As debates rage across the country about intolerance and whether something has fundamentally altered in India, I recently had first hand experience of how an apolitical interfaith programme fell prey to petty political interests.
I heard Acharya Pramodh Krishnam, a Hindu religious scholar, speak in Lucknow earlier this year. I was struck not only by his vision of a harmonious society but also by the poetry he recited in praise of the Prophet. It occurred to me to invite him to my hometown in rural India.
Almost three months in advance we agreed to have a large public gathering or Mahasammelan on November the 27th in Mahmudabad. As it happens this also coincided with the period of Muharram, a period during which different communities come together to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson.
The Acharya initially said that he would speak on Islam aur Insaniyyat or Islam and Humanity and after an initial meeting with local Hindus, Muslims and Jains it was decided that the event would be held in the forecourt of our home. During this meeting there was a consensus that the title of Dharm and Humanity would be more appropriate and so with the Acharya's permission we changed the title.
After the meeting we applied for permission for the gathering, even though strictly speaking this was not necessary because it was being held in a private home. The permission was not only readily granted but the administration seemed very happy that an event such as this was being promoted.
Teams of volunteers had taken time off work to go and put up hoardings in the interior parts of the district. Others had taken on the task of hand delivering invitations. Gradually public interest increased and soon we heard that the principle of Don Bosco, Father D'Souza, had given half a day off to his school children so that they could attend the event.
As public interest increased, so did the machinations of a few local politicians. A small group of people began pamphleteering and said that they would oppose the programme by taking out a procession on the same day at the same time.
Initially our permission to hold a roadshow and have a public sound system was cancelled. A few days before the gathering I started to get phone calls from the local administration asking me to postpone the Acharya's programme. I kept telling them that we would no longer take out a roadshow or put on loudspeakers beyond our campus. They added that they did not have any security personnel to spare given the local body or panchayat elections.
Of course it's another matter that Mahmudabad is a town area and so doesn't have panchayat elections. I telephoned senior officials to tell them that all this gathering intended to do was to create bridges between different sections of society and encourage amity and peacefulness. When I asked what was objectionable about this, there was no answer.
I even went to meet the people who were opposing the mahasammelan and despite their assurances to the contrary the opposition continued. It was clear that this inter-faith gathering was making certain local politicians increasingly nervous.
In the meanwhile a small group of Hindu holy men had made themselves at home in one part of our garden one day before the event. The evening before the mahasammelan the Acharya arrived in Lucknow and as a convoy of cars went to receive him at the airport, I continued to receive phone calls asking me to postpone our event. Meanwhile in Mahmudabad all the arrangements were being finalised. The tent and dais had been erected, chairs had been laid out and the food was packed into boxes.
In the morning hundreds of people began coming into the house. There were Hindus including a large number of sadhus, mahants and pujaris, representatives of the Sikh community, Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as imams from local madrassas, members of the Jain community and many others. Amongst the Hindus there were devotees of Sai Baba, bhakts of Shiv Ji and priests of the Radha Krishna movement as well as people from dozens of other denominations. Amongst Muslims there were Barelvis, Deobandis, Shias and Sufis. All these people were a visual reminder of how it is confluence that creates vibrant societies. When societies insulate and isolate themselves, often in search of some mythic authenticity, they inevitably atrophy and decay.
Hindus and Muslims are often talked of as homogenous monoliths but the people who had gathered in anticipation of the event presented a bewildering scene of diversity with saffron, yellow, pink and red turbans, different styles of dress, various kinds of headgear, some green, some embroidered, others plain white and yet others woolen in anticipation of winter. This was not secularism at work. Rather it was a form of social harmony, of unity in diversity, which has not only been the hallmark of Indian society but is also something that has taken root over centuries. Social fabric just like cloth takes years to weave and embroider but hardly a few seconds to tear apart and destroy.
By mid-morning it became obvious that there was no way that the Mahasammelan could go on. Police was stationed outside our home and soon we got news that police had detained the Acharya in his hotel in Lucknow. Then news came in that there were barricades on the Lucknow-Mahmudabad road and cars were being turned back. Evidently there were enough policemen to spare despite the elections. Tractor trolleys were also being sent back from other roads leading to Mahmudabad. We must have fed almost a thousand people when we were asked to take apart the stage and pack up all the other arrangements.
It seemed strange, almost unbelievable, that an event on inter-faith harmony could lead to such political opposition but as the Acharya stated in a press conference the day he was detained, it is against the interests of certain political groups to allow society to unite. That evening, as I said goodbye to the Acharya ji, I recited a couplet by Zafar Ali Khan (1873-1956):
Gar Krishn ki taleem aam ho jaaey
To kaam fitnagarown ka tamam ho jaaey
If Krishna's message is truly understood
The work of those who sow strife will end
In reply the Acharya recited another couplet:
Har shey terey jamal ki aaeendar hai
Har shey pukaarti hai tu parvardigar hai
Each creature is a reflection of your beauty
Each creature calls out 'You are my sustainer'