HOUSTON: The decision by the Indian Muslims Association of Greater Houston( IMAGH) to become a Welcome Partner for the community reception to Prime Minister Narendra Modi is another step by IMAGH to rise above divisive politics in solidarity with other Indian-American organizations.

It was a unanimous decision by the IMAGH Board of Directors and the Executive Committee to be part of the organizing committee. Some 50,000 people have registered to hear Prime Minister Modi in what will be the largest audience in the US for a visiting foreign leader other than the Pope. 612 organizations have registered so far to be the Welcome Partner and the online registration is still open on howdymodi.org. Over 1,000 volunteers are working tirelessly to make the event a grand spectacle for the Houston community.

“The mission of IMAGH is to foster unity across cultures, communities and religion. We can only work toward this goal by engaging with all groups. We may not agree with their beliefs, practices or ideas but unless we interact with them in a cordial and friendly atmosphere, we cannot get our point of view across to them,” said Dr. Maqbool Haq, Chairman of the IMAGH Board of Directors.

Col. Raj Bhalla (founding member of IMAGH), Dr. Anupam Ray (Consul General of India at Houston), Munir Ibrahim (President, IMAGH), Latafath Hussain (Past President, IMAGH)

Alluding to plans by a section of the people to stage a protest at NRG Stadium where Prime Minister Modi will be addressing the community on September 22, Dr Haq said,” We feel, we should try to have a seat at the table to present our views rather than not be at the table.”

Latafath Hussain, founding president of IMAGH, said, “I am very proud to be both an Indian and a Muslim. Growing up in Varanasi (Modiji’s constituency), I always felt that I had the same opportunities as everyone else. So when the duly elected leader of mother India comes visiting my adopted home town, it is my duty to give him a warm welcome.”

In a major outreach effort three months ago, IMAGH invited Ramesh Bhutada, national vice president of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh in America to be the chief guest at the organization’s signature event to celebrate Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, opening a new door for Hindu-Muslim cooperation in Houston and beyond.

Bhutada was forthcoming in his speech and received standing ovation by over 500 people at the event. He introduced himself as vice president of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, which is an independent US organization that takes inspiration from RSS in India and declared: “The RSS and the HSS would like communal harmony and unity among all religions.”

He quoted RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, “India’s development cannot be complete without the development and progress of the minorities.”

Bhutada said: “We all have historical baggage — let’s acknowledge that — but we cannot look backwards. We have to look forward and that is the only way we can lead a peaceful life in this world.”

Hussain thinks that in order to move forward we must understand that we may be Hindus or Muslims or Christians but we are primarily Indian and are “part and parcel” of the Indian community in Houston. “In the community, there are, as there should be, political differences, but that’s for private debate. In front of the larger Houston and American community, we have to stand as one.”

Vijay Pallod, who is on the boards of IMAGH and Hindus of Greater Houston (HGH), says that both the organizations are unique in their role to carry out their missions with respect and understanding for each other.

The close cooperation between Hindu and Muslim organizations dates back to September 2010 when India Culture Center, an umbrella organization of various Indian groups, decided to host an Eid Milan party in collaboration with Indian Muslim groups. The joint event was an instant success and led to creation of IMAGH to foster amity across cultures, communities, and religions.

“We, in Houston, are proud to have a united happy community that respects interfaith customs and traditions by participating and celebrating Diwali, Holi, Eid, Christmas and Baisakhi,” said Col. Raj Bhalla who was the Event Chair of the Eid Milan party in 2010.

Talking about the joint event, Swapan Dhairyawan, president of Houston ICC in 2010, said, “This interaction and pollination has led to several positive and healthy relationships not only among individuals but also between organizations.”

India’s present Consul General in Houston, Dr. Anupam Ray, also helped in promoting cooperation by hosting an Iftar party in the fasting month of Ramadan for the past four years where people professing different faiths and nationalities were invited to break the fast with Muslims at the end of the day.

Although these efforts may appear to be the feeble first steps, the Houston community is showing its determination to move forward as ONE.