When the politicians make lavish use of religion to divide people and thereby create vote bank, the ordinary people show their creativity in being sensitive to the cultural and religious sentiments of other religious communities. An excellent example for the cultural sensitivity of the ordinary people was reported by the newspapers on 11th November 2019. The Idivetty Jumamasjid mahal committee near Perambra in Kozhikode district of Kerala decided to postpone their celebrations on Milad-Un-Nabi on November 10, as the marriage of a Hindu girl, staying next door to the mosque, was fixed on the same day. When the committee came to know that the marriage was fixed on the birthday of Prophet Mohammad, the mahal committee members came together and unanimously decided to put off the celebrations to the next Sunday, November 17.
Not only did the committee postpone the celebrations, but they also actively took part in the marriage, playing the perfect host. Soon after tying the knot and before leaving to the groom's house, the bride, Prathyusha A P, 22, called on the mahal committee members and wholeheartedly thanked them for their wonderful gesture.
Prathyusha’s house in Changaroth Gram Panchayat is separated by only a four-meter-wide road from the mosque on the opposite side, which also houses a madrasa in the compound. Milad-Un-Nabi celebrations included cultural programmes like songs, oppana and other competitions for the students. Naturally the celebrations would have produced a lot noise and caused other inconveniences to the people who come for the marriage. That is why the mahal committee put off the celebration to another day. The sensitivity of the mahal committee members is amply reflected in the statement of mahal committee member, O T Basheer who said, "Obviously, the festivities can be organised on another day. But marriage is a special occasion and that too of a girl staying nearby."
As reported in The Indian Express, medical students and engineering graduates, belonging to the families of mahal committee members, served food at the marriage. As an expression of gratitude, Prasoon, brother of Prathyusha, invited all 11 mahal committee members to his house on November 13 for a reception during his sister's first homecoming after marriage.
Sensitivity to the religious and cultural sentiments of the other religious communities is something quite natural to the ordinary people of India because it has been the heritage of India. Dominique-Sila Khan in her book, Sacred Kerala – A Spiritual Journey, writes about shared religious traditions and religious spaces that can be seen as containing the seeds of a truly universal spirituality that transcends narrow creedal boundaries. For instance, at the annual Chandankulam festival in a remote Kerala village devotees of all faiths gather at a Catholic church, proceed to a Bhagvati temple and then finally congregate at a mosque. Pilgrims undertaking the strenuous journey to the shrine of Ayyapa at Sabarimala must first visit a mosque, and, after completion of the pilgrimage, often visit the shrine of a Christian saint. Lord Ayappa is believed to have been a close friend of a Muslim named Vavar, and also of a Christian priest.
One can find many other examples of cultural and religious sensitivity of one community towards other communities in different parts of India. The ordinary people belonging to different religious communities, especially in the villages, respect each other’s cultural and religious practices and collaborate with each other. They also sometimes adopt the cultural practices of other communities. For example, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu many Christian women use tilak, a practice generally found among the Hindus. Another practice that is in vogue both among the Hindus and Christians of Kerala is the use of mangal sutra as a part of marriage rite.
Respect for the religious and cultural practices of different communities and an attitude of give and take have been adversely affected by the slow rise of religious fundamentalism in India. In her book, Dominique-Sila Khan also writes about the emergence of a number of right-wing communal and religious ‘fundamentalist’ movements among Hindus, Muslims and Christians of Kerala. Typically, she writes, these movements see the state’s rich legacy of shared religious traditions and spaces that bring together people belonging to different religious communities, as ‘superstitious’, ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant’. These movements have had a major impact on Kerala society, and have succeeded in making communal divisions much stronger and clearly-demarcated. These constitute a fundamental departure from Malayali tradition, which Khan characterises as inclusive and open.
Increase in cultural and religious insensitivity is observed not only in Kerala but also in other parts of India due to the influence of fundamentalist preachers. For example, Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi is a prominent festival in North India. It is a festival that celebrates the relationship between a brother and sister. On this day, a sister ties a ‘rakhi’ around the wrist of her brother in order to pray for his prosperity, health and well-being. The brother in return offers gifts and promises to protect his sister from any harm and under every circumstance. The festival is also celebrated between brother-sister belonging to distant family members, relatives or cousins.
The ‘rakhi’ tied on the wrist of the brothers remain for a few days.
In a particular school many boys came with “rakhi” on their wrists one day after the Raksha Bandhan festival. The principal of the school compelled the boys to remove the ‘rakhi’ from their wrists, as it is against the discipline of the school, according to her. The boys obeyed the order of the principal, but they complained to the parents. On the next day large number of parents came to the school and protested against the action of the principal. Some extremist organizations exploited the sentiments of the enraged Hindu parents. The protest continued till the principal of the school was changed. Failure of the principal to understand the significance of the festival and her arrogance and insensitivity led to a serious crisis for the school. The incident was a great black mark in the history of the school, which otherwise had great reputation among the local people.
In another school, one day five or six boys came with tilak on their forehead. Seeing the tilak on their forehead the principal became angry and she told the boys to remove it. The boys refused to obey the principal. On the next day more than hundred boys, including Muslims and Christians, came to the school with long tilak. This time the principal did not chide them publically, but she called them one by one to the office and asked their names. All of them said along with their name Hindu. The students protested against the principal; they even burnt the effigy of the principal. Due to the deft handling of the issue by some teachers of the school the situation was brought under control.
The third incident is related to the shouting of Vande Materam by a few students after the singing of National Anthem in a school. As a disciplinary action the principal did not allow the students to write monthly test. The principal should have ignored it or made the students understand in a personal talk with them instead of taking disciplinary action. An insignificant incident snowballed into a great protest by the students with the support of certain extremist organizations due to the lack of common sense of the principal.
Why do the above mentioned types of incidents take place? Lack of awareness about the local religious and cultural practices could be an important reason. Persons in leadership positions should have the basic knowledge about the religions and cultures in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society like ours, besides knowing about the local religious and cultural practices. When a person comes to a new place he or she has to take initiative to learn about the local situation: social, political, religious and cultural aspects. In the absence of basic information he or she could become insensitive to the cultural and religious practices of the people.
The Indian society has undergone a remarkable change during the last one decade. Growth of religious fundamentalism along with the spread of hatred and revenge against certain communities has been a significant feature of this change. Persons who are in leadership positions should be aware of the tectonic socio-political changes taking place in the Indian society through reading newspapers, news magazines and books. Ignorance about the political atmosphere could be one of the reasons for arrogance and lack of sensitivity.
Persons who assume leadership positions in public institutions must be liberated from religious fundamentalism. The fundamentalists believe that their religion is the only true religion and all other religions are either wrong or inferior. They entertain prejudice against other religions and their symbols and rituals. As a result, they become insensitive to the religious and cultural symbols of other faiths.
Article 25 of the Indian Constitution states “ all persons shall be equally entitled to the freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”. At the same time, one of the core values enshrined in the preamble of the Indian Constitution is ‘fraternity’ or brotherhood. This requires respecting all faiths while following one’s own faith. The Fundamental Duties 5 and 6 enjoin the citizens of India to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood among all people of India and to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture. Religious and cultural sensitivity is essential to value and preserve our composite culture and thereby promote harmony.
(firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 09th December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 50)