In Gurgaon, the Gods Have Fled as Hindutva Leaders Turn Puja Into Anti-Muslim Politics

Collective namaz in the open has not disturbed a soul in decades but has now been turned controversial by goons threatening violence, whom the administration humours.

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As I write these lines, images and videos pop up before me on various social media platforms of an event in an open space in Gurgaon’s Sector 12A.

People clad in saffron are seen sitting and there is a lot of activity taking place. I can see a young man with a saffron flag raised in a militant way, busy with his mobile phone. People seem to be in a great rush. Loudspeakers are blaring a dull  musical rendering “Ram Siya Ram… .” The camera captures the face of a small-time BJP leader who has gained notoriety – or, rather, fame in his own parivar – for having provoked violence against Muslims last year in Delhi and being brazen about his anti Muslim hate mongering. These days, the more you abuse Muslims, the higher you rise in Hindutva circles. So, he is the chief guest of the event.

The event is ostensibly of Govardhan Puja, we are informed. However, I have never seen Govardhan Puja being performed in this manner. The day chosen was also wrong as Govardhan Puja actually falls  on November 6. I have always understood that this day belongs to women – sisters, actually. It is a very emotional occasion for them as it has to do with their bonding with their brothers. Women of the mohallas gather, make images using cow dung, colour and cotton and perform some rituals. The tongues of brothers are symbolically pierced with ‘Rengni ka kanta.’ Sisters apply the Rengni thorn gently to the tongue of their brothers. They sing with a trembling voice. I have seen tears in the eyes of sisters who have lost their brothers.

In Bihar and parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh the event is called Godhan puja. I saw it being performed in Shahpur Jat too when I moved to Delhi many years ago. It is a very intimate occasion. Men are seldom seen. So, what is happening in Gurgaon? Is it really Govardhan Puja or something else? Why is the name of Ram being loudly invoked on a day which belongs, in other parts of India, to Krishna?

It is said that Krishna, by lifting Govardhan, had protected his people and humbled the arrogant Indra, God of rains. It is true that Ram was Krishna and Krishna was Ram but each had his own place of honour in the Hindu imagination. Now we see Ram elbowing in everywhere and edging out all devtas and devis. It should be a cause of concern for them that their days are being appropriated by Ram but we know that Gods operate through their devotees. Gone are the days when Tulsidas would find it difficult to bow before any God but Ram and Surdas would only sing the leela of Krishna. I imagine with horror Surdas being forced to chant Jai Shri Ram by 21st century ‘bhakts’.

Govardhan Puja at erstwhile namaz site in Gurugram. Photo : Naomi Barton

As it turns out, there is not even one Krishna devotee who would rise to the occasion. But then the Sector 12A occasion is not a sacred one, I should understand. It is not about Gods. It is about those who use their Gods as their weapons to terrorise others, those they want to dominate and subjugate others. Sector 12A is an enemy post annexed.

Until last Friday, Muslims would gather on this spot in the afternoon to offer their customary juma namaz. From today, it ceases to be a space for them. They have been pushed out. From here and from 15 other spots in Gurgaon. Is Govardhan Puja happening there too? This is about 2021. If you start counting from 2017, Muslims have been barred from nearly 70 spots.

These spots are open spaces. Muslims have been using these spaces for an hour or two on Fridays to perform their collective namaz. This is a religious obligation for them. Many non-Muslims know it, for whom Friday is like any other day. But Juma is a special day in the week for the Muslims. They offer a collective prayer in the afternoon on this day. Many of us who are not Muslim would have observed since our childhood Muslims gathering for this collective prayer: in mosques, if available in the vicinity, or in any open space where they can gather and perform this prayer peacefully. In some places, they also spill on to the roads near mosques if they cannot all be accommodated there. Many of us are used to this Friday sight. Christians have their Sunday mass, a weekly collective religious practice. But Hindus do not have any tradition of collective prayers. They visit temples at all times but there is no special day or hour marked for their prayers.

This is the openness and flexibility Hindus used to flaunt about their religious practices, generally to criticise the regime prescribed in other religions. Gradually, this ‘pride’ turned into envy and jealousy. And then anger. But that is a long discussion. Hindus have lived with people following Islam and Christianity for ages and have also learnt to appreciate their rituals. Sometimes with amusement, sometimes with irritation but seldom has the thought of not allowing them to perform their religious  customs animated them.

Times have changed. Now Muslims offering namaz collectively are being presented as a threat to Hindus. Hindus are being made to view any Muslim gathering as potentially dangerous. An individual Muslim can be good but a group is not to be trusted, is what is being drilled into the head of Hindus. This prejudice is very useful for the politics of the RSS and BJP.

Let us go back to Gurgaon, which is now called Gurugram officially. Just as we have slowly being giving up all our diverse traditions to adopt a customised, nationalised Hinduness, this name change too was meekly accepted. That aside, Gurgaon has villages which are surrounded by urbanised structures. It is also called a futuristic city. It is an extension of the national capital. The claim is made that it is cosmopolitan. A strange mix of traditional communitarian mindset with urbanised spaces is what Gurgaon is. A place of professionals and traditional artisans too. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs live here in a dispersed manner.

There are temples in abundance in Gurgaon but only 10 mosques – eight in the older areas and two in the newly populated part. If there are nearly five lakh Muslims there, perhaps some one lakh would be offering namaz on Fridays. They work at different locations. Some manage to get a space near their workplace, some have to traverse some distance. Until 2018, this had never caused any public inconvenience. Then a group started emerging, promising to cleanse Gurgaon. Writing for the Hindustan Times that year, Snighdha Poonam reported:

 “On 10 June, a Hindu priest and his followers met at a budget bar in Gurugram (previously Gurgaon) to declare war on Muslims. The alcohol had been replaced by a vegetarian buffet, the doors and windows thrown open to light up the dark interior, the tables and chairs rearranged to host a press conference, but the smell of cheap whiskey remained thick in the air.

“Ignoring the inappropriate setting, Narsinghanand Saraswati stared hard at the collected members of the press and made his urgent announcement: “We are about to launch a revolution on the land of Gurgaon.” Just out of arrest for trying to set himself on fire in front of Haryana’s chief minister’s residence to protest public namaz in Gurugram, Sawaswati said he was going to organise a maha havan in the city to “destroy the enemies of Hindus.”

The graph of Naringhanand has risen sharply since then. He was recently anointed head of the Juna Akhada. Known for his violent and inflammatory language, he has been left free by this government even when he made highly obscene remarks against the BJP’s women leaders. He is obviously serving a larger purpose for the cultural politics of the Sangh parivar.

In 2018, we saw gangs of young men disrupting the juma namaz at different spots.The police did try to resist them. Some of the goons were arrested but let off soon after. The attacks continued. The chief minister of Haryana said that Muslims should perform namaz in mosques and not open spaces. Another minister said that this open-air namaz was a nefarious design to capture land.

A propaganda campaign started that if the Muslims were not stopped, they would build mosques on those open plots. This is when civic-minded citizens in Gurgaon intervened. A platform emerged out of the process called the Gurgaon Nagarik Ekta Manch. They held discussions with the administration to ensure peace prevailed and that the Muslim namazis were not harassed. It was clear that the administration was under tremendous political pressure. Some officers tried to perform their duty, but only to an extent.

Within a span of 2-3 weeks, collective namaz in the open, which had not disturbed a soul in decades, was turned controversial. Another claimant to the open spots emerged. The violence of the goons was treated as a genuine expression of concern of Hindus. They were offered a seat at the negotiating table.

The  administration  wanted peace but who or what was disrupting it. Was it the namaz or the goons attacking the namaz? The answer was known but Muslims were asked to understand. The administration said that it cannot ensure protection everywhere. So, the number of spots was brought down to 37. I remember occasions when some of us went to the namaz sites to build a human chain to protect them from attack.

It was a surreal sight. Muslims gathering for prayer which requires absolute peace. But the threat of violence hovered over them. The police was standing guard. Namaz, which was such a commonplace thing, became a spectacle.

A lot of discussion took place then. Anthropology, sociology, social psychology, all sciences were deployed to understand what was causing this. Demographic changes were discussed, whether migration was causing a problem, etc. People started arguing that it was not a fundamental right of the Muslims to pray at open public spaces, forgetting that the issue at stake was not the (temporary) use of public spaces but the political ambitions of Hindutva groups. Anything with a Muslim touch can be controverted now. Haj house, Urdu, food, anything.

Three years later, we see the same set of goons moving from one namaz spot to another, mobilising some locals, using the existing anti Muslim scepticism in Hindu minds to paint the namaz as a conspiracy to capture land, thus creating a threat to ‘Hindu interests’ everywhere.

The administration again wants peace at any cost. So, it humours the violent group. it asks Muslims to appreciate the delicate situation they are in, cajoles them to leave more spots, threatens to withdraw permission from all the spots if they do not agree. After all, is namaz more precious than peace?

The Hindutva groups are jubilant at this victory.They had announced that they would hold collective prayer on Fridays with drums. By the grace of God, Govardhan Puja fell on the first Friday of November this year. From now on, the Hindus of Gurgaon will see a new religious practice: puja on Friday afternoons. But the name of god will not be on the lips of the organisers; instead, abuses against Muslims will flow out of their mouths to match the violence in their hearts. The gods have fled the religion promoted by these ‘devotees’ and been replaced by other objects of veneration.

We must, however, tell our police officers and civil administrators that when they succumb to the demands of violent mobsters, they diminish themselves. They arm-twist Muslims  but cannot respond to violent groups. In private, they will no doubt blame political power. The question is: who are they then?

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University