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Religion and Society

India: Kerala's oasi at stake

Caught between Islamic terrorism in Mumbai and the fury of anti-Christian pogroms by Hindu fundamentalists in Orissa, India seems to have few reasons to hope for a future of coexistence and peace. Yet at the stroke of the midnight hour on 15 August 1947, it showed the world that different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups could live together. This, we can say, without shutting our eyes before the thousand and one contradictions that shape this country's identity, is a reality that cannot be reduced to any simple formula. Violence and hatred have painfully marked the history of this country, and today's tensions are rooted in a somewhat troubled recent past. Some exceptions do exist none the less, and we cannot but take them into account.


The south-western Indian State of Kerala is an example of long-lasting co-existence of various communities. Most of its 35 million people are Hindu but a quarter of the population is Muslim and 20 per cent is Christian, the highest percentage in India. Despite its economic backwardness compared to the rest of the country, Kerala resembles Lebanon in its heydays during the Sixties. In this part of India communal co-existence has existed since time immemorial. According to traditional accounts, the Apostle Thomas reached the coast of Kerala in 52 AD through contacts established with colonies of Jewish merchants already present in the Arabian Sea. Islam's peaceful arrival dates back to the 7th century via Arab spice traders.


Two thousands years of actual living together of three great religions has left us with an example of cultural métissage as well as mutual respect among the different communities.


Even though Muslims are concentrated in the northern part of the state, and Christians tend to be in the south, there are no "ghettoes" in the state's cities or villages. Very often Christians and Muslims live cheek by jowl. In Fort Chocin for example, a merchant was proud to show me from the roof of his store, a local mosque, church and Hindu temple, all three practically on the same block.


In school children from different religious background grow up sitting behind the same desks, and from there they graduate to become workmates.


Religious festivities are the most visible moments of a life together. Christians hold processions during saint days along routes that are lined with countless stalls selling all sorts of goods. The whole place shuts down and everyone, including Hindus and Muslims, takes part in the celebrations. Behind the statue that the faithful carry there is almost always a band playing local music and nine times out of ten the musicians are Hindu.


It is also not unheard of to have Muslim families invite Christians and Hindus to share in the celebrations that accompany the end of Ramadan.


Relations are such that a certain syncretism has developed among Hindus who venerate Christian saints which they see as incarnations of their own unique deity.


By contrast, conversions across religious lines are few and far between. What is more, with the exception of Pentecostal Christians, no one in Kerala engages in proselytism.


But even when some Hindus do convert to Christianity they do so without much trouble from their own Hindu families.


Father Naru, parish priest at the Syro-Malankara church associated with the Saint Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute (SEERI) in Kottayam, introduced me to a member of his congregation, a Hindu woman who had converted to Christianity. She had stopped by after Sunday Mass to pick up her daughter who was studying catechism.


Father Naru talked to me also about a Muslim woman who became a Christian after marrying a parishioner. He did talk about it as something rare but did not try to hide it or keep it a secret the way it would be in an Arab country. The fact that she is still alive goes to show how things are different, at least in Kottayam.


Yet fundamentalism is raising its ugly head in Kerala as well.


In the last few years sectarian clashes between people from different religious communities have occurred, especially between Hindus and Muslims. Anti-Christian violence has largely been against property, not people. Some churches for example have been stoned; some votive chapels have been destroyed. But no Christian has been killed in Kerala. Still in the last decade or so some Hindu fundamentalist organisations have become increasingly vocal and have been responsible for some criminal acts and violence.


In some Islamic schools or madrassah the language of jihad¬ against the Hindu oppressor has been heard as well. And on several occasions some Muslim militants have been arrested fighting in Kashmir. Yet some Muslim organisations deemed fundamentalist have slammed the use of madrassah to store weapons and explosives. But at the same time, it is not a secret that funds from Iran and other Middle Eastern countries are coming into the country.


Despite such outside pressures Kerala seems to have the means to resist. When asked why Kerala has not yet turned into another Orissa, Christian, Hindu and Muslim leaders agree as one: Education. In their way they are saying that ignorance is the cradle of fundamentalism and violence.


Indeed the state can claim the highest literacy rate in the country, on par of that of Europe. This is because of the role played by Christians who run 50 to 60 per cent of the state's educational facilities, from kindergarten to universities.


Since Christian schools are open to all, Muslims, Hindus and Christians have an opportunity to learn and know about one another, becoming even friends.


Although this may seem strange to a European way of thinking, Hindus do not view Christian, mostly Catholic schools, as a threat or a tool of proselytism.


A few years ago Soli Sorabjee, a Hindu and a former attorney general for India (in 1990), took part in a reunion of his alma mater at St. Xavier's Collage in Mumbai, his old boyhood's school, in the presence of many important dignitaries, including union ministers and former ministers. In his formal address he said: "The professors of this college did not convert me; they transformed me."


If the role played by Christian schools is certainly central to the state's education system and is responsible for Kerala's high educational levels, a positive effort in the same direction is also underway within the Muslim community.


The Samastha Kerala Jameyyat ul-Ulama is an important intellectual hub for "traditionalist" Islam against "modernist" interpretations of that religion. Influential across the state since the pre-independence period, it has developed a 'part-time' madrassah system that provides religious education to students who want to attend secular schools. Not only has this approach favoured literacy, but it has also encouraged greater integration of Muslims into Kerala society and stimulated a more balanced relationship to modernity.