Americans form wrong idea of India

Dr. William Kumbier (far right), professor of English, bids farewell to yoga instructors.

Mac Kenney

Dr. William Kumbier (far right), professor of English, bids farewell to yoga instructors.

It is easy for any American who looks to find evidence of religious conflict in India.

Even though roughly 80 percent of the population is Hindu, in a country of more than 1 billion people, the roughly 14 percent over 140 million who are Muslim constitute a population equal to or greater than the entire population of India’s Muslim neighbor and nemesis, Pakistan. It is therefore not surprising that many Hindus, including Hindu nationalists and political and religious proponents of Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness,” regard the Muslims of India as formidable threats to the beliefs and ways of life they hold sacred. And, accordingly, it is also not surprising that the “breaking news” from India most Americans receive – of the startling small amount of news from India that we do receive – should focus on tension and violence between members of the country’s two most practiced faiths.

Indeed, while preparing my thoughts for this perspective, I was skimming the Sunday New York Times of Oct. 11, 2003, and almost immediately fell upon a story headlined, “Indian police arrest Hindus seeking temple.” This report is merely the most recent in scores of Times articles, not to mention thousands of articles that have riddled the Indian press, devoted to the controversy over Ayodhya, a pilgrimage town in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. For more than 300 years, Ayodhya was the site of a Muslim mosque, the Babri Masjid, built by the Mogul ruler Babur in the 16th century. Then, in December 1992, during a massive Hindu rally, the mosque was torn down by a mob, partly acting on the conviction that the mosque had been built on top of a much older Hindu temple that marked the birthplace of Rama, a widely worshiped and revered incarnation of the pre-eminent Hindu god Vishnu, sustainer of creation. When the mosque was destroyed, nationwide riots ensued, killing thousands.

Since that time, and especially since the Hindu nationalist-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party has come to power, Hindus have agitated for the reconstruction in Ayodhya of the Rama temple, and that agitation, too, has generated more violence. More recently in February 2002, a train coach carrying Hindus returning to Gujarat from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya was attacked and burned by Muslims, killing 58 people; retaliatory violence and counter violence by Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat led to the deaths of hundreds more. Now, in this most recent development, Indian police have detained, as a preventive measure, more than 600 Hindus who arrived in Ayodhya to renew and intensify the campaign for the Rama temple. The Times article reported that “nearly 1,500 heavily-armed policemen are now guarding the site while 3,000 paramilitary personnel have fanned out in other parts of Ayodhya,” and “about 2,000 more troops were expected to arrive soon.” Stay tuned.

In trying to absorb and make sense of stories like this, along with the continual reports of sparring between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir (another conflict with Hindu-Muslim tension at its base) Americans understandably form a picture of India as a country torn by passionate religious beliefs and what usually accompanies them: religious intolerance and violence.

Yet, while no one can ignore the horror and tragic human consequences of the violence in India that can be traced to religious differences, one would also be wrong to neglect a compelling and continuing fact of Indian life: most of the time, Hindus and Muslims coexist peacefully, along with Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and other believers.

In fact, one cannot live for even a day in India without striking reminders, not only that the country is diverse, but that usually the diversity works. Both in the city of Hyderabad, traditionally Muslim but with a huge Hindu population, where Mac Kenney, Dr. Ree Wells and I were based, and in other locations we visited as well, Hindus, Muslims and others are practicing daily the skills of living together, deliberately or not. In the marketplaces and bazaars, gestures, expressions and glances find and respond to each other, sometimes overtly, sometimes subconsciously, in Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, English and in silence.

In the English department of the University of Hyderabad, I taught and worked fruitfully with Muslim, Hindu and Parsi colleagues. In our daily practice of yoga, an activity deeply grounded in Hindu philosophy, two of our teachers were Hindu, the third, and most adept, was Muslim.

To cite one further dramatic example: the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad, dedicated to promoting reconciliation and religious tolerance, supports a community center near the old Muslim center of Charminar. The center is situated in a slum, at what has occasionally been the flash point of Hindu-Muslim tensions. To one side of the center is a Hindu neighborhood; to the opposite side is a Muslim neighborhood and to a third side, a community of “untouchables,” or outcastes now called “Dalits.”

Children and teenagers from each of these communities go to school at the center and participate in after-school programs. When we visited, Hindu and Muslim teenage girls were sitting at low tables, closely together, learning to make dress patterns, while upstairs, younger children were having an English and social studies lesson on the topic of homes and why we need them. The center’s guiding theory is people who have worked, studied and played side by side will be less inclined to fight each other.

One of the “hot” stories related to Ayodhya this last summer was a federal court had ordered yet more archaeological research at the contested site, to attempt, once again, to determine if there is any physical evidence supporting the claim that the site once housed a Hindu temple. Many digs have already taken place at Ayodhya and many more will, and the findings always have been and will continue to be contested.

I would suggest ultimately what such archaeological research will confirm, though, is a truth many Indians and friends of India already know: for centuries the lives and faiths, the physical and the spiritual constructions, of Hindus, Muslims and others have interlaced so much that they are to a profound degree indivisible from each other, and the India that flowers today has coexistence at its root.