Sunday, June 16, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: Can religious leaders do more to foster communal harmony?

The road to peaceful and mutually rewarding co-existence

Update : 03 Oct 2021, 03:20 AM

A seemingly insignificant piece of news caught my eyes, published in the prestigious Anandabazar Patrika of Kolkata last week. The news in brief went that a group of Muslims in Delhi had gone to Delhi High Court to protect a mandir from grabbers and stop its eviction or demolition. 

The concerned Delhi High Court bench had taken this into cognizance, and ordered Delhi police to take appropriate measures to stop the eviction and ensure that no damage was done to the mandir.

In a country with an overwhelming Hindu majority, this insignificant group of Muslims did a wonderful job in carrying out their social obligations and demonstrating their empathy to their neighbours belonging to another faith group. Their idea was to protect a place of worship and thus promote and maintain communal harmony and peace.

This is a fine example which may be replicated not only in India but also in Bangladesh to let people live in peace and tranquility, while nurturing and following their own faith and culture.

We can claim that in Bangladesh we live more or less in harmony, barring some unfortunate incidents. There were incidents at times of vandalizing places of worship, idols, and even attacks on people belonging to faiths other than the dominant one. Such developments, however stray and infrequent, are very sensitive, and deserve to be dealt with the utmost care. Their ripple effect has the ominous potential to disrupt existing peace and harmony. 

The onus usually is on the majority of the society whenever any disruption takes place; it is an undeniable fact that the majority is responsible and has the capacity to act decisively. Incidents of such nature can occur with the slightest of provocations when evil-mongers remain ready to take full advantage. Once such violence is unleashed, no amount of legal action, efforts to rehabilitate, or compensations suffice to befriend people wronged. The scar becomes deep-seated and haunts us forever. 

People of all religious faith have reverence and trust towards their religious leaders and tend to look to them for moral and ethical strength, sense of wrong and right, and guidance in social behaviour. Many would put them in prestigious positions as “men of God.” Our expectations towards these reverend people are considerably high. They are supposed to lead us in prayer, perform various rituals of our faith, and guide us in dealing with societal evils. But when it comes to maintaining interfaith harmony in society, these “men of God” need to step out of their comfort zone and mix with their counterparts belonging to other faith groups. Here, the responsibility of the dominant faith group cannot be overemphasized. They must ensure that they interact regularly with others, and that none of their actions and words hurt people’s sentiment or antagonize them. These leaders need to be motivated and trained to be in a position of sensing the psyche of the community and detecting any brewing apprehension even before it manifests into some kind of trouble.

It may not be easy reaching out to the other faith groups. They will always be cautious of and unwelcoming to outsiders, in particular members of the dominant faith, because of their pre-conceived apprehension resulting from previous episodes in the locality or elsewhere in the country.

The first step forward is the most difficult one, but it remains the most essential one. This has to be pre-meditated and well planned. This interfaith contact has to be established during normal times when there is no tension brewing up ostensibly. Once the contact is made, it has to be nurtured and maintained to be able to furnish an expected result in the face of real or potential trouble. I find no problem in organizing such interfaith events in the courtyard of a mandir or masjid for instance, drawing an audience from all faith groups around. But unfortunately, such practices are rare.

The finest example set by the Delhi Muslims holds much potential for us to replicate such instances of showing empathy for a group when it is in need. In Bangladesh, our imams and religious leaders need to be motivated and guided by the government and other social bodies to realize the tremendous potential of their role in conflict detection, prevention, management, and resolution. 

It is a complicated task which will envisage proper integration with the society, regular interaction with leaders and followers belonging to other faith groups, identification of their concerns, and the chalking out of plans for gaining and retaining the confidence of the community.

When a mishap happens, we look forward to law enforcers to step in. In our society, it hardly works because of our protracted legal system, among other hurdles. Hence, pro-active measures at the local community level to forecast, detect, and prevent such incidents are the only way to avoid them. 

Bangalis have been traditionally known for maintaining communal peace and harmony. The iconic Bengali literary figure Sarat Chandra Chattapaddhay, in “A cyclone at the sea,” narrates his experience of travelling to Burma on a ship. Amidst his vivid description of the voyage, he mentions his interaction with a rural Muslim co-passenger who found it difficult to get a space to offer his evening prayer on the overcrowded deck. 

The writer sacrificed by packing up his belongings to make room for his prayer. This won the heart of the simple peasant. The story, though very simple and mundane, conveys a message of profound magnitude about interfaith trust and harmony prevailing among common people and thus reinforcing our social fabric.

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected].

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