Father Cedric Prakash, the Ahmedabad-based, award-winning human rights activist, has recently moved to Lebanon to work with Syrian refugees. Till recently, Father Prakash worked with marginalised groups across Gujarat and founded Prashant, an Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace in October 2001. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, Father Prakash spoke on behalf of the Muslim victims, even testifying before the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in Washington in June 2002.
He spoke to The Wire from Lebanon about the plight of Syrian refugees, the human rights situation in Gujarat and what he thinks about the future of the state.
Q: How have things been so far in Syria? Could you tell us about the work you will be doing.
A. At this moment everyone is hoping and praying that the Syrian Peace talks in Geneva work or for that matter the meeting of world Leaders in London will usher a transformational new deal. I work with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), a global coalition of more than ninety humanitarian and human rights groups with children from the region. As the Advocacy officer one of my role is to see how best we can help integrate refugee children into regular schooling of the host country.
Q: What are your plans in Syria?
A. I’m going to do a lot of travelling. I’m headed to Jordan, then to Syria. I’m also travelling to Irbil in northern Iraq. I’ll be based in Lebanon during my stint here and visit four or five countries in the next month to see for myself the reality in those areas.
Q: What were your first impressions after meeting Syrian refugees?
A. I was in Lebanon for a few days in July when I travelled to Beirut and visited some rural areas. I was deeply moved by the plight of the refugees from Syria. They were alone, helpless and greatly traumatised. When you speak to them, they say they would like to go back to the place they call their home and where they had all their possessions. Now many of them say they have nothing left, everything is destroyed. They are giving all their life savings to go to these human traffickers to get on boats. Why would they want to risk their lives?
The Syrian refugee crisis today is unprecedented–the worst ever mass migration since World War II. People have lost their kith and kin, walked miles through the Balkans to Western Europe with nothing. But they aren’t trusted wherever they go; everybody says, “Why have you come here? You are taking my space. You are not accepted. You’re not wanted.” What is one to do short of committing suicide?
Q: Do you find the political will to resolve it has faded? Have people have lost interest in Syria?
A. I think so. A sense of fatigue sets in. Take the Gujarat violence of 2002 for example. The general mainstream says, “forget about it” “let’s not pursue it”. Nobody wants to be rankled by the reality of the past or be made to feel uncomfortable. As long as it’s not happening to them, they don’t care. It’s a very inhuman attitude because today we’re not the victims. But that could change tomorrow.
Q: Speaking of Gujarat, how did you feel about leaving it?
A. It’s been a painful experience. It’s not easy at all. Somebody once said who is Cedric Prakash? Banne bin Gujarati and bin Hindu che (I’m not a Hindu and a Gujarati without being one). I speak Gujarati; I work with Gujaratis all the time.
Q: There was some chatter that several high-ranking government officials wanted you gone.
A. No, there is no truth to that. The rumour mill was strong, some even came to protest my leaving – they wanted to write to anyone and everyone including the Pope. But this is my decision. I wanted to work for refugees for years and I got the opportunity.
Q: What are the issues that Gujarat still faces?
A. We need to expose and bring to justice the main culprits and those who presided over the Gujarat Genocide of 2002. The people who were killed, including my close friend Ehsaan Jafri, had nothing to do with what happened to the S6 compartment [the Godhra carnage] the previous day.
The Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra at that time. Godhra neighbours Madhya Pradesh. Why didn’t anything happen there? Why did it happen only and only in certain pockets of Gujarat, and particularly in major cities like Ahmedabad? The real question is: why are big names, convicted for their role in the riots, out with impunity and immunity?
Q: In a recent interview you’d said: “The winds of change are blowing in Gujarat,” referring to the recent local body elections where the BJp did poorly. Could you elaborate?
A. There is a sense of fatigue among the ordinary citizen. There are all these very tall promises of acche din and all that, but people know. And sooner or later they will call the bluff. They are calling the bluff all over the country now. The BJP has lost a lot of the panchayats. This is when they had everything going their way; when they thought they were invincible.
And this is minus any effort from the political alternative in Gujarat, the Congress. We don’t have the left front, we don’t have a third front: we have nothing. Yet the Congress has made inroads into BJP strongholds without doing anything.
Q: But isn’t that also the case with the BJP in Gujarat-the lack of emerging leadership?
A. Yes, I think so. And the country is realising this across the board. We don’t have strong civil society leaders in Gujarat or a charismatic political leader.
Q: Do you think there has been a concerted effort, including by making laws, by the government to dismantle civil society movements, particularly in Gujarat?
A. Yes, and it’s quite evident in the state. I sit on a board with Teesta Setalvad and I know the amount of muck that has been sent out about her. For example, they say she’s bought jewellery, liquor, stayed at hotels and so on. But they are looking into her personal credit card and any citizen of India has the right to spend his or her well-earned money the way they want to. But what do people get to read in the newspapers? There are attempts to discredit human rights defenders – It’s happening in subtle ways, in indirect ways.
You should see some of the tweets I got after I left India. They used to say that I’m a missionary trying to convert Dalits and adivasis. And now, apparently, I’m going to try to convert people in the Middle East.
Q: What did you face?
A. In Gujarat, it began primarily after 2002. They posted intelligence officials outside my press conferences; they did everything in the book to try to intimidate and harass. I know many people who have just given up, who are now afraid and don’t want to take a stand. That’s a tragedy. The moment we give in, half the battle is lost.
Q: Is there a dearth of conversation in Gujarat? One never sees a protest in Ahmedabad on any major issue.
A. Yes that cannot happen. We try to do some protests and so on but the same faces come back. Many people are frightened. Where Gujarat is concerned, the mind-set is very exclusive, upper caste. The mind-set is that you have to be an insider. We need new emerging leadership, even politically.