Hindus and Muslims have been living side by side in the subcontinent for nearly a thousand years without making a sincere attempt to know each other.

“If today we — the Hindus and the Muslims — become more familiar with each other’s literature, then it’s quite possible that we will find ourselves much closer to each other. In literature, we are not Hindus or Muslims or Christians but human beings. And this humanity attracts all of us. Isn’t it regrettable that we who have been living in this country together for the past 800 years are so unfamiliar with each other’s literature?....It is not possible for a Hindu who has read the remarkable history of Karbala to not have sympathy for the Muslims. Similarly, it is certain that a Muslim who has read the Ramayana will have sympathy for the Hindus.” (Translation from Hindi mine) Thus spake Premchand while addressing the annual function of the Arya Samaj held in Lahore on April 23-24, 1936. These words of the great writer came to my mind in the context of the communal conflagration that has struck Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh in the past few months and whose embers are refusing to die.

What Premchand is referring to is not literature per se, i.e., poetry or fiction, but the religious literature as well as religious traditions. And it is even more regrettable that the situation in this regard has worsened during these eight decades. Hindus and Muslims have been living side by side for nearly a thousand years without making a sincere attempt to know each other. Leave alone the uneducated people, how many educated Hindus have any familiarity with the basic tenets and history of Islam? How many of them know anything about the religious beliefs of their Muslim neighbours? And, the same can be said about most Muslims. The question cannot be dodged by citing the names of a few Hindu scholars of Persian and Arabic or by pointing out the attempts made by Mughal Prince Dara Shukoh to get the Upanishads and other religious and philosophical literature of the Hindus translated into Persian. Ignorance breeds fear and suspicion, and this is exactly what has been happening over centuries.

The vested interests in both the religions, mainly represented by the clergy, are not only not interested in spreading awareness about religion, they are positively against it. If people have authentic knowledge of their as well as their neighbours’ religion, it will not be possible to fool them and arouse their passions by spreading baseless rumours. And one does not have to be a great scholar to have authentic understanding of the religion and religious practices of a community. In fact, common folks are much better in this respect than members of the educated urban middle class and elite.

Existentialists used to describe the “other” as “hell”. They looked at the presence of others as a sort of inescapable punishment. However, the truth is that dealing with others is the real hell, especially when you are clueless about them. Are the Hindus living in a village or a small town aware of the problems as well as aspirations of the Muslims living in their midst? Do they know of their fears and apprehensions? Do they have any idea how it feels to remain constantly aware of one’s status as a ‘permanent minority’? And the same questions can be asked of the Muslims, because the sad reality is that they too are equally oblivious of the sensitivities and sensibilities of their Hindu neighbours’ ways of life and thinking.

There is no point in painting a very rosy picture — a favourite pastime of secularists — of the centuries-long close social and cultural ties between the two communities. There is no denying the fact that these ties are real. But they are not strong enough in the absence of knowledge of each other at a deeper level. Had they been so, the subcontinent would not have had to witness the holocaust of Partition or the communal violence in free India.

Before we say “Love thy neighbour”, we must say “Know thy neighbour”. When we know our neighbours, only then we will be able to understand , appreciate and love them. Till this happens, we can only ask in Faiz’s voice:

“Ham ke thahre ajnabi itnee mudaraton ke baad,

phir banenge ashna kitne mulaaqaaton ke baad.”

(We have remained strangers even after so many pleasant encounters. How many more meetings will it take for us to become friends again?)

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