Jesuit contribution to nation-building in South Asia

Ever since the Catholic Church began articulating its social thought from the encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII, the Society of Jesus had been active in social outreach as part of its pastoral care of Catholics. However, the seeds of a greater engagement of Jesuits in the social field can be traced to the letter of Superior General Fr. Jean-Baptiste Janssens, SJ, on “Instruction on the Social Apostolate” on October 10, 1949, which called for a new “social mentality” among the Jesuits that required revision of Jesuit formation programmes, the education curriculum in Jesuit schools and colleges, and the opening of specialized centres of social research and action.

In response to this initiative, Fr. Jerome D’Souza, SJ, a renowned educator and a member of the Indian Constituent Assembly that approved the constitution of India in 1949, was called upon by the Superior General to start an institute to “contribute to the emergence of a new social order in post-Independence India.” With the founding of the Indian Institute of Social Order in 1951, which was later renamed the Indian Social Institute and shifted from Pune to Delhi, the journey of the Jesuit involvement in the social apostolate began.

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The quarterly journal Social Action was also started in 1951 to publish articles that reflect on the social realities in South Asia. The institute endeavoured to shape social policy and empower people and their organisations with social knowledge for their own development. It also began establishing training and academic centres in various parts of the country imparting social theory and practice, such as the Xavier Institute of Social Service (XISS) in Ranchi.

Efforts to improve agricultural production resulted in the establishment of Action for Food Production (AFPRO), which is presently run by lay people. From the mid 1960s, Jesuits started social centres in different parts of the country. As an illustration, the social centre Ahmednagar was founded in 1966 to do pioneering work to improve the lives of the rural farmers and communities through watershed development.

The secretariat of Jesuits in Social Action (JESA) was formally initiated in 1973 to respond to the faith and justice mandate of GC 32 in South Asia. The social engagements of Jesuits included non-formal education, self-help groups (SHGs), promoting cooperatives, aquaculture, sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, protection of the environment, livelihood security, food security, and land rights.

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Besides the development approach, Jesuits were also engaged in the promotion of human rights, especially the rights of dalits (untouchable castes), tribals (indigenous peoples), women, minorities, and informal labour. Jesuit centres also remained active on political issues such as the promotion of participative democracy, secularism, pluralism, and peace building.

Jesuits have also been engaged in relief and rehabilitation after floods, earthquakes, and conflicts in the region. In order to bring all Jesuit social centres onto one platform, the South Asian Peoples Initiatives (SAPI) was formed in 2002. It participated in World Social Forums in India and abroad.

In recent times, JESA has been working on developing leadership and empowering marginalised communities. One such initiative has been Jan Netritva Pahal (People’s Leadership Initiative) involving social centres of six Jesuit provinces trying to build leadership capacities of tribals. However, a major social innovation has been Lok Manch (People’s Platform) initiated in 2015 that involves 15 Jesuit provinces and regions of South Asia.

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This initiative has been unique on many counts. First, it is a platform of 100 organisations that epitomises the spirit of collaboration and networking as it is a collaborative effort of organisations of Jesuits, dioceses, religious men and women, other Christian denominations, Hindus, and Muslims. Second, it has adopted a rights-based approach ensuring that Lok Manch facilitating partners become catalysts for social transformation through the empowerment of leaders of marginalised communities with knowledge, skill, and social perspectives to enable them to access their rights and entitlements. Third, this people’s platform adopts a dual approach of, on the one hand, ensuring proper implementation of existing laws and policies, while, on the other, engaging in advocacy at the local level, state level and national level demanding new socially relevant policies and amendments to existing social policies and laws for the benefit of marginalised sections of society. Finally, this initiative is an illustration of global cooperation as it is supported by Misereor and Xavier Network partners.

Today, Jesuits in South Asia engaged in the social apostolate continue to contribute immensely to nation building by empowering marginalised communities and influencing social policy discourse in South Asian countries.

[Article from "Jesuits - The Society of Jesus in the world - 2020", by Denzil Fernandes SJ]

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Posted by Communications Office - Editor in Curia Generalizia
Communications Office
The Communications Office of the General Curia publishes news of international scope on the central government of the Society of Jesus and on the commitments of the Jesuits and their partners. It also handles public relations.

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