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Don’t let religious differences fuel animosity

Published: 
Friday, May 25, 2018

The widespread condemnation of the decision by the secretary general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba, Sat Maharaj, to deny On-The-Job trainee Nafisah Nakhid entry to the Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College for wearing her hijab on Monday, stands as testament to the religious pluralism that exists amongst our people today.

Whist as a nation we continue our struggle to overcome the ethnic and racial divide that continues to plague our society, throughout the world our country has been a shining example of religious pluralism and tolerance.

That is not to say we have been completely free of religious tensions, but as a people we were able to overcome those obstacles and today, we can be proud of the co-existence in society of a vast variety of faiths in peace and harmony.

That being said, it is unfortunate, worrying, and distasteful when religious leaders make statements and/or take a stand on issues that does not reflect the views of those they purport to represent.

For those who may not be familiar with the Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba, it is the major Hindu organisation in T&T. It operates 150 mandirs, over 50 schools, and has its own radio station and TV channel. It was founded in 1952 by Bhadase Sagan Maraj, a politician and Hindu leader, and in 1971, forty seven years ago, he was succeeded by his son-in-law, the organisation’s current head, Sat Maharaj as leader of the organisation.

Infamous for making controversial comments, which he is free to express on his own behalf, Mr Maharaj defended his stance by saying that they have a right to enjoyment of property under the Constitution and as a result, also a right to determine how people dress when they go onto the compound.

To add insult to injury, he further retorted “The girl is not attached to the teaching staff, she came to learn to teach, but she wants to teach us how to dress, we said we have a dress code,” adding that the school was “doing a favour by saying come and we will teach you how to teach.”

Not surprisingly, Mr Maharaj’s obstreperous response was met with nationwide criticism, not only because the manner in which the issue was dealt with was offensive, but more so because of the underlying tones of intolerance, whether real or perceived.

Whilst the national response spoke volumes about how far we, the people, have come as a nation since the landmark ruling of the Honourable Justice Margot Warner, 23 years ago, which allowed Muslim girls to attend private and public schools wearing a hijab without discrimination, it also served as a reminder that while there has been an attempt to use the law as a means of promoting religious pluralism in our complex, multicultural society, there is still much work to be done, but it is not an insurmountable task.

As a country we have shown that we are resilient, tolerant, open to change, and not easily fooled. That being said, we must be wary especially now when there is a sense of hopelessness, frustration, and anger in society, that religious differences do not fuel mistrust and animosity.

As such, this issue needs to be addressed urgently with respect and diplomacy. Those with the power to do so must now act fairly and without religious or political bias. Too often issues of social concern are not given the priority that they deserve, not to mention they are swept under the carpet forgotten or left for the courts to deal with. Let us not miss this opportunity to re-examine policies that are now outdated.

The word “change” often has a negative connotation. Many fear it, others despise it and for the most part, people seem to reject the idea of it, but in the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Let me take this opportunity to thank the readership for their positive feedback over the last two-and-a-half years, the Guardian Media Group for the opportunity to write a weekly column, and to wish the national community a happy and safe Indian Arrival Day and Corpus Christi.

Mickela Panday 

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