Call it the courage of youth. When a bunch of youngsters in Lucknow set out to work for a cause close to their hearts a year ago, they were embarking on a mission that many had found daunting in the past.
They call themselves the S2S (Shoulder To Shoulder) Foundation. Ask them about the founding members, their membership fee, how they operate, and you are told: “It’s a citizens’ initiative.” They won’t give out names because their “cause is bigger than the people.” As of now, they don’t have a membership fee because everyone is welcome. Literally.
They have a website and run two WhatsApp groups, which keep people connected and interested with daily updates. Till date, and they say it with a lot of pride, they haven’t had to actively seek donations. All the work is done by volunteers. Someone organises the venue, while someone else volunteers hospitality, and so on. None of the volunteers do this fulltime. They all have day jobs, and are part of S2S because they want to be, not because there’s any monetary gain involved.
No matter how deep you dig, you will never find influential politicians or socialites-turned-philanthropists backing them. Their USP is that they really are “one of us”. They recently floated the idea of mailing a selfie with the message: “#I Stand S2S” with the taker’s name and location. By evening, they had collected selfies from not only around the country, but also from the Middle East, South Korea, and The Philippines!
The group had modest beginnings when a group of young Muslim men, all professionals, were discussing one topic that their community talks about, and the rest of us sidestep, just to be politically correct. They were concerned about sectarian clashes between Shias and Sunnis the world over. How does one preserve one’s community if there is infighting?
Lucknow is one city that takes pride in its Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. Lucknow has rarely seen Hindu-Muslim clashes, but the Shia and Sunni are frequently at loggerheads. So while discussing what they could do to diffuse this underlying tension, one idea that sounded appealing to all was organising a joint namaaz on Eid-ul-Zuha (on September 25, 2015).
While it sounded good in theory, the men weren’t sure how much acceptance it would get against the backdrop of the tenuous relationship the two sects share. So they decided to keep it low-key. And before they knew it, a venue had been zeroed in on, the requisite permission sought and granted, and they were good to go.
However, even their optimism hadn’t prepared them for what followed. While they expected just a handful of family, friends, and well-wishers to show up at Sibtainabad Imambara, they were pleasantly surprised to be joined by some of the city’s biggest names. About 700 people attended that namaaz. That was confirmation enough that the common man, Muslim or not, wants to live harmoniously.
That one event also made the S2S volunteers realise that they had done something that the city wanted more of. And they were now being encouraged to come up with more. Once they saw there was no turning back, the group, which now included both men and women, decided to scale up and formalise their work. They registered the S2S Foundation as a society, opened a bank account, and a website. Sibtain Baqri, a member of the group, says, “We got such positive feedback from all quarters that it was overwhelming. This is a movement, and it can only go forward.” They realise how people stay confined within their own community for want of better interaction with ‘others’. The easiest and most obvious thing to do would be to increase this interaction among communities.
Encouraged by their maiden success, they thought of reaching out to other religions as well. On the occasion of Prakashotsav, S2S distributed sewain and cold drinks at Naka Hindola Gurdwara in Lucknow. Sewain is a typically Muslim sweetmeat, and the move to serve it at a Sikh festival was deliberate. The Muslim volunteers were serving food to their Sikh brothers and sisters. Many young women, who were dressed in abayas, also joined in the service.
On the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday, S2S organised a coffee sabeel (stall) at Islamia College, and were encouraged when members of the Sikh community came forward and helped them serve coffee to their Muslim brothers.
On Christmas, S2S approached one of the biggest bakeries in town. They were offered heavily subsidised food packets , which they took to the Missionaries of Charity home where volunteers spent the day with destitute.
This year has been equally eventful. In June, S2S held an iftaar and extended invitations to all communities. At the end of June, they got together with Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurdwara and hosted the first-ever all-community iftaar. The Gurdwara holds historic relevance because Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh and Guru Gobind Singh stayed here on way to Patna Sahib. The event was historic because the maulvis, Sikh gurus, and Hindu pandits sat under the same roof and ate together.
In the past year, every time a member has come across an orphan needing help with school fees, or an ill child needing an immediate surgery, a post on the S2S WhatsApp groups has helped raise the funds.
Atif Hanif, an S2S volunteer, says, “We never expected it to grow this way. It is heartening to note that most people think like us, across religions. The common man may not go out looking for a cause to support. But if someone needs it, he will give it.”
On September 13, they hoped to replicate, and even better, last year’s joint namaaz. This year, non-Muslims will also be invited. Once the namaaz is over at the Shahnajaf Imambara, this year’s venue, they will be joined by non-Muslims in feasting on sewain. This year, they were anticipating participation from abroad as well. But that’s basic human nature; if one is onto something good, others want to participate as well.
As for their future plans, they’ll go with whatever their members – thousands of them – decide. Everything else will fall into place; after all, they are backed by faith and not religion.