Having grown up in Peshawar, and in an extended family that comprises of both Barelvis and Deobandis, I can hardly remember a time when the whole family celebrated Eid ul Fitar on the same day. Considering the festival deficient nature of our national calendar, the annual spoiling of Choti Eid is not a small loss, especially when a Government body exists for the sole purpose of ensuring a united Eid. This problem has persisted for quite some time now, and its solution is stalled by completely wrong perceptions about its true nature.
A common mistake is to term this separate Eid as an expression of Pashtun nationalism that is limited to a few towns and cities. The fact of the matter is that Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti (ANP)’s decision to celebrate a separate Eid in 2009 was no different than that of Aftab Sherpao of PPP during his tenure back in the 90s, Akram Durrani of the MMA also took a similar decision during his time. It is very evident that the support for a separate Eid has come from all sorts of political quarters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), and not just nationalist ones.
Another mistake is to explain this separate Eid in light of the racist stereotyping of Pashtuns. It is almost a cliché to come across racist text messages as well as politically incorrect newspaper cartoons that cite “Pashtun stupidity” as the main reason. While the stupidity of the Pashtun gene remains to be proven scientifically, it is definitely moronic to actually believe that a race can be “stupid”.
It is true that the Eid disagreement manifests itself in ethnic terms, but its real source lies in the sectarian rivalries between Deobandis and Barelvis. These rivalries are annually reignited after the apparent discrimination faced by Deobandi witnesses in the Ruet I Hilal committee. At times the Committee adjourns very early for these witnesses to present themselves and sometimes the witnesses are rejected supposedly unfairly. The Deobandi complaints are mostly centered on the negative role played by the Chairman of the Committee; Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman, who happens to be a Barelvi.
The resulting Deobandi defiance is then announced through loudspeakers across KPK and it is here that the issue takes on an ethnic tone. These Eid/Ramzan announcements that are usually made pretty late during the night give details on how Pashtu speaking witnesses were rejected by a committee that is dominated by non Pashtuns. Thus, the announcement becomes a rallying cry, and the separation from the rest of the country becomes a show of defiance against the discrimination doled out by a Federal Committee. That being said, it is important to highlight the fact that many devout Barelvis and Shias in Peshawar follow the Ruet I Hillal Committee, and similarly some mosques in Lahore are reported to follow Masjid Qasim Ali Khan.
An ideal Eid/Ramzan announcement should have two attributes: First, its astronomical legitimacy and second, its legitimacy among its intended audience. The Pakistan Meteorological Department (MET) has enough capacity to ensure the astronomical legitimacy of an announcement, but as this is a matter of faith the verdict of scientists is bound to have a lower weightage than that of the clergy. It is this particular fact that legitimizes the existence of the Ruet I Hilal committee, as it should ensure a consensus among the masses on this issue.
But year after year, the Committee’s decision has been rejected by a sizeable number of Pakistanis. It is very amusing to hear Mufti Muneeb explain the legitimacy of the Committee’s decision by citing the MET department, goes without saying that if astronomical validity is the only thing that matters, then what exactly is the need for a Ruet I Hillal committee? Equally bewildering is the Chairman’s proposal to “enforce” an Eid, here again, the need for a Ruet I Hillal Committee stands annulled, as the enforcement can also be done for announcements emanating from the MET department. The good Mufti needs to realize that instead of blaming dissenters, the need is to contemplate on why the Ruet I Hillal committee has failed in building a consensus?
The structure of the Ruet I Hillal Committee allows for the needed consensus building as it has representation of all the sects. But, the main reason put forward by its dissenters is the apparent arrogance of Mufti Muneeb. These allegations were corroborated by the Mufti’s behavior on talk shows this year, as he flared up and stormed out of most of them when he was confronted on this issue.
But even if one disagrees with the allegations against Mufti Muneeb, it is important to consider the fact that this is his 10th year of Chairmanship. It is obvious that if one of the sects gets 10 continuous years of leadership, then technically the committee ceases to represent all the other sects. In this scenario the legitimacy of the Ruet I Hilal committee can be bolstered substantially, if the Chairmanship is rotated between the various sects on an annual basis.
Choti or Meethi Eid is one of those very few occasions that is not exclusive to any particular sect. Considering the fact that we have lost thousands of lives to the menace of sectarianism, this day needs to be leveraged to build bridges. But as things stand, it is instead magnifying sectarian differences into ethnic ones. In this situation, raising the credibility of the Ruet I Hillal Committee is crucial in halting the deepening of these fissures, if that raised credibility comes at the price of a few hurt egos then that is a price worth paying, as the reward is in terms of much needed national cohesion.