The Need for Interfaith Dialogue in India

Introduction 

Islam has made India its home more than 1400 years ago. The footprints of Islam could be found in India as early as seventh century. The first mosque was established in South India just a few decades after the death of the Prophet, (peace be upon him). Islam since then is uninterruptedly interacting with other religions of India. Such interaction with other faiths has made India the house the third largest Muslim population in the world.    

However, going by the fact of long association, it could be a passing comment that Islam is at peace with other faiths and the mosques that dots the Indian landscape tells the story that Islam  has fully become part and parcel of the great Indian civilization.   

Notwithstanding the fact, when we look at the media discourse in India, particularly some  mainstream national and vernacular media, Islam is portrayed as the ‘other’ ‘exotic’, ‘different’, ‘obscurantist’, ‘backward’, ‘extremist’ form of faith. These stereotypes are apparent particularly when it comes to portrayal of Muslim personal law, Muslim women, and in that context the entire Muslim community in India.  

It needs a food for thought why even more than sixty years after independence, India remains a theater of Hindu–Muslim communal conflict. On one hand, India is making great progress in different spheres of activities; why it’s unable to wield the complex mosaic of religious diversity into a national unity?   

The main reason to my mind is perhaps lack of communication between Islam and other oriental faith in India. There is little desire to learn each others point of view. The isolated growth of mind breeds prejudices about other religion and there is no means clear up such cobwebs. Domination of politics in matters of religion hampers the bridges of differences. Finally, precedence of emotion over reasons in matters of religious faith comes in the way of a healthy discourse on inter faith reconciliation.    

Genesis of the Problem   

In a contemporary context, the genesis of shutting the windows of communication with Islam and other faiths in India, particularly Hinduism, began with the advent of the ballot box democracy and the politics that surrounded it in the early 20th century.   

Ever since power came to be defined in terms simple majority, the unities that were earlier formed on class and economic lines gave way to religious based communities. Religion since then came to dominate the political mobilization process in India. Its major causality was the stopping of the dialogue between the two major faiths in the country.      Indian freedom struggle was jaundiced by such political mobilization process. In the course of two decades of political negotiations to the run up of India’s independence, there was little effort made to sort out the interfaith differences, resulting in the Partition of the country.    

In independent India, the vision of secular and progressive India has been wavering since sixty years or so. The periodic eruption of communal violence is testimony to this fact. We are also witnessing that for electoral consideration political parties are forging linkages on communal lines, thus blocking any attempt to initiate a healthy inter religious dialogue. We are also witnessing that inter- faith divide has further got accentuated as religious communities interpret economic competition in communal terms.      

Why Interfaith Dialogue is Necessary  

Interfaith dialogue is necessary to promote inclusive nationalism and abhor exclusive nationalism being peddled in the name of cultural nationalism. It’s an accepted fact that the resonance of religious nationalism is souring relationship between Hindu and Muslim communities and there is an urgent need to arrest such diabolical campaign. Such campaign tries to redefine nationalism with religious symbolism of the dominant faith and forge unity on religious lines. However in the process its alienating people of other faith from mainstream of Indian nationalism.  

An interfaith dialogue is therefore essential to combat such evil design and to stop the separatists and communal tendencies striking root among the members of other faiths. Such dialogue may reimpose faith in secular and democratic nationalism and each and every citizen of the country may actively participate in the nation building process.     Interfaith dialogue is also necessary to strengthen the citizenship rights.  

This is needed because there is deep rooted misconception among the minorities particularly Muslims in India that they are denied the rights as a citizen of this country. This alleged discrimination starts from getting admission in school, finding jobs, finding an apartment and other such likes.   These real or imagined perception, has led to suspicion among Muslims that they are being discriminated on the basis of their religion. An interfaith dialogue is necessary to allay such mistrust and to promote social equality between different communities.     

Interfaith dialogue should also be initiated to weed out communal politics that rule the roost even in the so called secular political parties. What may emerge from such dialogue is to pressurize the political parties to give adequate representation to the people belonging to different faith and nurture leaders from different faiths n their organization. This effort would not only strength democracy but also improve social relationship in the country.   

How to start inter-faith dialogue   

Interfaith dialogue should be initiated at the school right from the primary, secondary and High School level and even should be continued at the college. Right now this is being done at the primary school with just some tokenism done giving half baked information about different religious faith in India. There is hardly any desire to impart correct knowledge about religious faiths and clear the doubts and misconception that germinates in young minds.   The process of dialogue should be initiated by developing a curriculum and a teaching methodology that should be inclusive. The knowledge about different religions should be disseminated to the entire range of students irrespective of academic stream or level of education. In such endeavor, role of qualified teachers is very important because they alone can mould the young minds to become the secular citizens of this country.   

Secondly, the role of civil society is seminal in initiating a dialogue between Islam and other religions in India. Efforts should be made at the societal level to develop secular platforms where inter- faith dialogue may take place. This could be done by promoting secular and national festivals on par with religious festivals.     Some of the southern states have taken a lead in this direction by scaling up the harvest festival and other such events thus creating a social platform from where the message of peaceful coexistence is communicated between different religious communities.     

At the governmental level, there is need for administrative commitment to stop the occurrence of communal violence. The government should be particular that non one should go unpunished if it tries to breach communal peace. The government should have some specific policies and programmes where inter- faith dialogue should flourish and fears and suspicions that’s being nursed are being removed.   

Conclusion   

These are some of the impression I have tried to sketch out for my presentation for the Conference “International Dialogue between Islam and Oriental Religions,” organized by Indian Muslim Organization in collaboration with Qatar based Union of Muslim Scholars, at New Delhi from February 20-21, 2010.   I am open to comments and suggestion to develop these ideas further.   

— Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com