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Divisive, communal politics? Community kitchens reveal social fabric 'still intact'

By Supriya Joshi, Vishal Kumar, Sandeep Pandey*

India is one the most religiously and ethnically diverse nations of the world. It has a syncretic culture and people have learned to live together respecting each other's beliefs. However, in the recent past, communal politics has been used extensively for mobilizing voters. This has led to extreme communal polarisation and caused sufficient damage by sowing the seeds of distrust between Hindu and Muslim communities.
Visible changes like increasing ghettoisation of Muslims have taken place. Practice of people participating in each other's religious festivals is withering away.
Since 2009, there have been at least 254 incidents of hate crimes motivated by religious hatred, as per data by the Citizen’s Religious Hate Crime Watch, an India Spend’s initiative. This has resulted in the death of over 90 people and around 600 injuries. What is striking about this data is that 90% of these hate crimes have occurred since 2014, when Modi led Bhartiya Janata Party government has been at the Centre.
The novel coronavirus like an 'x-ray' has revealed 'fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built', according to the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Microscopic virus knows no religion, caste, class, gender, ethnicity or any other kind of sect. It treats the rich and the poor alike.
However, India was one of the only countries where covid had a religion. There have been many instances in the beginning covered by mainstream media on violence and discrimination against Muslims, due to many fake videos that were circulated on WhatsApp showing Muslim men intentionally trying to spread the corona virus.
However, working for relief during the coronavirus crisis lockdown period was a very reassuring experience from the point of view of communal harmony in society. Communal and divisive politics has not yet damaged the social fabric. We observed that the integration of different caste and religious communities at the ground level is still intact and quite vibrant. Socialist Party (India) ran 23 community kitchens in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, about half of them being in Lucknow.
Uzma was the kitchen coordinator in Dubagga, Lucknow and when she needed somebody to make rotis, a youth named Sandeep came forward. Similarly, another Muslim woman Gudiya was coordinating a kitchen in Madiyaon area of Lucknow. She received help in cooking from Ram Janki and her sons who used to live in front of her house.
Gudiya used to store all the raw material in Ram Janki's house as her own house was a temporary shelter. Ram Janki although would give full time in cooking at Gudiya's place and feeding others but would herself not eat there in spite of lot of convincing by others. Her sons however would eat at Gudiya's place.
Zeenat was running another kitchen in Dubagga and although initially faced difficulty in attracting kids from a Scheduled Caste stonecutter community but was eventually able to convince them to come, even though she would not allow the elders from their community to touch her cooking utensils. When Ramzan started she handed over her kitchen to Asha who ran it from her temporary shelter.
Santosh Thakur and Shanu Abdul Jabbar, both clothes traders, were running a kitchen in Thakurganj jointly and are now invovled in disbursing Rs. 5,000 interest free loans to small entrepreneurs to rebuild their livelihoods. Muslim women from Ujariyaon village, in heart of Gomti Nagar, who were recently at the forefront of anti-Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens movement, initiated a kitchen for migrant labourers from Nepal, all Hindus.
A SC stonecutter woman Guddi was running a kitchen in her village Deviganj-Hardoiya about 20 km outside Lucknow and she would give raw material from her kitchen to some Muslim families in need who were not willing to sit and eat with the stonecutter community. In spite of little differeneces as mentioned an overall bonhomie was visible everywhere among people. They were wanting to help each other, irrespective of religious beliefs, in a time of crisis.

Working for relief during coronavirus crisis lockdown period was very reassuring from the point of view of communal harmony in society

Amit Maurya ran a food service on Lucknow-Ayodhya highway for migrant workers coming from all over India and headed towards eastern UP and Bihar. He has renovated an old temple in his village by collecting a donation of Rs. 5 lakhs and will now be running a Gurudwara kind of langar from the temple as a year round food security programme. The langar committee of this temple is headed by a Muslim, Fakire Ali.
Another langar has already started in a Ram Janki temple in Ayodhya where the committee is headed by Danish Ahmed and has few members from the Dalit community. This temple is also the site where a Sarva Dharma Sadbhav Kendra is proposed to be developed as a ‘first of its kind’ multi faith harmony centre.
The trust to build this centre itself has Faisal Khan of Khudai Khidmatgar from Delhi, a Dalit scholar Harinarayan Thakur from Bihar and a transgender Reshma from Patna as members. This temple would stand as a shining example of India's multiculturalism and pluralism. The mahant of this temple Acharya Yugal Kishore Shashtri has been to jail several times because of this steadfast opposition to politics of communalism.
For the community kitchen program of the SP(I), over 70% of the donors were Hindus but none of them had any issues with over 60% of our beneficiaries being Muslims. Similarly, in our latest Micro-credits programme, around 75% of the beneficiaries are Muslims, while 55% of our donors are Hindus.
Qamar Jahan Bano, a strong and passionate woman in Varanasi had assisted in deliveries of 5 Muslim and 6 Hindu women during the lockdown. She was instrumental in ensuring that dry ration kits were distributed only to the most needy across several villages in the outskirts of Varanasi, irrespective of their religious affiliations.
Quoting her: 'I work with diverse communities. Though I am born in a Muslim household, it does not mean that I only notice the plight of the Muslim community. I am a human being first, and all humans are equal. Though there are differences in religious beliefs, everyone is made of the same mitti by one master and I will continue to look at everyone through the lens of humanity till my last breath.’
Such community led response gives us hope during these tough times that people of different religious beliefs can peacefully co-exist and come together to support each other. The reality is different from what the conversative right wing would like us to believe. It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.
In the middle of the pandemic, we saw one of the greatest protests in the oldest democracies for the 'Black Lives Matter' movement, which reminds of the struggle of the common people against the politics of division. The corona pandemic has made it crystal clear that the only way humanity can be saved is by overcoming our differences as a society in terms of caste, religion or colour. Decentralised relief efforts were more successful in reaching the needy than the massive mega centralised programmes of the government.
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*Supriya Joshi and Vishal Kumar coordinated the relief efforts of Socialist Party (India) during lockdown and work with a think tank in Delhi and an environmental non-profit, respectively. Magsaysay award winning social activist, Sandeep Pandey is Vice President of SP(I)

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