I was recently in Kuala Lumpur to attend the board meeting of American Field Service (AFS), an international organisation committed to educating young adults with high potential from all parts of the world, by providing opportunities to spend a year with a family and be a high school student in a place away from home. The programme was started by American volunteer drivers in World War II, who took care of the wounded from both sides.
After the war, they saw the potential of creating a more peaceful world by inviting students from the “enemy” countries — Germany, Italy, Japan — to live with American families and attend high school, and by sending American students to live with these former adversaries. Thus began an extraordinary experiment in inter-cultural learning that has now expanded to many more countries. I was privileged to be an AFS student more than four decades ago, and it transformed my life. It allowed me to open my eyes, ears, heart and mind to relish differences and be hopeful about a world that is increasingly more connected.
In Kuala Lumpur, I was reminded, once again, of the power of such experiences. At one of our dinners, we saw 20 students from 20 different countries, from the U.S. to Latvia, all of them recent arrivals as AFS students, already part of the Malaysian social fabric. The highlight of the evening was to see them on the stage, dressed in Indian, Malay and Chinese costumes, dancing in multiple styles, a hint of Bharatanatyam, a trace of Chinese fan dance, a drum from a Malay folk dance, all to the tune of “Malaysia is truly Asia.”
I realise that it was somewhat superficial, and of course, it didn’t reflect the reality of growing tensions among the different ethnic communities of the country, often stoked by political leaders. But the young people from diverse countries, dancing under the direction of seasoned Malaysian dancers, appealed to our better sides, inspiring us all to dare to learn new cultures and to incorporate new learnings from cultural differences to make us more globally literate people.
It was midnight when I came back to my hotel, and as usual, I checked my e-mail before retiring. There was an upsetting e-mail from my sister-in-law, who was visiting Ahmedabad from San Francisco. She lamented: “whatever happened to Garba [the Gujarati folk dance performed all over the State during the nine days before the Diwali holidays] as a cultural celebratory form?” She enclosed a newspaper article that said that in some parts of the State, there were declarations that Garba was to be exclusively for Hindus. What does that mean? Jains, Parsis, Sikhs, or Muslims are not allowed? And how are you going to check the religious identity of people who may like to participate in this more-popular-than-ever festival-cum-dance party?
Hardening communal lines The more upsetting feature of the declaration was that this was happening in Mandvi in Kuchh, one of the more plural districts of the State, where Muslims and Hindus have lived harmoniously for centuries. Muslims have celebrated Diwali and have participated in Navaratri Garba dances. The ultra right wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party aims specifically to exclude Muslims, by requiring all participants to be splashed with gaumutra and adorned with large tilaks, thus hardening the communal lines.
What I find particularly distressing about this trend of sharper focus on caste, religion, and ethnicity is the promotion of divisiveness rather than the idea of “E Pluribus Unum”, one in many.
Just when the world desperately needs the idea of mutual respect necessary for living side by side by in an interdependent world, how sad that in a naturally pluralistic society like India, there is a growing tendency to further segregate groups and fight for only one’s own community, be it the Patidar group, or yet another vote bank group. And often it is stoked by political parties simply to win elections.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The world needs to see a democratic and plural country like India take the lead in promoting the idea of unity in diversity. India can take charge of this movement in promoting global citizenship, or it can stoop to create exclusionary practices to bar non-Hindus from Garba and confuse the cultural dimensions of a great folk tradition with narrow religious prejudices.
(Vishakha N. Desai is Special Advisor for Global Affairs to the President, and Professor of Practice, Columbia University, President Emerita, Asia Society.)