Toughest Ramzan in decades: Fasting, but no feasting
With prices rising and frenzied mobs targeting Muslims across India, calling for stopping azaan and campaigns against hijab and halal—this is possibly the toughest Ramzan for Indian Muslims
Ramzan is normally the month of fasting and feasting, of camaraderie, of eating together, strengthening social bonding over interfaith iftar, and to take care of the needy and the poor. But these are not normal times, going by what we know as ‘normal’ in India.
As if the controversies over hijab, halal and non-vegetarian etc created before Ramzan were not enough, came the aggressive Hindutva mobs in the form of ‘shobha yatras’ brandishing swords and firearms, shouting provocative slogans while passing through Muslim ghettos in different states.
The average Muslim—just like any other average middle class and lower middle class Indian of any faith--was already struggling to bring the life back to track after two years of pandemic and lockdowns that saw small businesses and occupations destroyed. The rising prices and inflation made the struggle to make ends meet worse. Amidst all this, the government’s bulldozers snatched away shelter and livelihood from hundreds of Muslims, that too without any legal process.
Do you still wonder why the spirit of festivity is missing from Ramzan? In fact, the Muslims in India are having the toughest Ramzan of their lives in at least three decades. Team National Herald spoke with some of the Muslim families to know what they are going through:
Fearful in Lucknow: “Nothing has changed on the face of it. Even in establishments owned by Hindus arrangements have been made for Muslims to pray and break their fast. Shifts too have been rearranged to suit their convenience,” confides Shabi.
“But a bottle of Rooh Afzah now costs Rs 160 and lime and lemon prices have gone through the roof. Sherbets have become a luxury. Prices of fruits are also prohibitive and even the bananas now cost a packet. Watermelons alone are still affordable, selling between Rs 20 to 25 a Kilo. Dates are also more expensive than ever and only the well-off can afford premium quality dates selling between Rs. 1,200 to Rs. 1,500 per kg,” he says.
For the poorer people, the concern is to arrange the next meal and not how to break the fast. New clothes for Eid have also become a luxury. Even children have grown up beyond their years and have volunteered to do without new clothes, says Sameena.
But what hurts, says Munna Khan, is that unlike past years Hindu neighbours and friends have stopped the practice of sending fruits, snacks and savouries during Ramzan.
Iftars in Lucknow were attended by the likes of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lalji Tandon and Rajnath Singh, recalls Khan, while voicing his belief that the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Lucknow would survive and flourish.
For the present, Sameena is fearful of sending her children out unaccompanied by adults. And many Muslims now prefer to keep their skull caps in the pocket while going to the mosque to pray.
Prices pinch and stares hurt: In June 2017, a group of Muslims had their Iftar in the precincts of the Udupi Sri Krishna temple, which was built in the 13th century. Udupi is known as Mathura of the South.
Hosted by the Pejawar mutt seer Sri Vishvesha Theertha Swamiji (the pontiff passed away in December 2019) in the dining hall next to the temple, the “SouhardaUpahaara Koota’’ (harmony festival) did raise eyebrows but the liberal seer stood his ground.
In Karnataka, former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and former Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah are regulars in hosting Iftar parties whether in power or not. This time too Siddaramaiah hosted an Iftar party on April 15, which was attended by religious heads of all faiths. The only BJP chief minister to have hosted an Iftar is former CM BS Yeddyurappa way back in 2008.
But Ramzan has been different this year in Karnataka. An architect and an entrepreneur in the making, Heba Safwat misses her lime juice. She has seen prices of tomatoes and onions touching Rs 100 per kg, but never imagined lime would skyrocket to Rs 220 per kg.
“Never expected that a small lime would make such a difference in the budget of a middle-class family,’’ she said, adding, “We give sadqa (charity) during Ramzan to the deserving outside the family. But this year the practice has been limited to those deserving within the family with prices of groceries and essential commodities shooting up.”
She also found the camaraderie was lacking this time. “Hence, I was touched when I had to spend a day with my friend as we were working on a project. My friend’s mother woke up to prepare Sehri for me,’’ she added.
“I wear a hijab (headscarf) and when I walk on the road now, people keep staring at me. She was at a cafe recently for a project meeting. “At Iftar time, I broke my fast and started to pray and realised all eyes in the cafe were on me,’’ Heba recalled.
The Ummers cut cost: Mohammed Ummer, an Automotive Safety Consultant on most days hadfriends and relatives joining him for Iftar on the terrace of their house in Koramangala. Besides, the menfolk of are also going out for Taraweeh (special prayers in the night) after a gap of two years due to the lockdown.
Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru Dr Peter Machado attended the Iftar party hosted by Masjid-EMamoor in Koramangala on 19 April and in return he would be hosting one for the Muslim community most likely on 26, April.
Inflation, however, has dampened spirits. The ambulance driver of his NGO now uses local transport to reach the office. “Last year my NGO distributed 1,500 ration kits for the poor, which we cut down to 1,000 this year,” Ummer said.
Life is tough, Ramzan tougher: “We are struggling for one meal and even when we need medicines sometimes we have to ask neighbours to help us,” laments Tanveer Ahmad Ganai. He has his parents and his sister to take care of. Two other sisters are married. His father has Alzheimer’s and remains mostly at home. His mother and sister work as domestic helps.
With the cost of vegetables, rice and flour having sky-rocketed, “it is very difficult for us to survive in these conditions,” chips in his mother. Afroza walks 10 kilometres to reach the house she works in.
While Tanveer himself works at a band-saw machine, the total monthly income of the family is less than INR 5000/-. Ramzan this year, he admits, has been tougher than in the past.
No Azaan needed in Mira Road: The loved ones they lost to the pandemic and the current political climate have put a dampener on ‘Maah-e-Muqaddas’ (the holy month) this year, say the Syeds.
“Ramzan was always the month of joy and tranquility, but this time we keep hearing about various incidents across India targeting Muslims, we receive calls from our relatives and friends who narrate what’s happening in their localities, and it upsets us. The situation is much worse in the interiors, in rural areas, so most of the time we discuss these events and worry about the future,” says Saad Syed, an entrepreneur and social activist.
The Syeds have been living in Mira Road for the last 18 years. The town has a mixed population and there has never been any instance of communal clashes in the area.
“Many of my Hindu friends who never talked about religion have started taking interest in Islam, trying to understand it and are even participating in our festivals with us to show their solidarity. A few days earlier, we organised an iftar party at one of our mosques, expecting a few of our non-Muslim friends to join us. Against all expectations, over 70 people from various faiths turned up!” Syed says.
The same spirit of communal harmony is also seen throughout the day, when often one of Syed’s non-Muslim friends throws a casual reminder his way, saying, “Bhai, jaa, namaaz ka waqt ho gaya!” For this same reason, the Syeds, like many others, hardly need an azaan.
Kalyan is still an oasis: Ammar Kazi and family trace their origin to the Arabian merchants that landed in Mumbai in the 13th century. In his late forties Ammar is a businessman and philanthropist.
Rising prices have affected the poor. “Pockets of auto-rickshaw drivers are empty, and not just Muslims but all communities have been hit hard. Festivals like Holi and Gudi Padwa too have been affected,” added Kazi.
Friends lost over religious difference: It is Ramzan time alright, but it is not much the same as before for the Munshi family. Residents of Nerul in Navi Mumbai, there is much to think about for the Munshis - Sameera and her husband Khalid, these days.
"The reason for us to pause is to think about things that are happening around us. The hate being spread all around and the division it has caused even among our own friend circle, " The couple says, comes from the vehement hate that is being peddled around on social media, which has even prompted many of their friends from the community to relocate to another country.
Journalist Sameera Kapoor Munshi and her movie channel promo-producer husband Khalid, say they are lucky to live in a housing society where the understanding among people toward the Muslim community is much better. However, the same cannot be said of other family members residing in other localities of Navi Mumbai, where there is resentment against the community. At Sanpada for instance, there is major opposition to the allotment of land by CIDCO to construct a mosque. The opposition has gained momentum recently once again becoming a talking point amongst the community while breaking the fast.
“Of late the spreading of hate among childhood friends or school groups has also increased and is further increasing. That is what bothers us,” says Khalid who is a silent observer of the chatter on some WhatsApp groups. He prefers to stay silent to try and understand the psyche of people saying things that are unparliamentary and undignified.
One of the pillars of Islam, zakaat is a form of obligatory charity that is believed to have the potential to ease the suffering of millions.
“This time we find that while the number of people in need has definitely gone up manifold, the inability of many to give has also increased due to a variety of factors, including the pandemic, that has played out over time,” says Sameera. However, on the positive side, there are those friends of the Munshis from other communities who are eagerly waiting to be invited over iftar and Eid.
Joy eclipsed by communal tension: A young Adnan Khan, like many others in his community, was elated on sighting the moon of Ramzan. But the joy did not last long. “For the past two years Ramzan and Eid were observed amid severe Covid restrictions. So, as soon as the moon was sighted, the masjids started teeming with people,” recalled Adnan.
“Just then, a shobha yatra of Hindus approached. Hundreds of youth were dancing to loud music and raising slogans right in front of the mosque. Many of them were known faces. They played cricket with us. But today they looked different as they violently waved Bhagwa flags and chanted slogans. Navratras had started, someone told me. But nobody could understand why such hullabaloo right in front of the masjid at the time of namaz? But we kept silent to avoid any skirmish and after some time the yatra moved forward,” he said.
But tension had gripped the area, the smiles had given way to taut expressions.
When everyone thought it was over, two days later a Hindu youth shared a video clip on social media in which he was seen waving Bhagwa flag at the mosque. The Muslims objected to this and after a heated exchange, the dispute reached the police. The police detained five Muslim youth. They were let go after several hours after some respected people of the area mediated and assured police of maintaining peace.
“You won’t like such a beginning to a holy month that culminates with Eid, the biggest festivals of the Muslims, will you? Still, there is fear among us that some untoward incident might happen,” Adnan said.
[Inputs by Rajkumar Upadhyay, Naheed Ataulla, Daanish Bin Nabi, Gautam S. Mengle, Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra, Aditya Anand & Aas Mohammed]
(This story was first published in National Herald on Sunday)