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State-funded iftar stirs debate

President Pranab Mukherjee speaks during the iftar hosted by him at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Wednesday. (PTI)

New Delhi, July 17: President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had stopped the annual iftarsthat Rashtrapati Bhavan organised with public funds, the only religion-based dinner hosted by the country's highest constitutional authority.

But his successor Pratibha Patil revived them in 2007, and political heavyweights resumed making a beeline for the Raisina Hill mansion on the appointed evening, with the much-commented exception of Prime Minister Narendra Modi these past two years.

Several prominent Muslims The Telegraph spoke to, however, disagreed with the practice of Rashtrapati Bhavan, now occupied by Pranab Mukherjee, hosting iftars, questioning the event's state funding and decrying its "political" nature and "vulgar abuse of the sanctity of religion".

Historian S. Irfan Habib objected to state funding of the event. "Promoting it as a private function is an individual's right but why should the state fund it?" he said.

"These events are nothing but a flaunting of power. What we see now are competitive iftars. The Muslims who attend usually do so in regular clothes but it is others who come wearing skullcaps and Arab dresses like it's a performance."

Rashtrapati Bhavan officials weren't sure which President began hosting these dinners but the arrangement is believed to have been in place since the latter half of the 1980s, with a five-year break during Kalam's incumbency.

"There is no other (religious) festival where the President hosts an iftar-like dinner although all festivals are celebrated at Rashtrapati Bhavan," the President's press secretary, Venu Rajamony, confirmed to this newspaper.

"We organise a performance of Christmas carols to which dignitaries are invited. On Diwali, there is a food festival by the Rashtrapati Bhavan community."

Gujarat businessman Zafar Sareshwala, a vocal Modi supporter and now chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, defended the Prime Minister for missing Wednesday's iftarat Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Senior ministers Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley had attended the iftarbut Modi could not because he was meeting chief ministers from the Northeast - an event boycotted by five of the region's eight chief ministers. Last year, Modi had an engagement in Mumbai when Rashtrapati Bhavan hosted the iftar.

Sareshwala, however, said that a line should be drawn against "political" iftars.

"It is a vulgar abuse of the sanctity of religion. Roza (fasting) is the ultimate act of piety because, unlike the namaz or the Haj pilgrimage, it is not seen by others. I'm not against the state supporting religious functions, but disguising politics as an act of piety is wrong," he told this newspaper.

The iftarmarks Muslims' breaking of their daylong fast during the holy month of Ramazan, but those hosted by political parties or holders of high office also draw crowds of non-fasting or non-Muslim politicians, journalists and lobbyists, who often turn out in a skullcap or a keffiyeh.

These iftarsmake news for the political connotations of who attends whose iftar and who chooses not to - as evidenced by the buzz over Modi's absence from Rashtrapati Bhavan on Wednesday evening.

Syed Tariq Bukhari, general secretary of the advisory council of the Jama Masjid here, echoed Sareshwala.

"The rozedar (person who fasts) is not important here, the news is always political. The political importance of these parties had reduced in the last couple of years but this year we have seen an increase in political iftars," he said.

"People only care about whether Mulayam Yadav or Lalu (Prasad) attends Sonia Gandhi's iftar. Not a single prominent Muslim will even find mention."

The "political" iftarswere steeped in symbolism from the beginning.

It was then Uttar Pradesh chief minister H.N. Bahuguna who began the trend in 1973, old-timers said. He would invite prominent Muslims of Lucknow to break their fast at his residence.

Before him, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had hosted private iftarsat the Congress headquarters.

Indira Gandhi adopted the practice after returning to power in 1980 to attract the minorities back to the Congress. It was also a diplomatic tool to counter Pakistani propaganda that Muslims were suppressed in India. The ambassadors of Muslim-majority countries were always on the guest list.

From Indira to Manmohan Singh, all the Prime Ministers -including Atal Bihari Vajpayee - hosted iftarseither at the Primer Minister's official residence or at Hyderabad House. Modi has been the first exception.

According to protocol, Rashtrapati Bhavan checks with the offices of prominent invitees such as the Prime Minister, Vice-President and the leader of the Opposition as well as the embassies of prominent Muslim-majority countries before scheduling its iftar.

Kalam broke with the tradition, directing that the funds that would have been spent on the iftarbe donated to orphanages.

Sareshwala mooted another example: "It's better to have iftarslike the (one hosted by the) US consulate in Mumbai, which calls children from the Bharat Nagar slum opposite its compound."

But Modi's absence from Wednesday's event found critics, too. One of them was Sudheendra Kulkarni, former BJP member and one-time officer on special duty to Prime Minister Vajpayee.

Kulkarni also appeared to be taking a jab at the argument that official institutions in a secular country should not be organising - and its leaders should not be seen at - religious events.

"Home Min Rajnath Singh attended Kumbh at Nashik yday," Kulkarni tweeted on Wednesday.

"BJP shd explain why?.. We are happy when the White House celebrates Diwali. We are not happy when Rashtrapati Bhavan hosts iftar."

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