A group of villagers in India listen to a Lok Manch speaker as he educates them on their rights under the National Food Security Act. Photo courtesy Lok Manch

Power to the people: Giving India's poor the tools to fight for their rights

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  • February 14, 2020

Even though a substantial number of people the Lok Manch organization serves are illiterate or never properly schooled, the easiest way to start a Lok Manch meeting is to have everyone stand up and recite the pre-amble to India’s constitution, said Jesuit lawyer Fr. Stanislaus Jebamalai.

Composed in the midst of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s drive for independence in 1946, the 545-word statement commits India and all Indians to justice, liberty, equality and fraternity within a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic. It turns out that all those high ideals and political theories, written out by India’s Oxford-educated elite in the mid-20th century, matter a great deal to poor villagers living hand to mouth, Jebamalai told The Catholic Register while on a visit to Canada to speak with students and Catholic youth in Ottawa, Regina and Vancouver.

Jebamalai, known across India simply as Sunnibhai, is one of the founders of Lok Manch — a human rights coalition of over 100 civil society organizations formed in 2015. Active in 13 Indian states, Lok Manch counts on more than 300,000 activists in its fight for basic rights and services for the poorest and most neglected Indian citizens.

If non-governmental movements and organizations seem pretty marginal to daily life in Canada, they are central to how Indians see themselves and their nation, said Ritu Birla, University of Toronto historian and former director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

“There is a very robust civil society practice and organization in India,” she said. “The reason for this is the impressive mass mobilization against the British Empire that we can date back to the late 19th century.”

It may be more than 70 years since Gandhi created a nation out of a teeming subcontinent where people speak 22 languages and worship in every possible religious tradition. But Indians know that what Gandhi created was built on a coalition of non-governmental organizations known as the Indian Congress. These organizations were unified by an ethical stance against the established authority of the British Raj, which Gandhi called “swaraj” or self rule.

“That template of consciousness raising is very important in India,” Birla said.

The consciousness that Lok Manch raises is an awareness among the poor that they have rights, said Jebamalai.

“When something happens, many people tend to think it is my luck — bad luck,” explained Jebamalai. “When they get this rights perspective, then they are in a better frame for critical thinking of the realities.”

In practical terms, Lok Manch teaches poor people about the 2013 National Food Security Act, which gives subsidized food grains to approximately two-thirds of India’s 1.2 billion people. Under the scheme, a monthly allotment of five kilograms of rice costs 21 cents. Wheat is even cheaper at 14 cents for five kilos.

The Food Security Act guarantees the subsidized food as a right of the poor as citizens. In a country with 195 million undernourished people that ranks 74th out of 113 major countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index (Canada is number eight), the force of legally enshrined rights is seen as the only way to end hunger.

Away from the capital of Delhi, rights often disappear behind the curtain of corruption, Jebamalai said. Shop owners may decide to keep back the subsidized grain to sell later at market prices. Local government officials may be in on the deception when a shop owner claims he’s all out of subsidized rice.

Lok Manch organizers and activists will accompany people as they claim their subsidized allotment and ask questions if shop owners or local officials claim the order can’t be filled. The very act of claiming a right to food breaks through the often passive, fatalistic mindset of low caste and Indigenous Indians who have been taught all their lives to defer to local officials and business owners.

“What do you want to do? Do you want to live with this injustice for another few years? Or do you want to say, ‘Enough is enough — now we need to get the law implemented properly?’ ” is how Jebamalai poses the question to poor villagers.

Against a backdrop of rising identity politics that sets the Hindu majority against minorities of all kinds, the Jesuit lawyer sees Lok Manch’s work as a continuation of Gandhi’s vision for a multicultural, multilingual, religiously diverse society.

“We got independence in 1947. It was not because one community supported against another. Together they did that job,” he said. “Back then it was ‘we.’ But now the language is ‘they and we’ and ‘you minorities.’ ”

The ethnic and religious chauvinism of the current government is not natural to India, said Birlu.

“In India people live along-side each other,” she said. “I am from Bombay. You have different sects of Muslims next to Hindus of different castes living next to each other — poor and wealthy. Obviously you have Catholics in Goa. You have Jews in a cosmopolitan place like Bombay. … People live and breathe next to each other in the way that they do in Toronto.”

Though there’s nothing evangelical in the purely secular work Lok Manch does, Jebamalai knows the ethical ground on which he stands.

“I have opted to identify myself with the marginalized people, to reach out to them — like Jesus identified Himself with all those who labour, who are burdened,” he said. “I will give you rest.”

Jebamalai was the keynote speaker at Canadian Jesuit International’s “Youth for Others Advocacy Symposium: Just Change” Feb. 9-11 in Ottawa. The event brought young people from across Canada to Ottawa to learn about social justice from the perspective of poor countries, to meet with Parliamentarians and learn about activism. He was also featured at CJI Youth for Others events at Campion College in Regina on Feb. 13 and St. Mark’s College at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on Feb. 18.

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