This is a much needed initiative. Congratulations.
At the same time I have a few doubts regarding the nature of representation of faiths. These are not doubts about the planned meeting but long running doubts regarding the nature of religious representation.
Take Hinduism for instance, the religion I hail from and naturally know a little about. The Shankaracharya of Puri is the most important ritually sanctioned leader of Hinduism. Pandits of Mukti Mandap are also ritually sanctioned spokespeople of Hinduism. The Gajapati of Puri also ritually represents Hinduism in a substantial way. Then there are religious sects that more truly represent particular caste groups. With my limited knowledge of Hinduism in Orissa, I believe that the religious leaders of the Mahima Sect represent Dalit Hindus to a significant extent- though not exclusively. The asceticism of the followers of the Mahima sect is perhaps is the most advanced among all religious sects of Orissa. Similarly there are various other sects within Hinduism such as the ones represented by the Rama Krishna Mission, the followers of Sri Aurovindo, the Arya Samaj, the followers of Sri Nigamanada, Sri Anukulachandra and so on. Please pardon my ignorance in terms of followers of Hinduism in Orissa that may have led me to state factually incorrect statements. I believe others who know these things more will be able to enlighten me. Similarly the ritually accepted leaders of the Christians are members of the church hierarchies. Muslims too have their religious hierarchies, though not in the same elaborate manner as the Christians.
When we are discussing with the faith leaders, are these leaders religious leaders in the above sense or are they some other people? Are these people who have over time displayed knowledge of the sacred texts or attained religious prominence due to ascetic practices, or even performing (though generally not scientifically untenable) miracles? Do these people represent the divine aspect of religion at all? When we say Faith Leaders do we actually end up meaning people who seek to politically represent the followers of particular religions without having any ritual sanction whatsoever? In that case should the meeting not be named otherwise as it is not a gathering of people practicing faith but people seeking to represent followers of a faith, not before God but before terrestrial authorities?
In the past we have had the misfortune of religious communities being represented by people who are not religious people. For instance towards the end of the British occupation of India, the Muslims of India got represented not by Maulana Azaad, an eminent religious authority, but by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a more or less non-religious man. We all know well that this was the handiwork of the British rather than any real groundswell of support in favour of Jinnah. Rather it was the support from the British who lent the stamp of authority to Jinnah & the Muslim League as the authorised representative of the Muslims, while, all over India, the Congress under Gandhi had won more Muslim reserved seats than the Muslim League. It was only after the British stamp of approval that the Muslim League gained political strength. A really succinct example of how people who were substantially non-religious were propped up as representatives of a religion.
Fortunately for the Hindus they got represented by the twin forces of Gandhi and Ambedkar (Ambedkar had still not lost hope in Hinduism, it was only later due to the failures of the upper caste Hindus to give Dalits a respectable place within Hinduism that he converted to Buddhism). It is of course true that the British would have loved to have a Hindu League in the same manner as the Muslim league. There were also people who had formed the Hindu counterpart of the Muslim League, whose activities ultimately led to the assassination of Gandhi. In fact the Hindu Mahasabha leader B S Moonje had gone to the First Round Table conference as a leader of the Hindus. This was when Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress along with the Nationalist Businessmen had boycotted the conference – in fact most of the nationalist leaders including Gandhi were in jail at that time. Fortunately, the Hindus (including the Dalit Hindus) of India stood behind Gandhi and Ambedkar and not Godse. Of course a very large number of Muslims also stood behind people like Azaad and not behind Jinnah. Still, the use of religion in political organisation during this most unfortunate phase of India's history led to the partition of India. One only wishes that all Muslims of undivided India had listened to Azaad and all Hindus of undivided India had listened to Gandhi and Ambedkar. Then the misfortune of the partition and the continuing tragedies born out of it, the latest of them having been the reprehensible Mumbai Attacks would not have taken place.
So, when we want to discuss with faith leaders, do we want to discuss matters of faith with those who seek to politically represent the faith or those seek to spiritually represent the faith? It would be naïve to discuss with advocates of Hindutva, Political Islam, and Political Christianity regarding the true message of universal love and fraternity that forms the bedrock of all religions (whether or not great in terms of numbers). The proponents of Hindutva, Political Islam and Political Christianity are essentially messengers of hate and in the true sense of their own religions non-believers of the worst variety.
Having said that I am still convinced that there is a need to have face to face interactions between people who seek to represent followers of various religions in non-spiritual matters. Such interactions can help people understand the positions taken by such leaders more clearly and allow debate over the same. And any such debate can only lead us closer to the truth. But such forums must, in that case, should have participation not only from formations that call themselves by religious names, but also those other people who seek to represent the various parties in a conflict. For instance, leaders of the Kandha community, Kui Samaj etc. are very critical to any discussion of this latter variety. Also the nomenclature of such a meeting should be more representative of the nature of leaders participating and should definitely not be called inter-faith consultation. Hope over time we are able to address issues of spiritual representation of various faiths from communal representation. May be I am entirely wrong in my interpretation and all that I have written above do not stand on firm ground. In such a case please do write back to me and I would love to stand corrected under the influence of superior reasoning.
Best wishes for the discussions and wishing that they lead us closer to peace.
With warm regards
Replying to this email will send an e-mail to 11000+ members of Jharkhand Forum