By John Hallam
THANNIRPALLI, Tamil Nadu — My wife Mishka Jambor and I attended the World Conference of Religions held in the town of Cochin in Kerala, South India, October 1-6. At that meeting, more than 350 representatives of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Zoroastrian religions met to discover if they had anything in common.
There was a high degree of consensus among the participants on three key matters:
1. The need for continued religious dialogue, particularly within the context of Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India, conflicts that have cost thousands of lives and affected the poorest sections of Indian society.
2. The need for social justice both in India and globally.
3. The need for a change in the economic system to one based on need and not greed, which does not destroy the physical basis of life.
The final declaration noted, among other things, that: "Lack of dialogue costs lives, absorbs enormous resources, and inflicts most damage on the poor and marginalised".
With relation to the environment, it said that "We must stop destroying our life support systems through our cupidity ... We resolve to educate people to reduce wants, cut out waste, and to recycle and reuse materials ... We will support those who are defending the rights of tribal people against those who are making claims that will submerge vast areas of forest and farmland."
The ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, to which lip service is given but whose real implications have been quite deliberately forgotten, loomed large over the whole conference.
Repeated reference was made to the necessity of removing the oppression of women in Indian society. When Mishka drew attention to the lack of women on the dais of the conference itself, she drew applause from many delegates, and moves were made to remedy the situation.
The conference took place in an India bitterly divided along religious and caste lines. When Mishka and I were last in India, about a year ago, we were struck by the feeling of tension and incipient violence as we walked five kilometres across Delhi. The streets were eerily empty apart from menacing looking groups of youths, due to a strike called by the Hindu fundamentalist party, BJP.
Later on in our journey, trains in the north were repeatedly cancelled because of communal violence and confrontation at Ayodhya, where the BJP wants to raze a mosque and replace it with a temple to the god Ram.
Gandhian friends of ours had been beaten up by BJP thugs, and then by g the very name of Ram in a song that Gandhi himself used to sing.
The issues focussed on by the World Conference of Religions — the real issues in India today — are notably absent from the formal political agenda. As in Australia, the only groups which bring attention to the real issues are activist groups, and the press remains mesmerised by whether Sonia Gandhi will or won't contest Rajiv's old parliamentary seat, and which state government has its hands in the till.