The idea of a food charity is not just that the hungry should be fed, but that they must also be fed with dignity.

Through the centuries, all maj or faith traditions in India placed great value in feeding the hungry. What was special about the institution of the langar, intrinsic to the humanist and egalitarian Sufi Chisthi and Sikh traditions, was that it embodied not just the idea of cheerful service to the needy, but also of respect for the dignity of the receiver of food. However, in contemporary times, these traditions of food charity are eroding, and with these also the idea of the equal dignity of the person in need.

In Vedic texts, the worshipper seeks the privilege of possessing enough so as to be able to feed the hungry. This value lingers culturally in people’s consciousness even today. Destitute people I meet regret not only that they cannot feed themselves, or their loved ones. They regret not being able to be hospitable to a stranger, to feed a guest like me, but even more so to feed someone in need.

Christian missionaries care for the destitute, and Jain sects serve and feed the disabled. Islamic traditions require setting aside a regular fraction of one’s earnings to feed the hungry and destitute. I find in Muslim ghettoes of Delhi like Nizamuddin and Jama Masjid, even today, a number of wayside eateries that offer plastic tokens for sale. These are bought by people who eat at the restaurants, and they distribute these to destitute people. Each token can be redeemed by them for a meal, when they are in need of food, over a period of a month.

Of all these feeding traditions, the most charismatic is the Sikh langar, or the free-community kitchen, which builds on earlier Sufi Chisthi practices in which people of all faiths were welcomed to eat hot cooked meals served in Dargahs. The Persian word langar means a feeding centre and a resting place for travellers. Sufi saints like Nizamuddin Auliya Chisthi ran kitchens round the clock, and fed with love the destitute, dusty travellers and worshippers.

The tradition of the langar continues to be a dominant motif of Sikh communities in all parts of India and the world. The Sikhs pray: Loh langar tapde rahin—may the hot plates of the langars remain ever in service. Volunteers from rural Punjab rush to sites of all major natural disasters, and run efficient and generous langars for tens of thousands of survivors.

In the Sikh tradition, Gurudwaras offer wholesome vegetarian food to all who seek it. People are seated respectfully in lines on mats on the floor, and volunteers cook and serve the food and clean the dishes. The langar is not only a food charity. In the Indian context, social differences and hierarchies are expressed by strict barriers and taboos on eating with the ‘other’. By requiring that all people eat together, this institution significantly affirms the idea of the intrinsic equal dignity of all human beings, regardless of their faith or caste, or whether they are men or women, or rich or poor. It upholds the equal worth and oneness of all human beings, but also values of sharing, service, fraternity, solidarity and the dignity of labour.

These ideas of equality, kindness and secularity were brave and revolutionary in the India of the 13th and 16th centuries, with its deep caste and religious fractures, and the oppression of women and working people. But as it turns out, these remain radical — and contested — ideas, which are rapidly eroding in modern, republican, democratic India.

This erosion marks not just Sikh but other major religious traditions as well. In a survey of religious food charities in Delhi, we found few Christian food charities anywhere in the city; mosques no longer open their doors as they did in medieval times to the homeless and hungry; and Hindu temples mostly served sweet and oily food sporadically, on fixed sacred days, and rarely with dignity.

We have found that most major Gurudwaras in Delhi, like Sis Ganj, or those in upmarket areas like Greater Kailash and Vasant Vihar effectively bar the entry into the langar of destitute homeless men, women and children. The rules are unwritten but actively enforced. In Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, a separate langar for the homeless and destitute has been created, but outside the main precincts of the temple, thereby retaining the food charity for the very poor, but segregating them from middle-class worshippers.

I have discussed this informally with some Gurudwara managements, arguing that such barriers on entry or segregation violate the core essential teachings of the Sikh faith. They try to explain that the destitute and homeless defile the sanctity of the temple, because they are unclean, and often drink alcohol and take drugs. I ask them: were the poor different in the times of the Gurus? And if they believed then that the unwashed masses would not defile the Gurudwara then, what has changed today?

I unsuccessfully remind them that the central value of the idea of the langar is not just that the hungry should be fed, but that they must be fed with dignity. It affirms that if I am poor and needy, this does not render me less worthy of respect. But this idea of the equal dignity of the very poor is fast fading in the glittering India of today.

A wonderful story is told of Akbar’s visit to the third Sikh Guru Amar Das. The Guru insisted that the emperor, weary after his long journey, must sit on the floor of the temple and eat the simple, wholesome fare of the langar. He did this willingly, in the company of beggars and wayfarers.

It would be different if President Pranab Mukherjee decided to visit Sis Ganj Gurudwara today. He would be deprived of the company of the city’s destitute poor, because they are exiled from the temple’s precincts.