This weekend came news that a judge of the Bombay High Court had withdrawn his oral remarks praising the late Father Stan Swamy’s work for the poor and oppressed – because the prosecutor objected that the judge’s words had negatively affected the morale of the National Investigating Agency. I did not realise that our police spooks had such sensitive souls that they could feel demoralised by kind words about an octogenarian social worker who had already passed away, but let that be. There’s something bigger behind the entire episode.
Stan Swamy’s death witnessed a major outpouring of regret across India, as individuals of every conceivable religious and political affiliation and none (barring, of course, those with any connection to the ruling party) expressed their sorrow at his demise in police custody. A Jesuit priest who had devoted himself to the well-being of tribals in Jharkhand, serving them selflessly, dying under police custody without ever having been convicted of any crime – this was the kind of injustice our Constitution and laws were written to prevent. Stan Swamy’s passing won him the attention of people who were unaware of his struggles while he was alive, and widespread condemnation of the “system” that could have done this to him.
I must admit, as a product of two Jesuit schools (in Bombay and Calcutta, as they were then called) myself, to be a bit perplexed by this. I knew the Jesuit order, founded in 1534, as a dedicated group of priests who took a missionary and scholarly approach to Catholic teachings. At Campion School, Bombay, and St Xavier’s, Calcutta, I had seen the Jesuits as priests admirably committed to the vocation of educating the (somewhat) privileged and ministering to the under-privileged. I remember my class X teacher, Father Remedios, brilliantly instilling in his students a detailed appreciation of Shakespeare before cycling off to prison to attend to the needs of its inmates. That, I had always seen, was the Jesuit way.
It is true that in Latin America especially, Jesuits had developed a great awareness of the “sinful” socioeconomic structures that caused injustice, and devoted themselves to work to change this. “Liberation theologians” believe that God speaks particularly through the poor and that Jesus’s message has to be understood from their perspective. The charge that this was a Marxist idea grew from their insistence that priests should involve themselves in the political struggle of the poor against wealthy elites. Liberation theology was largely eclipsed where it began, in Latin America, as the Roman Catholic Church appointed conservative prelates who clamped down on leftist social activism. But its central idea – that social justice is something priests must strive to bring about – remains, and some Jesuits have arguably embodied this conviction in their life’s work, including, in some cases, in India.
Yet when a Jesuit speaks of class struggle, or of unjust social structures, he does so not with a Marxist interpretation but with a Christian one. Since their 32nd general congregation in 1975, the Jesuits have proclaimed a joint mission of faith and justice. They believe that Jesus preached love of the poor, and that to fulfil His teachings calls for both deep spirituality and a more critical sense of the iniquities embedded in society.
Pope Francis is himself a Jesuit, who places major emphasis on the poor in his teachings. But as an Archbishop he prevented the Jesuits from becoming politically active or working directly in community groups for social change. Jesuit support for the poor does not necessarily translate into leftist politics.
Pope Francis famously exhorted Catholic clergy that, if people were not going to church, then the church had to go to the people. Some interpreted that to mean that if the people were in the streets in protest, then the church had to be in the streets in protest, too. As long as they do so within the permissible boundaries of our Constitution, Indian democracy permits them to do that too. Stan Swamy moved the courts on behalf of oppressed tribals; he did not give them Kalashnikovs.
This is surely Christian, not Marxist. Jesuits like Pope Francis look to the Scripture, not to Marxist social analysis, for the principles and ideas that could inspire their work to free people suffering social and economic injustice. Many Catholics would argue that Jesus, after all, preached good news to the poor and shamed the wealthy. Mother Mary called on God to feed the hungry and dismiss the rich, praying to Him to uplift the weak and dethrone the powerful. The Bible famously says that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle.
To my knowledge, most liberation theologians assert that though they are not Marxists, they make use of Marxism as a social science. Jesuits, like other disciples of Christ, shun private property, but that does not make them Communist. They argue that Marxist analysis of economic inequality is intellectually useful, but it is religious teaching that tells them to work to overcome inequality, since Jesus himself sought to do so. Catholic theology has a history of citing non-Catholic philosophers: St. Thomas Aquinas quoted Aristotle and philosophers like Martin Heidegger, who was Jewish, have inspired Catholic theologians. This places Jesuits like Stan Swamy in the Christian tradition, rather than the Communist one.
So the criticism of Stan Swamy as a dangerous exponent of liberation theology is misplaced. He was a good man, whose spiritual beliefs prompted him to work for the most dispossessed in our society. Our “system” killed him, and seeking to discredit his life by reference to Marxism or liberation is an unworthy endeavour on the part of his critics. Let us, instead, simply mourn the passing of a good soul.
About the Author
Dr Shashi Tharoor, a third-term Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram, chairs Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology.