By Sultan Shahin, Founder-Editor, New Age Islam
In this post-9/11 world characterised by a burgeoning clash of civilisations, multiculturalism and tolerance of religious diversity is under threat practically everywhere in the world. It has virtually ceased to exist in large parts of South Asia. In Pakistan, for instance, a near civil war in raging among religious, sectarian, ethnic and linguistic groups. Poor Pakistanis don’t even feel secure to go to mosques to pray. How does India then thrive in relative peace in the midst of this chaos, despite having the second largest population in the world, an astounding variety of religions, cultures, ethnicities and languages and dialects? [Indian constitution, for instance, recognises 22 languages and the country is home to at least 844 major dialects.] This question has staggered political scientists and sociologists around the world in recent times.
Just look at the top people in India’s political and economic life. The Prime Minister hails from the Sikh community which constitutes barely two to three per cent of India’s billion plus population. He is in his second five-year term as prime minister. The head of the ruling party and arguably the most powerful politician in the country is a Christian. Christians are numerically an even smaller community than Sikhs. Until a year or so ago, the head of state was a Muslim, that is from a community that constitutes nearly 13 per cent of the population. Even after retirement President Abdul Kalam probably remains the most respected and popular elder statesman India has ever had. Even now the vice-President of India is a Muslim. The wealthiest person in India is a Muslim technocrat. Seven out of top ten most popular actors in the Indian film industry are Muslim, not to speak of an assortment of artistes, musicians, singers, etc. So on and so forth.
One can go on giving examples of the respect common Indians have for the religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of their country. One and a half centuries of the notorious Divide and Rule policy pursued by our colonial masters did certainly make a dent in our national unity – after all, the country did get divided and saw horrendous scenes of communal violence that was completely alien to our experience before the British arrived on the scene. And yet, even today, you cannot go to the shrine of any Sufi saint anywhere in India and not notice that the majority of devotees there are non-Muslims, reflecting the full religious diversity of India. Indian constitution, of course, gives every Indian citizen perfect equality. It recognises religious diversity in the fullest sense, making India the only non-Muslim majority country that allows Muslims to organise their personal life in accordance with their religious personal laws.
To gain a perspective of how staggering these Indian achievements are, let us compare the situation with the one prevailing in Pakistan, which was part of our own nation and the same multi-religious, multi-cultural milieu till only 60 years ago. Let me quote from a recent article by a top Pakistani journalist, Kamila Hyat. She writes: “All of us who have attended school in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan were taught at one point or the other that the white strip that runs down the flag stood for non-Muslims who make up an estimated three per cent or so of the population. Now it seems this white is to be washed over with a shade of green that denies the existence of diversity in the country and closes the door of opportunity for citizens who practise a different faith. We may as well change our flag and give up the pretence that there is any space for minorities in our state.”
Then Ms. Hyat goes on to give specific instances of the Pakistani state’s intolerance. One of the more insidious doings of the recent 18th Amendment to the Pakistan constitution, for instance, has been to seal off the office of prime minister to non-Muslims by declaring that the post will be held by a Muslim. The presidency has, since 1956, already been reserved for Muslims alone. Any attempt to roll back this position, she says, would bring an outcry from the religious parties and other groups that back them. No political party has in recent years displayed the moral courage necessary to take on such groups. Indeed, already, on internet discussion forums, while an encouraging number of voices have spoken out against the measure, others have argued that it is justified for an 'Islamic' state to have only a Muslim at its head.
She goes on: “The message that the latest change sends out is a dangerous one. It comes at a time when we see at periodic intervals orgies of violence that involve the burning of houses belonging to non-Muslims or the torture of members of minority groups, often after charges of blasphemy have been brought. We have seen lynching carried out in public on these grounds. All around us we see in fact a kind of 'cleansing' on the basis of religion that should leave us ashamed. Hindus from Sindh – sometimes even from communities where they had lived in peaceful harmony with their Muslim neighbours for years – have been forced to flee to escape forced conversions or the kidnapping of their daughters. The few Sikh families who still lived in the tribal areas have been driven out of their homes by the Taliban following the imposition of 'jaziya' taxation on them. Christians have, since the 1980s, begun disappearing to escape discrimination; the names on school registers even at missionary-run institutions in Lahore reflect the change and the monolithic nature of the society we live in.
“The attitudes that have created this are for a large part the product of state policies. The laws against Ahmadis, the separate electorate for minorities and the 'Islamisation' policies have all encouraged social and economic discrimination. Opportunities available to non-Muslims have closed down. Employers are less likely to grant them jobs or offer promotions; schools deny them admission. The Basant festival has been labelled as being 'Hindu' and, therefore, undesirable. Even the simple act of flying a kite has been given a religious overture. There can be little doubt this has been a factor in the ban on Basant and the sport of kite-flying that has led to the fluttering paper shapes vanishing from the skies over Lahore, a city that once observed the only secular festival on our calendar with unrivalled passion.
“There is evidence too that the unpleasant process of creating a kind of sterile uniformity by rooting out diversity is growing. Muslim sects have confronted the wrath of those who hold they are non-Muslim. The mass killing of Shias in Karachi on two separate occasions as they marked Muharrum is just one example of this. Other groups have faced threats of many kinds. Some indeed, to protect themselves and their children, have chosen to disguise identity. Other groups, such as the small number of Jews who once lived in Karachi, have simply left the country.
The process is an immensely dangerous one. It has already created divisions that in the past simply did not exist. The result has been growing social unease.”
We are all, of course, familiar with the result of this growing social unrest. Scores of people are dying on an average practically every day in Pakistan.
So the question acquires even more potency: Where does India derive its strength? How do Indians so fully accept people from other communities, religions, ethnicities, languages, regions, etc. so fully, in positions of power and as their icons in various fields?
To understand this one has to go to the very roots of Indian way of life, our dharma, that is now known as Hindu religion but it was always a conglomeration of religions, philosophies, including atheism and agnosticism. Yes atheism was as much an integral part of Hindu dharma as was faith in one God or a multiplicity of gods or any particular deity which may have had a following in only one small locality. So one Hindu family could have had a couple of devout believers in one God or several gods or atheists or agnostics, all living together under the same roof, their beliefs causing no hindrance in their lives together. In different parts of India too there were different religions, different scriptures, and people from different parts used to travel carrying their beliefs with them and sharing them with one another.
So when beliefs like Islam or Christianity or Judaism came from foreign lands, they hardly faced any problem in being accepted. In any case the Hindu or more correctly the Indian considered the whole world as a family, a kutumb. One of the cardinal principles of Hindu philosophy was that there are many ways to the God and ultimately they all lead to the same divine truth. So while Islam’s encounter with some other religions was quite violent, Hinduism provided it with a fertile ground for growth. Islam was first introduced to India during Prophet Mohammad’s life itself by traders travelling between India’s Southern coast and Arabia. It was later taken to the masses by Sufi saints like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and Hazrat Nizamuddin. Hindus of all denomination visit and pray at the shrines of these and thousands of other Muslim saints with the same reverence as do Muslims. A number of Sufi saints spent their life-time in India, spreading Islam’s message of peace. Prophet Mohammad, too, is believed to have felt attraction for India.
Even the very first Muslim to conquer parts of India - Sind and Multan in 711 A.D. - Mohammad bin Qasim, accorded the Hindus the special status of Ahl-e-Kitab (People bearing Divine Books) that was by then meant for Christians and Jews alone, realising that the Hindu scriptures were clear testimony to the fact that they were revealed to earlier prophets that the Holy Quran talks about and asks Muslims to treat with same respect as Prophet Mohammad and believe in their prophethood as an essential part of their faith. Later emperors, particularly the Mughals adopted a secular system of governance, according the highest places in the governments, including the position of finance ministers and Army chiefs to Hindus. Even the Central Asian bandits who invaded and looted India, desecrating some temples in the process, could not disturb the milieu of religious tolerance and acceptance of Islam.
But this largely harmonious living came first under threat from the British policy of Divide and Rule. While this policy had been going on since 1800, it was formalised later. In a note dated May 14, 1858, to the Governor-General Lord Elphinstone, governor of Bombay advocated the continuation of the policy of "divide and rule". He stated: "Divide et impera was the old Roman motto and it should be ours". Sir John Wood, another ardent colonialist, in a letter to Governor-General Elgin said in plain words, "We have maintained our power by playing off one party against the other and we must continue to do so".
Pursuing this policy the British divided the province of Bengal in 1905 and created a new province with a Muslim majority. Then to isolate the Muslim community from the Hindus, Muslims were granted separate electorates and this right was incorporated in the Indian Councils Act of 1909. This was the beginning of what later took the form of confrontation and alienation between Hindus and Muslims.
The British also spawned and nurtured groups among both communities that promoted exclusivist tendencies. This eventually led to partition of India between Hindu-majority and Muslim majority lands. But while Muslim majority Pakistan almost immediately declared itself an Islamic republic, closing many doors and creating many problems for its religious minorities, Hindu-majority India chose to continue pursuing its age-old philosophy of integration and acceptance of all religions as different paths to the same God and thus as equally valid.
In recent decades, however, the challenges to Indian unity have grown. Some Hindutva groups, the legacy of the colonial era, have gained in strength, partly as a result of growing fundamentalism among Muslims under the influence of a world-wide movement spreading the Wahhabi radicalism. But the main challenge to Indian national unity today comes from neighbouring Pakistan which has been creating and promoting terrorist groups with the specific purpose of destabilising India. There is not the slightest reason to doubt the known fact now that Pakistani terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba are particularly after damaging the Muslim community in India.
The very idea of Indian Muslims living peacefully and marching towards prosperity in multi-cultural India with the same confidence as other Indians strikes at the very root of Pakistan’s existential philosophy. The very existence of a prosperous Muslim community in India destroys the Two-Nation Theory on which the state of Pakistan is based. The very fact that Muslims in India not only live peacefully among themselves but also in harmony with a variety of other religious, linguistic, ethnic communities while Muslims in Pakistan are deeply divided among themselves and constantly at each others’ throats is a profoundly destabilising factor for the very existence of Pakistan. That Pakistan’s Muslim Sindhis, Baluchis, Pathans, Saraikis, and indeed Mohajirs would love to join the Indian mainstream, given half a chance, cannot possibly be lost on the Pakistani establishment that has spawned these terrorist organisations to further its dubious strategic imperatives. The Muslims of India, by their very existence, more so on account of their peaceful and prosperous co-existence, are an existential threat to Pakistan. One can only hope that wise counsel will prevail and Pakistan would desist from following such policies.
In any case, Indians have shown great resilience and have become quite adept in facing challenges to their unity and secularism for long decades. They would continue to present a model of peaceful and prosperous plural co-existence to the world, possibly to be emulated by some who are looking for a solution to their problems of reconciling multiple diversities.