First I am a human being

Finding compassion and connection in hard times

By Brendan LaRocque

Having recently finished leading a study abroad program in India with a group of college students from Minnesota, before returning home I’ve come to stay at my family-in-law’s home in the large north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (pop. 220 million), popularly known as U.P. (Incidentally, since my father is from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I now consider myself to have Yooper roots twice over.)

15th century Delhi Sultanate monument at Lodhi Garden, Delhi (photo: Brendan LaRocque)
15th century Delhi Sultanate monument at Lodhi Garden, Delhi (photo: Brendan LaRocque)

On our program, students studied Indian history and society, and learned about the 1,000 years of interactions between Hindus and Muslims, as well as about Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists in India. Over the course of centuries, this region’s two largest populations, the Hindu majority and Muslim minority, have coexisted peacefully, although at times the communities have engaged in conflicts that resulted in high levels of destruction and death. The violent division in 1947 of British India into the independent countries of Pakistan and India stands as one of the modern world’s most glaring examples of religious differences driving hatred and violence. But there are other stories, too.

“Yes, the world has Hindus and Muslims and Christians, but first I am a human being”

Our group saw one example when we visited a poor area in Delhi, the Nizamuddin neighborhood, where members of the largely Muslim population there proudly showed us the residences of Christians and Hindus who have long been living safely and securely in the neighborhood. The place receives its name from the centuries-old shrine of a famous sufi (Muslim mystic), Hazrat Nizamuddin. Life at the shrine was recently portrayed by a local journalist who tells us about an elderly Hindu man who has been cleaning oil lamps at the shrine every night for 40 years. After describing the man’s love for Nizamuddin, the journalist writes: “Finally, we asked him the delicate question. How does he reconcile his Hindu identity with the shrine’s Islamic character?

“Nahin (no), nahin, nahin,” says the elderly man. “Yes, the world has Hindus and Muslims and Christians, but first I am a human being and that is my connection to the beloved Sufi shrine.”

Traditional perfume seller, Nizamuddin, Delhi (photo: Brendan LaRocque)

Unfortunately, though, in India today – in a manner not wholly dissimilar to what is happening in the U.S. – ascendant rightwing and hyper-nationalist political forces are whipping up fear and antagonism toward the entire Muslim community. Fomenting fear and hatred of Muslim minorities can, as we have all seen, be an effective though sinister means to gain political power. This spreading of intolerance, combined with increasingly common acts of intimidation and violence, in turn plays right into the hands of the Islamist extremists, who prey on the susceptibilities of a small segment of youth who become angry and profoundly alienated under such conditions.

This, to be sure, is not a happy aspect of our world today; but neither is it the whole picture. In order to see that larger canvas, and to find a way to free ourselves from the suffocating hatred that infects much of our current politics, we must actively search for and help create roads toward a more loving and more welcoming society.

Courtyard of Jama Masjid [Congregational Mosque], Old Delhi (photo: Brendan LaRocque)

 

The remains of a child’s school book burnt in the recent fire (photo: Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times)

There is no doubt that the dark spiral of hate-feeding-hate is being opposed in both India and America, in U.P. and Minnesota, in ways big and small, by people who refuse to succumb to the waves of fear and loathing pushed by political elites. It is critically important that we pay attention to the paths of care and compassion being walked by those around us every day.

To treat others with decency and to build an architecture of respect in which we may all dwell: for this, we need to consciously seek out the people, and their stories, with whom we want to walk. These stories, these countless acts of humanity occur around us every day. But as a rule people who act with selflessness and compassion for others don’t bother themselves with arrogant self-promotion. No stream of grandiose Tweets are forthcoming from such individuals. We need to look for their stories ourselves.

Let me share one such story of kindness, a small news item from a little neighborhood in a city here in Indian U.P.

Near to where I am currently staying, there is a small neighborhood of the working poor, where families are crowded into flimsy shanties, with households whose members earn a few dollars a day to get by. People living in poverty, but working hard every day, striving to create a better life for their families and children. Last month, a fire started in one residence there. The poor condition of the housing meant that the fire rapidly engulfed the entire area, quickly burning down 35 shanties. Luckily no one was killed, but homes and livelihoods were destroyed.


One vegetable seller, who happens to be Hindu, remarked to a local reporter that “‘I have been living here for nine years, working till 10pm every day to ensure a better future for my children, something I couldn’t do in [my hometown] Badaun. Today, after nine years of efforts, my savings are nil and I have no capital to start my business again,’ he said.”

150 people were similarly left without homes, children unable to return to school, and lacking the resources to even get food.

The news story quotes one mother speaking of her children: “‘They should have been in school right now. But with no uniforms or books and no other place to go, they are staying here,’ said Rani, a resident of the shanties.”

In an immediate response to this heartbreaking tragedy, and without regard for religious identities, Muslims from the area came to help those affected by the fire. The press reports that volunteers from nearby Markaz Masjid [Central Mosque] quickly came to help their neighbors.

 
Our volunteers reached the spot for rescue and evacuation as soon as we found out about the tragedy. We have decided to provide the victims three meals a day for at least one week and also distribute clothes. Imam Zakariya, head priest of Markaz Masjid

No fanfare, no press conference, no bragging Tweet. Just good people doing good things for others, out of compassion for those suffering and in need. We need to understand these people better, and take these kinds of stories into our own hearts. They provide a shield against those who want to overtake us with their malevolent aggression and destructive animus towards groups and people who are seen as in some way different.



Children playing at a village school in Uttar Pradesh (photo: Brendan LaRocque)

Times are such that we need to choose what kind of society we want to create and live in. Good people are showing us the way forward, bridging differences, as demonstrated by the people mentioned above. Such people embody the light and love of which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, himself building upon the ideas of Mohandas Gandhi: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”


Those who are creating the kind of light needed to liberate us from darkness are all around us. But their work is often done fairly quietly, out of the artificial glare of the social media spotlight. It is therefore up to each one of us to make the effort to seek out such people and hear their stories, of our true friends-in-the-making.

About the Author
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Brendan LaRocque

Brendan LaRocque grew up in central Wisconsin, and has spent many years traveling and living in places including India, Pakistan, Israel, and Palestine. He has taught courses on the history of South Asia and Islam at colleges including St. John’s/St. Benedict’s University, Macalester College, Carleton College, and Augsburg College.