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Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman Addresses the Community Plenary

Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman addressed the Community Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Good morning. I am going to speak to you about an aspect of human rights which is not usually touched upon, namely about how prisoners continue to retain some of their human rights and as to what should be done to rehabilitate them. 

Now the story of human rights is really inextricably bound up with the struggle against human wrongs. We have been governed by monarchies for the last thousand years and barring emperors like Cyrus the Great of Persia, who not only went out of his way to liberate peoples who were enslaved but also did the affirmative thing of rebuilding the temple or providing funds to rebuild the second temple that was destroyed in Jerusalem, most monarchs have been absolute rulers. And we as human beings have been subjugated to terrible things.

Now I find that in the last couple of centuries, we have had these colonies of both Asia and Africa and they’ve shed their yoke only in the last century. And with the shedding their yoke, human rights have come into focus again in constitutional democracies which now follow the rule of law. It took millions of lives and two World Wars for the U.N. ultimately to come out with a Declaration of Human Rights which was done only in 1948. And three of them are important from my point of view today. One of them is how courts, that is number eight, are instrumental in enforcing these rights because otherwise they are meaningless. The other is number five where you do not have cruel and inhuman punishments imposed. And then most important the presumption of innocence number 11, before you are proven guilty. It took our courts and the courts in this country many years before they recognized that prisoners have human rights even within prison cells. This country stated in 1974 that there is no iron curtain between the constitution and their rights. 

We did pretty much the same in India as well, but this was in the 1970s, and it took till 1990 for the U.N. to come out with an important declaration as to prisoners rights.  Now this declaration again has three extremely important articles and it’s the last article on which I will build. The first is that when a prisoner enters a cell he does not shed human rights, he continues to have every other right short of the right of movement for which he is incarcerated. So the right to practice religion, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to life, liberty, property, all remain with the prison. Also the other two articles make it clear that once a prisoner is out of jail it’s important that he be rehabilitated. Now vocational guidance, etc is good and that is article eight. But it’s article 10 that is the focus of today’s short talk, which is a general rehabilitation so that he does not continue with criminal activity after he’s jailed.

Now the first important realization is that a prisoner requires a spiritual awakening. If there is no spiritual awakening then he’s going to do exactly what he did earlier and maybe worse after he leaves there. And I can’t think of a better method of spiritual awakening than to follow the lead given by the father of my great nation India, Mahatma Gandhi. And the lead given by this great leader was the holding of prayer meetings every day. And at those prayer meetings what was read was from different scriptures so that a feeling of fraternity came among everybody and everybody realized that everybody else’s faith was as valid as his own.

Now imagine if in jail you were first to read from the Old Testament and let’s say from the Psalms of King David and prisoners were to be told that they will lift up their eyes and to the hills from whence come into the hill and that they help commit from God. Or that the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want, very important because he provides everything, he meets his need to lie down before green pastures, he provided me with before the still waters etc. Imagine being told about the sermon on the mountain and that the meek and not the violent shall inherit the Earth. Most important that you turn the other cheek when violence is meted out to you which is nothing but the basic principle of the great giant faith. Ahims, which has been taught to mankind for thousands of years, much before Christ lived. Imagine being told for example about the four noble truths of the Buddha, it will strike an immediate bell with any prisoner that suffering is something which exists and in order to get rid of suffering what one must do is to channel desire, not to curve it or lose it completely. And that you do by following the great eightfold path. Imagine being told about the great Sikh faith and our Sikh brethren, who have been giving us lunch every day in this Parliament. The actual practical demonstration of love for a fellow human being in their two great things, langar and seva, where whether you happen to be the richest and most powerful of the most poor and small person all of you will stand to serve humanity. Imagine also that you would be told about the great truths of the Bhagavad Gita from the Hindu religion, namely that you are all bound in the coils of action. You cannot get away from action. So what you must do is to renounce the fruits of it. Imagine them being told about the great truths from the Holy Quran, that God is the God of Justice but he is also merciful, he is also compassionate. Imagine being told about the great truths from my religion, the Zoroastrian religion. The simple but profound Holy Triad: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. And this comes in a verse of the gathas which Zarathushtra himself said, stating that he was instructed about this after he actually saw God with his Mind’s Eye.

Now let us say the wisdom, literature, of the Confucians, we’ve had them also represented in this Parliament. Confucius would often say that it is important to abandon your frailties and very important to realize that if you see right and you do not do it you lack courage. That for example also said then it’s important not to be violent in life. It’s important to be passive. To accept what nature rolls out to you, so that you may live passively with other human beings.

I have a particular favorite which is from the sayings of one of our very great Chief Priests who lived about 1700 years ago, a man called Adurbad-i Mahraspand. And he said things which will ring in prisoners’ ears and indeed in everybody’s ears. He said for example that, what is courage unless it is accompanied with wisdom. Very important, because even a terrorist is a courageous person but he’s not a wise person because he doesn’t realize that he can achieve the same means by non-violent ends. So to repeat, courage must always be accompanied by wisdom. Second, intelligence by vision. Now there’s no point being intelligent and using it in a perfect perverted fashion for which you have got into jail, you must have the vision to realize that you will be in jail and that you shouldn’t do it for that reason. But also that you should do something good because it’s intrinsically important to do something good in itself. Then you also have the beautiful saying, that there isn’t much point in having a good thought unless it actually transmutes itself into a good deed. Because the good thought is only one way, it is something that you think of, but it’s the good deed that benefits both of you both the doer as well as the giver. And finally how it is extremely important when you are wealthy to be generous. 

Now I would only pray that Mahatma Gandhi’s vision and Mahatma Gandhi’s spirit would enter every single prison wall, all over the world, so as to create a spiritual awakening in each prisoner. Because each prisoner is in prison because his spirit has been left untouched and it is in jail that this great spiritual awakening can take place if we follow the Gandhi method. And if we do so we will all look forward to a better tomorrow. Thank you all very much.

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