[Eid Milad Procession in Mumbai is largest in India (File photo)]
Representatives of over a dozen Muslim groups in Mumbai met on 6th September 2023 and decided to defer the Eid-e-Milad procession, which has traditionally taken out on Prophet Mohammed’s Birth Anniversary, by a day this year and take out the same on 29th September, 2023 instead of 28th September, 2023 in order to avoid inconvenience and trouble to the public with Ganesh Chaturthi and immersion processions, which is also on 28th September.
The groups included the Khilafat Committee in Mumbai, which organises one of the largest Eid-e-Milad processions in India. The Khilafat Committee procession is always led by a prominent political leader (normally a non-Muslim) and this tradition has been followed since the time of Khilafat Agitation and Civil Disobedience Movement from 1919 to 1923 aimed to achieve freedom from colonial rule.
This time the Muslim community leadership demonstrated maturity in modifying their tradition. They might have been nudged by the police to decide, but they did it with grace and in the spirit of accommodation. The leaders also decided to avoid playing loud DJs.
Amidst a series of news about violent, communally targeted violence as in Manipur, Haryana and the shooting of three Muslims by a RPF Jawan Chetan Singh on train – Chetan Singh, films like “The Kerala Story” and "The Kashmir Files”, the Sakal Hindu Samaj rallies calling for social boycott of Muslims, we also hear news about humanity and people helping those from other communities, and even saving their lives at the risk to their own lives.
A 32-year-old UP State Road Transport Corporation bus conductor – Mohit Yadav asked the driver of the bus to stop for about two minutes to allow two of his Muslim passengers to offer their namaaz on Bareilly-Delhi National Highway on June 3rd, 2023. Unfortunately, he was sacked by the Corporation. Burdened with responsibility of his family, he saw no other alternative but to end his life and his body was found on railway tracks on 28th August.
In Bakhatgarh village with all of 15 Muslim families in Bathinda District, Punjab, Amandeep Singh, a farmer donated 250 sq. yards of his land for construction of a mosque. Fellow villagers contributed Rs. 2 lakhs and the neighbouring villages contributed cement and bricks. The 15 Muslim families were not allowed to leave their motherland by the villagers at the time of partition.
Likewise, in Jitwal Kalan village in Malerkotla, Jagmel Singh donated 1,200 sq. yards of his land and Rs. 51,000 for a mosque in August 2021. Other villagers collected another Rs. 5 lakhs. Rakhi Jagga’s (2023) article gives several more instances of villagers restoring abandoned mosques in Punjab as the state’s population declined from 40% before partition to 1.9%.
In Kashmir valley, there are instances of Muslim villagers helping Pandits to organise their festivals and continue their religious traditions even as they were forced to migrate out of the village during the militancy period. A Hindu couple solemnised their marriage in a mosque in Alappuzha (Kerala) when the bride’s mother approached the mosque committee for help with the wedding on account of lack of financial resources.
There are numerous other such instances wherein an individual or followers of one religion help followers or another community to fulfil their religious obligations and rituals in spirit of cooperation. There are numerous examples of reaching out and serving those in need but belonging to other religious organisations. The Sikh langars are open to all irrespective of religion, as are the meals served by the Sufi dargahs.
In India, with such mind-boggling religious diversity, people routinely participate in each other’s religious festivals. Many religious processions and festivities are jointly organised, including the Sufi urs, sandals and palkhis. Cooperation is more a norm, though increasingly coming under strain in recent times, in spite of the Indian state overzealously guarding sentiments of the majority community and demonstrating extreme tolerance towards hate speeches and crimes targeting other religious communities.
Why and when do people belonging to different religions or communities cooperate with each other and when they can be led to hate the other?
In any community, there are tendencies to practice one’s religion with orthodox zeal, exclusively, and degrees of exceptionalism. Such tendency partly comes from the notion of purity and pollution, emphasising accuracy in practices, rituals, worship, food and dress prescriptions, appearance and relating to other human beings. They aspire to gain religious merits by adhering to rituals and way of life as practiced by the previous generations and prescribed by their religious priesthood and cultural gate-keepers. Such tendencies that are in all religious communities resist any change or adoption of newer approaches and are at times deeply insecure about external influences, preferring to isolate themselves from others.
They desire to live within their own sects to be able to live their orthodox practices. Such tendencies may peacefully co-exist with other communities and all they want is to be left alone. However, the younger generation of the community that has been through the educational process may not share the same desires and that may create dynamics for change from within. This is not our subject in this article.
Helping a human being in need, especially when they are in dire conditions, or victims of unfortunate circumstances and devoid of ability to come out of those circumstances comes almost naturally and spontaneously. The religion of the person who needs help does not matter. The needy person may even belong to the community one distrusts and dislikes. What matters more is the cry or appeal – explicit or implicit – of the person who needs help. It invokes empathy in us. We want to be helped when in similar circumstances.
Take e.g., when there was a cloudburst on 26th July, 2005 in Mumbai and thousands of people were stranded in offices or on roads without mobile connectivity, electricity, food and means of transport to reach home or let their loved ones know that they are safe and on their way. Many of those who in normal circumstances were attitudinally at war with a certain community, were helping the stranded members of that community offering them food, water, transport, and even overnight shelter wherever necessary and possible. Communal organisations are often first to reach natural disaster sites and offer their services to stranded people.
During the earthquake on 26th January 2001 in Kutch, the RSS as well as Jamaat-e-Islami were extending their immediate relief services also to members of other communities, specially in saving lives and pulling out stranded victims from under the rubble. Likewise, when there is an accident on the road, people who witnessed the accident rush immediately to help the victim without his/her religion mattering. The iconic picture of Qutubuddin Ansari appealing with folded hands and fear on his face to be spared during communal riots in Gujarat in February 2002 was after all spared by the rioters who were killing and raping other Muslims.
Normally a person would help any needy without regards to that person's religion, culture, or other personal beliefs. That is why Muslim beggars beg invoking the name of Allah and do not experience discrimination in receiving alms, in spite of growing communal polarisation.
People who have internalised communal attitudes see evil, or a potential challenger to their religion or culture if the needy person belongs to their rival community. Such a conscious or subconscious perception may hold back their helping hand. Some people may have more than a natural tendency to help the needy. They may have an ideological commitment to help those who are discriminated against, or marginalised.
A committed secular person who is convinced that a certain minority community is targeted for political and ideological reasons, may go out of the way to express solidarity with them. Such a commitment is more than only help, but sort of a resistance to the communal ideology they disagree with. That solidarity is resistance to the ideological “othering” of the community.
We also have communities that are more prone to helping and serving others. Service to the needy as a religious mission and religious duty. Swami Vivekanand gave the axiom of “Daridra Narayan” – piety in service to the needy. To Mother Teresa, bringing and serving the discarded leprosy patients to her ashram was part of her religious life, which was carried on by the Missionaries of Charity order even today. Many Sufi orders also serve the needy in various ways.
Sikh community has langars as part of their religious practice, where persons belonging to all religions can eat. During Covid-19 pandemic, when the Covid patients were dying from shortage of oxygen cylinders, Sikh community reinvented their concept of langar and were extending it to “oxygen langars”, providing oxygen cylinders to the patients.
Mahatma Gandhi wanted people of India to be based on empathy for all, particularly the most marginalised and indeed, all oppressed and colonised people in the world. The concept of karuna or compassion in Jainism and Buddhism crosses religious and all cultural boundaries and sees only sufferings to be redressed. Such religious practices build communities based on inclusion, compassion, and empathy. There is a vision of common future for all rather than fragmenting humanity into sectarian communities based on religious doctrines and emphasising and essentializing cultural differences and constructing unsurmountable boundaries.
Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman was “antyoday” – upliftment of the last person and the most marginalised in the society – irrespective of her community. Helping the needy as a collective mission and raison d’etre comes more naturally to those who are inspired by and follow the service mission associated with religions. Such a nation would be welcoming refugees from other countries who have escaped intolerable oppression and managed to save their lives. They see no evil in any person just because they are following other religions or are from other countries. Propaganda of hatred against any community does not touch them.
One of the reasons why people who internalise hatred against another community and have violent attitudes, is because they feel their religion or culture is superior and draw immense pride in their superiority. There is a whole army of cultural entrepreneurs who fill them up with pride and make them feel superior, inventing an imagined golden and glorious past, and draw their claims from religious scriptures, and beliefs. Videos, electronic media, social and print media are used to build brand value for their “superior” culture or religion. In an otherwise miserable life, feeling of superiority acts like an elixir giving one a high and a good feel.
However, in a democracy, given a multi-religious and multicultural society, others too have a right to claim their superiority rejecting those of yours. The claim and feeling of superiority therefore needs coercive power of the state, media and institutional network to continuously sustain one's claim over others. Superiority may be claimed on merits of one's religion or on invented/exaggerated demerits of “rival” religions.
While the conflict entrepreneurs, like those who get elected to the positions of authority, or those who control print and electronic media and institutional networks laugh all their way to the banks, the consumer of elixir of superiority and those who internalise hatred get a high of belonging to a superior and nurture a commitment to a strong community.
The only way to sustain the feeling of superiority is by being hegemonic and/or expansionist, claiming privileges on one ground or the other, including a certain territory being the natural and only home of the community.
With a constant threat to the hegemonic / expansionist project emanating from the “rivals”, they are perceived as demons or enemies who need not exist or must be expelled out of one’s legitimate territory. They are perceived as intruders and disrupters to one’s communal / religious life. It is from this that hatred emanates. The conflict entrepreneurs create fear and paranoia of being overwhelmed by the rival. In this state, any propaganda against the “rival” community is easily internalised and forwarded to others.
The propaganda may be in the nature of provoking the rivals, chastising them, dehumanising them, and even using the worst form of violence. In this “war” with the “rivals”, strong unity and total and blind commitment towards one’s community becomes an ardent need. Those who have very violent attitudes towards rival community members may be very selflessly serving and humane towards members of their own community.
No amount of debunking the propaganda of cultural entrepreneurs by producing facts succeeds in convincing those who need the elixir of pride and superiority. Those facts are not believed and will not be believed.
Peace project needs to find out ways to evoke empathy and to build communities based on empathy. If those who have been inflicted with the elixir of pride and superiority can be made to see that those whom they consider their rivals and fear being overwhelmed by them are actually victims and humans with all the strengths and weaknesses just like other human beings.
“Mere Ghar Aake Toh Dekho” is one such campaign that has the potential wherein people are encouraged to visit each other’s home and see for themselves how the “others” live and what problems and challenges they face.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism organises diversity walks to familiarise the participants to explore how culturally diverse all religious communities are. Both these campaigns are efforts to build inclusive communities based on empathy and karuna.
[The writer, Irfan Engineer, is Director Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.]
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