The way to a man's heart, they say, is through the stomach. The best way to keeping a nation's heart healthy is also – sort of – through the stomach. As long as people invite each other to a meal in a civilised fashion, there is hope that their politics will remain civilised. The tradition of iftaar parties in the month of Ramzan, hosted by political leaders and prominent office bearers such as the President of India has been part of an attempt to enact this civility.
The most important iftaars are not hosted by Muslim leaders. They are hosted by those who neither observe Ramzan, nor celebrate Eid in their own homes. By hosting an iftaar, they merely indicate that they are mindful of Muslim citizens, that they are willing to share in their joys. The unspoken implication is that their sorrows and fears will not be dismissed.
White Cap Symbolism
Some politicians put on a white cap, often associated with Muslim men, or a checkered scarf for that one evening and there has been criticism of such symbolism. After all, if you are not going to make the socio-political environment any safer for the minorities, why bother with caps? Even so, the wearing of the cap and scarf signals that the wearer is willing to listen, that he is willing to imagine the grief and loss caused through political (in)action. It signals that he counts diverse threads in the warp and weft of the fabric of his motherland.
When a political party, elected leaders or the President refuse to host an iftaar, they signal the opposite. The message that goes out is: We don't care; you are irrelevant.
When a leader is happy to be photographed in every sort of headgear with the sole exception of a white cap associated with Indian Muslims, a message goes out: You will be isolated and rejected.
And when senior ministers fail to show up at an iftaar hosted by our First Citizen, the signal that goes out is: You will be dishonoured.
In contrast, politicians invite themselves over to the homes of Dalit citizens. Food and caste taboos remain strong in our nation and despite legislation forbidding discrimination, we continue to hear of upper castes refusing to eat food cooked by Dalits, or refusing to use the same plates and glasses. Eating a meal cooked by Dalits is a way of signalling: I reject caste taboos.
Bringing along food packets, or food that the unsuspecting host cannot really afford to provide, to the home of a Dalit, so that cameras can duly record the meal, is an insult.
Still, the trick is played because it is worth playing. The signal that goes out is: We will make efforts to keep Dalits on our side, even if we do not disrupt caste hierarchies.
Political symbolism is not empty of consequence. When, instead of being content with not eating meat or eggs themselves, our leaders insist on serving only vegetarian fare at official dinners (hosted at taxpayer expense) they’re sending out a signal that they will control what other people eat, regardless of democratic norms or the will of the majority, which is largely meat-eating.
Dinner diplomacy is daily business for those who meet representatives of other nations, businesses and their own party workers. Whether they want to or not, they deal with differences of culture, food, dress, even of faith. Parties like the BJP, widely perceived to be pushing a majoritarian agenda, do have Muslim or Christian members, after all. And for a party as rich as this, it is no great burden to host one iftaar. To do so would signal mutual respect. At the very least, it would be a polite nod at peaceful coexistence.
In rejecting iftaars altogether, our current leadership is sending out the worrying signal that does not believe in the possibility of friendship and peace. Differences that cannot be observed, cannot be celebrated, cannot be worn on your sleeve and on your head, can only be reduced to sharp points of pain. Each of us knows what pain and rejection do to the heart. We must be careful with the heart of the nation.
(Annie Zaidi is a playwright, short filmmaker, writer and documentary filmmaker. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)