A few minutes later, still before dawn, an additional hum adds to the sounds of the drums and bells: the chanting of the morning prayer at the gurudwara just across the road.
The heart-warming epitome of a multi-religious coexistence, this mix no doubt represents the diversity of India that is a matter of pride in the world's largest democracy. This is true of the Jammu province as well, where communities professing different faiths have lived together for generations, sharing sorrows and joys emanating more often from their shared history of conflict at the border and triumph of the human spirit than from religious practices that mark dividing lines in other parts of the country.
A behind-the-scene glimpse, though, throws light on a rather unspiritual picture, one that reflects an alarming corrosion of secular values that is quite out of line with Jammu's characteristic tolerance of cultural diversity. A story of one-upmanship that, in the currently fragile atmosphere of splintered loyalties and weary spirits, does not portend well for harmonious relations in the region.
There is a silently creeping consciousness among small groups in different religious camps, steadily gaining ground and yet unnoticed, competing for the visibility of their respective symbols of faith, most notably, religious structures across the Jammu province.
Interestingly, the manifestations of this peculiar competition vary between the plains and border areas of Jammu, Samba and Kathua districts on the one hand; and the smaller towns of the Jammu region on the other.
Usman Choudhary, a post-graduate from the Jammu University explains, "The partition of 1947 resulted in many evacuee properties when people from this side of the border fled towards safety to the other side.
Simultaneously, refugees from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and West Pakistan came in large numbers and were subsequently settled in the border districts of Jammu, Kathua and Samba by the then government by allotting landed property to these families.
Despite these allotments, there are still a number of untenanted evacuee properties and government land. These vacant properties, particularly in areas worst affected during Partition, tempt various religious groups to build/erect religious infrastructure in these areas. The result is sporadic friction on communal lines."
Contributing to the disquieting trend is the hemming and hawing by the Revenue Department over the uncertain status of such places that have been common property resource for people belonging to various communities in the region since time immemorial.
The inevitable result is claims and counterclaims by different groups over access to the disputed properties. It is a situation waiting to erupt with communal disharmony.
Matters become worse when the administration, pained to take sides and uncertain of historical accounts, acts indecisively and gives in to pressure from communal and political organizations. This results in the race for occupying common or unclaimed land for the purposes of religious infrastructure intensifying , in turn sparking communal agitation.
Amit Sharma adds, "The sharp rise in land prices on the one hand and the prevailing vagueness of the status of these pieces of land on the other have also given space for encroachment by the land mafia; that too in connivance with a few corrupt employees in the Revenue Department".
Another factor contributing to this disturbing trend is the indolent governance in these smaller towns. "The developmental priorities are generally overlooked by inactive town municipal committees for which elections have not been held for the last many years," points out Arun Raju, a lawyer from Ramban. As a result, the issues of common concern are sidelined, making space for vested interests.
Similar is the view of Khalid Wani, a businessman and social worker from Ramban town, "In the absence of the local democratic elected members of the town municipal committees, it is easier for the religious representatives to rule the roost and it suits the local administration as well."
The parallels to these trends in hilly areas are a dramatic contrast. An assessment of four smaller towns of varying demography but almost similar population sizes shows that towns with almost homogeneous population have less religious infrastructure as compared to those with heterogeneous populations.
The towns of Billawar and Banihal of Jammu region, home to nearly 95 per cent Hindus and five per cent Muslims respectively, have seen fewer religious structures mushrooming, in sharp contrast to Ramban and Baderwah, inhabited by almost equal populations of Hindus and Muslims.
One conclusion is rather self-evident: the construction of religious infrastructure in a heterogeneous habitation is not in proportion to, or in tune with, religious purposes but more so for expression, posture and power vis-a-vis others in the area.
The fallouts are many. For one, this race for visibility of religious symbols has virtually shrunk common spaces in heterogeneous towns, a must for maintaining a healthy balance and equanimity in any society.
Contrast this with relatively homogeneous towns where similarly available spaces are productively used for common public infrastructure like schools, parks, playgrounds, hospitals and dispensaries, creating connector lines among communities.
As the symphony of piety from the town's temple, gurudwara and mosque turns into a loudspeaker-induced cacophony of jarring notes, a young student, struggling to concentrate on the textbook before him, sighs sardonically, "Koi bi apne hisse ka shor chorna nahi chahta (No one wants to let go of their share of noise)."
Is anyone listening?
The views expressed in the above article are that of Dr. Sandeep Singh.
--ANI (Posted on 26-09-2013)