The dream of unity in diversity

Religious freedom and equality is a particular topic that resonates deeply with my personal conviction, life philosophy and ambition. Thus, naturally, given the opportunity to live within such a rich tapestry of culture and belief here in Hyderabad and have access to children from such varied backgrounds – it is a topic that I enjoy exploring. It is easy in the context of the classroom to cultivate some false sense of harmonious coexistence. Certainly, the unity in diversity within India that the students talk about is a reality that the whole world can benefit from paying attention to – but, sometimes, there are harsh realities in my confrontations with the ‘real world’ that force me to recognize how much progress still needs to be made.

The experience filming this small clip for the video I am working on at MGM is what has brought me to this topic. The MGM Project is called “Sita’s Life” and shows the two possible ‘tomorrows’ of a young girl who is having a problem in school and contemplating suicide. The video is supposed to reveal all of the small ways that our lives are interconnected to those around us and who love us, and to approach this difficult topic from the perspective that ‘Life is Beautiful.’ In order to do this, we show a day in the life of her family and friends, had Sita killed herself, alongside the normal day. At the end, mourners go to console Sita’s mother. The day we were to film this small clip, the two students playing the ‘mourners’ forgot their costumes. Half of this class is Muslim, and half is Hindu, so one Muslim girl suggested that they just wrap the scarf like a burka and we do a close up – nice idea.

“Wait!” one girl says.
“But, the girl’s name is Sita (a Hindu name) there would not be Muslims in her family”

I happen to be from a Christian family (with a much more complicated relationship to the spirit) that has Muslims (newly and warmly welcomed) into it…so, I said
“Why can a family not contain all faiths? And maybe these are not direct family but close friends who have come to mourn. Religious unity is a possible reality that we can show in our movie!”

The girls agreed, and went on with it.

Just as we were about to film, the teacher at this school that I work with came out and saw the girls. She said,

“That looks horrible, wrap it like this” – and re-wrapped the scarves in a religiously neutral way – obviously tending to imply that they are Hindu like the young girl.

I was put off by this reaction. I did not say anything to stop it, because I also did not want to offend the teacher, and we were running short on time. But I felt that it was worth a reflection on, and every time I see this clip I think about it.

It reminded me of other experiences we have had here in India that have put a thorn in our dreams of the peaceful coexistence we see in schools reflecting onto the scale of the city and country. About a month ago we were invited to a wedding in Charminar in the family of our teaching assistant and dear friend, Neha. The function started late, went late, and being the old and ‘dangerous’ part of town, when it came time to go home Neha and her brother decided to follow our ricshaw back to Abids (the area where we live) on his bike. Just as we were making our way home, there was some confusion in the street that forced us to make a U-turn. Neha told us that it was an imposed curfew because of violence. She blamed this violence on the Hindus and said that it was the result of what was happening in Burma to the Burmese Muslim minority, the Rohingya. (The following is a picture from that wedding)

Since June there has been mass violence against the Burmese Muslims at the hand of the Burmese Buddhist majority, and many Indian Muslims are upset that India is not doing more to help them. Tonight I asked Asma some more questions about it, and these are some notes from our phone conversation:

“Burmese want the immigrants to leave Burma because they think Burma is theirs. They killed 150,000 innocent people. Common men, innocent people, not in the army of Burma. They wanted help but no one was helping them. Turkey was the first country to help. They want to kill the Muslims because they belong to Muslim religion and they are Buddhists. They are saying, go to your Muslim countries, leave Burma. They are from Burma, only! They lived in Burma. In India, so many Muslims are there so they are thinking that they are doing wrong to the Muslims and they are against the violence of them. The Hindus want to fight the Muslims here in Hyderabad also, but they can’t do anything here actually because they have Hindu unity is bigger than Muslims, so the Muslims can’t do anything against them. It started with the Buddhists, but they are not showing on television.”

(A picture of dear Asma)

I wanted to learn more about it, so I went to youtube and clicked the link for “Burma Muslims Exclusive video: “They will Kill us all, please help us!”” but it could not play, saying it was banned by the government of this country. Maybe you in America can see it, here is a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-X_Y1PL-eTA. I asked Asma about what was happening now, and she said that she did not know because the government and everyone is trying to hide what is happening.

“Last time I tried to see that video, it said it cannot open in your country. Muslims feel that India is not doing enough, hiding the whole thing! India wants to hide the violence. It started about 5-6 months ago, and it may be continuing but we can’t see in the news. Some people uploaded the videos on the net that’s the only way you can see.”

The Rohingya is said to be one of the most persecuted minorities on the globe – although they have inhabited Burma for years, they have been common victims of violence and the junta was hostile towards them since the year 1978. Many have fled to Bangaladesh, but are also not welcome in this country. Reflecting on all of this within the context of the 9/11 anniversary, and now, today, Emily, Dana and I being warned by our parents to be extra ‘aware’ due to the violence that happened in Libya against the United States embassies – I feel saddened. We have become so close to these two girls, Neha and Asma, who come from completely different background than us but we would never have difficulty being friendly and/or friends! with. All the time you experience beautiful moments of neighbors, friends, bus seat mates, school friends, colleagues, etc. working across cultural divides within this one city – Why is there so much fear of the ‘other’ on the big scale?

(Emily and Asma)

Sometimes I am humbled and energized by the dissonance between the ideals we love to believe in, and the way the world enacts itself around us. I think we all aspire towards love, and to find the beauty in our own lives. On that note, here is a message to leave you with from the same girls at MGM:

Until next time,

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