Interview with Fr. Cedric Prakash, Catholic priest in Ahmedabad, Gujarat

June 29, 2004

Father Cedric Prakash is a Jesuit priest based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. He is the official spokesperson of the Gujarat United Christian Forum for Human Rights, an ecumenical body that includes the Catholics and most Protestant groups in the state. He has been involved in providing relief to the victims of the recent anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat and in exposing and protesting against the role of the state and Hindutva groups in the violence. Earlier, he played a major role in galvanising public opinion about the persecution of Christians in the state. In this interview he speaks to Yoginder Sikand about himself and his work.

Q: How did you get involved in social activism despite being trained as a Catholic priest?

A: My involvement in social activism started while I was a college student in Mumbai, when I joined the All-India Catholic University Federation. We worked with students, trying to get them involved in thinking about social issues, such as poverty, exploitation, oppression, communalism and so on, and encouraging them to do some practical work to address these issues. Thatís how I began to understand the reality of Indian society and the magnitude of the plight of the poor. Then, in 1974 I joined a Jesuit seminary in Gujarat, where I spent 11 years training to become an ordained priest. Part of this training consisted of practical involvement in working on issues related to communal violence. I spent some months in Delhi, working among the victims of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. After I was appointed as a priest, I lived for a while in a tribal village in Surat district in south Gujarat, after which I joined the St. Xavier Social Service Society in Ahmedabad, where I worked for 14 years, mainly among people living in slums, Hindus, Dalits and Muslims. Part of this work consisted of providing relief to victims of periodic riots in Gujarat, in which inevitably the vast majority of the victims were Muslims.

Q: How do you look at the waves of violent attacks on Christians and Muslims in Gujarat in recent years?

A: This is largely politically inspired, but it is startling to see how deeply rooted the propaganda of Hindutva fascist groups has penetrated in Gujarati society. When the BJP came to power in Gujarat, Hindutva activists were emboldened and began burning down churches and attacking Christians. The government even thought of doing a census of Christians and Muslims in the state, something like what happened in Nazi Germany. Then, you had this wave of attacks on Muslims, culminating in the pogroms in large parts of the state two years ago. The persecution of Muslims in the state continues even today. Just a few days ago four people, including a young college girl, were brutally killed in Gujarat. I would not be surprised if this was another fake encounter.
In the Christian case, as I see it, one principal reasons for the attacks on them and their institutions is that the Catholics in Gujarat are today working for the education and empowerment of the most oppressed sections of society, the Dalits and Tribals. This is seen as threatening the powers and privileges of the dominant castes, who are among the most vociferous supporters of the Hindutva cause. Christian groups all over the state loudly protested against these attacks, and we even tried to internationalise the issue. This came as a shock to the Hindutva-walas, who are, of course, terribly afraid of the world coming to know about what they are doing here in India. So, they launched a venomous campaign against me, accusing me of tarnishing Gujaratís name abroad. Even today Christian institutions in Gujarat are being harassed and wrongly looked at with suspicion.

Q: The Catholic Church has been involved in working among the Dalits and Tribals, but it is quite rare for Catholic priests to take up the problems of Muslims, as you have been doing in Gujarat. What has been the reaction of the Church and of the local Christian community to your work among the Muslim victims of the recent pogroms in the state?

A: The reaction has been somewhat mixed. My superiors in the Church hierarchy have lent me their support. Last December we managed to get 16 out of the 17 bishops in Gujarat to join us in a demonstration against the violation of human rights of Christians, Muslims, Dalits and women in the state.
On the other hand, when I started working among the Muslim victims of state-sponsored violence in Gujarat I was opposed by some local Christians, who argued that I was putting Christians under additional threat from the Hindutva-walas by taking up the cause of the Muslims. They said that as a priest I should not get involved in what they called Ďpoliticsí, and some even went to the extent of threatening to write to the Pope to protest. Some right-wing Protestant Christian groups are vehemently opposed to Islam and Muslims, and they, too, did not like the work I was doing. To all these people who opposed me my answer was simply that Jesus spent his life working for the oppressed, irrespective of religion, and that, therefore, a true Christian must do likewise.

Q: As a Christian social activist working among victims of violence in Gujarat, how would you look at the Gujarati Muslim Ďulama? Do you see them playing a similar role?

A: A number of Islamic and Muslim organisations are, of course, working for the Muslim victims in Gujarat. I cannot say much about the Ďulama and their role, though I doubt they are very engaged. As I see it there is a major and serious lack of an enlightened and progressive religious leadership among the Muslims in Gujarat. I think there is an urgent need, among all religious communities, for a religious leadership that can transcend the narrow confines of institutionalised religion in order to work for the cause of the oppressed irrespective of religion. For me what is more important is the faith experience of a person, rather than simply the externalities of religion, which, while important in providing a sense of order and direction, are simply a means to the inner ethical and spiritual core of religion. Now, what has happened in all religious communities, including among Muslims, is that the priestly class tends to give inordinate stress to the externalities of religion - the rituals and the rites and the laws and so on - while neglecting the inner dimension as well as the social aspect of faith. True religion must be manifested not simply in rituals but also in working for the cause of the oppressed and the needy. However, what we have today is institutionalised religion that seeks to keep people lulled into submission and subservience, with religion being reduced to a set of dos and doníts, with which the clergy is obsessed.

Q: How do you relate this critique of institutionalised religion to a more socially engaged form of religion or spirituality?

A: In our Indian context, true spirituality must take the multi-religious situation very seriously, and must seek to explore and focus on the common ethical impulses in different religions. Further, the spiritual must be linked to the social, and true spirituality must constantly critique oppression, whether at an individual, group or societal level. Now, as a Christian I would say that you canít claim to follow Jesus, and you cannot say that you believe in love for all, if you do not intervene in situations of oppression and violence. And, as a Christian, I would not help only fellow Christians who are suffering, but any person irrespective of his or her faith who needs my help and solidarity, because all people are children of God. This is the most crucial form of inter-religious dialogue, working with people of other faith against oppression. I donít say that other forms of inter-faith dialogue, such as meetings with theologians of different faiths, are unimportant, but they are generally cosmetic and donít have much social impact. Sitting together and praying and reciting from the different religious scriptures is fine, but it does not bring about any genuine or structural change in society. Genuine dialogue is only possible in an environment of justice and security, when all groups feel that justice has been done and they are perfectly safe. But if you have a situation, as in many parts of Gujarat today where Muslims live in ghettos and continue to feel threatened, how can you have genuine and meaningful dialogue? How can you have genuine dialogue today in Gujarat when almost no Hindu religious leaders have spoken out against the violence? One or two of them may have issued statements condemning the state-sponsored attacks on Muslims, but that is not enough. Religious people need to constantly speak out, to actively struggle against violence, no matter who the perpetrators are. But this sort of this is not happening today.
I think that more than theologians, lay people from different communities need to take up inter-community dialogue and solidarity in a major way. Inter-faith dialogue must cease to be an elitist preoccupation, the sole preserve of priests and theologians. Lay people need to formulate, against the quarrelsome claims of the clergy, progressive understandings of their own religions. Lay people must also work to make the secular space sacred, in a progressive way. They should not leave religion to be monopolised by sadhus, pundits, mullahs and priests, and other peddlers in religion. After all, the Kingdom of God belongs to all, not just to professional priests.

Q: But what about the exclusive truth claims of different religions? Some of them imagine salvation or heaven to be the sole preserve of their adherents. How do you think this issue can be addressed in the course of dialoguing between adherents of different religions?

A: In the Catholic case, prior to the Second Vatican Council, the position was the there is no salvation outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church. But now our official position has undergone a major change. Salvation, we now believe, is indeed possible outside the Church. You donít have to be a Christian in order to be saved. A good Muslim or a good Buddhist or a good Hindu can also be saved. On the other hand, many right-wing evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant churches believe that non-Christians, no matter how pious or good, will be doomed to hell. Naturally, this constitutes a major barrier in any inter-faith dialogue venture.

Q: As a Catholic priest who is also working among Muslims, how do you see the argument or thesis of a clash of civilisations between Islam and Christianity?

A: I think this thesis, which is asserted by some Christians and Muslims, among others, is entirely wrong. We need to condemn mindless violence, terrorism and state terrorism, no matter who perpetrates it. Today you have a situation in which some fundamentalist Protestant right-wing churches, the American establishment and the Hindutva and Zionist lobby have clubbed together, and, like them, you have radical and fundamentalist Islamist groups who see the world in stark Manichean terms. I think this poses a major threat to all humanity. We must not let this degenerate into another crusade, although that is what Bush is trying to do. We need to strongly raise our voices against this.

Fr. Cedric Prakash can be contacted on sjprashant@icenet.co.in.

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep- June 30, 2004