Unity in colour
Holi is a festival of colours in India. The major religions of India are identified with a colour. In this festival all the colours are equal!
We talk about a secular state in India. It is perhaps not very easy even to find a good word in Hindi for "secular". Some people think it means something opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means is that it is state which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities; that, as a state, it does not allow itself to be attached to one faith or religion, which then becomes the state religion.
The challenge of creating peace
On 6th December 1992 a 400-year-old mosque was destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists on the assumption that the mosque was built on the location of the birth of the Hindu god Rama. It was alleged that a temple had stood there hundreds of years earlier and that Muslims had erected a mosque after destroying the temple. The destruction of the mosque sent shock waves throughout India. Conflicts broke out all over the country between Hindus and Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of people were affected. Many had their homes and businesses burnt. About 2000 people were killed in clashes and thousands were wounded.
In India, Inter-religious conflict is usually referred to as ‘communal’ conflict. India is living in constant fear that communal violence may tear apart the country if proper policies and actions to promote peace and tolerance are not undertaken. Several religions make their home in this complex and multicultural society. The largest numbers of people are Hindus. India also has the second largest Muslim population in the world. It has several million Christians, and many million Sikhs. All these religious communities have experienced serious extremist violence. In turn, each of these communities has also been responsible for generating its own brand of extremist propaganda, if not outright violence.
The presence of large-scale poverty and unemployment, and the gradual replacement of traditional values with materialistic ones, has proved to be a fertile ground for unscrupulous politicians to manipulate people. We are now seeing the rise of an aggressive Hindu nationalism. This is accompanied by the development of Muslim extremist organisations as well. Small fringes of fundamentalist Christian evangelicals also exist. However, the majority of the population still continue to be peace loving and tolerant. But the extremists can destroy the country through ongoing conflict if corrective action is not taken on a substantial scale.
Obviously the challenge of creating peace between religious communities in India is enormous and multi-faceted. At the national and regional levels religious and political leaders must come together to stop the manipulation of religion for political advantage. Religious thinkers must also evolve theological approaches that embrace diversity and pluralism within India. At the local level grass-roots peace initiatives must be strengthened so that the poor are not the worst suffers.
What has however prevented communal conflicts from destroying India is the resilience of the democratic process, a vibrant civil society, the largely pro-active media and enough sagacity among the common people. India as a secular state has also created a context where human rights organisations get into action each time religious conflicts occur. Secular minded NGOs and social movements contribute enormously to fight the cancer of suspicion and hatred fanned by the fundamentalist organisations and political parties. To their credit, there are many religious leaders in the country, from all faith traditions, who are wedded to non-violent methods of resolving conflicts.