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Celebrating Diversity Essential for India’s Future as a World Leader

Celebrating India's diversity (Photo credit - dreamstime.com)

Frank F. Islam

In the 19th century, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in India, sent a message that is as relevant and important today as it was back then. His message was a straightforward and simple one: it was to love all mankind. Sir Syed had a vision not only of peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic society but moreover of collaboration and communal harmony in that society.

Why did Sir Syed have such vision and foresight? It was partly attributable to the way he saw the world and its inhabitants.  He explained his perspective himself.  In a famous speech, he said, “I regard both Hindus and Muslims as my two eyes.” Later, he went even further to say, “Would that I had only one eye.”  He used that phrase to indicate that even though he was a devout Muslim, he loved both Hindus and Muslims equally.

Sir Syed not only spoke those words. He embraced them and put them into action when he established Mahommedan Anglo-Oriental College (MAO) which was to become AMU, one of India’s foremost universities. While AMU was primarily focused on advancing the educational interests and competencies of Muslims, Sir Syed ensured that from its establishment the college was not the province of any religion.

During its infancy, Sir Syed emphasized that: “Yes, the main purpose of this college is to impart modern education to Muslims who are suffering because of a lack of it but this institution is for all, Hindus and Muslims alike. Both of them need education.”

Near the end of his life, Sir Syed who had lost his eyesight said: I lost my eyesight but not my vision. My vision never dimmed, and my determination never failed. I built this institution for you and I am sure, you will carry the light of this institution far and wide, darkness will disappear from around the world.

This is what he told AMU’s graduates to be difference makers and destroyers of the darkness. He also advised them that, “All human beings are our brothers and sisters. Working for their welfare is obligatory for Muslims.”

As an AMU alum, I feel and try to fulfill that obligation in the way I live my life.  And, I know that because of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), there are many Hindus who feel a similar obligation and sense of duty as well. Pandit Malaviya observed, “India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians, and the Parsees too.  The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual goodwill and harmony.”

Sir Syed and Pandit Malaviya embraced and celebrated the richness of religious diversity. They strongly believed diversity make us stronger and brings people together. While there was not a religious bond between them there was undoubtedly a spiritual one. In fact, it might be said they were soul mates who shared a spiritual common ground.

Because of this, as they are looking down on us from up above during these contentious and sometimes confrontational times, they would counsel us to come together to work things out through collaboration and communication rather than conflict. Their advice and vision should provide the basis for fostering unity and forming a brotherhood across cultures, communities and religions in order to find our shared sense of humanity.

Sir Syed’s message is a message from Aligarh, which I recently visited. But it is not just a message for Aligarians or Muslims; t is a message for all Indians regardless of their religious persuasion or preferences. It is a message to love one another and to celebrate diversity. It is a message to recognize that doing so is essential for a healthy democracy. It is a message that doing so is critical for India to become a respected regional and world leader. It is a message to promote unity – for an emphasis on creating one India – a highly diverse country bound together by its democratic roots and commitment to equity, equality and inclusive economic mobility.

It is a message from the India of the 19th century for the India of the 21st century. It is a message that is timeless and transcendent. It is a message that should resonate throughout this century and centuries to follow.

Frank F. Islam speaking at Sir Syed Day event in Aligarh Muslim University, India

(The writer is a well-known entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)

–The article was first published in South Asia Monitor