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Over the last four decades or so India has ended up lending a unique flavour to the Islamic observance of Ramzan fasting. While collective fastbreaking is customary among Muslims, non-Muslims laying out an if t a rspread to Muslims is a uniquely Indian practice, and quite a novelty at that too. So novel, in fact, that it's gone viral across the globe with even the President of the United States now hosting a lavish iftar at the White House.
The Indian tradition of an if t a rparty hosted by a politician has now acquired so much cachet that it is a routine fixture found on the official social calendars of our president, prime minister, most chief ministers and many governors. Hundreds across the nation now plan for and throw iftar bashes (and that's counting only the 'big' dos, with public dignitaries in attendance) in the Islamic lunar month that has a maximum of just thirty days. Logically, there's a big rush for suitable dates. In the event of clashing iftars, the potential host's power and clout equations immediately kick in. And quite like many of our rather frequent Bollywood award functions, where the same old faces and identical itineraries render most rather stale, no one wants to miss too many if t a rparties either.
There's also a widely accepted template. Crisp white kurta - pyjama sand Muslim skull caps are found in plenty at all parties, while the menu would almost always showcase some mughlai cuisine, and desserts would include firni or shahi tukras. But these are not rigid. There have even been pure vegetarian iftar parties, like when Vishnu Kant Shastri was in the Lucknow Raj Bhavan, for instance.
However, most crowding the tables this ramzan may not know that the first ever 'official' if t a r was probably unintentional in some ways and the fallout from a political exigency. Back in 1974, H N Bahuguna had just become the chief minister of UP and had to deal with a big sectarian clash in Lucknow between Shias and Sunnis. Such election riots were customary back then and probably originated in a famous clash - during local polls - between Syed Ali Zaheer (a Shia barrister with the Congress) and Chaudhary Khaliquzzama (a Sunni taluqedar with the Muslim League) in the 1930s, which required the CM's intervention, and began a trend of such clashes that lasted well into the 70s.
Bahuguna too wanted to successfully broker a truce between Lucknow's Shia and Sunni leaders. However, Ashraf Hussain, the fiery Shia leader, was not amenable to the terms of the settlement proposed. The highly temperamental Hussain refused to meet the CM on the pretext that he was observing the ramzan fast. Bahuguna, known for coming up with many a wise stratagem, offered to break his fast with him.
Hussain found it hard to deny the offer. But then organising the eatables for that iftar became a pressing concern. One Abbass, who was the city magistrate of Lucknow and also happened to hold charge of the Hussainabad and Allied trusts (the erstwhile royal endowment trusts of Awadh) was called to arrange the if t a r items from the royal kitchens, which routinely held free iftars for the needy. This impromptu Bahuguna iftar had fruits, sharbat, sheermal, kababs and Lucknowi biryani. Later on Bahuguna held another, better structured iftar at his official residence, a practice he adopted after that day.
And then, in the initial months of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi sacked Bahuguna but picked up the if t a rcustom and quickly used his Lucknow-specific initiative to assuage aggrieved Delhi Muslims by throwing an iftar party for many who had suffered police excesses at Turkman Gate during one of Sanjay Gandhi's infamous anti-encroachment drives. The rest, as they say, is history - of loyal Congressmen religiously following this tradition year after year.
Like namaaz, iftar too showcases the basic Islamic feature of equality. Ostensibly, anyone can sit and eat with anyone else, so seating is evenly arranged to denote such Islamic egalitarianism. As Iqbal famously wrote: Ek hi saf mein khade ho gaye mehmood-o-ayaaz/ na koi banda raha aur na koi banda nawaz ( while offering namaaz, Sultan Mehmood and his slave Ayaaz stood shoulder to shoulder in the samerow / removed wast distinction between them as terand the slave ). But official status supersedes the basic etiquettes of if t a r many a time --as it has in the past in many well-known instances, and continues to do so at functions today too. But being a Congress invention, the if t a rculture remained exclusive to Congress circles for a long time. Other parties or political leaders did not really host any. It was only when they came to power at variousl levels that they began to pick up the custom from official social calendars. To stick with UP, the iftar party's birthplace, one candidly remembers Mayawati's first public iftar some years ago. Nadeem Mazhar, then a BSP activist, introduced 'behanji' to iftar culture. Unlike the usually elitist composition of guests at iftar gatherings at Lucknow's Hotel Gulmarg, that event was austere and largely attended by more common folk. It was quite refreshing. But the tokenism inherent in our political iftar parties is still mostly an elitist affair, sadly. Nevertheless, Muslims across the nation do see these overtures as significant statements on Indian secularism. Some do shun it though, and are often quickly seen as unkindly disposed to Muslim sentiments. Narendra Modi is a good example.
The writer is a Mumbai - based lawyer and commentator.
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