It is rather unusual and certainly not normal to wish someone who is in prison “A Happy Birthday!” One’s birthday cannot be ‘happy’ in prison; however, in wishing you – we celebrate your life: your mission and your message and above all, those whom you have so closely identified with, all these years so “Birthday Greetings to you dear Fr. Stan!”
Our prayer today is one of thanksgiving to Almighty God for the Gift of You: to so many people everywhere: particularly the poor and the excluded, the Adivasis and Dalits; to the Country, the Church and the Society of Jesus.
We continue to marvel at your unflinching commitment to the cause of justice. Over the years you have shown us all what it means to be a person for others, rooted in the non-negotiable faith-justice mandate. Your life as a Jesuit and Priest has been greatly shaped by Vatican II and the Jesuit 32nd General Congregation which states, “the mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement; for reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another.” You have internalised this spirituality and you radiate it!
Today, we cannot help but think of your incredibly simple life-style. Your frugality is known to all. You have lived your vow of poverty to the fullest; your material needs are few; your actual possessions are even less . The media had a field day, when some time ago the ‘authorities’ came to seize your possessions- they could find and take away almost nothing!
You have taught us the true meaning of ‘solidarity’ what it means to sincerely walk the talk; that to meaningfully empower the exploited and the excluded, one has to be in solidarity with them in their struggles; to accompany them visibly and vocally, with prophetic courage, through difficulties and hostilities, for a more just and humane society.
We celebrate today your amazing work! You are a known Adivasi rights activist working on various issues of the Adivasis: land, forest and labour rights; questioning the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which stipulates setting up of a Tribes Advisory Council with members solely of the Adivasi community, for their protection, well-being and development; your work has also involved opposition to the setting up of ‘land banks’, which you believed would free up land belonging to the community in favour of the corporate sector Besides, you helped form a group called the ‘Persecuted Prisoners’ Solidarity Committee’ that sought to do a study of the nature of undertrial prisoners (3,000 Adivasis illegally put in jail) and to have recourse to legal action, so that justice can be done. Your work has involved expressing dissent with several official policies and laws, which you were convinced were violative of the Constitution. The Adivasis and other excluded, who have been denied their legitimate rights, see in you a person who has left no stone unturned, to champion their cause.
You are an extraordinary person; in a selfless manner, you have given and have not counted the cost! As a young priest, you lived in an interior Adivasi village sharing a small room with one of the local families. During that time, you mastered the Ho language, studied their culture and customs, ate their food and even sang and danced with them. Insertion into the tribal way of life has always been paramount to you and in a way also ‘your forte’! You believe in youth: you have trusted them, given them a sense of identity and helped them to critically analyse what is happening to their tribal society. With the generosity and help of the locals you also built your own residence which became an ‘open house’ to one and all !
Today we once again listen to those profound words which came from your heart, a short while before your arrest on 8 October 2020 “What is happening to me is not something unique- happening to me alone. It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers writers, poets, activists, students, leaders, they are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India. We are part of the process. In a way I am happy to be part of this process. I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price whatever be it”. Yes you have not been and will never be a silent spectator!
On 15 January 2021 , on the hundredth day of your incarceration, in a message, the Jesuit Superior General Fr Arturo Sosa reminded us all that, “Father Stan dedicated his whole life to the poorest in the world, the indigenous Adivasi and the Dalits. He is the voice of the voiceless. He has stood before the powerful and told them the truth, he is committed to defending the human rights of minorities.”. A precise summation of your mission!
In a very profound way you have epitomised the ‘joy of the Gospels’. In his Apostolic Exhortation on holiness ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’, Pope Francis says, “we are inspired to act by the example of all those priests, religious, and laity who devote themselves to proclamation and to serving others with great fidelity, often at the risk of their lives and certainly at the cost of their comfort. Their testimony reminds us that, more than bureaucrats and functionaries, the Church needs passionate missionaries, enthusiastic about sharing true life. The saints surprise us; they confound us, because by their lives they urge us to abandon a dull and dreary mediocrity.”. These words are without doubt all about you!
You have been in prison for two hundred days now; but even in prison , you reach out to the less fortunate prisoners in every possible way! You care for them. You have not allowed the brutal and inhuman system to break you! Instead, you tell us with such positivity and hope, that even a caged bird sings. You are not a silent spectator and you will never be one! That is why on 26 April , your 84th birthday, we celebrate you and sincerely thank you for all that you mean to us! With lots of love we say: “Happy Birthday dear Stan!!”
(Fr Cedric Prakash (GUJ) is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: [email protected] )