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Coexistence and Conflict: Hindu Muslim Relations in India

Hindu-Muslim tension in India today. (thebigdurian/Flickr)

Hindu-Muslim tension in India today. (thebigdurian/Flickr)

The role that the press has played has been I think, insensitive. But I think there has been a great change now and I think there has been a great sensitization. And particularly in the Gujurat case the press was absolutely, totally honest and fair.

But we have noticed that government after government after government, every time they want to respond to a Muslim crisis or a Muslim situation, they only find the fundamentalist leaders to speak to, and they do not include the liberal moderate voice. These people are not the leaders of the communities and they need to be rejected. But why is it constantly touted in India that there is an absence of Muslim leadership? Who is the leader of all Hindus is what I want to know? And why should the Muslims have a leader? Why shouldn’t it be a secular leader who is looking after the interests of this large democracy? Why are we being pushed into these corners? One thing that is constantly being said is that, “we question the loyalties of the Muslims”, and I have been subjected to that as well. My parents participated in the freedom struggle of India. And at the time of partition they had a choice-they could go to Pakistan-but they didn’t go because they believed that India is their country and they believed that that is where they should be. They stayed back and they had a stake in the future of the country. And in 1992 you ask their daughter, who was not even born during partition, to prove her loyalty to the nation, as some did to me. Who are they and how dare they ask me this question? I’m not going to give up this space to them. (applause) I will not accept my loyalty being constantly questioned. I am not going to accept this having to give proof. Yes, there have been many misguided Muslims, as there are misguided Hindus, and we have to rectify that. And yes, there is a constant criticism that when Pakistan wins the cricket match, the Muslims clap. So one hundred Muslims clap, and you are going to haul over the coals all the Muslims in India because 100 misguided people do that? It is for me a complete violation of everything that I know India to be. Even today in India, in Rajasthan, when scarves are made the Muslims do the dying and the Hindus do the printing-they work together even today. In many parts of India the shoes that the Hindu priests wear in those temples are made by the Muslims. Now that is the reality in India. And we, because we are keeping quiet, because we are the silent majority, because we are not speaking up enough, we are allowing all that to disappear.

Yes, what is happening is because of politics; what is happening is because vote-bank politics is happening. I remember that when this carnage was happening in Gujurat, I was totally shocked. I was thinking, “Why, why is this happening?” And there was a Member of Parliament with me and he said that it was consolidation of the vote-bank. And now that elections are happening in Gujurat, it is vital that these forces do not gain strength. And for that I think we need to inform ourselves. We need to make sure that democratic institutions in India, which have been subverted, are not allowed to continue to be.

I know I am making this sound very grim. It sounds like all of India is falling apart, and that is not true at all. There is a very vibrant section of India’s people which does not want this. People have come out at great risk to themselves. And we must recognize that what we need to do is sustained work in times of peace, because what we are battling with is something that has gone on for 80 years. There is a whole campaign of disinformation and propaganda, and these things have not been properly addressed because we think that propaganda is so obviously so. But we must counter it; we must counter fact from fiction and make all the facts available. And we have to see that these divisive sectarian forces in India are not allowed to rule because it is a tolerant country. It is a country that has existed peacefully, co-existed, and that is what we need to get that space back. Thank you very much.

VISHAKA DESAI

How do we even begin? I will open up the floor to all of you, but I think I have a prerogative, so I am going to ask the first question. You talked about that you feel that there is work going on in India, and I wonder if you might talk a little bit more specifically about what is going on in India now to promote this notion of giving bigger voice to the liberal moderate voices and if there are coalitions being built. One has the sense, as was true here in the early 90’s, that the very extremists forming are actually so much more disciplined than the moderate forces, and that often it is harder for the moderate liberal voices to organize themselves. So I wonder if you could speak about what is going on and how people are actually coming together to create an alternative voice to the extremist groups?

SHABANA AZMI

You know, I think that when people are angry they have much more intensity, and they go out, and there has been this systematic work-and this has not been the case with the liberal moderate voice because by definition it is moderate. But I think what is important is that we need to get into activist mode. We are in an emergency situation and we have to say that we have to form coalitions and partnerships. We have to understand communalism-unless it relates to issues of social justice, you cannot counter it on its own. And so you need to see the various people-academics, the intelligence, people working at the grass roots-because there has been a great divide between these groups and there was a lack of being in touch with the realities of people’s lives. And I think a lot of that is being addressed. And I think, like I said, that there has been a great transition of the media post-September 11th. What happened is, just as the word Muslim was being seen as synonymous with terrorism; there was a great concerted effort to change this. We turned that crisis into an opportunity and decided that we really needed to tell the world about Islam, that it resides in 53 countries around the world, that it is not a monolith, that it takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. In some places it is moderate, it is reformist, it is intolerant, it is various things, but you cannot just have one opinion of it. And I think the media, at least in India, is making a great effort to make that difference known. The liberal moderate voice is getting greater visibility and expressing, most importantly, that the real issues facing the communities, whether they are Hindu or Muslim, are about housing, employment and food. It is not about this emotional frenzy. And there is a rejection of the fundamentalist leader because he has never addressed the real issues of unemployment and poverty and education particularly. So there is some growing strength there, but I think we need to continue working on that.