Prime Minister Narendra Modi skipped the iftar party hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhawan on Friday evening for the third consequtive year since becoming the Prime Minister. Earlier, as Gujarat Chief MIniister too, he did not host or attend iftar parties, saying that he does not believe in symbolism and mere tokenism. And tokenism is exactly what political iftar parties are all about.
Iftar was never meant to be an event of ostentation, intrigue, pomposity and gluttony. Sadly, that is what Indian politicians have turned it into with their ‘iftar parties’.
An ‘iftar party’ is a strange paradox that eludes most Indians. And that is why Indian politicians host them to reaffirm their secular and liberal credentials. Come Ramzan, politicians of all hues – and now, even the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sang – compete with each other to host these parties where prominent Muslims, including senior clerics, and a host of politicians, celebrities, bureaucrats and glitterati gorge on biryani, kebabs and a host of other mouth-watering delicacies.
More often than not, such parties are venues for political wheeling-dealings. More so in times of political uncertainties and in Lutyens Delhi where conspiracies are abound. The guest lists at iftar parties, the attires of the guests, who turn up and who doesn’t, who is seen talking to whom and who is snubbing who, the seating arrangements and the spread – all these and more are spoken and written about, analysed and make the stuff of gossip.
And at best, iftar parties are nothing but tokenism.
“At the end of the day, how do iftar parties benefit Muslims? Politicians use the occasion of Ramadan in a very sinister and superficial manner to express their solidarity with the Muslim community. But it is mere tokenism. A delicious meal served to clerics and prominent members of the community does not in any way benefit the ordinary Muslim. Politicians ought to concentrate on substantive issues and tackle poverty and issues like unemployment that afflict the majority of the Muslims, as well as, of course, other communities as well,” said Imran Siddique, a prominent neurosurgeon from Kolkata who writes regularly on community issues in Akhbar-E-Mashrique, an influential Urdu newspaper published from Kolkata.
But more important than all this is the fact that iftar parties go against the spirit of Ramzan, which is a month of fasting, abstinence, piety, charity and devotion by Muslims to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad.
“Muslims have to pray, exercise self-restraint, be charitable, pious, devout and fast during Ramadan. The day-long fast is broken with an iftar of dates, fruits, juices and lightly battered fries. An iftar is never a heavy meal of biryanis, kebabs and other delicacies,” said Syed Mohammad Noorur Rehman Barkati, the shahi imam of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan Masjid.
Mohammad Shafique Qasmi, the Imam of Nakhoda Masjid, the principal mosque in Kolkata, holds that iftars ought to be simple affairs with people praying. “Feasting and Ramadan don’t go together. Ramadan is a month of abstinence. The iftar that comes at the end of the fast is a simple affair comprising dates and fruits and a lot of prayers and introspection. Making iftar into a party which implies celebration and feasting is totally un-Islamic,” he said.
Barkati and Qasmi are backed by doctors and nutritionists.
Gorging on food, especially oily and spicy food like biryanis, meat curries and kebabs, after a day-long fast is bad for the body, they say.
Sveta Bhassin, nutrition lecturer at Intellectual Fitness & Sports Academy in Mumbai says that feasting after a day-long fast can be hugely damaging to the body and the effect of such feasting may not be felt immediately, except for that slight sense of discomfort that is a result of overeating.
A calorie-rich meal after fasting often sends the body into a state of shock where it doesn’t really break the food for energy but stores it. The obvious result is weight gain.
Bhassin’s advice for those observing ‘roza’ (fasting) is to eat no more than two or three dishes in small quantities and break the fast by drinking water and juices to rehydrate the body followed by a few soaked dates that provides instant energy and also revs the system.
“This is usually followed by a simple meal of tehri or dal and chapatti which will sustain us till suhur. Iftar, though an open invitation to friends, was a family affair and never lavish. Spices were kept to the minimum and food that nourished and prepared the body for the intense fasting was carefully chosen. The only indulgence was fruits,” he said.
“This is exactly how Muslims all over the world break their fast with iftar. A few dates, slices of seasonal fruits, and, at the most, a few lightly-battered fries are what we have. It is only later on in the evening that a light meal of chapattis or rice with mildly-spiced meat dishes and vegetables is consumed,” said Iftekhar Hussain Baig, a general physician at the Islamia Hospital in Kolkata.
Islamic texts and widely-regarded Islamic websites, too, recommend that iftar should be a simple meal where family members and relatives sit around and break their fast and should be accompanied by prayers and introspection. “Nowhere is it recommended that iftar should be a lavish, celebratory affair where large numbers of guests feast on delicacies. What happens at these iftar parties is quite un-Islamic and goes against the grain of Islam,” said Baig.
He adds: “The iftar parties that politicians host are actually bad for the health of those who observe roza. These parties end up by actually harming the health of Muslims!”
The origin of the ‘iftar party’ is a little unclear, but it is generally agreed that Indira Gandhi popularised the trend. Some say that in the first half of the 1970s, Inder Kumar Gujral, who was a minister in Indira’s cabinet, invited Mohammad Shafi Qureshi, who was then the junior railway minister, to his residence for a meal during Ramzan. Qureshi excused himself citing Ramzan, but Gujral suggested that Qureshi break his fast with a meal at his (Gujral’s) house. Qureshi accepted the offer, and that is how many believe the ‘iftar party’ was born.
Some argue that it was Jawaharlal Nehru who started hosting iftar parties at the Congress office on 7, Jantar Mantar Road, in New Delhi. But that used to be a small gathering of his Muslim colleagues in the ministry and some envoys of Muslim countries and was nowhere near the ostentation, intrigue, pomposity and gluttony that came to mark iftar parties hosted by his daughter, and later her son and then her ‘bahu’ Sonia Gandhi.
But many also credit former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna with hosting the first iftar party in 1974. Riots had broken out between Shias and Sunnis in Lucknow and Bahuguna, in a bid to broker peace, invited influential Shia leader Ashraf Hussain to his bungalow for a meal. Hussain refused on the ground that he was fasting. Bahuguna requested Hussain to break his fast with him and Hussain accepted the offer. This episode is said to have set the trend for political iftars in India.
Indira Gandhi, in a desperate bid to win over Muslims who were furious with her for the 1976 Turkman Gate demolitions and massacre and the forced sterilisations, started hosting iftar parties where she invited prominent Muslim clerics and members of the community. That didn’t help her, of course, and she lost the elections after she lifted the Emergency in 1977.
Morarji Desai, who succeeded Indira Gandhi, kept up with the new tradition. But some dispute this, holding that it was wily Chandra Sekhar who went many steps ahead of Indira Gandhi and made his iftar party a top event in Delhi’s social calendar. Since then, successive prime ministers have competed with each other to host this ‘un-Islamic’ event in a bid to woo followers of Islam and posit themselves as liberals. With the honourable exception of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, rightly, does not believe in tokenisms.
Many Muslims themselves are opposed to political iftar parties. This piece in the widely read Islamic Voice makes a strong case against political iftar parties. Many clerics have issued advisories and fatwas against political iftar parties. When H D Deve Gowda was prime minister, the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid sent out a strong signal against such parties hosted by politicians. But none of all this has ever stopped India’s perverse politicians from not only indulging in tokenism, but also violating the spirit of Ramzan and harming the physical well-being of Muslims by subjecting them to unhealthy foods in the name of secularism.
What is also forgotten here is the policy of being fair. If Nehru and his successors (including his exalted parivaar) have been hosting iftar parties, how about Diwali parties? Or Holi parties? Or Buddha Purnima parties? Or Mahavir Jayanti parties? Or Guru Nanak Jayanti parties? Or Christmas parties? Or Navroz parties? Why only iftar parties that, anyway, actually have adverse health effects on the Muslim guests?