By Dr Ram Puniyani *
Unity in diversity is a phrase we all picked up on during our school years. Enjoying the festivities of Ramlila during the ten days until Vijayadashami was parallel to watching the processions of Tazia or the processions of Jaina with slogans of Vande Viram (Hail Lord Mahavira), the celebrations of the Dalits on the day Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced the 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 dates back as far as the imagination can. Christianity is older in India than many countries with much larger Christian populations. In the seventh century, Islam became part of this land. The Shaka, Kushana, Hunas and Greeks added their flavors to our culture. How did diversity become so deeply rooted in our culture? While there were ethnic conflicts, social conditions settled in the coexistence and harmony between religious currents.
The Ashokan edicts demand mutual respect between members of different religions (which included Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism and the Ajivikas). Much later, Mughal ruler Akbar promoted Deen-e-Ilahi and Sulh-e-Kul. In his book Majma Ul Baharayn, Dara Shukoh described India as a vast ocean made up of two seas, Hinduism and Islam.
Bhakti saints such as Kabir, Ramdeo Baba peer, Tukaram, Namdeo and Narsi Mehta have attracted followers among Hindus and Muslims. Sufi saints such as Nizamuddin Auliya, Muin al-Din Chishti and Haji Malang have become a part of Indian philosophy. These saints embraced all people, regardless of their religion and caste. They blended perfectly into the local culture.
During the colonial period, divisive tendencies in the name of religion arose due to the British divide and rule policy. The elitist sections of society initiated and encouraged these tendencies. However, they have been eclipsed by the inclusive and inclusive freedom movement. It is here that Gandhi’s magical interpretation of Hinduism succeeded in mobilizing people of all faiths into the single thread of Indian nationalism. The charisma of Gandhi’s movements left a deep impression on people of all faiths. People would recite 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 more rub shoulders with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and other leaders of the freedom movement. The diversity added richness and strength to the composite notion of Indian nationalism.
Cultural values have drawn heavily from interactions in subtle and deep ways, influencing all aspects of our life, from eating habits, literature, art, music, architecture and so on. In recent decades, events in India seem to be moving in the opposite direction, detrimental to peace and harmony. On the positive side, we are seeing the effervescence of integration efforts within and beyond religion. We had prominent social workers such as Swami Agnivesh and Asghar Ali Engineer, who encouraged interfaith dialogue and sought to eliminate misunderstandings between members of different faiths.
Many Crusaders work in silence in society – one thinks of Martin McWan, John Dayal and Cedric Prakash – who have dedicated their lives to promoting harmony. Such movements of interfaith dialogue have greatly contributed to reducing theological and social misunderstanding among Hindus and Muslims and members of other faiths. Their initiative has contributed in a profound way to maintaining the friendship between the various groups. Each in his own way has come to imprint harmony in the whole of society.
Faisal Khan revived Khudai Khidmatgar, the organization that Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan founded. This popular organization promotes friendship and the spirit of mutual respect between Hindus and Muslims. They launched 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. Renowned filmmaker Anand Patwardhan wrote: “… the Khudans have touched the hearts of people across the country and the membership has grown to 50,000. Today there are many Hindus, including a few. that were once in the RSS.
India has been the scene of many horrific lynchings. The families of the victims have no social support and are hopelessly powerless. To sympathize with them, social activist Harsh Mander launched the Karwan-e-Mohabbat – Caravan of Love – which reaches out to families of lynching victims to provide them with moral and social support. This is an important help to families and communities.
Many cities today have community harmony groups and charity groups that help everyone, although we might not hear much about them. These groups work silently, unnoticed, while the violence of divisive groups always monopolizes the spotlight. Even the peasant movement, the most important post-independence mass movement, has largely promoted community friendship. Likewise, Shaheen Bagh’s protests have strengthened inter-community friendship.
The deepest 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, advanced 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 the current troubling scenario, these glimmers of hope are less well 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 of the International Press Union. The writer is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former chief medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay (now Mumbai) and, in the meantime, a social activist and commentator. This article first appeared on NEWSclick on January 3, 2022.