United in our Difference

Hafsa Fathima, II Year M.A. English

This is my family for you, painted clumsily in a few sentences. Picture us returning from the mosque; my brothers and father are dressed in long white robes with white skullcaps on their heads, my mother and I veiled in the traditional black abaya, our hair covered by our hijabs. To the outsider, our family unit looks typically Muslim, and nothing more. Step into our living room, on Eid and you’ll witness the stunning diversity that differentiates us and unites us. My Telugu grandmother sits dressed in her best Kancheepuram, red vermillion marking her forehead, a sign of the Hindu faith she still practises after more than 50 years of being married to my Muslim grandfather. Consequently, the elders in my family are a mix of both faiths, and my brothers and I greet them with both folded palms accompanied by Namastes and Assalamulaikums. My father, switching smoothly between Urdu, Telugu and English, asks to get our cousins to come for lunch. The younger generation of my family is as much a kaleidoscope of different beliefs as the elder; I have one cousin preaching the benefits of atheism at one side, another cousin’s shorts are a sharp contrast to the abaya I wear, and another two are engaged in the usual debate about evolution vs. creationism. The menu today is fried beef, sambarsadam, biryani and vegetables. We sit down to this meal, all of us, Muslims, Hindus, Occasional Sufis, still-trying-to-figure-out-if-they’re-atheists or agnostics- as one.

In my family, we exist with an utopian bubble where all beliefs have made their peace with each other. The outside world is a different story, and I learnt this the hard way. I remember how, in grade 11, when minding the 3rd grade class, I had to break up a minor scuffle between two girls. When I asked what the problem was, one of them pointed at the other accusingly and yelled, “She doesn’t watch Chota Bheem!” Though the other girl’s taste in TV shows was perfectly understandable to me, further investigation revealed that this dislike stemmed from a much darker place. “I don’t watch Chota Bheem because it’s a Hindu show,” the other declared, “My mother told me not to watch Hindu shows.” I was jarred; these girls were eight years old and already had hate taught to them. Over the years, these incidents got worse; classmates who would openly make terrorist jokes when I was in their midst, members of my community telling me not to stay in my Hindu friends homes because “they’re not like us,” laws that were passed with an obvious religious bias, a never ending list of prejudice and judgments.

It’s been 70 years since we gained our Independence, and after more than half a decade of freedom, we should’ve tried to build a better world. Secularism and religious tolerance was what the Father of this nation believed in more than anything, and what he fought for relentlessly. As he said, “I believe in the Fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believed they are all God-given…I believe that only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of these faiths, we should find that they were at the bottom all one and were helpful to each other.”

Gandhi’s words were what inspired me to understand that our unity, our celebration of difference is what makes us stronger, not weaker. The world we live in and its situation may look bleak, but I believe that change has to begin from a ground level, even in the smallest ways, and can be effectively implemented in our society if we try hard enough.

Dialogue is the starting point we need to initiate. Most of our misconceptions about religions and their practises come from the fact that we misunderstand their teachings. The ways we can engage with each other are numerous. Panel discussions and conferences in colleges and schools that discuss the basics of every religion to an audience can make a large impact by educating people and clearing doubts. The “Ask A…” campaign is a powerful movement that exists abroad; a group of people of different faiths occupy public spaces like malls and parks and answer questions from anyone who approaches them. This kind of open, civil dialogue where there isn’t any fear to discuss ideas is something we need to see implemented in India. The most important form of dialogue, however, exists in our classrooms, especially ones with younger children. The teaching of basic respect for other beliefs and practises can revolutionise peace building initiatives in this country.

As Gandhi said, it is only through educating ourselves of what is different that we can see the similarities. Institutions like colleges, camps and even workplaces could implement voluntary trips to different places of worship on a monthly basis. Mosques, churches and temples may practise unique methods of worship, but they share the ability to both stun and humble you with their presence. These places of worship could also make material explaining their religions accessible to public; free brochures, pamphlets explaining the tenets of the faith that those interested could pick up, and even free copies of their religious texts.

The success of secularism depends on a nation’s ability to separate church from state. While we respect the different religions of our nation as important part of our heritage and culture, we must also realise the dangers of passing laws that favour one religion over another. We need to be aware of the importance of building and promoting a judiciary system that takes the needs of all religions into mind, and that includes the welfare of all minorities.

In order for any of this to work, we need to move beyond the word tolerance as the ultimate goal, and come into mutual understand and acceptance of each other. Gandhi saw a world where harmony reigned, and where we understood each other inspite of our differences. I hope that we move past our barriers, and that we see the world I see in my family every day.


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