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Hindu iftar meals for Muslims promote harmony in Pakistan

Young Hindu volunteers use their pocket money and donations to feed hundreds of fasting Muslims in Karachi during Ramadan
A young Hindu volunteer distributes iftar meals to Muslims at the Cantonment Railway Station in Pakistan's port city of Karachi on April 9.

A young Hindu volunteer distributes iftar meals to Muslims at the Cantonment Railway Station in Pakistan's port city of Karachi on April 9. (Photo supplied)

Published: April 11, 2024 04:16 AM GMT
Updated: April 24, 2024 08:14 AM GMT

On the cusp of sunset, the sound of rumbling trains in the distance faded as they came to a standstill at Cantonment Railway Station in Pakistan's port city of Karachi on April 9.

A group of volunteers rushed to hand out large jugs of ice-cold Rooh Afza, a fruity drink made of squash, and platters of aromatic biriyani to hundreds of Muslims as muezzins in nearby mosques announced through their sound systems it was time to break their Ramadan fast for the day.

From April 1-9, this was a regular scene when a group of young Hindus from the Maheshwari community started arranging iftar (the fast-breaking meal) for Muslims during the Islamic holy month which ends with Eid-ul-Fitr, one of the two major annual Islamic festivals.

“We were in a hurry to break the fast as we had missed our train and had no idea who had arranged it,” Ataullah Rehmat, who ate at the iftar event with his wife and child, told UCA News.

“But we were really happy to see that the Maheshwari group organized it. Such acts help build better understanding between people of the two faiths.”

The Maheshwaris hail from the desert region of Tharparkar in Sindh province and are known for their community mobilization initiatives.

The organizers of the iftar drive, the Maheshwari Premier League, started their initiatives by organizing cricket tournaments in Sindh a few years ago and later conducted educational and healthcare campaigns.

Bhevish Kumar, one of the organizers of the event, said the idea behind the drive was to promote interfaith harmony.

"We initiated it [the iftar drive] with a clear mindset to promote interfaith harmony," Kumar told UCA News on April 9.  "Once such a message starts becoming a trend then we can see an inclusive and plural Pakistan."

Such acts of harmony in the country, however, come against the backdrop of persecution of religious and ethnic minorities including discrimination, blasphemy allegations, fines, death and life sentences.

Minorities have often suffered persecution at the hands of frenzied Muslim mobs and the country’s flawed justice system, rights groups say.

There are eight million Hindus out of a total of 241 million people in Muslim-majority Pakistan, according to the Pakistan Hindu Council.

Forced conversion of Hindu girls to Islam through marriage also occurs frequently in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, where 96 percent of the Hindu population resides.

Activists say, in almost all cases of blasphemy charges, proof or evidence of the offense is rarely provided in a country where religious extremism has been rife for decades now.

The persecution has forced many Hindus to leave Pakistan since partition in 1947, studies have found.

In 2014, prominent Hindu legislator Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani said at least 5,000 Hindus leave Pakistan annually to escape persecution.  

Dr. Qibla Ayaz, chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, a legislative body in Pakistan that determines whether laws are in harmony with the holy Quran or not, said the iftar drive would help build better relations between Muslim and Hindus in the country.

“This [iftar drive] I believe is a very nice step and because of this, interfaith tolerance will be promoted,” Ayaz told UCA News. “It is a commendable gesture and should be praised.”

Kumar said while everyone was welcome to have food at the iftar, the initiative targeted people specifically who could not break their fast on time as they were waiting for their trains.

"So that's why we arranged it at the railway station where there are coolies [porters], where there are travelers and tourists," Kumar explained. "It actually benefits those who are fasting."

He said the group's iftar drive fed an estimated 5,000 people from April 1-9, adding that on some days, over 700 people showed up at the railway station to break their fasts.

And since the Maheshwaris are primarily vegetarian, the iftar menu consisted of vegetable biryani, potato samosas, jalebi snacks, the popular Rooh Afza drink, fruits and dates.

Kumar said they funded the iftar meals from their own pockets and individual donations.

"There are people in our team, including me, who are earning well through our jobs," Kumar said. "So, we contributed ourselves and also had help from some students who contributed from their pocket money and when we were still short, we had help from the elders in our community."

Ahmad Shabbar, a leading environmentalist, politician, and interfaith harmony advocate, hailed the Hindu youth for the initiative.

“They’ve done an incredible job in pushing the narrative of harmony, empathy and thoughts of food security,” Shabbar told UCA News.

“Hopefully things like this will grow and the spirituality of Ramadan and the harmony that it brings and the discussion about food security is highlighted as well,” he added.

Asim Mujeeb, a 37-year-old laborer who had worked all day at a nearby construction site in the scorching summer heat, quenched his thirst with a tall glass of the Rooh Afza drink when it was time to break his fast.

“Anyone who does a good job, whether he be a Hindu or a Muslim, should be appreciated,” Mujeeb told UCA News. “And we should welcome it wholeheartedly.”

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