In the last few decades we have become accustomed to news of sectarian violence on the Indian sub-continent. In particular, there is a widening and violent rift between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities. But religious and cultural pluralism is a prominent feature of Indian life and has been her heritage for centuries. I am documenting this culture of pluralism and tolerance, and how it today has become an act of resistance to the sectarians and a means of building peace between the communities.
India’s sectarian view of its history begins not in modern day India but in pre-partition India. Influenced by European nationalist movements and dismissing nearly 1000 years of their own heterogeneous heritage, a group of Indian intellectuals became convinced of the irreconcilability of India’s Muslim and Hindu ‘nations’. The state of Pakistan, carved out of India in 1947, was one consequence of this largely political and ahistorical belief. It cemented a questionable theory into a geo-political reality.
A recent manifestation of the idea has been the Hindutva project, a right wing Hindu movement that aims at cleansing India of her non-Hindu influences, rewriting her history as a purely Hindu one and intimidating her minorities – particularly her Muslims – into acquiescing to its political and cultural demands. The Hindutva movement has used academics to rewrite history, political leaders to impose its idea of a ‘Hindu’ society at the national level and violence to intimidate those who resist it.
In 1992 the Bharata Janata Party (BJP), the Hindutva’s political arm, orchestrated the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, rallying people by claiming that the mosque had been built over a temple to the god Ram. The campaign touched a popular note and helped the party win the 1998 presidential elections. More violence against the Muslims followed, the worst occurred in 2002 when over 2000 Muslims were killed in Ahmedabad, Gujarat as the local police and politicians looked on. In the aftermath of such communal violence many previously mixed neighbourhoods were divided into sectarian enclaves. Despite losing power in 2004, the BJP remains a powerful opposition party and the Hindutva’s network of schools, welfare associations and militant groups continue to influence popular conceptions about India’s history and culture.
Today an Islamic militancy is emerging and is targeting Hindu communities in acts of revenge. Bombs have torn through busy markets and neighbourhoods in Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Delhi. And to further complicate matters the state of Orissa has been engulfed in violence as rampaging Hindu mobs accuse the local Christians of trying to convert local Hindus to Christianity.Â Over 6 weeks of violence has seen thousands displaced and dozens of churches burnt.
Victims of distorted histories, the people of India (and Pakistan) are trapped in a dialog of violence and confrontation.[/one_third_last]The Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore once said that the “…idea of India itself militated against a culturally separatist view, against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.” He would be quite dismayed to see the state of affairs in India today. So am I, a Kashmiri Muslim whose own pluralist heritage (Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist) has become a victim of a sectarian militancy. But Tagore would be right in his conviction that India’s own history speaks against the chauvinism of sectarianism. Contemporary India offers a vivid example of how a people resist sectarian extremism, and the imposed division of their communities.
My project is a visual and narrative documentation of this ‘idea of India’ as I explore
- Pluralist landscapes where traditions of social and religious sharing still exist, and those where it may already have been lost. I will also include sites that were once centers of such tolerance and whose histories offer us important lessons and understandings today
- Shared sacred sites like major Sufi dargahs where Hindus and Muslims cross paths and which today and in the past have acted as important sources of healing and reconciliation. I will also focus on sites where Hindu and Christian beliefs have fused and syncretic rituals have emerged.
- Shared cultural traditions including religious festivals that have evolved past their sectarian sources and broadened to welcome participants of all beliefs.
- Efforts at reconciliation within divided communities for example those in Gujarat and in Kashmir, where victims of sectarian violence and cleansing are working with former neighbours, activists and concerned citizens to find a way back to their homes.
This project then is a journey though an alternative India; of lived experiences, of lives and imaginations not bound by sectarianism. In some instances I document real, lived acts of resistance and cultural sharing. In other instances I explore social spaces that point to worlds more complex, beautiful and vital than those offered by the threadbare hate mongering of the sectarians. In other words, I am using photography not only as a means of evidence, but also as a vessel for the imagination.
Religious fundamentalism is a threat faced by democracies around the globe. India offers an example of the struggle between people who are prepared to live with and respect others who are different, and those who seek the comfort of homogeneity and the domination of a single ‘pure’ religious and ethnic tradition. In the aftermath of the hatreds and violence that led to the partition of India, an act that was expected to solve the Hindu-Muslim question by separating the two, we find that that the quest for peace and reconciliation is a delicate process that may continue to unfold for decades. In India it remains a determined and continuing struggle, worthy of more attention than it has hitherto received.