As about 80 people talk among themselves in a large, old hall on the third floor of Lucknow Municipal Corporation building, which usually hosts LMC meetings, a bearded man in a white kurta and pyjamas goes on the dais. At 10 minutes to 7 pm Tuesday, he picks up the mike and invites clerics and the organisers to the small stage.
The event is an iftar party by Muslim Rashtriya Manch, a wing of the RSS.
On the wall behind the man in the beard is a small tri-colour hoarding of MRM. “Aapka tahedil se istaqbal (We welcome you from the bottom of our hearts),” it reads. “Taalim, tehzeeb, tarraqi (Education, etiquette, development)”, and “Hum watan se, tehzeeb se wa abaao ajdad se ek the, ek hain aur ek he rahenge (We are one from nation, culture and ancestor, and will remain one).”
Maulana Syed Hamid Ali, a resident of Lucknow and a Shia cleric, is the first to be invited. He takes his seat after carefully lifting his flowing robe. He is joined by another cleric, who appears to be in his thirties and is wearing a black turban and a black sherwani, and three other organisers.
One by one, the clerics chant prayers and speak of communal harmony: “This is Hindustan, and before Hindus or Muslims, we are humans,” says the cleric in the black sherwani. The audience sit on chairs facing the stage while a few organisers, both Hindu and Muslim, help with the arrangements and hand out disposable plates, each with a date (traditional in an iftar), a banana, two namkeen matris, a samosa and a sweet. On the left flank of the stage, near the entrance, are the seating arrangements for journalists.
At about five minutes past 7 pm, one of those seated informs the rest that it is time to break the fast, and Sunni Muslims and Hindus start eating from their plates, laid out on the wide wooden tables in front of them, as others pour water and bottled mango juice in their plastic glasses. There is a difference of about 10 minutes between the iftar time of Sunnis and Shias. So Mahirajdhwaj Singh, senior RSS pracharak and national co-convener of MRM, takes to the stage “to fill this space” and starts a speech on communal harmony: “This is not a political gathering, it is a roohani (spiritual) congregation,” he says, and calls for unity among religions.
At 7:15 pm, the Shias too break their fast. Bharat, an organiser, says they invited 200 people and arranged as many plates but only 130 plates have been handed out. The Muslims then start offering prayers on white sheets spread in the space between the dais and the chairs, as many of the others start to leave. Tushar Kant, another organiser, says that about 40 them were Hindus.
Awdhesh Singh, 40, sitting with a tilak on his forehead, says he is a “regular” to MRM events. “The aim is to be able to see the human in one another,” he says. Saurabh Rai, 23, sees it as a social cause to help the needy. “I like the Salman Khan concept, rather than go around thanking people, go help three people,” he says, though the ones who have attended are mostly associated with MRM.
Anees, a software engineer and also one of the organisers, says that such an iftar was organised for the first time in Lucknow and it was an attempt “to bridge the religious differences created by some”. Maulana Syed Hamid Ali says that “all religions preach peace, it is just we who distort it into all sorts of hatred”.
Within minutes, the large hall is empty. “It is just a start,” says Mahirajdhwaj Singh.