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Rethinking ‘Community’: Reflections On A Recent Personal Experience

What does this have to tell us about how we should understand what true ‘community’ is?

By Dost Special
Rethinking ‘Community’: Reflections On A Recent Personal Experience[dropcap]D[/dropcap]

ictionaries and encyclopaedias may explain it variously, but if I were to define the term COMMUNITY, I might say that a group of people characterised by a UNITY of four COMMs make up a COMMUNITY.

These four COMMs are:

  • A set of COMMON values
  • A sense of being in COMMUNION with each other
  • COMMITMENT to each other’s wellbeing
  • COMMISERATING with each other when someone is in need, and expressing this through acts of charity and solidarity.

In large parts of the world where traditional forms of religiosity continue to hold sway, a principal form of community identity is provided by religion. People who, at least in theory, follow a common religion are believed to be members of the same community. In such cases, religion is regarded as a major marker of community identity. Although all human beings have multiple identities, in many cases religio-political elites deliberately seek to make their followers believe their religion (which, in most cases, is simply inherited at birth) to be the main, and often even the only, basis for community identity as against all other forms of identity. This is often propelled by a desire to bolster their own authority and interests. Much of the long history of conflict between communities defined on the basis of religion in large parts of the world may be seen as a playing out of this agenda.

But things don’t have to necessarily be this way. People can conceive of other ways of defining ‘community’ and their own place in it beyond narrowly-inscribed religious boundaries. Formal allegiance to a common religion need not necessarily unite a set of people and engender a sense of community defined on the basis of the four COMMs referred to above. On the other hand, a group of people from different religious backgrounds can be united by a strong feeling of oneness and mutual concern and thus have all the features of a community, as a recent personal experience illustrates.

The other day, I got a call from M, whom I have known for maybe more than twenty years. She used to work as a maid with a family I knew. She had called to tell me that her daughter, P, was in hospital. They needed help with money for hospital expenses.

I spoke about M’s call with a friend. We decided we would contribute some money for P. Neither I nor my friend belong to the religious community that P belongs to, but that didn’t matter. The family needed money for her treatment, and we thought that we ought to do something about it.

The amount we decided to put together for P wasn’t enough to cover all the expenses that P’s family would incur. I contacted some people I knew from the religious community that P belongs to (this community is divided into numerous denominations, and the people I contacted belong to different denominations). All of them are very wealthy or influential or both. I thought they might like to help with financial aid for P’s treatment. But guess what? Only one of them sent any money for P—a modest sum.

Finally, we managed to arrange for a fairly decent sum of money for P’s treatment. Almost all of it was from sources other than P’s co-religionists. Of the 35,500 rupees that we were able to mobilise, almost a third was provided by a centre whose founder taught a universal spirituality markedly distinct from conventional exclusivist religiosity. Only 500 rupees were given by someone from the same religious community that P belongs to—which amounts to just 01.40845% of the total!

Now, what does this figure tell us about COMMUNITY if, as mentioned earlier, a community is defined as a group of people characterised by four COMMsCOMMON values, a sense of being in COMMUNION with each other, a COMMITMENT to each other’s wellbeing, and COMMISERATING with each other when someone is in need, and expressing this through acts of charity and solidarity?  Who was P’s ‘community’ when she was in a severe crisis and needed help? It was mainly people who did not share P’s religious background and beliefs but who were still concerned for her, felt for her and reached out.

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