East London Mosque serves up 1,000 iftar meals a day during Ramadan

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NEW DELHI: Despite religious tensions running high in India, Sikhs and Hindus in Malerkotla district take pride in hosting iftars for their Muslim neighbors, as they support and join them in Ramadan celebrations.

The district in Punjab emerged from a 15th-century state established by Sheikh Sadruddin, a leader of the Sherwani tribe from Afghanistan. A princely state under British colonial rule, the region was one of the very few that were not consumed by deadly communal violence upon the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947.

When the British divided their colonial dominion into two states — one Hindu-majority and the other Muslim — millions of people were displaced along religious lines, with the mass migration accompanied by riots that left hundreds of thousands of people dead. But in Malerkotla, the Muslim community decided to stay.

Today, some 430,000 people live in the district, where half of the inhabitants follow Sikhism, 33 percent Islam, and 15 percent Hinduism.

They say it is natural for them to celebrate their important holidays together, even more so as religious polarization in India has risen over the past decade under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government.

“When we see religious tension in some parts of India, we feel bad and, as religious leaders, we feel it is our duty to keep people together,” Baba Amarjit Singh, the head of a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, in Jainpur village, told Arab News after hosting an iftar on Tuesday.

“Almost 300 people attended the iftar and it gives me a great sense of pleasure when people participate in each other’s festivities.”

A day later, in the neighboring village of Sandaur, another gurdwara invited Muslims for the fast-breaking meal.

Its leader, Baba Gurusewak Singh, spoke in unison with the head of the Jainpur temple.

“We believe in communal harmony, we believe in living together,” he said. “We believe in the oneness of humanity, and it is with this spirit we celebrate Ramadan and other festivals.”

The Hindu temple in another village, Ahmedgarh, has already hosted three iftars this year.

“Malerkotla has a tradition of communal harmony and we have the blessings of our gurus for this brotherhood,” Deepak Sharma, its chairman, told Arab News.

“Muslims participate in Hindu festivals and we participate in their festivals and that’s how we maintain trust and harmony in the society and this should be a lesson for other parts of India, where divisive politics have created havoc in the society.”

The Hindus of Malerkotla do not subscribe to their government’s majoritarianism and have been participating in Ramadan celebrations and supporting Muslims in their observance.

“We don’t care for the divisive politics of politicians, and we won’t allow them to teach hatred to us here,” said Mahant Swaroop Bihari Sharma, president of the All India Brahmin Front in Malerkotla.

“The Hindu temple Laxmi Narayan Mandir and Aqsa Mosque share a common boundary in the Simpsons Colony at Malerkotla. This shows how deep are our ties and how much trust Hindus and Muslims have for each other.”

Malerkotla Muslims have been overwhelmed by the number of Ramadan events held by their non-Muslim community members.

“There are so many invitations for iftar from gurdwaras and temples that we really don’t know which one to attend,” said Naser Khan from the Sikh-Muslim Sanjha Foundation.

“People feel happy when they come together and share a meal. The beauty of iftar is that it brings people of all faiths together.”

The roots of Malerkotla’s tolerance are usually associated with an incident, which happened in the 18th century, during a war between Guru Gobind Singh — the 10th and last revered guru of Sikhism — and the Mughal Empire.

Wazir Khan, the Mughal governor who then ruled the present state of Punjab, ordered the 9- and 7-year-old sons of Singh to be bricked into a section of wall while still alive. The decision was opposed by the Muslim ruler of Malerkotla, Shah Mohammed Khan. His revolt against the Mughal patron endeared him to the Sikh community, who built one of the district’s gurdwaras in his honor.

“Malerkotla is unique and it has the blessings of the Sikh guru. That’s why people here maintain communal harmony. When violence took place everywhere after the partition, Malerkotla remained untouched. Here people look at each other not from the religious angle but from the angle of humanity. We are proud of this tradition,” Adnan Ali Khan, an activist and descendant of Malerkotla’s royal family, told Arab News.

“No wonder the whole district hosts iftar in different gurdwaras and temples. This is the beauty of the place, and we feel proud of it.”