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Photo Essay: Iftar Hosted By Ankit Saxena’s Father

Events like this Iftar party are a reminder to the ruling regime that perhaps this new idea of India as Hindu Rashtra will not work.

In June 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his central ministers and BJP leaders, in a shocking disregard for the office of President of India, boycotted the Iftar party organised by then-President Pranab Mukherjee.

The same year, US President Donald Trump celebrated Diwali in the Oval House, a tradition originally started by Barack Obama to “reaffirm that Indian-Americans and Hindu-Americans are truly cherished, treasured and beloved members of the American family.”

Inclusivity is a good thing. It is good to have a Christian majority country celebrate or participate in a Hindu festival, and a Hindu majority country doing the same for Muslim festivals. Traditionally, Iftar dinners organised by political leaders and government functionaries in India have been seen as a symbol of solidarity to spread the feeling of inclusiveness, especially among the Muslim community.  But, the BJP government has no intention of being inclusive.

The news that this year, there will be no Iftar party at the Rashtrapati Bhavan has just surfaced. President Kovind, the BJP’s chosen candidate with an RSS background and a Dalit card, which was repeatedly played by Prime Minister Modi during Karnataka election campaign, has decided to tow in line with the right-wing ideology of the ruling party and discard the kind gesture of love, solidarity and inclusivity.

So, the President discards Iftar and the PM boycotts it (but participates in Ganga Arti and Vijayadashami), BJP’s star chief minister says, “I am proud Hindu and I don’t celebrate Eid” but spends taxpayers’ money in celebrating Holi. The message is clear i.e. for the BJP government, Hinduism is the official religion even though as per the Constitution, the government should not have any religious affiliations or biases and for them, Muslims have no place in the national narrative.

It is hard to tell why BJP hates Muslims so much. One assumption is that they do so in the hope that Hindus, who constitute 80 per cent of India will feel good about this appeasement and en masse vote for them. What is not hard to tell though is who could possibly have valid reasons to hate Muslims. Somebody whose only son, all of twenty-one-year-old, was killed by a Muslim family for daring to love their daughter, Yashpal Saxena.

But far from hating them, this Sunday, Yashpal Saxena father of Ankit Saxena organised an Iftar dinner for the Muslim community in his neighbourhood. A crowd of about 250-300 people from all faith gathered in the narrow lane of Raghuvir Nagar, Tagore Garden to break the bread and pray together, and give a message of communal love and harmony to those who think interfaith love is either haram or love jihad. A message that no matter how much hate is normalised and legitimised by official government communications and gestures, ordinary people of India will always find love for each other.

Photo 1 A Muslim neighbour of the Saxena family wipes his tears as he breaks down in front of Yashpal Saxena during the Iftar

Photo 2 Mr Yashpal Saxena speaking to the media

Photo 3 Civil society members gathered at the narrow lane of Raghubir Nagar to be part of the Iftar

Photo 4 Civil society members gathered at the narrow lane of Raghubir Nagar to be part of the Iftar

The event saw the coming together of several civil society members who all have their own stories of struggle, persecution and resistance with a common message of peace and harmony, of humanity over religion.

Dr Kafeel Khan came all the way from Gorakhpur to extend his solidarity with the Saxena family. “I feel honored that the family has invited me to be part of this, they (government) tried to keep me in jail, break my spirit, but together, we will keep showing them that we are not Hindus or Muslims but humans first,” he told the media.

Photo 5 Dr Kafeel greets Yashpal Saxena with a warm hug

Photo 6 Dr Kafeel Khan holds Yashpal Saxena as he wipes his tears 

In the wake of the Gorakhpur hospital tragedy, in which over 60 children died due to lack of oxygen supply, Khan was first hailed as a hero by parents of children whose lives he had saved, but soon he was arrested by UP police on grounds of corruption, criminal conspiracy, and breach of trust. He suffered about eight months of incarceration before being granted bail by Allahabad High Court, which observed that “there existed no material on record to establish charges of medical negligence against Dr. Khan individually.” In a recent talk in JNU Dr Khan revealed that when the UP chief minister visited the hospital after the tragedy, he looked at Dr Khan and said, “You think by arranging cylinders you’d become a hero? I will see to it,” and the rest Dr Khan says is history.

There was Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, the former editor of Economic and Political Weekly, who purportedly quit from his position after he was asked to take down a story on alleged tax evasion by the Adani group. Although EPW maintained that there was no such external pressure on him to quit, the incident has been interpreted as a sign of how cronyism rules in Modi’s India.

Photo 7 Paranjoy Guha Thakurta with his wife

Activist and former bureaucrat Harsh Mander has been working for minority rights since the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. Last year, he started theKarwan E Mohabbat, a caravan of love, a team of civil society members on a nationwide journey to meet victims of hate crime. Hindutva groups alleged that Mander was selective and didn’t visit Hindu families who had faced communal violence. The truth, however, is that Mander has been visiting the Saxena family and providing them support and team Karwan has also visited many Hindu families.

Photo 8 A media person jostles for space and struggles to capture an image of Harsh Mander attending Iftar.

A fundraising campaign was run to cover Iftar expenses, which managed to raise more than 4.5 lakh. Volunteers from various groups and organizations helped run the event smoothly on the ground. Ankit’s cousin and childhood friends distributed fruits, sherbet and veg biryani wearing “Awara Boy” t-shirts, a name they have chosen for their group consisting of friends from all faith.

 

Photo 9 Childhood friends of Ankit Saxena, who go by the name “Awara Boys”, in absence of Ankit, these boys from all faith are the main strength of the old Saxena couple.

The biryani was prepared byZaika-E-Nizamuddin, an initiative for women empowerment by Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Advocate Anas Tanwir from #Iftar4All, a group consisting of both Hindu and Muslim volunteers, who previously organised Iftar near AIIMS and distributed over 400 packets of food also joined as a volunteer. Bilal Zaidi, founder of CrowdNewsing, one of India’s leading fundraising platform for social causes, has been regularly raising funds for the Saxena family, and was also present at the Iftar. Mohammed Aamir Khan, yet another innocent Muslim framed as a terrorist and incarcerated for 14 years and absolved of all charges only after he lost the most precious days of his life was also among the volunteers. Among other noted activists were RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj and Nadeem Khan of United Against Hate campaign.

Photo 10 A volunteer serving veg biryani by Zaika-e-Nizamuddin, an initiative by AKTCPhoto 11 Bilal Zaidi, Founder CrowdnewsingPhoto 12 Awara boys, Iftar For All, and several others from the neighbourhood doing the evening Namaz togetherPhoto 13 Md Aamir Khan, the man framed as a terrorist and kept in jail for 14 years holds Yashpal Saxena as he breaks down while remembering his son  (photo from a previous visit to the family)

With all these people coming together, it was a microcosm of the idea of India cherished and aspired for since independence — a community event organised by people of all faith to spread the message of love and peace among all faith. Off late this idea has been replaced by “Hindus wake up and unite” because “Hindus are in danger” and government must shun all the love and respect for Muslims and do more Hindu appeasement.  

Events like this Iftar party are a reminder to the ruling regime that perhaps this new idea of India as Hindu Rashtra will not work. In all likelihood, the majority of Hindus will not buy the politics of hate and not vote for BJP on Hindutva card alone as has already been shown in Kairana by-polls.

 

Sanjukta Basu is a freelance writer, photographer and women studies scholar, and a part of the Karwan E Mohabbat group. She writes on social marginalisation, minority rights  and women issues. All photos by Sanjukta Basu.

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