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India 'needs a Romero' who takes a stand for those who are harassed and incarcerated

By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ* 
This year, 24 March, was pregnant with meaning! For a large percentage of Indians, it was ‘Holika Dahan’, the start of the great festival of Holi! For most Christians, it was the commemoration of ‘Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord’, the commencement of their holiest of week. 
For millions, it was the painful remembrance of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, now a Saint of the Catholic Church. Significantly, as a tribute to this martyr of modern times, the United Nations General Assembly, observes the day globally, as the ‘International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims’. An important day indeed, on some many different counts! 
On ‘Holika Dahan’ (burning of Holika), Hindus prepare bonfires and symbolically burn ‘Holika’. According to legend, ‘Holika’ was a demoness, who personified all that was evil. She was the sister of Hiranyakashipu, and she acquired a boon that rendered her invulnerable to fire. She attempted to kill her nephew, Prahlada, by placing him on her lap in a bonfire. 
However, she was immolated while Prahlada, through the intervention of Lord Vishnu, was saved from the fire. It is the triumph of the victory of good over evil! Whilst the bonfire burns, people normally dance around it and sing songs extolling all that is good! The next day of Holi, is the celebration of spring, the vibrant colours which radiate India’s diversity and pluralism. ‘Holika Dahan’ is a reminder that no one, however seemingly powerful, is invincible; and that, good always overcomes evil! 
Palm Sunday is the day on which Christians remember the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the great Festival of the Passover. It is a moment of adulation! People welcome Jesus with olive branches and palm leaves. They take out their outer garments and strew them on the path he will take. A clear sign that they are ready to let go of their material possessions, in order to follow him. 
What the people do not understand is that the system itself is evil: it is fraught with bribery and betrayal, divisiveness and treachery – as we experience in India today! The powerful political and religious leaders of his time, were determined to see Jesus dead! 
The ordinary people eventually succumb to their wiles and manipulations, their intimidations and false propaganda and soon they will condemn him shouting “crucify him”! Jesus is killed because he takes an uncompromising and unequivocal stand for justice, truth, peace and salvation for all!  Easter Sunday, a week later, is his triumph over death!
Archbishop Oscar Romero, was the personification of the victory of good over evil and of the suffering, passion and death of Jesus which culminates in the Resurrection. On 24 March 1980, he was brutally gunned down whilst celebrating the Eucharist in his native El Salvador. He was a fiercely outspoken critic of his government, the military and of the fascist elements of his country, for their continued exploitation and exclusion of the poor. It was they who killed him! 
He visibly and vocally took sides with the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable and with all who were victims of injustice. His martyrdom spontaneously made him a ‘Saint’ for millions of his people. It was estimated that more than 250,000 were present at his funeral as a sign of gratitude to the man who did so much for them and whom they deeply loved.
In his homily, a few moments before he was assassinated Romero said: 
“Many do not understand, and they think Christianity should not get involved in such things (taking a stand for truth and justice). But, to the contrary, you have just heard Christ's Gospel, that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life which history demands of us, that those who would avoid the danger will lose their life, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about because it dies, allows itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by destroying itself does it produce the harvest”.
The day before (23 March) he was killed, Romero gave a powerful sermon, which was broadcast over radio, that appealed to the soldiers to disobey their superiors. He said:“In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to Heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!” That appeal was his death sentence. 
On December 21, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly, in a fitting annual tribute to Oscar Romero proclaimed March 24 as the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims:
• to honour the memory of victims of gross and systematic human rights violations and promote the importance of the right to truth and justice;
• to pay tribute to those who have devoted their lives to, and lost their lives in the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all;
• to recognise, in particular, the important work and values of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated on 24 March 24,1980, after denouncing violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable populations and defending the principles of protecting lives, promoting human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence.
As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall rise in the Salvadoran people
India today is steeped in untruth and injustice. Those who take a stand for justice and truth are harassed, incarcerated and even like Romero, killed!  Corruption is mainstreamed: be it demonetization or the Electoral Bonds scam. The minorities (particularly Muslims, Christian and Sikhs) are at the receiving end of a brutal system; divisiveness and discrimination rule the roost. ‘Leaders’ from across the spectrum are afraid of taking a visible and vocal stand against the powers that crush others. 
Several political, corporate and even ‘religious’ leaders use hate speeches and even resort to violence, to nurture their lust for power and greed for wealth. People are kept divided and on the fringes of society for whimsical reasons. 
Truth and justice are conveniently sacrificed for petty political gains; those whose primary duty is to propagate and protect our Constitution, our democratic ethos and pluralistic fabric, just abdicate their responsibility; they feel either too embarrassed or very frightened to take a stand or they just succumb to the ‘diktats’ of their masters. 
Draconian and anti-people policies like the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Education Policy, the three anti-small farmer laws, the four labour codes are high on the agenda! The poor and the other vulnerable, continue to be the victims of unjust structures everywhere. Romero was never afraid to highlight these realities and take on the powerful of his land!
 Some days before he was killed, Romero stated, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall rise in the Salvadoran people.” His words are still chanted today, “they can kill me, but they will never kill justice”. 
Today, our country and Church desperately need the likes of an Oscar Romero (not just one, but many!). A Romero who is not afraid to speak truth to power, to take on the fascist forces, to have the courage to burn the evil so that good triumphs. 
A Romero who is neither a hypocrite or takes recourse to diplomatic ‘niceties. A Romero who exemplifies servant-leadership and has the prophetic courage to die for others, so that they may rise! 
On 24 March 2024, we were all challenged to become ‘Romeros’ in today’s India! Are we ready to meet this challenge?
---
*Human rights, reconciliation & peace activist/writer

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