Iftar boycott by Modi and his ministers makes a mockery of President's office

The message is: even the President's office is not to be kept above the narrow considerations of the politics of religious partisanship.

 |  4-minute read |   24-06-2017
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What's the point of debating the merits and demerits of presidential nominees when a government's actions don't show basic respect for the office of the President of India?

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may elect a Dalit, a very competent and honourable individual to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, but to what end if the government shows scant respect to the institution of the President? By virtually boycotting the Iftar hosted by the President Pranab Mukherjee, the prime minister and the council of ministers have sent a blunt message.

That even the President's office is not to be kept above the narrow considerations of the politics of religious partisanship.

Friday, June 24 was the last Iftar the incumbent President hosted. He would demit the office next month. It was the last but one day before the festival of Eid. Surely, the government and its ministers were aware of the solemnity of the occasion even if one concedes that such events are largely symbolic in nature.

Let's assume the government has a policy to keep a distance from events that have religious symbolism. Let's also assume the government considers hosting of Iftar by non-Muslims or anybody holding a Constitutional office an event of religious aggrandisement. Or as the BJP has been wont to say a mark of "pseudo-secularism".

If that is so, the government must declare it has a stated policy as such. It must declare that no minister or person holding office in the government will hold or participate in any event that is identified with a community; any religious event that even remotely suggests an association with a community.

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In the absence of such a stated policy, one must conclude that the government has an unstated policy of disassociating itself from religious occasions and festivals that are identified with Muslims and Muslims only. For Modi has, on occasion, attended events associated with Hindus and even Christians.

On his first visit to his constituency, Varanasi on May 26, 2014 after the Lok Sabha election, Modi participated in the Ganga Aarti. In October 2016, the prime minister participated in the Vijayadashmi celebration at Lucknow, an event imbued with religious symbolism.

On April 2, 2016, PM Modi addressed a gathering of Christians at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi to celebrate the elevation of two beatified members, Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia of the church to sainthood. One may argue with the reasonable acceptance that neither the Ganga Aarti nor Dussehra is an exclusively religious event. Obeisance to river Ganga, one may argue, is a celebration of nature.

One may reason with equal force that prime ministers have traditionally participated in Dussehra that celebrates the victory of good over evil. One may even stretch one's imagination to reason that the elevation of two beatified members of the church to sainthood has an element of internationalism.

By the same token, an Iftar has come to be celebrated as a community event after breaking of fast during the month of Ramzan. Non-Muslims hold Iftar meals to send a message of the communitarian nature of our society. It's true that hosting of Iftar parties has acquired its own character. Some may argue that it has become a fad that individuals in high positions in the government and those holding Constitutional offices could do without.

That's a choice to be made by an individual. However, in the time of growing religious intolerance, any event that brings the people of different communities together in a convivial atmosphere needs to be encouraged and celebrated. Most importantly, the outgoing president, Pranab Mukherjee hasn't broken with tradition to host Iftar at the President's House. He was merely observing a tradition.

This is the first time the Iftar at Rashtrapati Bhawan went about without any participation from a member of the Cabinet and the BJP. PM Modi has never held Iftar as chief minster and as prime minister but his ministers have regularly attended Iftars.

Minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who was present at the Rashtrapati Bhawan Iftar last year, has offered a lame excuse for his absence. He told The Indian Express, "I was about to go but exactly at that time, a CCPA meeting was convened. It was an urgent meeting that could not be missed. The meeting started at 6.30 pm and continued till 7.30-8 pm."

One can safely conclude it was a boycott and a boycott at the instructions of the higher-ups in the government and the BJP. That shows the Modi government's unabashed disregard for the office of the president, which is an essential and the highest constitutional organ of the State.

Perhaps, it is a commentary on the times we live in. United States president Donald Trump has broken with the over 20-year-old tradition at the White House. The White House didn't host an Iftar dinner for the first time since Hillary Clinton as first lady of the United States started the tradition in 1996.

Perhaps, Modi and Trump can hold powwow on the significance of doing away with Iftar when they meet on June 26.

Also read: Virat Kohli must take blame for Team India coach Anil Kumble retiring 'hurt'

Writer

Ashok K Singh Ashok K Singh @kashoksingh

He is a journalist, writer and commentator.

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