Thursday, August 14, 2008

Appropriateness or Inappropriateness of Religious Processions: A Discussion

Open Space in collaboration with the NGO Saajhi Duniya organised a discussion at the premises of Saajhi Duniya on Thursday, 14th August, 2008, on the "Appropriateness or Inappropriateness of Religious Processions", at which the documentary film Usi Shahjahanpur Mein (In That Very Shahjahanpur), 2004, was screened as a stimulus for discussion. The film was based on a procession taken out in Shahjahanpur on the occasion of a festival every year at which a particular community is insulted and verbally hurt. It is a known fact that religious processions in India tend to provoke violence.

While most of the participants in the discussion called for a complete ban on religious processions, a scion of the royal family of Awadh, Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah greatly objected to the idea, and said that the processions only needed to be better regulated and organised. He saw the processions as great traditions which ought to be kept alive.

It is worthwhile to draw attention to what Sudhir Kakar has pointed out in his The Colors of Violence: Cultural Identities, Religion and Conflict (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996, pp. 44-46) : of the worst riots of post-independence India, the 1969 riot in Ahmedabad, was set off by a Muslim vegetable seller who hit a cow which had stopped at its stand for a munch. Fisticuffs with the Hindu cowherd followed and the treatment of the cow (which was not seriously injured), greatly magnified out of all proportion, spread through the city and touched off further incidents. The rioting continued in various parts of Gujarat for some ten days.

...Processions at Muharram for the Muslims and Dussehra (and increasingly Ganesh Chaturthi) for the Hindus are almost a certain recipe for violence when they are preceded by a period of tension between the communities and when a precipitating incident has just occured.

The screening of the documentary-film and the discussion that followed was preceded by the recitation of a line from an Urdu poem written by Anwar Nadeem:

भीड़ की बात में बात ही कुछ थी, जोश ही जोश था, शोर ही शोर था, शोर के नाम पर बात रही थी खुशी , मिल रहा था सुकून, जी रहा था वतन!!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Reflections on Personal and Political Themes: Diversity Dialogue between Indian and American Students

Open Space in collaboration with Lucknow University's Philosophy Department and the Institute of Women's Studies organised a workshop titled "Reflections on Personal and Political Themes" on Monday, 11th August 2008, at the university campus, at which the American students of the Urdu language programme of the American Institute of Indian Studies and Indian students of the university indulged in a cross-cultural dialogue. Every student was given a VIP card each from the two sets with personal and political themes and requested to answer the questions. Their responses were later read out and discussed. Almost all American students seemed to disagree with the American Foreign Policy. The female American students were particularly vocal about the lack of respect for foreign women that they find in India.

The dialogue was an exercise aimed at understanding diverse perspectives on personal and political themes, like

  • The Fear of Blacks, Muslims, Men, Rural People, etc.
  • America as a multi-cultural state
  • Indian and American responses to 9/11
  • America as a land of opportunity
  • India as seen by Americans
  • Issues of Youth in India and America
  • American youth's experience of India
  • Indian experience of American interaction

The dialogue provided an open space for the exchange of views in a true democratic way and generated valuable insights.

Some interesting responses to a few of the many questions raised are as follows:

Do Indian men respect foreign women?
In general, my first inclination is to say ABSOLUTELY NOT. My more thoughtful answer is to say to some degree, but largely no. However, there are great misconceptions from bith sides, which I'm certain lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation of actions.

Do you think American Arms Industry causes World Warfares?
Yes and no. Throughout the Cold War period, Soviet and American proxies fought both over ideological conflicts and also served a secondary purpose at testing out different arms technology. However, the picture today is not as clear as the after effects of massive small arms and conventional weapons proliferation still plague many countries, irrespective of the source.

Are you afraid of being left out in a consumer society?
I am interpreting "consumer society" as the dominant MNC-driven capitalist culture, often associated with so-called "free trade", frequently called neo-liberalism. What is especially troubling to me is that as much as I intellectually and morally object to neo-libralism, I do find myself under the spell of rampant consumerism, and have difficulting excising the desire for things that supposedly reflect one's place in the world (i.e. status). In a global context, a consumer society at all levels is unsustainable, though I realise that even being able to make that pronouncement results from unhindered access to and participation in an overly consumptive culture.

What are your biggest fears?
There are anumber of things that frighten me, but I don't feel very threatened by them. What I mean is that lots of things are dangerous to me, but I am not very worried about them, or I dobn't think they are likely to happen. For instance, it would be horrible if I or someone I love were killed, but on the other hand, it's not likely. Other things affect me less directly, but are more real threats. Global warming will take a few decades to become unbearable, but it will be a seroius problem when it does. In the shorter term, I worry a lot about the errosion of democracy and tolerance, boith in the US and India, and about the effects of American policies, which I feel responsible for even though I have hardly any direct influence on them.

Do you think America is assimilative, homogenising or hegemonic?
I personally feel America is a diverse country harbouring vast number of religions to its credit and to further promote this brotherhood or amalgation of these cultures, there are various cultural events held at a number of community halls trying to bridge all sorts of differences amongst one another.
Though there used to be oppression towards the Red Indian [Native American] before the 19th century, but now all differences can be sorted out if need be in the court of law, but today's culture-aware citizens avoid such incidents in order not to hurt sentimental values of their brothers and fellow citizens.

Do Indian Muslims identify with other countries?
I opine, yeah of course, Indian Muslims do identify with other countries. Because being a Muslim, I personally feel that it's quite an honourable feeling to think the other countries' Muslims enjoying such a religion rather of society of celestial pursuit. So, I strongly feel - "Yes".

Do you think Christianity is a bigger threat to Islam than other religions?
No, I don't think that Christianity is a threat to Islam, any more or less than other world religions. It is important to realise and remember that today's conflicts between the West and Islamic communities are not based on religion and should not be seen as a "Clash of Civilizations".

Are Indians more religious?
I do not feel comfortable making such a generalisation about any society. The bigger the generalisation the less the truth it conveys. However, from South Asians I have talked to and from observation of public space, devotional practices are central and important to many people. Furthermore in India religious topics are much more at the forefront of politics and daily social interactions.

Are Muslims more religious than Hindus?
No, I don't think that either is more religious than the others. I think that how religious one is depends on the individual themself, not which religion they are part of. There are different levels of religiousity depending on the person, not the religion or sect itself.

Whict tradition of yours would you like to be accepted by all?
How to interpret "yours"? As an American, I'm proud of the long tradition of fighting for social justice even in situtations that do not directly effect oneself, e.g. civil rights.

Are you afraid of being completely repressed in a communist/theocratic society?
I would not put myself in such a situation. However, repression happens in a "secular democracy", like India. You do not have to be in an officially theocratic state to be exposed/suffer from oppression.

Would you like to be reborn in another country, religion, gender?

Definitely will wish to be reborn in another country, religion, gender. So we can realize the couterparts of our own existing state. And it will be beneficial in realizing the conflicts among seceral communities and races.