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Inter-Religious Harmony in India Amidst the Coronavirus

Media reports suggest that there is an outbreak of anti-Muslim hate during the nationwide lockdown. But even in this political season of hate, there are several exemplary stories of human compassion and inter-religious harmony being reported from different states.

In a civilised society, it is a human impulse to help others. In politics, a good citizen is one who stands by another citizen. Helping fellow citizens during distress is part of our constitutional morality.

Yet, media reports suggest that there is an outbreak of anti-Muslim hate during the nationwide lockdown ordered by the Indian government since 25 March. In a residential area of Indore, a shopkeeper allegedly refused to sell vegetables to Muslims. In the Ramanagara district of Karnataka, a man announced that Muslims are not allowed to enter the village and that anyone working for them will face a penalty of Rs 500,000. In Gujarat, reports said that a hospital in Ahmedabad allegedly created separate wards for Hindu and Muslim patients afflicted by COVID-19 (the Gujarat government later denied it).

But even in this political season of hate, there are also exemplary stories of human compassion and inter-religious harmony being reported from different states. Muslims, Hindus and others are rejecting hate and helping others out of a sense of good citizenship, even as the coronavirus lockdown disrupts normal life.

In Indore, in the second week of April, when Draupadi Bai Verma died, her relatives refused to touch her body out of fear of contracting coronavirus. In response, a group of ten Muslim neighbours arranged for her last rites and carried her body to the cremation ground. Abdul Rehman Sheikh, a Muslim who carried her bier, said, “This is the purpose of humanity, to serve each other.” In Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh, when Ravishankar died, his relatives similarly feared contracting coronavirus and didn’t turn up for his last rites. Ultimately, a group of Muslims carried his bier to the cremation ground, chanting Ram naam satya hai.

In Bandra, Mumbai, the last rites of the 68-year-old Premchandra Buddhalal Mahavir were performed by Muslims as per Hindu rituals. Mahavir’s two sons and relatives couldn’t come from Rajasthan due to the lockdown. Chanting Ram naam satya hai, Muslim neighbours carried his body on their shoulders to the cremation ground.

In these times, even as pious religious slogans like Jai Shri Ram have come to be used politically, many Muslims are rising above religious barriers and reflecting remarkable stories of love over hate. Yusuf Sheikh, one of those who attended the funeral in Bandra, said, “We knew Premchandra Mahavir quite well. At such times, we should show humanity transcending religious barriers.”

Such stories of religious harmony are not limited to a few places. In Loyaitola village of Malda district in West Bengal, a group of Muslims – chanting Bolo Hari, Bolo Hari and Ram naam satya hai – carried the body of 90-year-old Binay Saha to the cremation ground. “Our father died of old age,” said his son, Shyamal Saha. “We were anxious about how to cremate him during the lockdown. None of our relatives would be able to come.” Saddam Sheikh, a neighbour, said, “We (Muslims of the village) are neighbours and carried out our duty. No religion is greater than humanity.”

In Bhatta Basti of Jaipur, on 13 April, Muslim neighbours performed the last rites of the deceased Rajendra in the absence of his relatives. Overcoming their own religious limitations, Muslims carried his body to the cremation ground while chanting Ram naam satya hai.

In Birbhum district, West Bengal, Shyamashis Chatterjee died on 9 April. His brother Shibashish asked for help from Muslim neighbours when his relatives couldn’t come due to the lockdown. Kazi Abu Badshah, who helped perform the last rites, observed, “We are neighbours, we reside on the same plot, how could I not help Shibashish perform the last rites of a man who had become a friend over the years?” Shibashish Chatterjee remarked, “I shall always be grateful to my Muslim neighbours for helping me in my hour of need.”

In Aurangabad, Maharashtra, a Hindu man died and, due to the fear of the coronavirus, none of his relatives came to perform his last rites. Farhat Ahmad, a functionary of the Tablighi Jamaat in Aurangabad, lifted the bier and cremated the body.

These examples of Muslims performing last rites of Hindus are not limited to only one religion. There are numerous cases of Hindus helping others in distress, Christians aiding non-Christians, and Sikhs feeding members of other communities. The Delhi Gurudwara Committee is providing quarantine facility and food to the poor. A Sikh gurudwara in Punjab is providing food to madrassa students. In the Alappuzha district of Kerala, after a four-year-old Muslim girl ran out of her cancer drugs, KP Vishnu, a medical sergeant, rode 150 kilometres to find the drug and deliver it to her. Similarly, over 1,000 Christian-run hospitals in India, with 60,000 inpatient beds, are fighting the coronavirus. During these testing times, members of all religious communities are running kitchens for people in distress.

While politics continues to divide peoples along religious lines, Indian society and its values of pluralism continue to unite across religious divides. The Pluralism Project of Harvard University defines pluralism in four terms: one, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity; two, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference; three, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments which doesn’t require us to leave our differences; four, pluralism is based on dialogue.

In India, pluralism is the constitutional morality. The Preamble of the Constitution treats us as Indians first – not as members of religious communities and castes. Therefore, a citizen’s first responsibility is to be faithful towards other citizens, more so in times of crisis.

This unifying constitutional morality will help India rise again, overcoming current political divisiveness. In a recent interview, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy observed, “Ethics does not mean self-concern. Self-focusing. Self values. No. Ethics begins with the concern for the other. Morality begins when you open yourself to other selves.”

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Mantasha Ansari is a student of MA in Political Science at the University of Lucknow. She is deeply interested in emerging issues related to development, gender and politics. She has written for Freedom Gazette, The Quint, The India Forum Journal and The Frontier Weekly, among others.