Politics of Iftar – The Flawed Approach to Communal Harmony

In a diverse multi-faith, multi-ethnic country like India, communal outreach and exchange of ideas between communities is both expected and accepted. Such outreach becomes more meaningful and effective when all the parties involved appreciate these initiatives and reciprocate in equal measure.

Hindus as the numerical majority in India have always been at the forefront of such initiatives which is a testimony to India’s culture of plurality and tolerance. However, such initiatives lose their relevance when manipulated by politicians for their vested interests and appeasement of minorities. This becomes more pronounced around major festivals like Eid and Christmas and one can see almost all political outfits from both sides of the political spectrum throwing Iftaar parties. Even the office of the President of India who is supposed to rise above symbolic gestures usually associated with politicians, has not remained unaffected by this trend. Till last year, President Pranab Mukherjee had arranged such parties at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, which used to be a must-attend event for politicians of all hues.

Fortunately, we now have a Prime Minister who has steered clear of such symbolism aimed at appeasement. In a clear departure from the trend, President R N Kovind has also stated his intention not to host Iftaar gatherings keeping in view the secular nature of India’s Constitution. Not long ago, during NDA rule, President A P J Kalam had declared his resolve of spending the entire Iftaar budget, quite a substantial amount by any estimate, on charity instead of a lavish feast for politicians. The irony of the so-called right wing political dispensation and its associated Presidents upholding secular values while left wing parties undermine it, cannot be missed.

Most Indians have grown so tired of such symbolism that hardly anyone takes a skull cap wearing politician seriously, and one can safely assume lavish Iftaar parties don’t necessarily translate into votes. However it is not our aim here to highlight the hypocrisy of the political class in India which is so in one’s face that it is clichéd, but to bring out the ignorance and incredible naiveté of Hindu religious leaders clambering onto the appeasement bandwagon at an alarming rate.

In an unsettling development, Mahant Divyagiri, the chief priestess of a 1000 year old temple in Lucknow, recently hosted an Iftaar feast. After the feast, Namāz was offered at the place reserved for Aarti, clearly violating the sanctity of the Temple. Last year, the senior pontiff of Pejwar Mutt in Udupi came under criticism when he hosted an Iftaar meet in the famed Krishna temple.

Mahant Divyagiri in the Iftar feast hosted by her (Source: Deccan Chronicle)

This Krishna mutt was founded by 13th century Vaishnavite Saint Madhvacharya, the founder of Dwaita school of Hindu philosophy. The management of the Krishna temple is run by heads of different Mutts, Pejawar being one of them, on rotational basis. When opposed by Hindu outfits for hurting the community sentiments, he accused them of disturbing the communal harmony in the region. The Ramakrishna missions have routinely celebrated Christmas within their precincts over the years and last year the Archbishop of Delhi, Anil Coute, had been invited to Christmas celebrations in RKM Delhi. It is interesting to note that the same Archbishop recently courted controversy by requesting all Catholic congregations to “pray for saving the secular fabric of the nation” in view of the “turbulent political atmosphere”, lending his voice to the anti-government ‘rising intolerance’ bogey. Such news is enthusiastically lapped up by our liberal media as the sign of tolerance that India is known for.

What merits our consideration is, whether such overtures by Hindu community leaders and religious heads with the professed aim of achieving communal harmony through goodwill gestures has resulted in significant rapprochement on ground, has it been reciprocated in equal measure by other communities and whether it serves the dhārmic cause, that of protecting India’s integrity as unit. Let me contend that it serves none of the objectives and instead has serious ramifications for Hindus in the country.

It leaves a majority of practicing Hindus confused and in many cases even vulnerable to proselytization, when they see their leaders talking peace against the overwhelming evidence of doctrinal hatred unleashed against them by adherents of monotheistic faiths. Such gestures are hardly ever reciprocated by other communities and one never sees Diwali celebrations within mosques or Krishna Janmashtami celebrations under the auspices of the Church.

Krishna dressed in Santa clothes on Christmas in a temple in Sreenivaspuri, Delhi

Such token gestures as Iftaar feasts and Christmas celebrations within temple premises can also be used by proselytizers, ever willing to appropriate symbols of Hindu faith, by propagating a false Christ as Krishna myth. Lastly, and most importantly, the sanctity of temples is undermined by inserting such corruptions of practice. For a devout Hindu, temples represent more than a structure of concrete and stone with a lifeless idol standing in the sanctum. They are embodiments of divine principles on a physical plane and the physical form of a deity, i.e. vigraha assumes a life of its own after the ritual of prāna-pratishthā. From then on, the role of the priest is to create the right environment to facilitate personal communion between the worshipper and the worshipped. At an intimate level every devotee feels as if the deity belongs to him and this personal relationship with the divine is a hallmark of Hindu faith. Every aspect of the associated rituals and even the temple architecture is designed to bring about a shift in the consciousness of the seekers. Any attempt to dilute or undermine this, even by priestly class is akin to invading the sacred space of the devout. Feelings of devotees cannot be subordinated to political or ideological bias of priests and temples are not places to make political statements or implement communal outreach programs by enthusiastic religious leaders. The job of a purohita, pontiff or a renunciate is not just to strive for his own spiritual development but also to serve as the bridge between divine and the ordinary, between spiritual and the temporal. Their first responsibility is to uphold dhārmic values, preserve authentic tradition and make the teachings of faith accessible to seekers. This is one of the key reasons why there is a growing opposition to appointment of Muslims and Christians to Hindu temple management boards.

Christian and Muslims community leaders display an ideological rootedness and doctrinal confidence, often bordering on fanaticism, making good use of the theodiversity that Hinduism allows for their own benefits. Their Hindu counterparts on the contrary, betray a poor understanding of history of interfaith conflicts which has marred India for the last millennium, and the supervening power-play between proselytizing and non-proselytizing faiths. Their sheer negligence of purva-paksha about their ideological opponents has given rise to ‘all religions-are-equal’ and ‘all religions-teach-love’ kind of myths. Needless to say, Hindus can ill afford such vague and vacuous expressions of their religious beliefs.

The fabric of tolerance between communities, woven around tokenism of this sort is sure to unravel fast and cannot withstand even the slightest of friction, which is bound to occur in diverse, multi-faith societies like ours. Lasting peace between communities can only be achieved through a long and often arduous process of dialogue, criticism and corrections. For this, reliance on a pragmatic intellectual approach towards inter-religious exchanges between representatives of communities who are capable of rational, fact-based interlocution, is likelier to achieve communal amity instead of sentiment-laced rhetoric or tokenism often employed by religious leaders.

Cover Picture: An Indian Hindu Sadhu performs puja with Muslims during Eid-ul-Fitr prayers at Jalori Gate in Jodhpur (Source: HuffPOst)

Author: Ankit Sharma

Published: June 16, 2018

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