India. An opener of eyes. A challenger of assumptions. India is every exception, and every rule. India is cruel. India is kind.
A week after my cohort and I left Delhi, my Facebook Feed was filled with footage of riots. Taken less than 20 minutes’ drive from our hotel, I saw protests on the steps of temples we had visited, buses burning on roads not far from those we had walked upon. The BJP Party’s new Citizenship Law sees religious persecution, tension, and restriction rampant within India. This is why the many steps toward cultural solidarity I encountered in India are all the more remarkable – and worthy of noting as an antithesis to how India has appeared in the media as of late.
Jaipur Foot is a hospital where amputees are guaranteed replacement limbs, free of charge, upon arrival. In the waiting room one will find Jesus, Shiva, and the Buddha framed and hung side by side to ensure no patient feels less entitled to Jaipur Foot’s services than another. As we were guided through the halls, I met a man who had lived without legs for an entire year before getting word of Jaipur foot. Before my very eyes, he took his first steps since his machinery accident in 2018.
Auroville is a community of three thousand which functions independently from the rest of India. A home to individuals from 124 different countries and all Indian states, Auroville works to deconstruct religious and cultural barriers by mandating the renunciation of all religious affiliation upon accepting membership. During my two days here, I was able to visit the Matrimandir, a golden dome which acts as a centre for worship. Devoid of candles, incense, or any artefacts connotative of religion, the only rule users of Matrimandir must abide by is silence – so that all may focus upon and explore their own spirituality independently. While this approach toward cultural identity involves deconstruction of religious identity, it is fascinating to see how this is utilised as a vehicle for solidarity within an independent community context.
What do Jaipur Foot and Auroville have in common? Both reject the narrative of cultural division that pervade India’s religious politics. Auroville does this by asking members to renounce all religious ties. Jaipur Foot does so by making sure to accommodate all individuals. While different, both approaches speak to a desire to realise a manner of human interaction which functions independently of religious identity. While I am unable to speculate which is more successful in combatting religious stereotyping, both experiences assured me that there is an Indian population active in shaping a narrative of tolerance. Looking forward, I see the projects of solidarity either entity tend to being essential refuges to the Indian population. Perhaps New Zealanders, too, can take note of how religious tolerance can be brought to the forefront of Indian migratory experiences in Aotearoa.
– Zak Devey