SPEECH GIVEN BY
FRANK F ISLAM
THE ROLE OF MEDIA IN CREATING AN ATMOSPHERE OF COMMUNAL PEACE AND HARMONY IN INDIA
Distinguished Guests and Ladies and Gentlemen:
I want to express my deep appreciation for your warm welcome. I am humbled and honored to be here with you today.
A lot of things bring us together as we are linked by common cause, common goals, common commitment and common values and mutual interests. I have utmost respect for all of you. All of us are bonded by shared history and shared heritage and shared background and shared belief. There are a lot that unite us and there are little that divide us. Our bonds are stronger than the differences that too often drive us apart.
It is my distinct pleasure to be here today addressing the topic of the Role of the Media in Creating an Atmosphere of Communal Peace and Harmony in India.
I must confess at the outset that I am not a media expert. I am a humble person who was born and spent my early years in India and then moved to the United States. I received my university education and became an Indian American business person.
Those formative experiences provide the insights and perspective that I bring to this talk. They shape my observations and opinions on the concept of “communal peace and harmony” and on the role of the media in creating an atmosphere conducive to such a condition.
A Spiritual Common Ground: The Platform for Communal Peace and Harmony
Let me begin by asserting that an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony will not be created by accident. It must be a consequence created through strong beliefs and a concerted and sustained effort over time. It must be an outcome that overcomes religious, regional and racial boundaries.
How do we reach that ideal state? We begin with where we are, find our shared values, leverage our strengths, and then chart a path to where we want to be.
As an example of discovering our shared values, let me draw upon the teachings of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University where I went to school, and Pandit Malaviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University.
These men were visionaries who saw the world not though religious blinders but through an expansive view of what strong and inclusive faiths can do to unite rather than divide us.
Pandit Malaviya instructed us, “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 good will and harmony.”
Sir Syed expressed a similar philosophy stating that the graduates of Aligarh University, “shall go forth through the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large hearted toleration, and of pure morality.”
While there was not a religious bond between Malaviya and Sir Syed, there was undoubtedly a spiritual one. Indeed, it might be said they were soul mates. They committed themselves in building bridges of understanding and cooperation among various faiths.
That is why even though we are here to speak about “communal harmony and peace”, I would like to reframe our discussion just a little. I would prefer to talk about creating a “spiritual common ground”.
That is because spirituality transcends religious, racial and regional boundaries. Spirit is the invisible force that brings us together regardless of our particular pre-dispositions.
In this regard, I am reminded of the words of President John F. Kennedy, who in speaking before the Protestant Council of New York City in November of 1963 – just weeks before his assassination – said, “The family of man is not limited to a single race or religion, to a single city, or country…the family of man is nearly 3 billion strong. Most of its members are not white and most of them are not Christian.”
President Kennedy went on to say, “The members of this family should be at peace with one another.”
As we are gathered here to explore the terrain of “communal peace and harmony” in India, we would do well to remember President Kennedy’s admonition and recall the advice of Sir Syed and Pandit Malaviya. Let us do so not by looking to the heavens and to the gods whom we worship but by looking at the earth and the people and family that we are.
As that family, let us think and dedicate ourselves to creating a spiritual common ground. In my opinion, we can create that spiritual common ground through: a common communion, a common cause, and a common crusade.
I know the words “communion”, “cause” and “crusade” have strong religious overtones. I use those words here, however, in an ecumenical sense rather than a religious one.
- We need to make common communion by speaking together about how to forge stronger bonds among those of all persuasions;
- We need to establish a common cause by developing a plan of what can be done to strengthen those bonds that bind us as one family
- We need to join in a common crusade to work here in India to implement that plan and form a universal family
Establishing The Framework for Communal Peace and Harmony
A common communion, a common cause, and a common crusade are abstract terms. They need to be made concrete and actionable in order to create an “atmosphere for communal peace and harmony” here.
They need to be translated into a framework for change. There are many things that should and can be done in order to establish such a framework. Opinions will differ on what should be at the top of the list.
The ones that I consider most important as priorities and the preconditions for creating “communal peace and harmony” throughout India are: development of the spiritual common ground that I have been discussing; equal opportunity, the elimination of poverty as we know it today; and educational equity.
Let me amplify on each of those precondition areas.
We need to work together to build a spiritual common ground. We should expand cross-cultural education, people to people, and inter-faith exchanges. Schools at all levels can and should play a vital role in diffusing tensions and helping our youth understand an evolving environment and the need for collaboration and cooperation.
We need to work together to find equal opportunities in jobs and advancement for all citizens of this country, regardless of their color, creed, caste, background, or beliefs. Discrimination can shatter people’s ambitions and dreams. There should be no discrimination or distinction between the various faiths. We would do well to remember no nation, no race, no religion and no culture has a monopoly on the values of freedom, justice and human dignity.
We need to work together to eliminate poverty in our country. Several reports that I have seen have deepened my understanding of how entrenched poverty in the Indian minority community has become. Poverty crushes hope. Poverty fuels a dangerous mix of desperation and frustration and results in an instability that erupts into community violence. There is no single magic solution to eliminating poverty, nor can we expect a single entity to shoulder the entire burden. However, if we come together as people of faith and one united family we can together eradicate the poverty.
We need to work together to eliminate disparities in education. The disparities today in this country are striking. Lack of access to education creates a vicious cycle that crushes a person’s hope for improvement. The greatest gift we can give is the gift of education. Education empowers the mind and uplifts the soul. Education enhances the dignity of a human being and increases his or her self-respect. Education is central to development and strengthens nations. It is a powerful equalizer opening doors to all to lift themselves out of poverty. Education is the best investment you can make to build your fate and future.
I have been saying “we need to work together”. Who is we? In the broadest sense, we is all of us. Eventually, this must become a shared societal imperative.
More narrowly, the responsibility for initiating and shepherding the necessary changes to create an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony must fall to our leaders from all fields – business, politics, religion, education, health care, and yes – even the media.
Our leaders need to do the right thing. This sounds like a simple proposition.
The problem, in our modern world, is that we have too many people in leadership positions that do not do the right thing. They are the executives at the top of the organizational food chain whose sole purpose is to advance their own careers and earnings with little to no concern for the customers, employees, or the communities they should serve.
I don’t know what percent of today’s executives are masters at doing the wrong thing. I do know that we need more – many more – doing the right thing here in India to establish the atmosphere we desire.
The good news is that Prime Minister Modi with his election and agenda has brought renewed attention, focus and energy to the areas that I have identified. There is a definite window of opportunity for accomplishing great things.
The bad news is that, in spite of some progress in the areas that I have discussed, we still need to accomplish great things.
I am certain that you are familiar with the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 which disclosed a “development deficit” for minorities in many areas and resulted in the creation of an across the board program for the development of minorities in India. A study released by the U.S India Policy Institute in 2013 titled Six Years After Sachar: Review of Socially Inclusive Policies in India revealed the “development deficit” was being reduced for some – but that Muslims as a group remained tremendously disadvantaged.
We have much work to do in working together. This brings me to the role of the media and its responsibilities to ensure that work is done and we work together to do it.
The Role of the Media in Creating an Atmosphere of Communal Peace and Harmony
As I said at the outset, I am not an expert on the media. But my time in the United States has given me an exposure and a viewpoint that might be useful.
Before I outline my thoughts, I want to celebrate India as the largest democracy in the world and the lessons in democracy that India taught the United States and the whole world by the manner in which the recent national elections were conducted and the participation of our Indian citizens. The Indian media, in conjunction with their media brethren around the globe, shone a bright light on the election process and in so doing communicated those lessons world-wide.
Having exported our lessons on democracy through the Indian media, I think it is appropriate to import lessons for our media from the United States. American democracy does not exist because of the media, but it would not and could not exist without it.
I do not have time to go into the details today. Suffice it to say, that the free press has been a cornerstone of American democracy since its establishment.
In the 21st century, the question becomes what are the key functions that the news media should play in a representative democracy today.
Professor Michael Schudson of Columbia has identified six. They are
- Information: provided fairly and fully
- Investigation: into concentrated sources of power
- Analysis: furnishing in-depth and coherent frameworks to help explain complex topics or issues
- Social Empathy: describing the conditions and situations of others in society, especially the disadvantaged
- Public Forum: being a centralized communications vehicle for dialogue and discourse on issues and matters of importance
- Mobilization: advocating for particular positions, programs or actions
I think the functions that Professor Schudson has specified apply perfectly to the media’s primary role and responsibilities for creating an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony.
I would add to this list the following recommendations from a 2009 study done in the United States by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy:
- Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all citizens and their communities.
- Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information.
- Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
To sum it up, let me repeat what I said earlier – that is the media needs to be a leader in building the framework for communal peace and harmony. This demands that the media be a proactive participant in the process of creation rather than a passive bystander and reporter of current events.
I’ve covered a lot of territory and there is much work to do. As I have noted, that work requires a common communion, a common cause and a common crusade.
The work must begin, however, by imagining an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony. Imagining will not make it so but not imagining will make it impossible.
With this in mind, let me leave you with the following words modified slightly from the famous song by John Lennon:
Imagine there’s no heaven
it’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A family of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing throughout India
You, you may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And India will live as one
Imagine communal peace and harmony. That’s the start and that is why we are here at this important meeting today.
Peace, love and understanding to all of you and for India. Just imagine!
All of you should commit yourselves to extend your hand, your help, and hope and your voice in ensuring that India, a nation committed to democracy, liberty, and diversity, lives up to its ideals of equality and justice.
Please join me in this journey so that we can together break the barrier and boundary of biases and bigotry. You have to eradicate the barrier which divide you. There is no place for religion injustice. People need to respect human dignity. People should be treated according to their talents not their background and belief.
All of you will do well to remember all things are possible when you work together, when you learn from one another, when you listen to each other and when you set aside your differences to work for shared goals with shared responsibility and shared sacrifice. Remember as long as you believe in your selves, the future will always be yours. You must renew people’s faith in the promise and potential of this country. Therefore if you commit to working together, and commit to pulling together, your best days will be ahead of you not behind you. Remember all of us are in this together. If you come together you will thrive.
Thank you for giving me opportunity to speak with you today
God bless you all.