Muslims should lead the communal harmony effort in India

I do welcome yesterday’s public condemnation against Al-Qaeda by Indian Muslim community leaders. I also call upon these leaders to do more – and to actively engage in promoting communal harmony in India.

Let me state that I am deeply democratic in my sensibilities and generally abhor ‘leaders’ of any kind having the ability to control the mind spaces of their followers. I find it quite dangerous when we have societies whose members can get on a mass hysteria simply based on a few words of their ‘leader’, without applying independent thinking and human values. I have no doubt that it is such a tendency of leader-worship that has created Hitlers, Stalins ans Osamas of the world.

Knowing that we, as Indians, have a long way to go to build a truly democratic society of my dream, I welcome situations where community leaders seem to be using their ‘power of influence’ in bringing about peace and other human values.

Muslims should lead the communal harmony effort in India

The public condemnation of Al-Qaeda by Indian Muslim community leaders is a good step – but a very small step. There is an urgent need for Indian Muslim leaders go further beyond this. If the community leaders could initiate wide-spread discussion first among Muslim youth – and then across the board – about global terrorism and ways to counter it, this could trigger a fundamental change in our society. If and when we can achieve communal harmony as the natural phenomenon, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, that would be our best defense against Al-Qaeda or the birth of similar terrorist groups in India.

Building a country with true communal harmony requires accepting certain realities first. We must acknowledge that there is wide-spread mistrust, fear and at times hatred of Muslims among a lot of Hindus in India and vice versa, albeit a general reluctance in accepting this openly. This sentiment manifests itself in the way a few persons or organisations are often branded as “terrorist”. Most of our citizens are not involving in active hatred, but choose to simply live their own life pretending that the problem doesn’t exist. They seek to live parallel lives – as far away from each other as possible – and confuse that with communal harmony.

While all Indians have the responsibility to build communal harmony, I believe Muslims should front-run this. Simply because all other groups – Hindus, other minorities or non-believers – have utterly failed. Other minorities and non-believers lack influence in this matter and have been unable to go beyond activism. Hindu religious leaders do not have the same level of influence on Hindus that Muslim religious leaders have on Muslims. At best, they may have some influence over their own castes, sects, ethnic or language groups.

Non-religious leaders among Hindus, who have tried to work on communal harmony, have faced some limitations which have not only made them ineffective, but also, unfortunately, have had the opposite effect of strengthening Hindu chauvinists. Majority Hindu masses tend to view any Hindu leader working towards communal harmony as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. Unfortunately, even Mahatma Gandhi could not escape this accusation. As unfair as this seems, the leaders face a practical dilemma: If they suggest the need for reforms in Muslim communities, Muslims immediately recoil. If they down-play the need for reforms in Muslim communities, and only try to influence Hindus to be open-minded towards Muslims, Hindus completely tune them out – or even boycott them. Still, there are examples of some determined Hindu leaders who even ended up sharing stage with some Muslim groups who encourage Muslim youth to take up arms when they perceive oppression. This has deepened the mistrust among Hindus who feel that they need their own groups encouraging their young men to take up arms when they perceive aggression by Muslims against Hindus. This is a viciously circular no-win situation for everyone.

A ghettoized society can never be completely in harmony

A true litmus for communal harmony is complete dismantling of Muslim ghettoization. This can not be done by Muslims alone, but by the whole society collaboratively. Individual Hindus can open up to rent out their homes to Muslims and vice versa. Al-Qaeda may try to recruit from ghettos, but they won’t dare to recruit from mixed areas. Currently, this is a chicken-or-egg-first problem. Most Hindus will not rent out homes to Muslims or wish to live in neighbourhoods with Muslim majority since there is lack of trust. Trust cannot be developed until we live close by. In this regard, perhaps the Govts can step in. While the Govt may not be able to force private citizens to rent out their homes to any particular communities, it may be possible to make it illegal for apartment builders to refuse to rent or sell based on caste or religion (yes, this still happens! If you live in apartments, you may notice that how a majority of the families belong to one particular caste!). Currently, I do not believe any main stream politician has the courage to take up any cause that can be controversial in the beginning even if aimed at communal harmony in the long run.

This is why I call upon Muslim leaders to work towards breaking the cycle of mistrust and undercurrent of hatred among Hindus and Muslims. This is not easy and will not happen within weeks. It will take an year or two provided we start somewhere. It will be unpopular among Muslims at first – but this is where real leadership among Muslims is required.

Muslim leaders should first gain the trust and commitment of their community and focus on internal reforms

Many communal groups thrive on gossips, in the demonstration of ‘one-up-man-ship’, in enticing young men challenging their ‘masculinity’ – and other similar tactics. They make young men feel ‘manly’ and of higher status by possessing weapons. A fundamental change needed is to change the definition of what is meant by ‘winning’ as understood by common people – and this is where the discussions and debates moderated by the leaders can help set the right agenda.

Having taken the Muslim community into confidence, it is important for the Muslim leaders to project and promote their efforts in public as soon as possible. I envisage that initial challenges will come in the form of distrust of other communities, but steps will have to be taken to gain trust – e.g. Muslim leaders across the country can vociferously condemn acts of terrorism by Muslims every time it happens. Then, deliberately de-emphasizing some delicate issues will be required – for example, ‘fight against cow-slaughter ban’. While it is very important to continue fighting all matters relating to human rights, de-prioritizing of issues that are ‘ego’ matters for rival groups will ‘disarm’ them – deny them fodder.

Also, Muslim leaders can throw a pleasant surprise by addressing an issue raised by Hindu communities without causing any violation of minority religious rights – for example, local Muslim groups in a residential areas can collectively decide to voluntarily reduce the volume of loud-speakers used by Mosques for broadcasting prayers to be within licensed or reasonable limits (such as 50 db) and ensure the public know that it is a conscious decision. In fact, this single action can dumbfound rival groups, warm many hearts and open up platforms for more collaborative efforts – not only towards communal harmony but also towards eradication of corruption, poverty, rowdyism etc.

The Muslim leaders working towards communal harmony should not be silent or dismissive when any other Muslim politicians or clerics make hate speeches. The act of condemnation should be unequivocal, public and immediate so that people know all Muslims are not condoning hate. This will go a very long way in gaining the trust of Hindus and others. When hate speeches are made by Hindu leaders, the Muslim leaders should choose the words wisely while condemning and point out that all Hindus are not in support of that hate speech. Basically, the focus should be on ‘extinguishing the fire of communal hatred’ first – and then plant the seed of harmony.

Non-communal Hindus should join hands

While I call for Muslim leaders to initiate efforts towards communal harmony, I think non-communal Hindus and non-believers should also actively participate in these efforts. If we are involved in activism for any social cause, at the minimum, we should be careful not to contribute to the communal divide by staying silent when Muslims are involved in misdeeds. As private citizens, we should not hesitate to speak up whenever we hear bigotry in common conversations among our friends and families. As parents, we should sensitize our children towards respecting diversity and treating all human beings with dignity by modeling such behaviour ourselves.

Last but not least, I do believe women can play a major role in shaping our society to be more accepting of diversity – and to be more tolerant of minorities. Deliberately including Muslim women’s groups in the discussion of promoting communal harmony can prove to be very effective. As women, we deeply understand how it feels to be mistrusted and marginalized. We know what it means to be treated as second-class citizens. We know how it feels to want to fly, but have the wings clipped. We understand how diminished we feel when we have to live under threat of violence, if we dare to go beyond what society feels as ‘woman’s place’. Although we are about 50% of the population, even if we happened to belong to so-called ‘upper castes’, we know what it means to be an outcast, to be a ‘minority’. So, the least we can offer to the communal harmony efforts is to refuse to ‘do unto others’ what is unfairly done to us.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by monujesh on September 7, 2014 at 1:26 am

    A realistic perspective, Shanthala. It was an enlightening read. Thank you for sharing.


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