Saturday, April 4, 2009

Reason Is Countering Religious Violence in India

SPRAT promotes self-empowerment, Hindu-Muslim coexistence in Gujarat

In 2002, violence between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat killed 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus, and displaced 150,000 people. Today, Gujarat has yet to heal and tensions remain high. But feelings of helplessness and despair led Ahmadabad resident M. Hasan Jowher to rededicate his life to bringing harmony and respect to his troubled community.

Jowher told about the night his office was set on fire by Hindu extremists during the 2002 riots. As he stayed awake hearing screams for help, he contemplated the loss of his business and the inaction of the Gujarat state authorities while Muslims were being killed

"There was a radical rethink in my mind that whole night," he said. Although his office was not destroyed, envisioning the potential destruction "led me to think that if I could accept the loss of this hard-earned labor of nine years, then obviously it doesn't matter so much to me, and ... what's the use of developing material wealth when you cannot enjoy that wealth?"

Simultaneously, "this recognition of the loss of dignity and utter insecurity and having to live by noncivilized forces was too much. It was utter humiliation." He was shocked by what he saw as fatalism and inertia among fellow Muslims, who make up only 9 percent of the Hindu-majority state. "They kind of took the suffering in their stride."

Jowher's Society for Promoting Rationality (SPRAT), where he serves as president, was founded in 1998 to encourage and teach scientific thought. In the wake of the Gujarat violence - "a turning point in my life" - SPRAT's mission was retooled with "a commitment to work for communal harmony and to challenge violence in various forms, to explore ways and means to pre-empt mass violence."

SPRAT's new focus began with securing aid and shelter for those made homeless by the riots, then expanded into mutual support networks in areas such as microfinance, job training and education - not only to improve job prospects for marginalized groups but also to promote a more secular, rational mindset.

"I am a rationalist," Jowher said. "I am inspired by [Indian independence and spiritual leader Mohandas] Gandhi's love and compassion," but not his spiritual beliefs.

"I have never found communalism and a desire to destroy the other among the ordinary people," Jowher said. "It is only the vested and motivated lot, particularly in the political class, which commits violence by design."

He said he wants to encourage people to step away from blindly accepting religious dogma and to think for themselves through scientific analysis, information gathering and questioning. "The common refrain is reason," he said.


Although many programs were developed to serve the Muslim community, approximately 40 percent of the beneficiaries are Hindus, particularly SPRAT's educational programs, which offer literacy and English-language training. Jowher said 90 percent of SPRAT's staff is Hindu.

"My immediate approach toward Hindus was to present them with an alternative picture of Muslims, to remove misgivings ... [and] to give a voice to the good and silent majority," he said.

One of the most visible joint projects was the creation of the Muskaan recreation park in Ahmadabad on land once occupied by Gujarat security forces.

"This locality was chosen particularly and precisely because it is also the so-called border of a large Hindu habitation and, on the other side, a large Muslim habitation, a place made famous for its notoriety and conflict," he said.

The park is built entirely from recycled materials, such as automobile tires and metal scraps, from public and private sources, as well as materials donated by the park's Hindu and Muslim neighbors, who worked together to build it.

"We worked like laborers during the summer in Ahmadabad in the scorching sun," Jowher recalled.

The park is designed to offer only recreational programs for young people. It does not have sitting space that could encourage loitering and create opportunities for quarrels.

"It might seem a little claustrophobic, but it is by purpose. It is the first experiment of engaging conflicting communities," he said. Once the two communities have more experience intermingling and receive more donations, more parks with open spaces could be built, Jowher said.

Jowher says he is now committed to social service full time, but it has come at a personal cost because his dedication to SPRAT estranged him from his family.

"Nothing else now counts for me as an important activity," he said, adding his faith in the goodwill of ordinary people "has never been shaken."

When ordinary people engage in communal violence, it is mainly a spontaneous reaction, he said. "And very often the violence of today is also the repentance of tomorrow," he added.