“Bareer kachhe arshee nagar
shetha porshee boshot kore
Ek ghar porshee boshot kore
Ami ekdino na dekhilam tare.”
This epic refrain of Fakir Lalon rings around our collective South Asian conscience every time people of one religious identity inflicts mindless violence on the people of other faiths, like Hindus murdering innocent Muslims in Maharashtra, Buddhists pillaging Rohingya villages in Myanmar or Muslims blowing up Christians in Sri Lanka. The simple fact of life is that ethnically we are all the same or of similar ethnic mix but we hardly know our own people belonging to other faiths, living in our midst. The ethnic similarity between a Christian, a Hindu or a Muslim family in any part of the sub-continent is hidden in plain sight by insurmountable walls of religious intolerance and bigotry. Similar complexion, language, customs and culture of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and agnostics in our region somehow have given way to siloed identities belying the stark homogeneity of the people irrespective of faith. This has frustrated great thinkers and humanists for generations like Lalon, Rabindranath and Nazrul.
Interfaith tolerance is one of the fundamental tenets of Islam and, throughout history, we see numerous examples of Muslim rulers administering the vast majority of non-Muslim subjects with peace, justice and prosperity in the Mediterranean Coasts, the Middle East, the Far East and the Indian sub-continent. However, every time religious intolerance reared its ugly head, the blissful interfaith peace and harmony gave way to wars and social upheavals. While a faith-neutral Mughal Emperor Akbar built a massive empire of untold riches, his last powerful descendant Aurangzeb caused the implosion of that same empire through religious intolerance. As the British East India Company merchants in the eighteenth century gradually crept into the sub-continent by pitting one faith against another, soon the whole of India was under their iron grip. When they finally left, two centuries later, they made sure the religious divide was indelibly imprinted on the map and psyche of the Indian sub-continent. The whole region is still riveted by the anguish of people belonging to multiple faiths vicariously experiencing the murder, rape and pillage of one faith over another time and time again.