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Secular tightrope

Editorial |

It is rather unfortunate that many people learnt of the President’s bold decision not to host at taxpayer’s expense any religious function at Rashtrapati Bhawan ~ to further the nation’s secular character ~ only when it became public knowledge that there would be no iftar at the crest of Raisina Hill this Ramzan.

True that Diwali was marked only by illuminating the edifice with LED bulbs to send out a power-saving signal, the choral festival at Christmas had been dispensed with, but since the Muslim community is particularly sensitive, Mr Ram Nath Kovind’s doing away with the practice of a Presidential iftar could arouse some misgivings.

It might even be perceived, incorrectly perhaps, as keeping in step with Mr Narendra Modi’s staying away from such festivities these past four years. A section of Muslim clerics might actually endorse the President’s decision, the rash of “iftar parties” as they had been popularly termed, had detracted from the sanctity of the breaking of the daylong fast; events had degenerated into a curious blend of political socialising.

A fierce competition had developed into who hosted the most elaborate iftar and social-climbers listed the number of invitations they received as a skewed kind of “sensex”. Yet traditions run strong in Indian society and it remains a moot point if Rashtrapati Bhawan should effectively alert people about changes in “standard” practices like not hosting iftars ~ it would avert unhealthy speculation, perhaps even avoid the kind of unpleasantness that marked the abbreviated format of the ceremony at which the National Film Awards are presented. A key factor will be whether the political establishment will emulate the President, or if it will trigger even greater efforts to win Muslim favour using the iftar route.

In the process has been re-raised the vexing question of whether “secularism” means the government shunning all religious activity or maintaining equal distance from each denomination. The Christian community did not take kindly to the doing away with the choral festival last year, different choirs had practised hard to give of their best before the nation’s fist citizen: many “regulars” recalled how the granddaughter of one President had enriched the evening with her piano-rendition of the classic Whispering Hope.

Where will the line be drawn: will schoolgirls no longer be welcome at Rashtrapati Bhawan to tie a rakhi on the President’s wrist and seek his protection? Will the Ramlila festivities no longer witness the President releasing the ceremonial arrow to ignite Ravana’s effigy? Or will Gandhiji’s favourite hymn Abide With Me be deleted from the “score” at Beating Retreat?

The former President has just re-stressed the composite culture of India: Mr Kovind is certainly entitled to his own interpretation of what India comprises, but when walking the secular tightrope he must avoid inadvertently offending any section of the national mosaic.