Jesuits in troubled South Asia pledge social action

JESA president warns of 'a lethal combination of nationalism and religion' and waning democracy
Jesuits in troubled South Asia pledge social action

Vasvai Kiro, an activist from Jharkhand, speaks at a function to celebrate 50 years of Jesuits in Social Action in Indian capital New Delhi on Sept. 26. (Photo supplied)

Jesuits in South Asia and their allies have reiterated their commitment to work for marginalized people as they marked 50 years of the formation of Jesuits in Social Action (JESA).

Some 200 Jesuit social activists from South Asian nations gathered from Sept. 25-27 in New Delhi to reflect on Jesuits’ involvement in social justice in the region.

Father George Pattery, president of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, was among those who addressed the gathering. He said the sociopolitical dynamics of the world had changed in the last 50 years.

“The near-total monopoly of the consumerist economy, the demise of the so-called socialist or communist bloc and the spread of the digital world have caused a major shift in the sociopolitical map,” he said.

Besides, across the world, “there is an upsurge of the right wing, with a lethal combination of nationalism and religion, the ongoing weakening of democratic processes and the apathy of the youth for social concerns,” the Jesuit leader said.

South Asia is no exception. Majoritarian religious nationalism, partisan pro-government media, increasing populism in democracy and mob rule mark our situation today, Father Pattery said.

While Sri Lanka is struggling with terrorist threats, Bangladesh and Pakistan are on thin democratic threads, while Afghanistan remains uncertain about its future.

“The Jesuits of South Asia have to begin to dream of South Asia, the cradle of many religions and cultures, growing into a credible sociopolitical entity to bring in fresh thinking,” he said.

In her keynote address, human rights activist Kavita Srivastava spoke about the shrinking space for social activism in India.

“If you speak for tribal people, you will be branded as Maoist. If you speak about your rights, you will be booked on a sedition charge … so where is freedom?” she asked.

“There is a kind of fear among the marginalized that they will be targeted if they raise their voice, but we have to get united and find a mechanism and methodology of resistance.”

JESA’s South Asia Secretariat was formally initiated in 1973, four years after Jesuits launched the movement in Rome in 1969 during their general congregation.

JESA was formed to assist Jesuit superiors to translate the faith–justice mandate of the Jesuit general congregation into action in all the ministries, particularly social action.

It encourages well-studied responses and interventions from Jesuits to support marginalized groups and communities, Jesuit leaders told the meeting.

It also promotes and coordinates interactions, research, study and actions leading to development and empowerment of marginalized communities. It also disseminates information through bulletins, workshops, seminars, training and visits.

JESA secretary Father Stanislaus Jebamalai, also known as Sannybhai, said the common challenges in South Asia are “fundamentalism and vested-interest groups taking the law into their own hands and creating terror.”

The Jesuits have resolved to foster collective leadership to face the challenges, organize the marginalized and empower them to take leadership to campaign on issues.

Vasvai Kiro, an activist from Jharkhand, spoke about the contribution of Jesuits in her state, where Jesuit missionaries continue to work after arriving more than a century ago. “Their contribution to the education and health field cannot be forgotten,” she said.

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