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Interfaith father, son honoured at flower festival

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A Hindu father and his adopted Muslim son fight to preserve their interfaith family.

By Udayan Namboodiri

New Delhi: It's the stuff of Bollywood tear-jerkers: a father-son relationship that battles societal norms for survival. And it is all of India that wins.

Aiku Lal Sandil and his adopted son Akbar were the centre of attention at this year's Phool Walon ki Sair, the yearly flower festival celebrated by both Hindus and Muslims in Delhi. Their unlikely union and deep attachment were recognised with an annual award given to people who take extraordinary steps to preserve India's pluralist traditions.

Phool Walon ki Sair, held this year from October 25th to November 3rd, is no ordinary event. It was conceived by a Mughal emperor who ruled in the name of Islam yet reached out to Hindus.
Akbar Shah II (1808-1837) began the tradition in 1821 to celebrate the release of his son from British custody. He and his wife decided to donate a chadar (large carpet) at the dargah (shrine) of Sufi saint Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki, which still exists in the Mehrauli area of Delhi.

According to the popular story, the emperor involved his Hindu subjects in the celebration. The flowers he offered along with the chadar imitated the shape of the floral pankha (fan), which Hindus use in the nearby temple of the Goddess Yogamaya.

"The custom of organising a large fair in which processions of Hindus and Muslims join by throwing flowers in the air began the following year. The government of India gives us financial support to continue this," Usha Kumar, general secretary of the voluntary trust Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan, which stages the festivities, told Khabar South Asia.

Already named Akbar

This was a first visit to Delhi for Akbar, who is 11, according to festival organisers."It's my first visit out of Lucknow. I loved this experience," he told Khabar.

Akbar was abandoned as a toddler, festival sources said. Sandil, a Hindu tea vendor, found him outside a police station in Lucknow in December 2002. He knew nothing of the background of the boy, but adopted him legally.

"Much later, the police landed up and demanded that I hand the child over to them. The boy's biological mother had traced him to me and it's only then that I discovered that he was a Muslim and that he had already been named Akbar," Sandil told Khabar.

Hindus don't have formal ceremonies to mark a child's religious affiliation, so changing over to Islam only meant arranging circumcision for Akbar, who was about two then. "It was difficult finding a mullah (Muslim priest) who would agree to do it because they don't usually recognise a family like ours. But finally Allah's will prevailed," laughed Sandil.

Problems continued to pour in from Akbar's biological mother. She challenged the adoption, her petition in court stating that if Sandil raised Akbar the mismatch between their cultures would create "dichotomy and disharmony" for the child.

It was a Muslim judge of the Allahabad High Court who ruled in 2008 that in a secular country, "considerations of caste and creed should not be allowed to prevail".

Justice Barkat Ali Zaidi also said, "If inter-religious marriages are legal, there can also be inter-religious father-and-son relationships and that need not raise eyebrows."

The pair returned to Lucknow on November 5th, with a cash award of Rs 11,000 ($200) and a Kashmiri shawl.

(Courtesy: Khabar Southeast Asia)
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