Neighborhood center brings peace to riot-plagued area

Outside the Sultan Shahi Community Center, the streets are busy with people working and children playing. Riots are common and blood has often been shed on this street in times of religious tension.

Mac Kenney

Outside the Sultan Shahi Community Center, the streets are busy with people working and children playing. Riots are common and blood has often been shed on this street in times of religious tension.

Perhaps the most impressive community development center the Henry Martyn Institute runs can be found in the Sultan Shahi neighborhood.

Sultan Shahi is a riot-prone area of Hyderabad, where tensions between the Muslim and Hindu residents are often high. Raja Rajeswari, our guide and project officer for HMI, explained the group chose the specific location of the center within the neighborhood because it is situated on the street that divides the Muslim area from the Hindu area. Blood has been shed there. The HMI has developed programs to begin a dialogue among those in the community.

On the first level of the center, young women are learning how to do henna, a popular decoration for the hands, which they will one day do to earn income. They practice from pictures in books and designs from their own imaginations. They make beautiful greeting cards to sell to people in the community and the occasional group of westerners.

After having seen some of the strict divisions between people on the street, it is rare to see Muslim women mingling with Hindu women at the market, it was amazing to see young women in burkas (the black garb of many Muslim women) sitting with young Hindu women, all giggling and chatting about the funny-looking Americans who just walked in the door. Women who would normally never have met become friends within the safe confines of the development center.

There have been obstacles, but the people at HMI have been both aggressive and innovative in overcoming difficult situations.

Raja explained that originally they had simply gathered the women together and hoped they would interact with each other. What happened was quite the contrary; they immediately split into groups along religious lines and kept to their own groups rarely reaching out to the others. The director’s solution was to turn the center into a training facility where the women would learn skills and, inadvertently, interact as they worked together. This turned out to be the perfect solution.

It also created a reason for being there that was easier for the women’s husbands to accept.

This is an ongoing problem: many of these women’s husbands are suspicious of the center, and some try to prevent their wives from going there. Traditional gender-role expectations are one of the main challenges this center faces, one which, ironically, has little to do with religious conflict.

For the most part, we were told, the husbands don’t want their wives going to the center for the same reason they don’t even want them to leave the house – jealous tendencies require control over the movements of their wives. Efforts are being made to pacify these men, including attempts at creating similar training programs for them. Already the HMI offers men classes in basic home appliance repair, and more classes are planned.

From the sewing and henna area, we moved on to the top floor of the building where there is a primary school. The center’s school teaches kindergarten to third standard, which is essentially the same as third grade in the United States. There were approximately 100 pupils there, spread out in two small classrooms and one large room. We arrived in the middle of one of their reading lessons, where the children were learning both Hindi and English. The children were reading, as a group, sentences in English about basic things like foods and tastes. The children come from different religious backgrounds, but they are mostly Hindu and Muslim, reflecting the community population.

The students shyly smiled at us; as usual, a little humility on the outsider’s part went a long way.

I sat down next to a few boys, but they were too shy to tell me what they were reading. By this time I had “break-the-ice” tactics that I had developed along the way. I asked one of the boys, “Ap ka nam kya hei?” which means “What is your name?”

They smiled and giggled, presumably because I had horribly mispronounced a few words, but nonetheless replied, “Mira nam Prakash hei.”

In the end, I found out the name of the other boy and girl where I had sat down, and told them, “Mira nam Mac hei.”

Just as I had come to expect, they repressed a few giggles when they heard my name. One of my favorite things about traveling abroad is the joy of having even your name seem so strange or silly to people you meet.

I think the three of us could have stayed in the classrooms all afternoon, but we became aware we had interrupted their lesson, and probably ought to let them get back to it. With handshakes and namastes for the teachers and waves for the children, we headed back downstairs.

Kumbier, Wells and I would not soon forget the warm reception and the unconditional acceptance we received that day from the children at the community center’s school.

The HMI also offers a free health clinic at the center, open to all in the community. I realized later just how important this was. Several weeks after this visit, while I was in Goa, I had the occasion to see the inside of a state-run hospital, luckily due to no injury of mine. The conditions in the state-run hospital were deplorable, and I was all the more impressed with the clean facility, with preventative treatments open to all, offered by the HMI community development center.

The Community Development Program in the Sultan Shahi neighborhood is a wonderful credit to the vast understanding of religious reconciliation and value of inter-faith dialogue held by those at the HMI. Its mission cannot focus only on conflict resolution but must also focus on conflict prevention.

The Sultan Shahi Community Development Center nurtures and cultivates productive means of inter-faith dialogue and interactions that lay a foundation of understanding. The Center offers a safe place for diverse people to meet, beginning with children and continuing through adulthood.