By Dr. Ram Puniyani*
Unity in diversity is an expression that we have all learned during our school years. Enjoying Ramlila festivities during the ten days till Vijayadashami happened alongside watching Tazia processions or Jaina processions with slogans of Vande Viram (Hail Lord Mahavira), the celebrations of Dalits on the day when Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism and the celebration of Christmas. These experiences of diversity were deeply rooted in the way Indians marked various festivals – it was experiential, not just in the realm of theory.
In Indian society, diversity goes back as far as the imagination can go. Christianity is older in India than in many countries with much larger Christian populations. In the seventh century, Islam became part of this land. The Shaka, Kushana, Huna and Greeks have added their flavors to our culture. How did diversity become so deeply embedded in our culture? While there were ethnic conflicts, the social conditions settled in the coexistence and harmony between the religious currents.
Ashokan edicts call for mutual respect between members of different religions (which included Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism, and Ajivikas). Much later, Mughal ruler Akbar promoted Deen-e-Ilahi and Sulh-e-Kul. In his book Majma Ul Baharayn, Dara Shukoh describes India as a vast ocean consisting of two seas, Hinduism and Islam.
Bhakti saints such as Kabir, Ramdeo Baba peer, Tukaram, Namdeo and Narsi Mehta have attracted Hindu and Muslim followers. Sufi saints such as Nizamuddin Auliya, Muin al-Din Chishti and Haji Malang have become part of the Indian ethos. These saints embraced everyone, regardless of religion and caste. They have completely integrated into the local culture.
During the colonial period, divisive tendencies in the name of religion arose due to the British policy of divide and rule. The elites of society initiated and encouraged these tendencies. However, they have been overshadowed by the integrative and inclusive freedom movement. It was here that Gandhi’s magical interpretation of Hinduism succeeded in mobilizing people of all religions into the single thread of Indian nationalism. The charisma of Gandhi’s movements left a deep impression on people of all faiths. People recited shlokas from the Gita and verses from the Quran and the Bible during his prayer meetings.
During this period, we have seen Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Shaukatullah Shah Ansari, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Allah Bakhsh and many others rub shoulders with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and other freedom movement leaders. Diversity has added richness and strength to the composite notion of Indian nationalism.
Cultural values have drawn heavily from interactions in subtle and profound ways, influencing all aspects of our lives, from food habits, literature, art, music, architecture and so on. In recent decades, events in India seem to be going in the opposite direction, detrimental to peace and harmony. On the positive side, we are witnessing the bubbling of integration efforts within and beyond religion. We had eminent social workers such as Swami Agnivesh and Asghar Ali Engineer, who promoted inter-religious dialogue and sought to eliminate misunderstandings between members of different faiths.
Many silently working Crusaders in society – Martin McWan, John Dayal and Cedric Prakash come to mind – who have dedicated their lives to promoting harmony. These movements of interreligious dialogue have greatly contributed to reducing theological and social misunderstandings between Hindus, Muslims and members of other faiths. Their initiative contributed profoundly to maintain the friendship between various groups. Each in his own way has imprinted harmony on the whole society.
Faisal Khan has revived Khudai Khidmatgar, the organization founded by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. This grassroots organization promotes friendship and the spirit of mutual respect between Hindus and Muslims. They started an open day – Apna Ghar – a system where members of all communities can live together and share their practices with others in a respectful way. Famous filmmaker Anand Patwardhan wrote: “…the Khudais have touched the hearts of people across the country and the membership has grown to 50,000. is part of RSS.
India has been the scene of many gruesome lynchings. The families of the victims have no social support and are desperately helpless. To sympathize with them, social activist Harsh Mander started the Karwan-e-Mohabbat – Caravan of Love – which reaches out to families of lynching victims to provide moral and social support. It has proven to be a significant help for families and communities.
Many cities today have community harmony groups and charity groups that help everyone, although we don’t hear much about them. These groups work in silence, unnoticed, while the violence of groups that promote divisiveness always takes center stage. Even the peasant movement, the most important mass movement after independence, widely promoted community friendship. Similarly, the Shaheen Bagh protests have strengthened inter-communal friendship.
The deeper problem is the global rise of those who believe in the “clash of civilizations” thesis and promote divisive tendencies. India is no exception. A high-level committee sponsored by the United Nations when Kofi Annan was Secretary General proposed the notion of an “Alliance of Civilizations”. This is the guiding principle of many groups who wish to revive the syncretic traditions of India. In today’s troubling scenario, these glimmers of hope are lesser known but essential for a peaceful future.
*This article is the 17th in a series of joint productions by South Asian Outlook and IDN-InDepthNews, the flagship international press union. The author is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former chief medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (now Mumbai) and in the meantime a social activist and commentator. This article was first published on NEWSclick on January 3, 2022.