The politics of fasting and feasting

Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 17:03 PM IST

Akrita Reyar The Iftaar dinner hosted by the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad had a surprise visitor– the ISI Chief Lt Gen Shuja Pasha. Wearing a black sherwani and a white salwar(rather than the Army uniform), he broke bread with the host Sharat Sabharwal and some other A-listers of Pakistan power circuit.

While an invitation and its subsequent acceptance to the goodwill party by an ISI chief is unusual, politicians inviting friends and foes among the who’s who of the society have long held great symbolism in India. Not only do the photo-ops during these gala evenings keep their Muslim constituencies in good humour, it also offers an incomparable opportunity to make or break pacts, fix deals and decide coalitions. The parties at dusk which are any gourmet’s delight, because of their extravagant layout in terms of choicest of Mughlai fare being put on the table, are also quite a costume drama. You can easily see Lalu, Mulayam or even Deve Gowda don the skull cap along with the keffiyeh., the white and black shoulder cloth which Muslim men wear. More amusing still is the fact that while Iftaars are an occasion to eat after a day-long fast, for a whole lot of non-Muslim invitees it’s basically an occasion to gorge on delicacies despite their already filled bellies. You see, while all politicians like to show solidarity with their Muslim brethren by feasting at the end of the day, they don’t want to extend the camaraderie by fasting though the day! The point is that this fancy dress show has become such a fixture on the Indian calendar; because of its frivolity of purpose it has also become terribly tiresome. Is digging into kebabs and kormas all that the Muslim strata are looking for? Certainly, issues much deeper need to be addressed to keep the Muslim votebank happy than such cosmetic gestures.

Need for concrete measures not appeasement One look at the Sachar committee report reveals a lot. Literacy rate among Muslims is much below normal and the gap is even greater when it comes to the female gender. The community requires better social support and financial subsidies, besides their ratio in government jobs and armed forces needs to go up. Muslim majority villages are in need of better infrastructure like roads, drinking water and communication facilities. It follows that Muslims have a lower per capita income and poorer access to healthcare. These obviously are core concerns. Going by what has been offered in the Union Budget, it is obvious that the central government is looking into these matters. Conversely, some political parties are playing a dangerous game. Rather than addressing these development issues, they have found appeasement as a short cut to winning hearts. It is an open secret that the UP government needed a lot of cajoling and even pressure to go after some suspected terrorists based in the state. This works negatively both for the country and community. At one level while national security is compromised, at another such gestures only give the community a bad name. It is because of these reasons that mere tokenism, like politicians offering prayers along with Muslims, is now seen as just that – tokenism. Politicians need to stick to what they have been elected to do - provide empowerment and facilitate progress. Both media and the people have seen through it. No longer are front pages of papers splashed with such pictures of political regaling. Muslims themselves have started demanding real action and actual deliverables. Some Urdu papers like Inquilab have put a self-imposed ban on the publication of such photographs while Darul Ifta of Nadwatul Ulema issued a fatwa against Iftaar held by political parties calling it “ghair islami”(unislamic), as it served no religious purpose. But slow learning as they are, political bigwigs spared no effort this time around as well to keep the tandoor hot. This year the Ministry of External Affairs, which had so far remained aloof from the traditional tamasha, has joined the bandwagon and is holding an Iftaar party, in hope of winning over envoys from Muslim countries. Taking a page from the Indian experience, US consulate too is known to have started throwing such bashes.

Opportunity for social mingling While one acknowledges the futility of using Iftaar for political ends, one must admit that they can hold some social significance. Ajmer is a sterling example to prove the point. The fast breaking ceremony in the holy city is attended by thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims alike with a simple meal, which usually does consist of dates as an essential on the platter. It is social gatherings at the grassroots level like these, which are both unpretentious and genuine, that hold greater meaning than all the lavishness dished out by Netas. In another such example, women (in break from the tradition of only men participating) in the slum area of Dharavi have started holding their own Iftaar parties. Not only do women get a chance to join celebrations, this too is an inter-community affair. It is festivities like these which go a long way in increasing goodwill between people of various religions besides adding to general revelry. But alas, our politicians refuse to learn!

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