Muslims Can Live, But They Shouldn't Look Muslim or Congregate

The message behind the Noida protest by local residents is clear: Muslims are welcome to live in isolation in colonies numerically dominated by Hindus, provided they do not ‘look’ Muslim and do not publicly form a collective.

Recently, a few media reports were published on a row erupting after Hindu residents objected to a small group of Muslims, occupants of the same residential society, from holding congregational prayers in the evening after end of the day’s fast, during the ongoing month of Ramzan. 

These Muslims were forced to stop Taraveeh, the special congregational prayer organised solely during this holy month. It was being held in the common commercial building within the society after securing prior permission from the concerned authorities. However, when the police was summoned, they said that prayers must be stopped because Section 144 had been imposed in the area.

In most residential complexes, such common spaces are either used – without objections from any quarter – for small family parties or community functions, including religious ceremonies, especially of the Hindus.

However, the objection in this instance was over the gathering of Muslims and it was alleged some of them were outsiders although such arguments are never articulated when involving functions of other religious communities.  

These perturbing news reports are indicative of two sets of reality in today’s India.

One, these occurring in a middle-class upscale gated apartment complex in Greater Noida, part of the Delhi NCR, are in all probability not the only ones where resolute invisibilisation of Muslims is being attempted, but is part of a trend in inestimable cities and towns across several states of India. 

Given the recent history of belligerent Hindus groups blockading public offering of the Friday Namaz, it is likely that aggressive groups would have similarly disrupted these collective evening prayers elsewhere, even after due permission was taken from competent authority.

These events going non-reported demonstrates the depressing decline in ‘news-worthiness’ of such abhorrent incidents in the mainstream media. This is not the first occasion when the big media veered around to the opinion that violent or intimidatory incidents of recurring nature need not be either reported at all, or are at best tucked into relatively inconspicuous inside pages of newspapers or in non-prime-time news bulletins. 

Two, editors and news desk managers losing ‘interest’ in such occurrences points toward the ‘normalisation’ of episodes of disruption of congregational prayers of Muslims by elements who are either patronised or facilitated by the state and social groups symbiotically linked with the ruling regime. 

The incident in Greater Noida however, goes one step ahead and mirrors the onset of a universal, systemic and institutional bias against any form of assembly of Muslims, even if it is devotional purposes. 

The message behind this type of protest by local residents is clear: Muslims are welcome to live in isolation in colonies numerically dominated by Hindus, provided they do not ‘look’ Muslim in civic spaces and do not publicly form a collective.

In the event they wish to act or gather on community basis – for religious, educational or social processes, they must withdraw to colonies exclusively for Muslims, also called ghettos.

While the congregational Friday afternoon Namaz was long used as tool to arouse passions of the susceptible ever since the Hindu communal forces began gathering strength over the past three-four decades, concerted questioning and subsequent physical disruption started only after the present regime assumed office in 2014.

It may be recalled, the first retaliatory religious and public response to the Jumma Namaz was mounted by the Shiv Sena, already a Bharatiya Janata Party ally, in Bombay (as named in 1992-93) in the aftermath of Babri Masjid’s demolition that sparked protracted riots and targeting of Muslims.

In January 1993, when the megacity first witnessed the city’s middle and upper middle class youth indulging in bestial acts of violence, looting and arson, the Shiv Sena floated the concept of Maha Arti as a public ritual. 

However, the idea of a public puja as both spectacle and hostile assembly did not become a regular occurrence. Devotees have always spilled outside small temples on streets on ‘days’ specifically observed for the shrines’ presiding deity but they have not been motivated by a political agenda as those turning up for the Maha Arti were.

After 2014 however, with rise of hate crimes and prejudicial targeting of religious minorities, especially Muslims, an orchestrated campaign was launched across several parts of India to disallow Friday namaz.

In almost all these reported incidents – given India’s majoritarian narrative since 2014, it can be safely deduced that many occurrences remain unknown – government officials and institutions consistently endorsed these disruptive activities.

On several occasions well-known functionaries of the BJP, including the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, led efforts from the front to create prejudicial uproar at the time of the afternoon prayers. This resulted in public namaz being almost uniformly retreating from public spaces getting confined to mosques that do not adequate space for all devotees. 

The campaign in Gurgaon drew considerable public attention because it was adequately publicised by the Hindu rightwing as a ‘success’. It mainly targeted migrant Muslim workers working in the industrial units in the district. 

Living in shanties in either slums or over-crowded lower middle-class habitations, they did not have access to mosques in the vicinity. Consequently, Friday afternoon prayers used to be held in public spaces till the Hindutva campaign ensured an end to this.

The difference between the regular disruption of Jumma Namaz in vacant grounds and parks so far and the latest incidents in Greater Noida, is that protestors in this case were not enlisted from areas away from the colony. 

Instead of being drawn from the lower middle-class/working class, representative of the lumpenprolitariat, the protestors in this instance are people like this writer and the majority or readers of this website; essentially the microscopic demographic group also labelled as relatively ‘well-off’ who have studied in ‘good’ schools and colleges and speak English comfortably.

This group of people do not comprise the traditional political constituency of the Sangh Parivar and marks the expansion of the political organisations into newer socio-economic groups.

In the early years when the Sangh Parivar launched the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation with an intention of popularising the twin ideas of Hindutva and cultural nationalism, its leaders often listed “changing people’s mindset” as their objective. 

Leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh paraphrased this by stating that they aspired for the era when the ‘samaj’ or society would become synonymous with the ‘sangh’ or the RSS. 

The incident in Greater Noida shows that they are closer to realising this goal than ever before.

Logically, numerically dominant social groups should not be fearful of minorities. However, over several decades, a dislike/fear/prejudice for an imaginary ‘other’ has been raised by preying on middle-class anxieties arising out of several economic reasons that are not being addressed by the government and apprehensions regarding the future.

The Hindutva campaign aims to lead large sections of Hindus into viewing Hindus and Muslims as two separate civilisations locked in perpetual conflict through history and in present times.

Added to this, is the communal slant given to Indian history – falsely portrayed as a millennium plus period in the medieval period or barasau saal ki ghulami (1200 years of slavery) of Hindus.

Retribution is presented as being essential to ‘erase the humiliation’ of Hindus in history and is seen as an everyday task. As this belief has now begun percolating to large sections of even the intelligentsia and white-collar communities, incidents like the one in Greater Noida are becoming increasingly commonplace.

Muslims in these colonies face making a cruel choice: Either risk their security by standing up to these protestors, or withdraw into a shell and become invisible as a collective. 

This would possible mean not always being true to their religious duties by not participating in congregational prayers to avoid which they will have to travel long distances to the so-called ghettos to join the prayers.

Already, innumerable Muslims who are not identifiable because of their common demeanour, attire or other characteristics, have stopped acting in ways that they can be identified as Muslims in public spaces. 

It is too early to assert that most urban spaces across India are likely to follow Gujarat’s, which witnessed enhanced ghettoisation in the wake of the 2002 riots. However, with no bulwark emerging to prevent targeting Muslims, these apprehensions abound.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.