India's model for tolerance

“The Ganga and Jamuna, two of the great rivers of India, meet and flow together as one to the sea, flowing together yet remaining distinct.”

Sitting at her dining room table, droning fans keeping the summer heat at bay, Najma Seth, a lifelong resident of Lucknow, India, clasped her fingers over the top of her steaming cup of chai to give me a visual of her meaning.

She was using the imagery of these rivers to describe the harmonious Hindu-Muslim culture, known as Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, that is legendary in her historical city.

This unique tolerance between religions is a key feature of Lucknow, whose population today is 70% Hindu and almost 30% Muslim, with small Sikh and Christian communities comprising less than 1% (in comparison, India’s national demographics are nearly 80% Hindu and 15% Muslim). In fact, Lucknow is one of India’s only major cities that has not experienced any major problems between the two communities.

But although Lucknow can clearly teach India lessons in tolerance, there are signs that even this historical safe space is showing serious signs of strain.

The city’s cosmopolitanism has its roots in the ruling nawabs, or princes, of the Awadh Kingdom of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Awadh, comprising what is today the central region of Uttar Pradesh, was established in 1722 under Nawab Saadat Ali Khan, having been a province of the waning Mughal Empire since the mid-16th Century. The fertile region, with its thriving agricultural economy, became one of the most prosperous of northern India. In 1775, the nawabs established their capital at Lucknow.

The newly minted political capital quickly became the cultural capital of North India under the patronage of the wealthy Shia Muslim nawabs, descended as they were from a Persian dynasty. Lucknow became a beacon for scholars, artists, poets, architects, musicians, embroiders, craftsmen and other practitioners of the arts from a wide variety of cultural and religious backgrounds. The stories of Lucknow’s culture are legendary throughout the Subcontinent, known popularly through film, poetry and art. It’s often portrayed, however, as a caricature of the refined and decadent Mughal period: a wealthy nawab reclining on cushions, clad in Sherwani dress and fine jewels, chewing paan while lazily listening to recitations of Urdu poetry.

The city today is littered with proof of its residents’ creative efforts, with the many towering monuments, mosques and other buildings from that period showing a harmonic blend of Indian, Persian, Arabic and Turkish influences. The nawabs cultivated a refined Urdu language, distinct from the Hindi many of their subjects spoke, as an expression of their culture, drawing from a variety of linguistic and poetic sources and transforming the city into a literary centre. Even today, the Urdu spoken in Lucknow instils a great politeness into daily speech and is known for its softness and sweetness.

Nawab Mir Jafar Abdullah, a descendant of the ruling nawabs, embodied this politeness and cultural refinement when I met with him to learn more. Dressed in a crisp white kurta with bejewelled rings on his fingers, he stressed to me the nawabs’ commitment to the values of secularism. Many, he told me, appointed Hindu prime ministers and constructed temples for their Hindu subjects. He recounted a story that Nawab Asaf-ad-Daula once said his left eye was Muslim and his right Hindu.

During my time in Lucknow, I found many people still committed to the spiritual compatibility between the two faiths. The city’s Hindu Purana Hanuman Temple bears an Islamic crescent over its dome, a sign of gratitude to the nawabs that had the temple constructed. Local Muslims often support the temple’s community of Hindu worshippers, especially during festivals, by setting up stalls to hand out flowers and water. Hindus will do the same for Muslims during Muharram, a sacred month in the Islamic calendar. And both communities often replace the religious greetings of salaam alaikum (for Muslims) and namaste (for Hindus) with the secular aadaab, which means respect.

Another important by-product of the nawabs’ rule was the economic integration of the two communities, especially in the chikan, or embroidered textiles, industry. Originally developed to furnish the nawabs and elite class with fine clothing, this labour-intensive work increasingly became the heart of Lucknow’s economy and promoted both economic reliance and sustained civic engagement and trust between Hindus and Muslims. Any communal violence would bring the production process to a halt and be economically disastrous for the entire city.

The many political upheavals at the national level since Indian independence, however, have consistently challenged this integrated culture.

Following Partition in 1947, the Urdu language, so carefully cultivated within the nawabi court, was declared Pakistan’s official language, and much of the Urdu culture in Lucknow became narrowly associated with Pakistan and Muslims. This simplistic political division between two mutually intelligible languages – Urdu for a Muslim Pakistan and Hindi for a Hindu India – betrayed the great cultural complexity that had emerged over generations. Yet, for many under this spell, Urdu and Urdu culture, and those associated with it, quickly became an enemy of the Indian state.

The rise of Hindu nationalism, an ideology known as Hindutva, has fed off of this sentiment and has led to the country’s current period of high Hindu-Muslim tension. This has especially been the case since the 2014 election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been criticized for leaving unchecked the anti-Muslim, Hindutva rhetoric of many hard-line BJP politicians.

In 2015, for example, the BJP chief minister of Haryana State, Manohar Lal Khattar, pushed to have the Hindu holy text, the Bhagavad Gita, a mandatory part of state education. Shortly before this, a senior BJP leader from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu argued that mosques are not holy places, unlike Hindu temples, and therefore can be safely demolished at any time. Such rhetoric often encourages violence, such as the 2014 Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi’s Trilokpuri neighbourhood or the growing number of attacks against individuals suspected of eating beef, as the cow is sacred in Hinduism.

When communal tensions have boiled up, Lucknow’s strong culture has managed to avoid any major rioting. But the city has not remained completely unscathed. There have been minor clashes between the communities in recent years and cracks are beginning to show. Seth-ji told me that while she had many Hindu friends in the past, when people in Lucknow were less concerned about a person’s religion, she has now lost many of them in the current political climate.

“That is the trend,” she said. “This really hurts me.”

In addition to the growing divide between Hindus and Muslims, there is the ongoing concern over intra-religious conflict in Lucknow and throughout India: between Shia and Sunni Muslims and attacks against Dalits, or “Untouchables”, by fellow Hindus.

And even if Lucknow’s culture is able to survive these political challenges, it’s in danger of simply succumbing to the passage of time. As the modern world increasingly invades the city’s ancient lanes – the chikan industry, for example, is being challenged by cheaper, machine-made imports from China – many young people are turning away from the city’s traditions.

There are efforts to halt this cultural decay, such as the establishment of new Urdu language institutes to preserve the nawabi’s culture and the government designating the city a heritage zone. But while Seth-ji was optimistic about efforts to protect the old culture of her childhood, she lamented, “You cannot revive what has already been killed.”

The era of the nawabs is over and the Lucknow of today, bearing as it does the modern problems related to poverty, crime and corruption, would be unrecognizable to them. Yet, the remaining vestiges of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb can still offer lessons in coexistence. By paying attention to the lessons of the past, India may find mechanisms to resolve the problems of today.