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Civil Rights Itself is Democracy

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-Fr. Cedric Prakash sj* (This Talk was delivered at the public conference organized by the Solidarity Youth Movement and held at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala on December 7th, 2014)

Ahmedabad: Dear Friends, It is good to be here to address such a large gathering of youth from all over! I feel very privileged and honoured to be the Chief Guest of this pubic conference organised by the Solidarity Youth Movement on the theme ?Civil Rights Itself Is Democracy?. I wish to thank all those who in any way are instrumental for my presence and I also wish to congratulate all the organisers for bringing together such a large number of youth together to reflect and debate on a theme which is so critical to the country today.

Having said this, I would like to draw your attention to two important dates in our recent past ? on November 26th we observed the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of India; yesterday, December 6th we observed the ?Mahaparinirvan Diwas? of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect and the father of the Indian Constitution who died in 1956. Sadly enough, on December 6th, we also remember the demolition of the Babri Masjid when thousands of kar sevaks destroyed the mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh in spite of legal sanctions and with total disregard to everything that is enshrined in the Constitution.

Let us then get down to the theme of this conference:

As we have said earlier, our Constitution was mainly due to the visionary leadership of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (the Chairman of the Drafting Committee appointed by the Constituent Assembly) and his team of highly committed persons.? On November 26th, 1949, the Constitution of India was finally enacted and it came into effect exactly two months later, on January 26th, 1950.

At the heart of the Constitution of India, is the Preamble which focuses on basic principles which are non-negotiable and which are essentially a way of proceeding for every single citizen of India. Enshrined in this Preamble are the core values of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

But after so many years of having one of the best Constitutions in the world, can we honestly say that India has come of age and that we have truly taken ownership and mainstreamed the values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity? The answer, for most Indians, will surely be a simple and direct: ?NO!?

Let?s take a peep into the concerns that grip us as a country today of how civil rights are trampled upon and of how the very framework of democracy is torn asunder:

We have a long way to go in achieving the ideal ?Justice for all?. Just an awareness of what is happening to the marginalized communities in our country like the dalits, the adivasis, the minorities and more vulnerable sections, particularly our children, our women and the elderly, will give one an inkling of how bad the situation is.? Day-in and day-out, we are confronted with painful and indeed horrific stories of gang-rapes and of child-abuse. Sadly, the culprits are not merely strangers but even from within one?s own family. We read gruesome tales of well-to-do individuals having no qualms in throwing out of their houses an aged parent. The victim-survivors of the Gujarat Carnage 2002, in which we saw the battering and brutalization of a minority community, still wait for that elusive justice! Just a couple of day ago, on December 4th and at the right age of 100 years Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer died in Kochi. He is one of those who has taken a stand for civil rights in the country and it was he who headed the Concerned Citizens Tribunal which clearly held Narendra Modi responsible for the violence against the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

At the heart of any vibrant democracy is Liberty. But as a people, we are aware that a sizeable section of society is really not free.? Many of them are bonded labourers or continue to be in the grips of rich and powerful vested interests.? Freedom of speech and expression is another area which is being eroded day by day. Cultural terrorists decide to take law and order into their own hands and dictate to us what we have to write and what we have to read; the films we make or see. There are others who think that they are the sole arbitrators of what we wear or eat or how we entertain ourselves. Above all, Governments like the one of Gujarat, have enacted anti-conversion laws, through which they deny the citizen the fundamental right of choosing what they would like to believe in.

One can hardly speak about Equality in a society which is highly hierarchical!? Due to lop-sided economic policies of the Government, the poor become poorer every day and the rich are able to accumulate much more wealth.? India boasts of glaring contradictions: of having some of the wealthiest people in the world and at the same time, those who do not have a full meal to eat a day! Ours is a highly patriarchal society where women have been at the receiving end since a very long time.? However, this blatant gender discrimination is becoming a visible issue today and hopefully women?s empowerment will move beyond the ?lip-service? in the next years.

In spite of Constitutional provisions, we are still a caste-based society (something which Dr. Ambedkar fought tenaciously against) where those at the bottom of the pyramid are still very unjustly treated.? In several parts of the country, minorities are relegated to second-class citizens and are constantly at the receiving end of fundamentalist and fascist forces.

?Fraternity? is a male word, hence this concept must be best understood through the prism of solidarity: (your Solidarity Youth Movement) people coming together, supporting one another, reaching out and helping one another and bonding with one another. We have had moments in the country when the people have responded en masse to issues, be it corruption or gang-rape. But that is really not enough! The greatness of India is the wealth of its diversity, very specially of its peoples.

In several parts of India today, people are confined to ghettos, they are ostracized and alienated. The rich Indian tradition of having ownership of the other?s celebrations, accepting another?s culture or religion and creating space for a neighbour who is different from us, is gradually becoming a thing of the past.? Due to political machinations, regional, religious and ethnic jingoism hold sway. In some States, an Indian who comes from another part of the country is regarded as a ?threat? and even as an ?enemy?. This is indeed a dangerous trend and forebodes ill for the future.

The list is endless indeed?.!

Just look at some of the incidents that are happening in the country today: the hate speech of the Union Minister of State Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti ? dividing Indian society into ?Ramzadas? and ?Haramzadas? and had a clear intent to promote enmity between communities. She should be easily charged and prosecuted under section 153A of the Indian Penal Code which holds to account anybody ?promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion?.and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony.?? But well, nothing happens to her; first the Government defends her, then makes her apologize and finally tells us that she is a person with a rural background!!!

Then, on December 1st, St. Sebastian?s Catholic Church, Dilshad Garden, in East Delhi was a target of arson and burning; Christians in Chhattisgarh have been a target of constant attacks during the past months.? In fact, just a fortnight ago, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad demanded that Catholic schools in the Raipur area put Saraswati Maa in all their institutions and that that the children should not address the Priests who run the schools as ?Fathers? Then in U.P, and several other parts of India including Gujarat, we see how systematically the minorities are targeted directly and indirectly.

In order to safeguard the civil rights of all and eventually democracy, it is important for us to look at some key factors that are destroying the fabric of society today; these include:

????????? the sophisticated infiltration of Hindutva and other forms of fundamentalism in different levels of society
????????? the cooption of the media and the effective use of propaganda replete with lies, half-truths and myths
????????? the denigration, discrimination and demonization of minorities in the country
????????? the introduction of draconian laws
????????? the terrorizing incarceration and killing of members of the minority community
????????? the manipulation of education and the distortion of school textbooks / learning
????????? the intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, independent thinkers and of those who take a stand
????????? the control of the judiciary and the police
????????? the privileging and the facilitation of the corporate sector, the rich and the middle-class
????????? the denial of the rights of the poor and the marginalised

In the context of the above, it is important that we as members of civil society do all we can to preserve, protect and promote our rights and ultimately to safeguard the sanctity of our democracy.

We have no time to lose and we should do this:

? by studying the Constitution of India and our rights and duties as citizens
? by being aware of what is happening around us very particularly to the poor, the marginalized, the sub-alterns and other victims of injustice
? by documenting realities and writing about them in newspapers and journals
? by engaging with the media
? by standing up for truth, human rights, justice and peace
? by always being vigilant (eternal vigilance is the price of liberty)

Today all of us gathered here need to swear on the sanctity of the Constitution of India and pledge to uphold its non-negotiable principles.? Simultaneously, each one of us must commit ourselves to ensuring that justice, liberty, equality and fraternity will be mainstreamed in our lives and that we will do all we can to mainstream them in the lives of others and in our country at large.? Only then will we be able to say that ?Civil Rights is itself Democracy?.?

Finally, we need to pray in the words of our Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection,
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sands of dead habit,
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action,
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, led my country awake!

(* Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace)


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