Born after twenty-one years of independence, we were literally spoon-fed the story of freedom struggle at the school and college. It was heartening to note that the corner stone of our charters of freedom was secularism. As time rolled on innumerable frightening tales of riots came into our notice and we kept on wondering through the saga of violence that whether a secular India would ever exist. It was very painful to learn from the mouths of qualified Indians about their inimical attitudes towards people of other religions and communities. As a matter of fact, bucks were passed to the first prime minister of India that he was unnecessarily tolerant towards other religions and our land had be a nation of one religion.
We grew up in a small town in Orissa in the seventies and early eighties, where occasionally a Muslim used to turn up at our doorsteps with a begging bowl and we heard with curiosity about the vicissitudes of his life and in response my sister was moved to tears and fed him sumptuously. At times the fakir was praying with a unique meditative mood near the main door of our house and we were reminded many times by my grandparents not to disturb him. But such egalitarian social milieu soon passed into oblivion and the same township went through the frenzy of religious unrest in the nineties, reducing our love for the fakir to a withered memory.
As time changed, we began to live at Bhuvaneswar –the capital city of Orissa, also known for the dotted presence of temples and calm, scenic atmosphere of the place, a rare sight unfolded before us proving the truth that our first prime minister’s dream of a secular India was a reality. In fact, it gave us the rare insight that our social fabric from the time immemorial was very secular. It was a bolt from the blue to find out amidst the zigzag presence of temples that there exists a village in the old part of the city, in the names of kapila prasad, also Sundarpada where the Hindus and Muslims share a distinctive culture of secular living. We were genuinely surprised when Dalai Lama made a reference to this place as the original birthplace of Buddha in his visit to our city.
The village is spread across a huge area and people from both the communities-Hindus and Muslims, have been living together from generations and even share common boundary walls. The villagers, although known for their aggressive attitudes, rustic qualities and backwardness never make a point of religious intolerance when they talk of their lives and living. While someone walks through the village which is getting the first renaissance of newly built-up roads, schools, college and proximity to new housing complexes and engineering and management colleges, he wonders how fanatic pseudo-religiousness has so far spared this place.
Just a few days back, we found out a heart-warming tale of an incident from a Hindu boy that his bicycle was stolen from the compound of the college in the village and the boy managed to get the tip-off that it was a handiwork of a Muslim boy, who lived near-by. The boy rushed to thief’s house and saw the Muslim boy was removing the seat of the bicycle. Interestingly, the latter burst into tears when he learnt that he had committed the shameless act of stealing the bicycle of a villager, who lived so near. The Hindu boy was visibly moved and touched the chin of the Muslim boy in an act of explicit affection .The boy got back his bicycle, but still has not divulged to anyone of the village the name and details of the other boy who committed the theft.
A symbolic occasion of Hindu-Muslim unity is seen when the villagers observe a seven-day ceremony in the village, known as “Gokhi Baba mela”, where Hindus and Muslims frequent and both offer garlands and coconuts to the idol of Shiva reverentially worshipping the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses without any trace of animosity.
Was rural India secular? In a heated but animated discussion with other people we were told that such display of unity is commonplace in many parts of India and people at those places hate to talk of communal feelings. But what has gone wrong with the urban millions who live in such rage and acrimony towards each other’s religion? Not only that, often we find that sponsored programs are also held by various religious institutions which go to the interiors of Orissa and complain about religious conversions from one religion to other and instigate violence. Then horrific incidents transpire to bring upon us calamities like riots and mass killings, which disturb the entire nation.
In the vicinity of the village, one auto driver was beaten-up by some people. Though a Muslim, he received the first succor from a group of auto drivers, who were Hindus. Surprisingly they reacted very angrily because the auto of the Muslim boy was broken by the miscreants and finally Police were called in to prevent a clash between the miscreants and auto drivers.
We need a team to go to such areas, which have held aloft the virtues of secularism from time immemorial and make deeper studies as to how so far it has remained in tact from the virus of either pseudo-secular politicians or pseudo-religious outfits. The lessons derived from that will be far more helpful in removing the specter of riots and terrorism from our society than the “sadbhavana Yatras”-the journeys of goodwill.