Why so little Christian-Muslim Dialogue in India?

John Dayal

When was the last time we read a joint statement on communal harmony, a statement signed by accepted representatives of the Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain faiths recognised in India as national religious minorities?

I recall one in 1984, after the massacre of the Sikhs, and then in 2002 in the violence targeted against Muslims in Gujarat. There were no such statements in the wake of the anti-Christian pogrom in Kandhamal, Orissa, in 2007 and 2008.

The one time Muslim and Christian leaders came together was in an advocacy rally for the rights of converts to the two religions from Hinduism’s former “untouchable” castes — now called the Dalits.

In the recent riots in the northeastern state of Assam, where over 400,000 people were displaced in clashes between the Bodo ethnic community and Bengali and Assamese speaking Muslims, several top Muslims leaders from New Delhi asked me to urge the Catholic Church to intervene – presuming that the Bodos were all Christians.

The Bodos are an ethnic community, and while some of them indeed are Christians, most of the others profess Hinduism or their own ancient religions. Sociologists are still debating if the Assam violence was economic, ethnic or religious in its root causes.

Christian sociologists and activists did intervene as strong voices for peace, and in helping quell the panic large-scale movement of people of northeastern origin from cities such as Hyderabad and Bengaluru in southern India amid rumors of retributive Muslim attacks on them. The rumors were just malicious mischief by some political groups, among them the infamous Hindutva Parivar seeking to polarize communities.

Considering that both Muslims and Christians, constituting perhaps no more than 10 percent and 2.3 percent respectively of India’s 1.20 billion population as religious minorities, and both victims of State harshness and violence at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists, it would be presumed that the two communities occasionally made common cause, or at least existed in close camaraderie and cooperation.

In reality, both live in their own separate, individual cocoons, mostly ignorant of the problems of the other community, and largely unconcerned with the crises they both find themselves in with unfailing regularity.

I do not recall in the last forty years or so where Church hierarchy, Protestant and Catholic, came together with the top leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an orthodox group, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, a more “nationalist” organization with roots in India’s Independence movement and similar groups, on any issue of concern to the people.

It is a different matter that there is little political cohesion in India’s extremely diverse Christian community.

In Parliament, I have seen the Muslim community come together, defying party whips, on issues relating to the community.

However, but I have not seen Christians come out to speak when the issues concern persecution, or during nuanced debated on the controversial Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, the matter of denial of Indian Visas to missionaries and activists, ban on religious conversions by some provincial governments all of which vilify and target Christians.

To be fair, I have not seen the Christian MPs come together as a block to speak in defense of the Muslims, preferring the safety of the party whip.

Unlike the Christian religious leaders, who are not part of ideological divides and political polarities in the country, the Muslim religious leadership is deeply political.

Muslims are active in almost every political party, and in some states, have their own parties, which contest elections and are even part of coalitions in government.

There is a direct connect between the Moulvies if the mosques and the teachers of the hundreds of thousands of Madrasas, with the political leadership. The only apparent division is in theological loyalties between the Shia and Sunnis, and within the Sunnis, the Barelvis, the more liberal, and Deobandi schools of theology.

The recent Wahabi movement, financed by Saudi Arabia, has rapidly radicalized a section of the Muslim leadership in all provinces, and especially in Assam, Kerala and Kashmir.

The Wahabi radicalization is perhaps the single major reason for souring whatever relationship there was between the Christians and Muslims. This is the most apparent in the valley of Kashmir and in Kerala – even though the two regions differ so widely with each other in demographic and social parameters.

The argument is not that the Christian community in India consciously follows the West’s perceptions post 9/11 United States of America.

If anything, perhaps, the more pious in the Christian community and specially the urban middle class look at the Islamic groups in India with glasses not very much different from those worn by the hyper nationalist members of the Hindutva Sangh Parivar. Christians from Kashmir often say, “You may know Islam, we know the Muslims.”

On the other extreme are the purported dialogues that go in the name of “Idd Milan” after Muslim religious festivities twice a year, and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and diocesan “inter faith dialogues” in which a prayerful representative from each community is invited to a small meeting, where a brass lamp is lit, every one recites from their own holy books, a group photograph is taken, and tea served.

Not everyone sips the tea or nibble at the sweats and hors d’ oeuvres. Most are in a hurry to get back home. Some do not eat outside their own place of worship or home. The photographs of course serve their owners well in annual reports and funding drives and to prove their “secular” credentials.

Would it be that there is nothing in common in the diverse situations of India’s many religious minorities? Don’t the religious minorities share anything in India’s history, its common heritage? Do they not suffer and bleed when hit by the barbs, bombs and slings of the hyper nationalist rightwing majoritarian groups? And are they really insulated from the massive political and social developments sweeping this wonderful nation?

These are questions that beg an answer – social, political, and in relation to the guarantees of the Constitution, contained in the Preamble, and Articles such as 25, 29, 30.

It was unfortunate that two years ago – before the “Arab Spring” — Muslim academics in Egypt have suspended their dialogue with the Vatican over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on anti-Christian violence in Egypt calling it as “unacceptable interference in Egypt’s affairs.”

Pope Benedict XVI as the leader of the Catholic Church in his remarks condemned violence expressed his closeness to suffering Christians and highlighted the concern for the religious freedom of Christian minorities.

The Christians in India perhaps did not even know that there ever was a dialogue between Rome and the Muslim world. Its eyes were glued to some developments in Srinagar and Kerala.

The Kashmiri militancy, with a heavy overlay of religious fundamentalism and intolerance, has been tragic for both the Hindu and the Christian communities.

Almost all Hindus have fled the Kashmir valley in the face of a threat of violence.

The Christian community was perhaps as small as 500 families in the region, and they have been under pressure. The half a dozen Christian schools in the valley have less than 50 Christian students, but even they are in constant fear. Militants have banned any proselytization among the Muslim community. The police have arrested people accused by the militants of being involved in proselytization.

In Kerala, where the Christian and Muslim communities live in broadly distinct regions, there has been growing stress manifesting itself in occasional violence from Islamic extremists and a demographic and social fear among the Christian community.

Two years ago, a Christian teacher’s hand was cut off for alleged blasphemy. Catholic clergy have cautioned against the fast growing Muslim population, and the stagnant Christian population. On prelate went as far as to call upon the faithful to start large families.

But the most peculiar, or hilarious depending one’s point of view, is the matter of “Love jihad.” It is a fact that a large number of Christian girls in Kerala are marrying outside the community.

There are many reasons for this, the presence of a notorious dowry system being a major one. But Hindu girls are also marrying non-Hindus. Many Christian and Hindu girls are marrying Muslim youth.

The religious, and now political, leadership of both Hindus and Christians allege there could be a strategy to woo these young women – a sort of human piracy. Criminal cases have been registered with the police. It is a simmering issue, but could well explode at any time.

Security and development issues of the two communities however demand the start of a really serious and constructive pan-regional dialogue between the leaderships of the two communities.

In a political environment of collective bargaining, mutual collaboration and cooperation can help getting a decent share of the national development pie.

A greater understanding can also reduce tensions, and perhaps help a successful social challenge to extremist groups, including the Hindutva Sangh Parivar, who are every so keen to feed off religious differences and perceptions.

(John Dayal is a veteran journalist and human rights activist. He is also the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.)

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