I have been fascinated by the word and concept of ‘the Passion’ for more than 50 years. I first came across it in the early sixties, in Beyond Desire (1956), a biographical novel of the German musician Mendelssohn by Pierre La Mure. The central theme of the novel is the discovery of the scores of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1727) in a butcher’s shop in Berlin in 1829, and the subsequent struggle of Mendelssohn to perform it. One of the most important pieces composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), it was first performed by Bach himself on Good Friday on April 11, 1727 in Leipzig. Subsequently, the scores were lost till Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) rediscovered it. He performed it on March 11, 1829 in Berlin, when he was just 20 year old!

The concept of Passion is a very important concept in Christian theology and means suffering of Jesus on the Cross. (I am listening to the piece while writing this, thanks to the Internet, which also throws up some fantastic images of Jesus as well as of Bach writing this piece of music). Mendelssohn was a Christian, but also an ethnic Jew. The music required more than hundred performers, a place to do rehearsals and time and money. How it came to be performed is itself an epic in the story of Western Music. Finally a Jewish banker supplied the money and a barn outside Berlin to perform rehearsals, and the novel ends with the first performance. I enjoyed reading it and was deeply moved by it.

Now I am an atheist, irreligious, and an anarchist to boot. Those who have met such people would not be surprised by my interest in such ideas and subjects. Contrary to the popular belief, most of us are not against serious religious persons. In history, a great amount of important milestones in arts, science and culture have been achieved by deeply religious people – Leonardo Da Vinci, Newton and Tolstoy, just to name a few people in the Christian traditions. There are equally important people in Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and many other religious traditions and cultures. Our difference with them is that the concepts of religion and God are not good enough for us. This has been debated peacefully over centuries. Our quarrel is with communalism – use of religion for secular purposes, as the scholar Asghar Ali Engineer defines communalism. It is the use of religion to gain power and wealth and use of hate and genocide of the other communities that we are against. In this many good people, both religious of all hues and others are with us.

Then, in the seventies, I read The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1954) by Howard Fast. It is about a miscarriage of justice in the U.S.A. in the 1920s. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, sentenced to death and hanged in 1927 for a crime they did not commit. It was a pay check robbery and there was a false witness to it. Although, everyone knew it was a false case, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were punished because they were poor immigrant Italian workers and had socialist and anarchist leanings. They were punished for their thoughts and ideas and not for their actions. Fast never uses any Christian theological terms in his beautiful novel, but it is clear that he portrays Vanzetti as Jesus. In fact Vanzetti was a very sincere and humble socialist, a loving and caring husband and father as is clear from his letters from the jail.

The trial received wide scale international publicity and support for the victims. In the protests that followed the execution, many people were killed by the police in many countries in the world. On August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of their execution, Michael Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts issued a proclamation stating that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried and convicted and that ‘any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.’

Fast was not alone in telling their story. There was a Broadway play, a film and also great music on the subject, notably sung by Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) and later, Joan Baez (1941-). Among the more famous songs are Baez’ recital of the poem on the Statue of Liberty sung in a manner that brings out the pathos and irony of the immigrant. The other equally moving song is in the form of a letter written by Vanzetti to his son.

The painter Ben Shahn (1898-1969) produced in 1931-32, 23 paintings on the subject, the most famous being the monumental painting called, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti.

I have read a thousand-page book on the subject describing the legal battle. It is one of the classic human rights cases in history, and till today books and articles keep on appearing on the subject.

Actually, the concept of Passion keeps on reappearing. When we come across the fast of Irom Sharmila, which has been going on for 14 years now, or the incarceration of Dr. Binayak Sen, we are reminded of it. These are gentle people advocating peace and human rights. There have been and still are, a large number of people, poor people, middle class people, teachers, doctors, lawyers, poets, authors, painters and musicians who have been incarcerated and punished for their ideas. Again and again people are being jailed and punished for their thoughts and not for their actions. This is what human rights are all about – you cannot be punished for your thoughts, period!

If you are a Christian you will find that Christ is being resurrected every day – wherever there is some injustice and someone is protesting. If you are secular, you will find that wherever there is injustice, there is protest. Good people are born again and again in every age.

So, this is what the words Passion and Easter mean to me. It is about Jesus, who suffered and died for others. Who was punished and crucified for his thoughts and not for his actions. Who accepted his punishment with grace and forgave those who punished him because in his opinion they did not know what they were doing. It is also about courage – the quiet courage of conviction!

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: t.vijayendra@gmail.com


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