New Age Islam
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Spiritual Meditations ( 2 Jun 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Reflections on Peace in Plural Societies



By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

After a long struggle, the Indian Subcontinent won independence from the British in August 1947. This independence was on the basis of the ‘two nation theory’. It led to the Partition, not just of territory, but of entire communities as well. Far from solving the problem of communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims, it only further exacerbated it. Prior to the Partition, the conflict was between two communities that lacked political power. With the Partition, it now became a conflict between two sovereign countries.

Mahatma Gandhi had, from the very first day, perceived how sensitive this situation was. And so, he stressed that Hindus and Muslims should learn to live together in peace and harmony, and said that he would give up his life in order that this would happen. However, shortly after India became independent, he was shot dead. This was undoubtedly a very big tragedy. Because of this, India lost its tallest leader who was committed to peace and unity.

The Partition was accompanied by horrific communal violence on both sides of the newly-created border. This violence continued unabated for many years thereafter. In order to address the issue, the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called a national-level conference in New Delhi in October 1961. At this conference, it was unanimously decided to set up the National Integration Council to deal with matters related to communal harmony.

 The second conference of this Council was held in June 1962. Speakers delivered their speeches on the occasion—suggesting various measures to promote communal harmony. Yet, no action was taken on their suggestions. Moreover, no more meetings of the Council were held during the rest of Nehru’s life.

The third meeting of the Council was called by Indira Gandhi in Srinagar in 1968. It called for promoting hatred on the grounds between communities to be made a cognizable offence. Some other steps were also mooted. A few laws and rules were also passed. But still, nothing practical came out of this, and so, even today, the situation in the country is about the same as it was in 1947 as far as the issue of communalism is concerned.

What was the reason for this failure? The basic reason was that this issue has been treated simply as a law and order problem. However, in actual fact, the nature of the issue is different. It is not essentially a law and order problem. Rather, it has to do essentially with the lack of intellectual development and social awareness. To solve the problem, what is basically required is to properly educate people and promote proper thinking and discernment. People should know what to do and what to abstain from. They should learn to think before acting. This sort of aware society is one where communal harmony can flourish.

Religious Differences

Some basic issues that relate to the vital question of properly educating people about the issue of communalism need to be clarified. One of these relates to the issue of religious differences. There are, in fact, obvious and clear differences between the different religions. For instance, some religions believe in monism and others in monotheism. Some religions preach the discovery of truth by oneself, while others believe that such truth is revealed by God through messengers.

Some people think that these religious differences are themselves the root cause for communal conflict. They believe that communal harmony can exist only when these differences are somehow destroyed. ‘Bulldoze them all!’ they say, but of course this is so completely impractical that it is not even worth talking about.

Faced with the reality of religious differences, some people seek to somehow or the other try to prove that all religions are, actually, one and the same. One such person was the late Dr. Bhagwan Das (1869-1958), a very capable man. After a detailed study of all the major religions, he wrote a book, running into almost 1000 pages, titled Essential Unity Of All Religions. He claimed that all religions teach the same things.

But to seek to prove that all religions are one by extracting portions from different scriptures is like culling out portions from the Constitutions of different countries and publishing them together in a single book and then claiming that all the Constitutions of the world are the same and have the same rules and clauses and provisions. This sort of imaginary universal Constitution may greatly please the author of such a book, but it will not be acceptable for even a single country. The same holds true in the case of those who have compiled books like Dr. Bhagwan Das’ about religion. Books of this sort may give their compilers great pleasure, but they cannot be acceptable to the followers of the different religions.

I have studied this issue in detail and have found that to claim that all religions are one does not correspond to reality. In actual fact, the different religions differ so greatly from each other that it is impossible to practically prove them to be one. For instance, one religion says that God is one. Another religion talks of two gods. A third religion says there are three gods. Yet another religion claims that there are 33 or 330 million gods. Some religions insist that the number of gods is simply beyond counting. In such circumstances, to consider the teachings of all the religions is simply wishful thinking that has no basis in logic and factual reality.

Even if, by some means or the other, it could be argued that the scriptures of the different religions are, in actual fact, the same, the problem of differences will still remain unresolved. This is because there are multiple and conflicting interpretations of each of these scriptures, as a result of which each religion is further divided into numerous sects.

The fact is that such difference or diversity is not just a religious phenomenon. The entire world is based on the principle of difference and diversity. These differences are so pervasive that no two things or people are wholly identical, without some difference or the other. As someone has very rightly said, ‘Nature abhors uniformity’.

When differences are themselves a law of Nature, how can religion be an exception to this rule? The fact is that, just as there is diversity in everything else in the world, so are there differences between one religion and another. We have not thought it necessary to do away with differences in other matters, but, instead, have agreed to disagree. We should adopt this same practical approach and principle in matters of religion as well. Here, too, we should accept diversity and differences and seek to promote unity despite them, instead of searching for an imaginary unity by trying to do away with them. There is only one way to solve the issue of religious differences, and that is: ‘Follow one, and respect all’.

Cultural Differences

The issue of cultural difference is also a vexed one. Different social groups are characterised by cultural differences. Some people regard these differences as the root of conflict. They argue that to end conflict, these differences should be wiped off and a single, common culture should be imposed on everyone, so that ‘cultural unity’ can thereby be promoted.

This proposal, too, is impractical. Culture cannot be made or destroyed by individuals at will in this way. It cannot be prepared by someone sitting in an office. Rather, it is a product of a long, historical process.

In the wake of the Second World War, numerous ideologues in different parts of the world began calling for the establishment of a mono-cultural society in order to promote national unity. This mono-cultural approach was promoted, for instance, in Canada, but it proved impractical and was soon abandoned. Now, Canada has officially adopted multiculturalism as its policy and has abandoned mono-culturalism for good.

The same happened in the USA as well.  After the Second World War, a movement to promote what was called ‘Americanisation’ emerged, which sought to impose a single culture on all Americans, but this failed, because people realized it was impractical.  And so, it was abandoned, and now in America, too, multiculturalism is the recognised policy.

The fact is that cultural differences are not a matter of differences only between two communities. Such differences are to be found among, and between, different sub-groups in each and every community. It is impractical, indeed impossible, to do away with these differences. That is why it is not necessary to change religious teachings in order to promote unity and harmony between different religions. For this, the only necessary thing is to promote among the followers of different religions the understanding of ‘Live and Let Live’.

Some people still advocate an experiment that has already proven to be a failure: what they call ‘Social Engineering’. Through this they seek to respond to the fact of cultural diversity among different communities by calling for the restructuring of their culture so that society is free from cultural differences and all citizens of the state have one and the same culture.

No matter what name it is called by, the result of the effort to manufacture and impose a single culture on people remains the same—useless. It is tantamount to nothing less than what could be called ‘cultural bulldozing’. No matter what it is termed—‘social engineering’ or ‘cultural nationalism’ or whatever—it remains thoroughly impractical and unrealistic. And to pursue anything impractical from the point of view of natural laws is simply a waste of time.

In this regard, my difference with the ‘cultural nationalists’ or ‘social engineers’ is not on an ideological, but, rather, practical basis. I do not say that their aim is wrong, but, rather, that what they want to bring about is simply impractical and impossible to achieve. Supposing it becomes possible for everyone in the country to start speaking one language, follow one culture and have the same traditions and way of life, I would say, ‘Yes, it should certainly be so.’ But the fact remains that in line with the laws of Nature and History, this sort of uniformity is simply impossible. It has never been possible in the past, nor will it be possible in the future. Cultures develop according to their own logic. It is simply possible to sit in an office and invent a culture of your liking and then go about imposing it on every community in the country.

So, in this regard, we should do exactly what we generally do with regard to all other divisive issues—that is, to solve the problem on the basis of the principle of tolerance. One should deal with the matter with methods that accord with reality, rather than through confrontation. Using confrontation and violence in this matter will only further exacerbate the problem, rather than solve it.

In this context, there is an important issue that needs to be clarified. Some people claim that India belongs to the Hindus, and that their loyalty is to this country. They claim that this is different with the Muslims of the country, whose centres of devotion—for instance, Makkah and Madina—are located outside India. That is why, they allege, Muslims cannot be loyal to India.

I see this issue differently, however. Suppose a Hindu is devoted to the temple of Somnath. This does not mean that he cannot be devoted to a temple located elsewhere, too. If a person loves his mother, it surely does not mean that he has no love for his father. Similarly, if an Indian Muslim has an emotional bonding with Makkah and Madina, it does not mean that he has no such bonding with India. To think otherwise is to underestimate his innate humanity. Any person, be he or she Hindu or Muslim, is an expression of Nature, and Nature has made every human being with enough inner spaciousness to contain within him or her multiple loves and loyalties. This is such a basic fact of life that every person can testify to it personally. Every man and woman knows this from his or her own experience. As a Western thinker very aptly put it, ‘I am large enough to contain all these contradictions’.

Religion and Politics

Very often, religion is dragged into communal conflicts. Repeatedly, political and communal controversies are turned into religious controversies, and then people’s passions are roused, leading to confrontation and violence between communities. Because of this, many people have turned against religion itself. They say that human beings have no need for religion at all, and that, hence, religion must be destroyed. Only then, they contend, is societal unity possible.

This, however, is an extremist response to an extremist stance, a secular extremist reaction to religious extremism. It is neither possible nor useful. The fact is that religion in itself is not a problem. Religion is an important part of human life. It is the political exploitation of religion by some opportunist people that is the problem. Hence, it is the exploitation of religion, rather than religion itself, that needs to be eliminated.

Religion has two dimensions: personal and collective. The personal dimension of religion denotes beliefs, worship, morality and spirituality. The collective dimension of religion includes its political and social rules. The right approach would, in general conditions, be to focus on the personal dimension of religion and on promoting the spirit of religion.

As far as the political and social rules of religion are concerned, they should not be taken up until such time as the entire society is prepared for them. These rules can be established only through the voluntary and collective consent of the entire society. That is why no practical steps should be taken as far as these rules are concerned as long as the collective consent of the society is not in favour of this.

This can be termed a practical division between religion and politics. That is to say, while considering, at the ideological level, politics to be part of religion, in the face of reality the practical enforcement of the political rules of religion can be delayed or postponed. This is a wise approach. In this way, the demands both of religion and of politics can be fulfilled: those of religion, in the present, and of politics, in the future. On the other hand, if this pragmatic policy is not adopted and both aspects of religion are stressed, the result will be that the demands of both religion and politics will be left unfulfilled.

Difference between North and South India

In India, the problem of communal conflict is predominantly, though not entirely, a north Indian problem. In south India, communal harmony still prevails in most places. Most communal riots take place in the north. Very few cases of such violence are reported from the south. It is very important to study this difference between north and south India. It can provide us with valuable guidance.

It is not that all parts of north India are equally affected by communal violence. Most such violence happens in urban areas. Very few communal riots take place in villages. It is instructive to study why this is so. Such a study would not only provide us with explanations for the phenomenon of communal violence but will also offer us appropriate solutions to such violence and measures for promoting inter-community harmony.

With regard to communal harmony, there are some issues that need to be looked at. For instance, Muslims complain about some beliefs of the Hindus. I do not want to debate about these here. But in this regard I would advise Muslims that, in accordance with Islamic principles, they should adopt tolerance and avoidance of conflict. On the other hand, there are some complaints or misunderstandings that Hindus have with regard to Muslims. I would like to elaborate on this matter and explain certain Islamic terms that are the cause, or can become the cause, of misunderstandings between the two communities.

Here I will just briefly mention an important point. Ordinarily, if a Muslim does something wrong, Hindus speak and write against him. In the same way, if a Hindu does something wrong, Muslims speak and write against him. This method is, from the point of view of reform, completely useless. It only pleases one particular community, but it has no positive impact whatsoever on the other community.

Contrary to this, the beneficial approach is that if a Muslim does something wrong, Muslim scholars and intellectuals should speak and write against it. Likewise, if a Hindu does something wrong, Hindus should speak and write against it. It is just as when a child does something wrong, his parents are the first to scold him, if necessary. His parents do not wait for their neighbours to come to their house and scold their child. In any case, even if these people do come and scold their child, it will not reform him, though a parent’s admonishment might.

It is a psychological reality that one generally takes the critique or admonishment of people whom one considers one’s own in a positive way, and, accordingly, reforms oneself. On the other hand, one generally takes the criticism of people one does not know or whom one considers as the ‘other’ as an insult to one’s honour, and so it does not have a positive impact. With regard to the issue of communal harmony, it is very necessary to keep this bit of practical wisdom in mind.