Interfaith dialogue is something that you hear so often in the West. Such dialogues have become a common feature there and have helped remove misgivings between followers of different faiths and even atheists.
India is a multi-cultural and multi-religious society where people of different faiths have been cohabiting for ages. The sheer number of people of different faiths that live in this continental nation of 1.25 billion people is astounding. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and atheists besides others share space with each other and have lived peacefully for the better part of their shared history.
This population mix across the nation may lead analysts from elsewhere to assume that inter-faith dialogue has been flourishing here. Sadly, not so.
Despite such religious and linguistic plurality in our country, there has been a singular lack of effort in promoting serious interfaith dialogue.
While the population in Europe, US and Canada is not half as diverse as that in India, interfaith dialogue is a serious business in the West. There are multitude of organizations, forums and discussion groups that have been active at the local, state and national level in different age groups. One section of the population that has been particularly targeted by interfaith forums is the youth in the US.
India seems to be an exception in this regard.
The half-hearted efforts made in India involve aged religious scholars trying to pass on staid messages to a gathering consisting of mostly similarly aged people least interested in such affairs.
A few such meetings that I ended up attending in New Delhi and elsewhere seemed to me a sheer a waste of time. The same groups of people are always brought to such meetings, and they are more interested in trying to make their presence felt than do something as far interfaith dialogue is concerned.
In most of such meetings, the participants, usually scholars of different faiths, instead of trying to find a common ground try to talk about their own faiths and what it offers. There is no visible effort to understand other religions, something that is needed to create a conducive atmosphere for communal harmony in a society.
The Late Dr Asghar Ali Engineer in an article on interfaith dialogues in India says, “…most of the dialogues tend to be at a very superficial level. We often refer to what is best in our tradition while completely ignoring what is worst in it. Thus all sides praise their own religious traditions, and then disperse, but the problems of suspicion and misunderstanding continue. One wonders, if dialogue is working, why conflict takes place at all. Thus, like other rituals we also perform one more ritual and we feel our duty has been done."
While the communal division in the country is increasing at a rapid speed, the effort to bring people of different faiths together in order to create communal harmony seems to be faltering. Communal tension is increasing across the nation, particularly in the Northern parts of the country. Some extremist elements are working overtime to make the division permanent with their rabble rousing and inflammatory rhetoric.
In contrast, the small minority of people who have made half-hearted efforts in the field of interfaith relations seem to be losing their relevance amidst the bellicose and pugnacious oratory of the extremist elements.
The narrative of the extremist elements seems to be impacting the majority of population in various parts of the country. Instead of trying to come up with a counter narrative to create harmony and respect for different faiths, the efforts for promoting interfaith dialogue seem to be limping.
Asghar Ali Engineer in the same article further says, “Interfaith dialogue has to become a much deeper encounter between faiths. It must bring out not only the good and desirable elements in tradition but also the problem areas with the conflicts which occur due to these problem areas, and how to resolve these problem areas. Interfaith dialogue should be followed by an attempt at conflict transformation, in order to make it more useful”.
One aspect of the half-hearted interfaith dialogue in India is the fact that all efforts are limited to the people who have come to be known as ‘senior citizens’. These people, who are enjoying their retirement, find it enticing to remain relevant with occasional dialogues with other people of a similar age group from other faiths.
The youth, the one section of the population that must be educated about this important aspect, is completely absent from this narrative. Sadly, they have never been targeted by the proponents of these dialogues. Without the youth’s involvement and their active participation, this whole exercise to increase awareness about the ‘others’ and to remove misgivings about other religions, seems futile.
Even small efforts in creating common grounds between people of different faiths can go a long way, if done in a targeted manner. College campuses are the best place to mould the young minds in a positive frame. Eboo Patel, the founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core in his book Sacred Ground emphasizes this aspect.
“…It’s the key space in our society where a choir of idealistic young people from a range of backgrounds come together to form their vocations, participate in a diverse community, and acquire a knowledge base that will help them be leaders in the world beyond. It is the cathedral where I have been blessed to do the vast majority of my interfaith preaching. Though there are many sectors in our society where interfaith cooperation is relevant and necessary (houses of worship, neighborhoods, hospitals and cities to name a few) I believe college campuses play a uniquely powerful role”, says Patel, one of the authorities on interfaith dialogue.
It would help if his suggestion is heeded.