Festivals: Occasions for spreading communal harmony in India

India's Tryst With Destiny has been overwrought with the legacy of violent bloodshed and communal disharmony of Partition, leaving behind scars which we have neither been able to completely comprehend, nor heal, to this day.

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With every single incident of communal violence, recent one being the anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi in 2020, we are faced with the reality of the utter failure of India’s democratic institutions and our political leaders in bringing Indians of all caste, creed and religions closer together to build a coherent society. One would have hoped that liberalisation, economic growth and the spread of formal education will lead to a mitigation of our differences but that has not been true. If anything, we have swung very much the other way like a wrecking ball and have devolved into demagoguery.

In a climate of deep hostility towards each other, we need our own version of affirmative action of communal harmony.

India’s masses have always looked up to their political leaders who have held a huge sway over the crowd, some more so than others. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was deeply pained witnessing the violence of Partition advocated a strict separation of religion and the State. He was appalled when Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, agreed to inaugurate the Somnath Temple. But in a country like India where religion is deeply embedded in the daily lives of people and where the citizens themselves are deeply religious, separating religion and the State was always going to be difficult and a tall ask. After all, the State is run by the citizens themselves.

However, at the inauguration of the Somnath Temple Dr Rajendra Prasad justified his idea of state and religion thus: “I respect all religions and on occasion visit a church, a mosque, a dargah and a gurdwara.”

Since then, India’s political leaders across all parties have not done enough and shied away from stepping up to build a strong, unified India by bridging the gap between the people. While we give glorious eloquence to India’s diversity, our differences have often been espoused and exploited by those in power. For their own short-term electoral gains, our leaders have ensured that in the long-term Indians continue to remain divided among each other.

One of the flashpoints of communal tensions and violence have been festivals. Routes are designated by governments during Ram Navami and Muharram processions to avoid an overlap lest it led to violence. Even symbolic portrayals of mutual respect are not tolerated. A Surf Excel ad which used Holi to bring all colors together was targeted by some sections of Hindus.

But with proper messaging and utilising the power of positive associations they can also be occasions which can bring us together. Take Bakr Eid/ Eid Al Adha as an example whose ritual involves the sacrifice of animals which is then targeted by a certain segment of Hindus relentlessly and termed “barbaric”. The irony of this happening in India whose population is mostly non-vegetarian, including Hindus as well is lost out in the constant vilification simply because this is a Muslim festival. One thing which is conveniently overlooked is the fact that a portion of the meat is distributed among the poor which is also an important part of the Eid Al Adha ritual.

A positive association can be built if, on Eid Al Adha political leaders also celebrated the festival by distributing food among the poor. The distributed food does not have to be meat either but it can very much be any type of food, even local food items depending on the region. It is not unheard of for political leaders to reach out to a diverse population in their country by participating in certain rituals during festivals. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lit diyas during Diwali and so did the American President Donald Trump. Even the PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti celebrated Diwali with orphans in Jammu.

If one were to scrutinise the rituals of festivals, none would hold to logic. All festivals must evolve with the times and ensure that they are celebrated in a civic manner under hygienic conditions, including Eid Al Adha. It will also certainly help if the quantum of sacrifice is rationalised so that too many animals are not sacrificed for a ritual.

Festivals are occasions of joy and celebration, a time when people come together and they should be observed and treated as such. If the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal can celebrate Diwali with the 3 crore citizens of Delhi in the middle of a pandemic, there is no reason why he could not have distributed food to the poor on Bakr Eid. As divisive politics and hateful agendas have gained ground in our country, it has made our political leaders meeker to make communal harmony a political agenda worth fighting for. Any political leader, be it from Punjab or Maharashtra or Assam or Karnataka, with the best interests of the nation at heart will not seek to divide the nation but will seek to implement initiatives which bridge the divide.

A country which has seen the gory violence during Partition when between one and two million people died should know better the price that ordinary people pay for hate and exclusionary politics for the sake of power. By no means this one step will bring us together, but it is a very small step in the right direction. India needs a hundred such steps not only from our political leaders but from the people themselves and our community representatives too. Our Institutions, especially the media need to be brought to task along with a coordinated, focused top-down and a bottom-up approach to ensure that India has communal harmony.

But more importantly, we need communal harmony to be pushed as an agenda by our political leaders and one of the ways they can do that is through effective communication and participation in festivals of all communities.

Until that does not happen, we will continue to remain an under-developed nation where politicians will continue to make hate and divisiveness their only agenda because they are incapable of providing people with the basic necessities needed for a dignified existence in society.

The author worked in the television industry.


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