The terms “social action” and “social activist” have become so dangerous that if anyone possesses an article or a book on them can be accused as an anti-national or Maoist supporter and be put behind bars. A group of 16 activists, including Fr. Stan Swamy, was arrested and imprisoned in the Bhima Koregoan case under the most draconian law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for this reason. Fr. Stan Sway died on July 5, 2021 while being in detention and Varavara Rao got bail because of his sickness, but the remaining 14 are still languishing in jail without bail or trial being started. Social action has become a thorn in the flesh of authorities whether they are secular or religious.
The BJP government at the Centre under the leadership of Narendra Modi has been hard on social movements and the Civil Society Organizations involved in the issues related to human rights and protection of environment. The government adopted various means to stop funds to NGOs involved in social action. The most important objective of amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act in 2020 was to deprive the NGOs and Civil Society Organizations of funds. Amnesty International was forced to cease its operations in India. Greenpeace, an international NGO involved in creating awareness in people on environmental issues, was forced to close two of its regional offices and considerably reduce its staff in India because of a government crackdown on allegedly unlawful foreign funding of NGOs. On 28th foundation day of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Prime Minister alleged that some people try to dent the country's image in the name of human rights violation, and that people should beware of them. In fact, Modi was expressing his aversion towards NGOs that expose Human Rights violations both by the state and non-state actors.
Not only Modi but also the whole Sangh Parivar is against social activists because they work for an egalitarian society based on the Constitutional values. On the other hand, the vision of the Sangh Parivar is based on Manusmriti. The RSS was staunchly opposed to the present Indian Constitution. It wanted a Constitution based on Manusmriti. For Savarkar, one of the ideologues of Hindutva, Manusmriti is “the scripture that is most worshippable after the Vedas” and “the basis of the spiritual and divine march of the nation.”
Manusmriti envisages a hierarchical and caste-based patriarchal society. The Hindutva vision of India is totally opposed to the vision of India for which the social activists and social action groups are committed to. That is why the Sangh Parivar and the BJP are targeting and persecuting the social activists.
The success of the struggle by farmers gives a lot of hope to the social activists and social action groups working for the environment and protection of human rights. The government and the ruling party used various means to discredit the striking farmers and put down the protests by the farmers. The Prime Minister had coined a new term “antholanjeevi” (one who makes a living out of protests) to say that the farmers’ protests were being used as a tool by people who thrived on protests. He alleged that “terrorists, Naxals and communal elements” were involved in the movement. The farmers were called “anti-national, Khalistani supporters and “tukde-tukde people” by the ministers, MPs, MLAs and the supporters of the ruling party. But the farmers were not demoralized by the abuse and derogatory statements about them by the ruling party and its blind devotees.
The power of the farmers emerged from their sacrifice. More than 700 farmers laid down their lives, hundreds of them got injured and thousands suffered financial loss. Sacrifice is the core of Satyagraha. Social activists and social action groups strongly believe in non-violent methods of protests and struggle. In order to discredit them, the BJP governments and their supporters denigrate them by calling them Maoists, Naxals, tukde-tukde gang, etc. The bold example of farmers should impart a new energy to social action groups and civil society organizations working for the rights of the marginalized sections of the society.
Social action is also a political action, as it tries to put pressure on the government to change its policies, especially policies that are detrimental to the poor and the marginalized sections of society. But social activists do not try to acquire political power and remain in power. They may take the support of political parties on certain issues, as the farmers took the support of opposition political parties. At the same time, they did not allow the political parties to make use of their forums and hijack their movement. Social action is also political action without being involved in party politics.
For the disciples of Jesus, social action is also a prophetic action for justice. The Gospels present Jesus of Nazareth primarily as a prophet and not as a priest. The evangelists do not depict him as a priest performing priestly functions or rituals. On the other hand, the Gospels are replete with many prophetic actions of Jesus. He often violated the meaningless laws and rituals that do not promote life. He broke the Sabbath law and he told his critics, especially the Scribes and Pharisees, that Sabbath is meant for man and not man for Sabbath. In order to prove his interpretation of Sabbath he healed people on the Sabbath. While denouncing the wrong interpretation of law Jesus also announced the real purpose of Sabbath law.
Cleansing the temple by Jesus as described in Matthew 21:12-13 is a prophetic action on the part of Jesus. In the name of God and religion, huge exploitation of people by a nexus of traders and the priestly class was going on in the temple, according to William Barclay, a Biblical scholar. The cost of the animals sold in the temple complex, for the purpose of offering as sacrifice, was several times, even up to ten times, more than their cost outside the temple complex.
Another prophetic action of Jesus was his dealings with the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus (Jn.8:1-11). According to Jewish law, a woman caught in adultery is to be stoned to death. But the law is silent on the man who is equally responsible for the act of adultery. The law was biased against women and unjust. That is why Jesus told the people who brought her to him, “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her”. No one had the courage to throw stones at her. Jesus questioned the unjust law.
The disciples of Jesus are expected to be prophets as Jesus was. They cannot remain indifferent and silent in the face of injustice and exploitation. They have to question the laws that are biased against a particular group or community. They have to be on the side of the people who are discriminated against, exploited and oppressed.
In a situation where the poor and the marginalized are neglected and their socio-economic condition is deteriorating and human rights and fundamental rights of citizens are violated, the disciples of Jesus cannot be satisfied with doing charitable activities. They need to adopt a social action approach as part of their mission.
First of all, the poor and the marginalized that constitute about 60 percent of Indian population are to be made aware about the present socio-political situation, how the government is failing to fulfil its responsibilities, how the policies of the government are favouring the rich and the upper castes, and how the government is using religion to hoodwink ordinary people. This awareness creation is to be not only a part of social work, but also of all ministries of the Church.
Secondly, the disciples of Jesus are to join hands with civil society organizations that oppose the government policies and actions that violate the Constitution of India and the fundamental rights of people, the policies that are discriminative and contribute to widening the gap between the rich and the poor, the policies that lead to large scale displacement of people and destruction of environment.
Thirdly, the disciples of Jesus have to give up all discriminatory and exclusive practices. They should become role models of practising the core Indian constitutional value of equality. Women are to be included in the administrative bodies in the Church organizations and institutions. The colonial method of evangelization has to give way to the evangelization of becoming light and salt by giving taste, by preserving the society from corrupt practices, by physical, emotional and spiritual healing of people and by empowering the weak and the least in society.
Fourthly, in the context of India being converted into a Hindutva Rashtra, there is an urgent need for educating people about the core values and principles of the Constitution along with practising these values and principles.
Fifthly, a pluralistic atmosphere is to be created in all Christian institutions meant for the public by conducting inter-faith prayer instead of conducting only Christian prayers, exhibiting the symbols and quotes from all religions in view of promoting universal values like love, forgiveness, compassion, justice, equality, etc.
To conclude, in the context of India today, the disciples of Jesus have to go beyond charitable and welfare activities and find out the root causes of poverty and inequalities and make people aware of the same. Against the backdrop of the socio-political context of India being controlled by the Hindutva forces, the disciples of Jesus have to collaborate with social activists and groups that struggle for justice for the poor and the marginalized and fight against violation of human rights and fundamental rights by promoting pluralist, inclusive and democratic values.