At a recent exchange of marriage vows between two Indians in their late 20s, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim, I couldn't help but think of the way the former Yugoslavia used to be before religious fanaticism splintered its unity in diversity into nothingness in the early 1990s.
Yugoslavia had emerged after the Second World War as a six-republic federation of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzigovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonian and was home of the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Catholicism, both Orthodox and Roman for nearly half-a-century. According to experts, Josip Broz Tito, the founding father of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia and a Croat-Slovene himself, angered the Serbs by granting autonomy to the north-eastern province of Vojvodina and the southern province of Kosovo in 1974.
But as long as he lived, Tito was proud to be the leader of one country with eight ethnic minorities, five nationalities who lived in six republics surrounded by seven neighbours speaking three languages and practicing different religions. After the death of Tito in 1980, ethnic nationalism broke into bloody war among the republic's various groups and relations between the succeeding states continue to be tense to this day.
The situation in multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzigovina with a significant percentage of Muslims was most bizarre and equally tragic with ultra nationalists claiming that the Muslims were Turks and did not belong to Bosnia! The truth is that Bosnia Muslims are Slavs who after 500 years of Ottoman rule had converted to Islam. To distinguish themselves from Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats, these Slavs were named Bosnia Muslims.
This is the cause of much confusion as many Bosnia Muslim Slavs are secular and have married fellow Serbs and Croats. But once the pan Slavic state of former Yugoslavia collapsed, many mixed marriages ended as well. As I watched Yugoslavia dissolve overnight into a battlefield from across the border in Austria, it was not very difficult for me, an Indian Muslim, to identify with the plight of Bosnia Muslims, plenty of whom fled to Vienna and continue to live here as refugees, nursing a broken spirit.
The Hindu Muslim marriage that I attended in India seemed like a bonding back of the supreme idea of unity and a golden opportunity for members of two different communities to meet and to experience for themselves each other's cultural and religious traditions.
Professor Paul F. Knitter, author of No Other Name, who spends all his time exploring how religious communities of the world can cooperate in promoting human and ecological well-being, describes mixed marriages as the interaction of mutual presence, speaking, listening and witnessing the commitments, the values, and the rituals of others. This public display of mutual love and respect is the only way we can live in peace with each other," said an elderly member of the bride's family at the Indian wedding.
Another guest was inspired to quote Muhammad Iqbal, one of India's greatest poets: "Mazhab nahin sikhata apas mein bair rakhna, Hindi hain hum watan hai Hindustan hamara... (Religion does not teach to discriminate. We are all Hindi and Hindustan is our homeland).
Intermarriages between Muslims and Hindu ruling families are as old as the arrival of Islam in India in the 8th century. Earlier, seasonal Muslim invaders came to loot and to convert but eventually some stayed on to rule. By 1290 AD, nearly all of India was under the loose domination of Muslims rulers, presiding over large Hindu populations. In some instances, Hindu institutions received state patronage and there were extensive intermarriages between Muslim ruling families and their high caste Hindu counterparts as family ties were used to shore up political alliances. This helped many Muslim dynasties like the Muslim Moghuls to Indianise through numerous marriages of Muslim princes with Hindu princesses while their children assumed prominent positions in the state apparatus.
However, with the rise of militant Islam and Hindu radicals, similar weddings have become a bone of contention, although they are the key to peaceful co existence between India's Hindu and Muslim populations. Some Indians continue to look down upon other Indians, emphasising the divisions between peoples and taking a hostile position on mixed marriages.
In an informal conversation with the bridegroom's father during the marriage, the latter confessed that he was brought up on such stories about Muslims and Islam that he struggles to this day to fight the prejudice. The paternal aunt of the bride even burst into tears when she was invited to attend the wedding. "Why is no one able to stop this wedding of my niece to a Hindu," she said in between sobs.
After falling in love it was only natural for the youngsters to want to marry. And by doing so they proved that in everyday life ordinary people of various faiths are able to get along fine like they have for centuries. It is the reluctance of religious leaders who mix personal political ambitions with politics that creates insecurity in societies.
Now that two young civil society citizens have contributed to rebuilding relationships between families belonging to opposed communities, it is up to the State to improve the deteriorating law and order situation in India by countering religious extremism. For it takes not much more than a lawless thought to turn harmony into hate, a painful lesson taught to us by the experience of the former Yugoslavia.