What we learnt from this process


    Chief facilitator, Sushobha Barve, has drawn a few pertinent observations on what was learnt in the entire process.

    The focussed and concentrated discussions with a small group of influential individuals helped us to have very meaningful conversations about wide-ranging issues that are affecting relations between various communities. It is often mentioned that we should not raise issues that are contentious between communities as it only creates tension and keeps them apart. Hence community workers working in areas that are communally sensitive have taken the path of either only taking up development issues in the belief that addressing common concerns would help them overcome differences, or the communal harmony work that includes sports, a range of competitions, cultural programmes. In both approaches any discussion on the deeper issues that have created prejudices and distanced people is largely avoided. These issues keep coming up from time to time, as they are not really resolved. In both these sets of activities although people from different communities do work together, the relations remain superficial, as there is no attempt to remove prejudices and misconceptions.  The need to heal memories or help in psychosocial rehabilitation is not really addressed. The dialogue model was designed to build a bridge between these various approaches.

    When the dialogue got stuck the facilitator was advised to drop the difficult members from the group. Had we done so, we would have failed in the process itself. The challenge was how to deal with the difficult person and to have a vision of what such a person could be and contribute. The threat of boycott was as bad as the obstinacy of the particular group member. The facilitator, as a Hindu, had to use all the sensitivity that could be mustered to remain neutral in the conflict amongst dialogue group members, and succeeded. At that stage, by talking with individual group members, the facilitator actually succeeded in assuaging feelings, allaying fears and helping them open their hearts to a new approach for finding a solution that was in the best interest of all. Without doing this, if we had actually continued with the dialogue it would have damaged community relations.

    That experience also helped us to see that no matter how liberal individuals may be, when it comes to certain issues they quickly take up group or community identities. The extent to which this is done will depend on the sense of insecurity, feeling of being under siege, experienced by individuals, and local level politics at work. The Muslim community suffers from a feeling of insecurity that at times provokes them to assert their religious identity. This episode also revealed to us the extent to which the Muslim community feels, "We are not really understood".

    During the course of this dialogue process and extensive individual and group discussions with Catholic community members, it was discovered that they too had deep prejudices against the Muslims. The oft-repeated statements heard in Mahim were, "Muslims are very dirty. They are criminally inclined. They have turned beautiful Mahim into a slum. The Muslim men have four wives. They are not very educated." We also found deep resentment in the Catholics for the Muslim ghettoisation of those areas that were predominantly Christian localities earlier.

    Hence, addressing these prejudices amongst the Hindus and the Catholics outside the dialogue group became as much part of the dialogue process as dialogue itself. Social relations cannot improve without some individualised work. 

    All the three major communities – Hindus, Muslims and Christians – living in that particular pocket of Mahim which was the venue for dialogue, were deeply pained that the land prices of the area were lower than the neighbouring areas of Mahim. They were acutely aware that run-down conditions of the area, lack of civic sense and inability to check the menace of beggars, drug addicts, were the cause of this. Many Muslims of the area mentioned that the authorities just do not bother about this area because it has a majority Muslim population. Often they would cite examples of how areas adjacent to their own get attention from the civic authorities. After observation we found some basis of truth in this feeling. One of the BMC officers asked Bulu Saldhana, "Balamiya Lane is not your area. So why are you working there?" Bulu replied, "People there too are very keen to improve their locality as elsewhere. So I have decided to help them."

    Hence the campaign against the accumulation of garbage and educating the public to have good civic habits regarding this is one of the major attempts to address the grievance of the Muslim community. The fact that the municipal officers are responding to them in a positive way is replacing their cynicism and hopelessness with the sense of achievement that "we can make a difference if we work for it".

    As this teamwork has evolved slowly and painfully over a period, allowing for the emergence of a new, younger leadership, there is a possibility that the group would not only stick together but the community spirit that they have managed to generate would also continue to spread to newer areas. In conclusion we would like to suggest that the dialogue model could be used in difficult areas to generate a new spirit, knit divided communities and bring healing and reconciliation.  

    Archived from Communalism Combat, April-May  2005 Year 11    No.107, Breaking Barriers 2