THE   ROLE   OF   THE   MEDIA   IN   FOSTERING

JUSTICE   AND   PEACE

AMID   RELIGIOUS   PLURALISM

                                                                                                           -    Fr. Cedric Prakash sj.  *

 

 

Dear Friends,

 

 

I feel very honoured and  privileged  to be invited  to give the keynote address at the 11th National Convention of Christian Journalists on the theme “  The   Role   Of   The   Media   In   Fostering   Justice   And   Peace Amid   Religious   Pluralism ”.   I thank the Indian Catholic Press Association (ICPA) and in particular, its President Mr. Michael Gonsalves, for giving me this opportunity to be with you here today.

 

I neither have the professional qualifications nor the experience of a journalist.  So attempting to address an illustrious group of professionals like you is indeed a daunting task.  I must say, however, that for the last several years, I have closely interacted with the media at different levels and being the Secretary for Social Communications of the Western Region Bishops Council does give me a certain perspective.  Nevertheless, I would like that what I am now going to say, to be taken in the framework of how “each one of us can do good, better”, and how we can contribute our mite in fostering justice and peace amid religious  pluralism in our country today.

 

Together with the challenges I intend setting before you,  I also offer you a perspective which naturally has to be in and from Gujarat from which I derive  my insights. 

 

 

THE   GUJARAT   REALITY :

 

In order to contextualize this presentation I need to briefly highlight the reality which has been existing in Gujarat for the last five years or so…..

 

The  27th  of February 2002 and the days that followed will definitely go down in history as a period not merely of utter chaos and violence but of reprehensible acts which could put any civil society to shame.   One need not go into the details and the goriness of the carnage which saw the brutal murder of more than 2000 Muslims, the disappearance of and / or the migration of several thousands, the injuries to hundreds of thousands , the brutal rapes of several women and arson / loot and the destruction of homes and property of the Muslims. 

 

Earlier, in 1998 / 99, Christians and Christian institutions were the targets : Churches were burnt and / or destroyed; Bibles were burnt and even a dead body was exhumed from a grave.  Some Christians were beaten up and Christians from all over the State were terrorized and intimidated.  Whilst the attack on the Christians is nowhere in comparison to the one on the Muslims; the fact remains that minorities in Gujarat very specially the Muslims and Christians continue, even today to be at the receiving end of those extremists who swear  by Hindutva : an ideology which is both fundamentalist and fascist.

 

When one talks of the Gujarat reality, one cannot deny that civil society has not sufficiently  responded to what has happened or is happening.  There have not been any mass protests, no movements or no charismatic leadership to put a stop to the juggernaut  that literally oppresses every one in its way.   There can be a variety of reasons for this lack of response but at the basis of it is that selfish attitude “as long as it is not happening to me why should I bother !!!”.  Besides, some press in Gujarat have indeed played a dubious role which has added fuel to the fire.

 

Having delved briefly in the context  I would like to illustrate it with more vivid dimensions in order to emphasize the extent to which things have permeated in Gujarat

 

 

Vibrant Gujarat

 

In early January, there was a week-long celebration in Gujarat.  There is a new slogan which the Chief Minister of Gujarat and his coterie have coined for the State – “ Vibrant Gujarat ”.  They have been propagating this slogan for the last couple of years :  during the Navratri festival in October and now again during this Uttrayan festival (the kite-flying one).  The dynamics are blatantly obvious :  a crude attempt to project that all is well and hunky-dory in and with Gujarat.  Hoardings across the State and glossy advertisements in Magazines speak about “a feel-good atmosphere”.  The main roads are freshly paved and the main paths of the city have been given a whitewash.  A very typical manipulative strategy (in a way  also proclaimed by the previous BJP-led NDA Government which spoke about “Shining India”).  In order to pretend that everything is normal in Gujarat  -  and what has taken place in 2002,  is just history.  This we know is far from truth ! 

 

Fortunately, the recent “visa catastrophe ” where Modi is concerned,  brought to focus that Gujarat is not all that “vibrant” even today !

 

 

Textbooks  :   

 

One needs to make a careful analysis of the textbooks in Gujarat to realize to what depths manipulations can take place. History is tampered with right from the starting point when a child which is being formed is made to believe that the starting point of Indian history is the Vedic age rather than the Great Indus Valley Civilization.  As one grows up, one is taught that the  caste system is good for society and that women have to play a secondary and obedient role.  There are far more dangerous aspects when the students are given a very positive view of Nazism “since Hitler lent dignity and prestige to the German race”,  and for the main problems of the country….guess what ?  it’s the minority community !  And who are the minorities ?  They are the Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Jews and  other “foreigners” !    We have done a very systematic research study on several of the textbooks including a very recently introduced one for Std. VIII.  The text- books blatantly demonize minorities like Christians and Muslims and have very strong prejudices against the tribals, dalits and women.

 

 

 

Census on Muslims and Christians :    

 

In February 1999, the Government of Gujarat conducted a census on the Muslim and Christian communities of the State.  The census included such hideous questions like “which are the foreign countries supporting them” “what are the arms and ammunitions they possess” etc.  Justice Calla of the Gujarat High Court in a suo motu judgment regarded this census as “unconstitutional and discriminatory” but referred it as a PIL to a Full Bench.  Before the final judgment could be delivered, the Gujarat Government announced that the census was withdrawn and that they had not  authorized it….but the damage was done.  In March 2002, in the wake of the onslaught on the Muslims and their establishments, it was clear that a lot of the information that was collected earlier was used viciously against them.  For example, even if there was a Muslim partner in an establishment run mainly by others of the majority community - that Muslim part was targeted and destroyed.  Besides, hotels with such innocuous names like “Tulsi”, were singled out and razed to the ground because of their Muslim ownership.  The census and the questioning of Christian and Muslim institutions have still not stopped. Recently they wanted to know whether we are employing any ex-military personnel in our institutions.

 

 

Patrikas   :

   

Propagating false and malafide information through Patrikas (pamphlets) has been a strong point of the Hindutva elements.  These Patrikas are carefully designed,  very selective in what they want to project, and  with a language which is very vitriolic.  The are usually in Gujarati and / or Hindi and easily find their way in large numbers to the slums and to the villages.  There is a very effective distribution network usually consisting of street urchins or unemployed youth.  Even a couple of days ago, several of the new pamphlets were brought to my attention.  As in the last few years, just before Christmas, these Patrikas do their rounds in several areas of South Gujarat, very specially in areas which have some Christian presence like in the Dangs District.

 

 

Freedom of Religion Act :

 

On 26th  March 2003, the Gujarat Government unanimously passed  the Freedom of Religion Act.  This Act is absolutely draconian in nature and goes against the Constitutional freedoms guaranteed under Article 25. of the Constitutions.  The noteworthy point of this law is that one needs to take “the permission” from the civil authority before one changes one’s religion ;  besides contravening this law would mean imprisonment / fine for the violator and it is doubled if one happens to be a tribal, a dalit or a woman.  The irony is that, even today, more than two years after its promulgation, “the rules” necessary for the implementation of this law are not in place, so petty officials obviously use this as a Democles’ sword, like it was done to a group of dalits who wanted to embrace Buddhism recently.  

 

 

 

 

Visits and enquiries from officials   :   

 

Then there are the official visitations which come from the Charity Commissioner, the Registrar of Society, the Income Tax, the FCRA Department, the Police…..yes, all routine and all seemingly innocuous but the undertones are clear.  The insinuations  are not subtle.  The modus operandi is to attack where one is vulnerable and only on “official matters”.  So, several of the Muslim and Christian institutions are subject to these visitations and well, can one complain about it or question as to why only the minority institutions are singled out   ?

 

 

Indiscriminate use of POTA  :   

Very recently, the Central Government repealed the form of POTA (The Prevention of Terrorism Act)  which was introduced by the previous Government.  However, many of us are still not satisfied with this because we have been demanding “repeal of POTA with retrospective effect, and cancellation of all POTA charges in Gujarat, in recognition of the painful fact that the State Government openly misused this draconian Act to victimize exclusively, members of the minority community with very little genuine evidence.  Attempts by the Gujarat Government to pass a POTA-like law should be firmly resisted by the Central Government”.

 

 

THREE  CHALLENGES :

 

What I have just said has a bearing on justice and peace in a multi-religious society.  We cannot promote justice – peace if we do not address what is endemic first.  Therefore,  in the light of today’s theme, and in keeping with the name of your Association, I would like to set before you, three  distinct yet interrelated challenges.  These are :

Ø      The challenge to be  Indian

Ø      The challenge to be  Catholic

Ø      The challenge to be Press (Journalist)

 

 

The Challenge to be” Indian” :

 

At the heart of  the Association, is that identity, called “Indian”.  In the context of what I have just shared with you about Gujarat, we have been going through a phase where our very “Indian-ness” is questioned.  The point I would like to make; who defines what is “Indian” ?  Do we succumb to the whims and fancies, to the “dada-giri” of a few hardcore, right-wing Hindu elements who are trying to propound a fascist ideology of one nation, one language, one culture, one religion ?  For some in Gujarat, any one  who is not Hindu, is not    Indian.   Any  one  who  stands  up  for  truth  and  justice  becomes   “unpatriotic”  or

“anti-national” or even branded as a “terrorist”.  The problem is, they are setting the agenda for us and we are reacting to it !  The time now is for us to be setting the agenda and tell them that this is our country, we are Indian as much as they are and if they have any problems, it is they who need to be packing up…….

 

This, for the simple reason, that we have a Constitution which is Secular in nature and while we uphold the spirit and the directives of our Constitution, we need to uphold and cherish all that is ennobling, namely, truth, justice, liberty, peace of and for every single citizen of the country.  It is these values and the fact that we are diverse and live in a pluralistic society that defines our “Indian-ness”.  The yardstick is NOT : my religious beliefs  or the language I speak or the clothes I wear.

 

The challenge therefore that I am setting before you, dear Writers, is that, whilst upholding and preserving the secular fabric of our Constitutions and that of the Country, you need to systematically destroy anything that corrodes or eats into the foundations.  Only then can we regard ourselves as truly and authentically “Indian”.

 

 

The Challenge to be “Catholic” :

 

Here lies another challenge.  Unfortunately, for many of us,  the word “Catholic” is restricted to the narrow confines  of our religion rather than  its “universality” which it necessarily denotes.  A case in point is some of our Catholic Weeklies/ Monthlies which are so insular: which only highlight some rather pedestrian happenings where Catholics are concerned or try to seek revenue from the “matches and dispatches” advertisements….Our Catholic periodicals need to be more focused, to take a stand for truth and justice and above all, create the necessary space for ours to enter the mainstream of society.  They need to  transcend and reach out to others much more.

 

We have been remembering in a very special way, our late Holy Father John Paul II who died exactly a week ago.  Very strangely, his Forty-Fifth Apostolic Letter entitled “Rapid Development”  published on February 21st , 2005 was written to all those “Responsible for Social Communications”.  “The great challenge facing the media” he wrote “is to preserve free and open access while avoiding the manipulation of the media by ideological forces or the destructive use of the media to promote selfish materialism.  Properly used ”, he stressed, “ the media  “can and must promote justice and solidarity”.

 

The Holy Father further highlights three fundamental options which we are faced with, namely  “formation”, “participation” and  “the promotion of dialogue” .   I think herein lies the true meaning of “Catholic”, wherein we become vehicles for reciprocal knowledge, of solidarity and of peace.

 

Therefore, for me, the challenge of being “Catholic” is essentially the ability to be “the salt of the earth” “the leaven in the dough” and “the light of the world”….. to be able to take a stand for what is right, for truth and for justice.

 

 

The Challenge to be “Press”

 

We thus come to the final challenge and that is the challenge of being a good and relevant “Press” or “Journalist” today.

 

In the Apostolic Letter which I just referred to, the Pope empathically states “to those working in communication, I extend the invitation which, from the beginning of my ministry as Pastor of the Universal Church, I wish to express to the entire world “do not be afraid”.

 

It is very symbolic that the theme of his address at his installation is re-echoed more than twenty-six years later, in his last written exhortation, and this, to people like you.

 

On a day like this, I want to use the exact words of the Holy Father, to you Journalists : “Do not be afraid of taking a stand for what is right, for what is truth, for what is just”.  In his opening remarks, the President of the ICPA very categorically stated that one of the goals of this association is “to train Journalists with a conscience”.  Make this happen.

 

In the wake of the Gujarat Carnage, we have had very few journalists to take bold and upright stands; some  have  definitely done it and for this, they are definitely paying the price.  Our Catholic Periodicals must reflect such bold and courageous stands.  Above all, I urge you to enter and to get others to enter the mainstream media, very specially the vernacular press.

 

The role of a journalist, I believe,  is not only to inform but also to take sides.  But in order to take sides, you must be informed, you must critically study and analyze situations and reality.  You have to go out to the people to feel their pulse, to take opinions.  When we water down all our writings with shades of grey, we are not providing our readers with that option they need to respond critically and positively to the happenings in society.

 

The Church in India has come out with a very strong document “Called to be a Communicating Church” and there are instructions that we create ownership of a National Pastoral Plan for Social Communications.  I am neither a skeptic nor a cynic.  But sometimes, I sincerely feel that a lot of these wonderful statements and plans get lost for posterity into our dusty shelves and archives.  We are afraid to translate them into concrete action.  We forget what Jesus has said “Do not be afraid, I am with you”.  Our late Holy Father has reiterated it.  I am attempting to set it before you as a  “Challenge”.

 

 

CONCLUSION :

 

I have tried to set three very specific challenges before you : they are all inter-related.  In a way, a description of your association; but they are also fundamentals with which you can forge ahead.  The theme of this National Convention is extremely laudable.  I am convinced that if our Christian Journalists have to play a role in realizing it, then you must become more India, more Catholic and more Professional as a Journalist.

 

We have listened to some excellent speeches in the earlier part of this Convention.  Mere listening and agreeing to what is being said, does not change reality. Concretizing the proposals, taking a stand, will help us, perhaps, go, another step forward in this journey of a thousand miles.

 

People often smile when they listen to me harping on the words of Rabindranath Tagore over and over again….. but I am convinced in the context of this National Convention, his prayer has a lot of relevance.  I would like you to join me in praying this prayer for ourselves, for our Church and for our country :

 

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, let My journalist friends awake !

                                                                       My Church awake ,

                                                                       My Country awake !

                                                                       Each one of us awake ,

 

 

Thank you very much !

 

           

 

This keynote address  was delivered  at the 11th National Convention of the Indian Catholic Press Association held in Goa on 10th April 2005, on the theme  The   Role   Of   The   Media   In   Fostering   Justice   And   Peace Amid   Religious   Pluralism ”.

 

 

*   (Fr. Cedric Prakash S.J. is  the Director of PRASHANT,  the Jesuit Centre of Human Rights, Justice and Peace in the State of  Gujarat.  He is the Secretary for Social Communications  of the Western Region Catholic Bishops Council.  He is actively involved in issues related to communal harmony, justice and peace.  In 1995, he was awarded the Kabir Puraskar by the President of India for the promotion of communal peace and harmony.)

 

 

 

 ‘ PRASHANT ’

Post Box  4050

Navrangpura

Ahmedabad   380 009 

Gujarat,  INDIA

Tel :   079 27449744 /  27455913

Fax :  079 27489018     

Email :  sjprashant@icenet.co.in