by Dr Paul Jackson SJ
The story of the Fourteenth Convention of the Islamic Studies Association (ISA) began at the General Body Meeting of the Association held in Jhansi in February 2007. The significance of Jammu-Kashmir needs no elaboration. ISA decided to hold its next General Body Meeting and Convention in Jammu as a sign of solidarity with the local Church. Fr. Pushpa Anbu, ISA's Secretary, subsequently met Bishop Peter Celestine and informed him of ISA's plan. He welcomed the idea.
The real planning for the Convention began at the Managing Committee Meeting held in New Delhi on 23rd August 2008. Readers may recall that Jammu was greatly disturbed at this period. In fact, the town of Jammu was disturbed for 61 days. Fr. Anbu and I had tickets for the night train to Jammu, but these had to be cancelled. In view of what was happening in Jammu, we had to decide whether to go ahead with our plans to have the General Body Meeting and Convention there in February 2009. We felt we should keep to our plan out of solidarity with the Church and the people there.
By chance, Bishop Celestine was in New Delhi at the time. Fr. Anbu, Fr. Thomas Kunnunkal and I went to meet him on 24th morning and made our preliminary plans in consultation with him. It was decided to invite Muslims from different backgrounds to come and speak to us on a Saturday afternoon and have a follow-up meeting of Christians on the Sunday afternoon to hear about the activities of the members of the Association and formulate whatever action-plan seemed feasible in the circumstances. Monday morning would be devoted to visiting some prominent Muslim institutions in Jammu. It was also decided that Fr. Anbu and I would visit Jammu on sixth and seventh of December to help with the organization of the Convention.
A week before leaving for Jammu I happened to call on Maulana Nizamuddin, the Amir-i Shariat in Phulwari Sharif. We are old friends. I mentioned my upcoming trip to Jammu. Maulana Nizamuddin told me that the Imam of the Jama Masjid was Sadrul Hasan, a friend of his from Bihar. In Jammu, on the sixth of December, Fr. Anbu's train was a couple of hours late, so it was only after lunch that Bishop Celestine and we two were able to visit the Jama Masjid. It was around 2 p.m. and the Imam Sahib had gone home after the noon prayer. We noticed a number of policemen sitting outside the mosque. As Jammu is filled with a police, paramilitary and military presence, we thought that was 'normal' for Jammu. Only later on did we realize the significance of the date – the 6th December. It was the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the police presence was a precautionary measure, not something normal .
We met a bearded young man in kurta-pyjama and I explained how Maulana Nizamuddin had given me the name of the Imam Sahib. The young man quickly sized up the situation and told us he was the Imam's son. He then led us to his father's house. When we were seated, he went to call his father and arrange for some tea for us. Anbu and I noticed a clock on the wall with "Jamia Millia Islamia" written on it. Anbu had done his doctorate from Jamia, and I had done my master's degree there many years ago. Mahmud, the Imam's son, had done an engineering degree from Jamia Millia Islamia University. This created another bond between us and him.
The Imam was very open to our request to give us the names of prominent Muslims and institutions so we could invite people to speak to us at our forthcoming Convention. I jotted them down. In the evening we had a meeting called by the Bishop. A number of Catholics were there, as well as three Hindus, two gentlemen and one lady. These three were involved in the Jammu-Kashmir Peace Mission, the whole aim of which was to bring people together on the basis of their common citizenship and humanity, not according to their specific religious identity. This is a valid forum for a collaborative effort for peace, but ISA takes the religious identity of Muslims seriously and tries to foster understanding Muslims as human beings for whom their religion is a very important dimension of their lives. For many, it is the most important dimension.
At the end of the meeting, one of the priests, Fr. Johnson, volunteered to see to the organization of the Convention. It was agreed that Fr. Anbu would be the person in touch with him, and I would send material to Fr. Anbu for him to forward to Fr. Johnson. We knew everyone would be very busy in the pre-Christmas season, so actual contact would begin in early January.
I typed up a page and a half of material about the whole programme and gave the names and addresses of the Muslims mentioned by the Imam Sahib. These were forwarded, via Fr. Anbu, to Fr. Johnson. I booked my ticket to arrive early on 26th February, giving me two full days to do follow-up visits of the Muslim speakers Fr. Johnson had contacted in order to explain, once again, that we wanted to hear their stories, not a lecture on Islam. Our Convention was scheduled for 28th afternoon, beginning at 2:30 p.m.
At breakfast on 26th morning I discovered that the Bishop had gone to Srinagar the previous day and would be back on Friday afternoon, 27th. I also met two young couples who had flown down from Srinagar to speak at our Convention. Alarm bells began to ring, because ISA does not have money to pay for airfares. We invite Muslims from the town and are ready to pay local transport costs if requested. Fr. Kalathil, who is stationed in Jammu but goes regularly to Srinagar in connection with the Jammu-Kashmir Peace Mission, had invited them because they worked for the Peace Mission there. At about 10:30 am Fr. Kalathil phoned Fr. Johnson to let him know that I had arrived and was waiting to meet him. Unfortunately, he was delayed and we could meet only in the evening. He told me the two couples had been invited from Srinagar and a Muslim couple was expected from Patna, my friends, the Mashhadis. Regrettably, for family reasons, they were unable to come.
In the event, about 50 people were present. Fr. Kalathil organized an Opening Prayer. This was followed by a welcome note by the Bishop and an address by the President of the Islamic Studies Association. The visitors from Srinagar then shared their experiences with us. This took us to the tea break. After this Bishop Patrick Nair had a few words to say. Fr. Bob McCahill, who gave a PowerPoint presentation about the people he worked for in Bangladesh and explained his work, followed him. He is like a modern-day Jesus, going around the villages on a bicycle looking for children particularly with a cleft palate – commonly referred to as a "hair lip." He then takes them and some family members to Dhaka once a week and their deformity is removed by one of the best specialists in this field in the whole world. This was very inspiring. Sr. Manju then spoke of her work, particularly when she lived in a room with an open door between her and two buffaloes in the home of a Muslim family. I spoke about the "Exposure to Islam" programme I run, and then Fr. Thomas Kunnunkal aptly drew some practical lessons for all of us. Fr. Anbu, as Secretary of the Association, proposed the vote of thanks. Although the programme was not as we had envisioned it, we all agreed that, in the circumstances, it went off well. It was a fruitful afternoon, but we thought a great opportunity to make an even greater impact had been lost.
At the General Body Meeting of the Association on Sunday morning we examined the whole course of events and drew appropriate lessons for the future. In the afternoon, we formed part of a group of about sixteen to visit some Muslim institutions. When we went to the Jama Masjid a number of sisters admitted it was the first time they had ever entered a mosque. We were warmly welcomed and one young man gave us a demonstration of the ritual prayer performed five times a day. He went through all the gestures and recited the prayers in Arabic. We were grateful for this spontaneous demonstration. The next mosque was next to an underground aquarium which was very well set up. Of particular interest to a number of us was to see actual piranha fish, often called "cannibal fish" because they can reduce a human being to a skeleton in double quick time. Our next visit was to a Sufi shrine which I had seen from the outside on Friday and had found it quite impressive. I was disappointed when I read the blurb about the Sufi, stating he had lived to about 500 years of age! One good thing about the shrine was that it commemorated some reputedly respectful Muslim-Sikh encounters of previous centuries. In fact, a number of Muslims and Sikhs visit the shrine, and this has an irenic impact which can be fully appreciated only when viewed against the slaughter of Partition.
Our full Convention programme had been slated to finish at lunchtime on Monday, but actually finished on Sunday evening. Six of us were able to be guests of the Bishop as he took us to Akhnoor and Kaleeth. Both of these places are very close to the border. In fact, in Kaleeth we were able to watch some artillery shooting practice by the Indian army. They were firing over a low ridge into a valley where nobody lives. We could see the flame shoot out of the barrel and then hear the big 'boom' and feel the building shake a little after each shell was fired. It was a reminder that the services provided by the Church in both Akhnoor and Kaleeth were performed in the shadow of the unresolved Kashmir situation.
We were grateful for the hospitality of the Bishop and of Fr. Ivan Pereira at St. Peter's School, where most of our ISA members stayed and where we held our ISA meetings. All the ISA members were glad they had come, though there was also a tinge of regret that things could have been better arranged and more fruitful as far as the Convention was concerned.