Movements, Momentum and Metanoia
Popular movements –protests, fasting, silent marches, candle-light processions- are not new to India as they have been there with a particular force since Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa to fight for the nation’s independence. Gandhi organized them to remind the people of their dignity and collective strength, to advocate the principles of self-reliance, and to transform the mindsets of people. Whether it was his call to boycott foreign goods and use home-spun cloth or to oppose the tyrannical British laws, people responded generously, suffering a great deal in the process. He fasted frequently whenever he wanted the British or his fellow Indians to open their eyes and see the reality from a point of view that was founded on profound spiritual/universal values. Truth and non-violence were non-negotiable principles for Gandhi.
Though Gandhi argued that he himself needed self-purification, many times his fasts convinced people of the futility of violence or of perpetuating social evils. In post-Independent India too, many took to Gandhian path and succeeded in fighting against many socio-political and cultural evils. In contemporary India, leaders such as Medha Patkar continue to use the tool of fasting to bring to the attention of the governments the plight of the displaced peoples. It appears that persons with moral strength and convictions have lasting influence on people than the others. Their invitations for self-critique, and for personal and social transformation seem to generate rich and beneficial public discourses.
India witnessed many protest movements –of socio-political and cultural in nature- in the last five or six years. The Anna Hazare led anti-corruption movement was the largest of them that captured the attention of the nation and the world. It reminded that the people of the sub-continent are concerned about the country and its progress which is inseparably tied to their own future. It illustrated that at least a section of youth are ready to question what is wrong in society, and sacrifice their time and talents for building up India into a modern state founded on the values of dignity, equality, freedom etc.
Large scale protests were organized after Nirbhaya was attacked in Delhi, Akhlaq was lynched at Dadri, Rohit Vemula committed suicide in Central University campus in Hyderabad etc. In fact such protests and marches are too many to name. Another significant movement (that got strong legal backing and was partially successful) was the women’s demand for entering the sanctuary of the Hindu temples. Receiving extensive coverage in print and electronic media, these protests have generated national debates on the state of women, the identity of India and its socio-cultural and religious diversity, the vexing issue of caste and the inequality it engenders and perpetuates. In some cases laws were revised and in other cases protective measures were put in place. Beyond that, negatively, people seem to get cynical and desperate: after all the speeches and statements, corruption, if anything, is on the increase, the mighty and the powerful can get away with the laws, and the little gains made would be erased. Obviously, hope is a virtue and it is unchristian to give into despair.
What’s needed, perhaps, is some strong leaders at the Church level -as well as at the national level- who can infuse confidence among the people, who can challenge and invite people for introspection and who can facilitate personal and societal transformation, and doing that by example -if need be, through prayer and fasting- as Gandhi and Martin Luther King did. That people long for change and that they support movements is clear. The way Arvind Kejrival succeeded in presenting a vision of politics illustrates that people long for leaders who are committed, consistent and willing to suffer. For various reasons, the Catholic Church has remained on the sidelines in these movements and our educational institutions hesitate to join in (we do organize protest marches when the issues concern the Church). Is it not worthwhile to ask why is it that such a large body of clergy and religious fail to generate leaders for the nation who can offer leadership, who can capture people’s imagination and initiate societal transformation!
Stanislaus Alla SJ,