will gradually become history in India! Since the last few months –several eminent citizens have returned their well-deserved awards to the Government because of rising intolerance. No one will forget that intellectuals and rationalists like Kalburgi, Pendse and Dabholkar were assassinated because they dared the fascists and the fundamentalists of the country.
In just about a week from now, we will observe the fourteenth anniversary of the Gujarat Genocide. The victim-survivors still cry for justice. Many of them today are internally displaced persons –living in sub-human conditions Whilst there have been some convictions, the big culprits are out on bail – and the biggest ones seem to have become invincible as they cloak themselves with a degree of immunity. On the other hand, human rights defenders like Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand have to face no end of harassment and intimidation from the powerful – just because they had the courage to take on cudgels on behalf of the victims.
One should not forget that the current Prime Minister of India, when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat piloted and got promulgated for Gujarat -one of the most draconian laws in the history of India. Innocuously called the “Freedom of Religion Act 2003”, it denies a citizen the freedom to embrace a religion of one’s choice without first seeking the permission of the District Magistrate. This is in clear contravention of Article 25 of the Constitution of India and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Across the globe, the refugee crisis has reached magnitudinal proportions, as millions of people are hounded out of their homes and lands; are bombed, raped and butchered. They just flee in desperation and most often with nowhere to go.
So the Day of Social Justice needs to be a reminder that all us have a role to play in making our world a more just and humane for all: particularly for those who are poor and marginalized; the dalits and tribals; the minorities and the excluded; the refugees and other displaced persons; for those who are denied their legitimate rights and freedoms. We need to be vocal and visible in taking a stand against all those who are bent on denying others the cherished and eternal values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. We should take a cue from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who emphatically states “with exclusion and inequality on the rise, we must step up efforts to ensure that all people, without discrimination, are able to access opportunities to improve their lives and those of others.”
Social justice is wide raging – but it is essentially, what Pope Francis reminded us a couple of days ago at the end of his visit to Mexico- ‘the courage to build bridges and not walls.’
*Indian human rights activist, currently based in Beirut, Lebanon as the Advocacy and Communications Officer of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East and North Africa Region. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org